Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979) and Marie-Juliette "Lili" Boulanger (1893–1918) were born into a prominent, well-situated Parisian family with a history of impressive musical and theatrical achievements. Their father Ernest (1815–1900) won the famous Prix de Rome in 1835. Their mother Raïssa (1858–1935) was reportedly a Russian noblewoman and met Ernest Boulanger as his vocal student at the Paris Conservatoire. The Boulanger family's friends included Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Dupré and many other important French musicians. Nadia and Lili thus grew up in a musically and intellectually stimulating environment, and their successes did not take long to come. While Nadia reportedly knew both parts of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier by heart at the age of ten, Lili discovered the gift of perfect pitch at the age of two, and at five began taking music lessons with her sister at the Paris Conservatoire. Lili Boulanger wrote the song Le retour (The Return) in 1912, when she was officially admitted to the Paris Conservatoire. In the same year, she made her first attempt to win the famous Prix de Rome, but had to withdraw from the competition due to illness. A year later, she had already claimed a clear victory and became the first woman in history to win this demanding competition, at the age of nineteen just as her father had done. The song Dans l'immense tristesse (In Immense Sorrow) was written four years later in 1916, marked by the hardships of war and Lili's ever-deteriorating health. Lili Boulanger's life came to a close two years later in 1918, when she was only twenty-four years old. Nadia Boulanger outlived her sister by an incredible sixty-one years. The death of her beloved sister, however, marked her deeply and precipitated her departure from the composing scene, when she herself – through the lens of Lili's compositional talent – described her own work as "useless" and began to devote herself entirely to conducting and teaching. The 1922 song L'échange (The Exchange), set to words by Camille Mauclair (1872–1945), was one of her last compositions. L'échange tells the story of a woman who gives her heart to an alcoholic: "Exchange, sad exchange, iron ring for gold ring.“
Sláva Vorlová (born Miroslava Johnová, 1894–1973), also known under the pseudonym Mira Kord, is undoubtedly one of the most important Czech composers of the 20th century. The song cycle Nostalgia, Op. 13, relates to the time when Sláva Vorlová was struck by a cruel fate. On the last day of the Second World War, 8 May 1945, she witnessed the brutal execution of her husband Rudolf Vorel by the Nazis. After this event, she fell into a state of total mental depression and creative agony for a year, until in 1946 she came into possession of Olga Scheinpflugová's (1902–1968) collection of poems, Stesk (Lamentation), in which the author wrote about the loss of her husband Karel Čapek in 1938. "It was only that little book that proved that in a few days I had completed a cycle of ten songs. Those were difficult days and the songs were my redemption," wrote Sláva Vorlová. Completed on 2 August 1946, the cycle that brought Sláva Vorlová back to creative activity uses many metaphors: the Stations of the Cross as a metaphor for human life, the lullaby that "lulls to sleep the lost love that died a martyr's death“. This masterpiece is framed by Three Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Piano, Op. 2, Vorlová’s early opus written on her own lyrics in1934, and her late opus from 1971 – Brief Reflections, Op. 89 – on the words of Miroslav Holub.
The work of Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915–1940) was partly presented in the opening concert of the Women in Music series. Today, we have a rare opportunity to get acquainted with her chamber music, specifically with her songs, to which – thanks to her family background – she was very close. The concert will consist of Two Songs on the Words of R. Bojko, Op. 4, the cycle Apple from the Lap, Op. 10, on texts by Jaroslav Seifert (1901–1986), and the song January from 1933, written for a higher voice and chamber ensemble consisting of flute, two violins, cello and piano on a text by Vítězslav Nezval (1900–1958).
The last woman composer of the evening is Alma Mahler (1879–1964), a woman associated with many famous men – Gustav Klimt, Alexander Zemlinsky, Walter Gropius, Franz Werfel and of course Gustav Mahler. But Alma was much more than a passive muse. In addition to her literary talents, she was also blessed with a musical talent that is worthy of note. When she married Gustav Mahler at the age of twenty-two, she was forced by him to give up her artistic ambitions in favour of their relationship, something Mahler apparently later regretted when Alma began to grow humanly distant from him for this reason as well. So, towards the end of his life, he himself reconsidered this condition, and in 1910 he even advocated the editing and publication of several of Alma's songs in the Vienna publishing house Universal Edition. The Four Songs by Alma Mahler that will be performed tonight were published after Mahler's death in 1915, but in terms of composition they date from 1901 to 1911 and, like the first volume published in 1910, bear all the stylistic hallmarks of late Romanticism.