Julie Reisserová, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Elizabeth Maconchy and Dora Pejačević – four female composers whose music will be heard at the Opening Concert of the Women in Music cycle within the Musica non grata project. All of them had a relation to the Czech cultural milieu and all of them played a role in the struggle for women’s rights in the new European social and political order in the first half of the 20th century.
The centrepiece of our story is Julie Reisserová (nee Kühnelová, 1888–1938), an artist of multiple talents. She first studied composition in Prague with Josef Bohuslav Foerster, starting in 1919, and rounded off her education a decade later in Paris, where she took lessons from Albert Roussel. In 1937, she would recall Roussel’s teaching methods in a lecture for the Austrian Women’s Association in Vienna: “I will never forget the time spent with Roussel, for it was then when I came to understand the prerequisites of pure art, the always valid laws all artists abide by almost instinctively, irrespective of the direction they are heading. The rules that apply to both classical and contemporary arts, to revolutionaries and traditionalists alike.” Apart from being a gifted composer, Julie Reisserová possessed literary skills and an excellent knowledge of languages. As the wife of the Czechoslovak diplomat Jan Reisser, she wrote articles about music events in the countries she lived with her husband, which were published in the Lidové noviny daily and Tempo magazine. Within the Women in Music cycle, we will present Julie Reisserová’s chamber works, as well as orchestral pieces, which will be performed for the first time in line with a new critical edition, made by Jean-Paul C. Montagnier for Ries & Erler. The Pastorale maritimo and the Suite for Orchestra will return to a concert stage after almost 90 years.
The work of the Brno-born composer and conductor Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915–1940) has been paid attention to within Musica non grata since the project’s launch. The Opening Concert of the Women in Music cycle will include her song cycle Waving Farewell, set to Vítězslav Nezval’s poem, as arranged for soprano and orchestra, to be performed by the soloist Kateřina Kněžíková. The programme will also contain the Suite en miniature, which Kaprálová wrote in the mid-1930s during her studies in Vítězslav Novák’s masterclass at the Prague Conservatory, and the orchestral Suita rustica, based on motifs of Czech folk songs and dances, composed in 1938 to commission from Universal Edition London.
Just like Kaprálová, the Croatian composer Dora Pejačević (1885–1923) died young. Her music features elements of Late Romanticism. In the first two decades on the 20th century, she frequently visited Bohemia, particularly to see Baroness Sidonia Nádherná, a patron of the arts and a close friend of hers, at her mansion in Vrchotovy Janovice. (Dora was reputedly in love with Sidonia’s brother.) Pejačević associated with a number of Czech artists, including musicians, among them the virtuoso violinist Jaroslav Kocián, for whom she wrote several works. She also dedicated a few pieces to the composer Vítězslav Novák, whom she admired and greatly respected.
“You will only get married and never write another note.” Thus said the director of the Royal Academy of Music in London in the late 1920s, substantiating his decision not to grant the Mendelsohn Scholarship to Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–1994). Yet the gifted Irish-English composer proved otherwise. A pupil of Ralph Vaughan Williams, in 1929 she received the Octavia Travelling Scholarship, which allowed her to continue her studies abroad. Although her tutor recommended that she go to Vienna, Elizabeth opted for Prague, which in the early 1930s was one of Europe’s most progressive music hubs. She earned her first public recognition on 19 March 1930 with a performance of her Piano Concerto, conducted by Karel Boleslav Jirák, her teacher, and with Erwin Schulhoff as the soloist. The concert was attended by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who would later on write an enthusiastic review: “They splendidly performed the first and third movements [...]; and the second movement [...] almost as beautiful as she is; I think that the second movement is one of the finest things I have ever heard […].” Elizabeth Maconchy, who declared that “the best music is an impassioned argument”, defied the gender prejudice of her time and ranks among the finest composers Great Britain and Ireland have produced. By the way, when in the early 1930s she developed and was subsequently devastated by tuberculosis, the young Benjamin Britten was among those copying her scores. In 1987, Maconchy was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire.