Vítězslava Kaprálová

Vítězslava Kaprálová




When she died in exile in France at the age of twenty–five, Vítĕzslava Kaprálová was on the threshold of a successful international career as a composer and conductor. During her short life, she composed no fewer than fifty works (many of which were published), conducted orchestras in Prague, London, and Paris, was praised by music critics across Europe, and was awarded the Smetana Award by the Bendřich Smetana Foundation.

On the eve of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kaprálová left her homeland to study with the Czechoslovak composer Bohuslav Martinů in Paris. During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, she remained in France, continuing her studies with Martinů. During this time, she experimented with a variety of compositional styles ranging from a conservative folk–like idiom to a neo–classicism inspired by Stravinsky, and cultivated a kind of moderism modeled after her teacher, Martinů.

Shortly before the Nazi occupation of France, Kaprálová became terminaly ill.  She was evacuated from Paris to Montpellier by her husband, Jiří Mucha, to whom she had been married only a few months. As Paris fell to Hitler's forces, Vítĕzslava Kaprálová succumbed to her illness.

Early Life
Born in Brno (Moravia, Czechoslovakia) on January 24, 1915, Vítĕzslava Kaprálová was the only child of composer Václav Kaprál and singer Viktorie Kaprálová. From an early age, following Kaprál's return from conscripted service in Albania during World War I, Kaprálová studied music with her father, despite his belief that women could not succeed in the male–dominated field of music. By the age of nine, she had completed her first two compositions, “V řísí bájí” (“In the realm of myths”) and “Válka” (“War”), both for solo piano. The following year, another work for piano, “Na dalekou cestu” (“Before the Long Journey”), was published by Oldřich Pazdírek in Hudebni Besidka in Brno. Kaprálová also studied piano at home with her mother.

In 1923, Viktorie and Václav decided to separate; Václav traveled to Paris to continue his music studies. While in Paris, he met Bohuslav Martinů, who became a close friend of the Kaprál family.

In 1930, against the wishes of her father but with the support of her mother, Kaprálová entered the Brno Conservatory where she studied composition with Vilém Petrželka, choral conducting with Vilém Steinman, and orchestral conducting with Zdenĕk Chalabala. In the five years she spent at the Brno Conservatory she composed more than fifteen works for various solo instruments and ensembles, including her first ten pieces to be given opus numbers.

Her years at the Brno Conservatory were marked by a number of firsts for Kaprálová that played a marked role in her budding career. During these years, she experienced Martinů's music for the first time; a performance of Martinů's second piano concerto by Rudolf Firkušný greatly affected Kaprálová. She also received the first published reviews of her compositions in the area's newspapers, most of which were filled with praise. Third, in 1935, Kaprálová made her conducting debut leading the Brno Conservatory Orchestra in the premiere performance of the first movement of her Piano Concerto in d minor, her graduation piece.

Prague Conservatory
In 1935, Kaprálová enrolled in the Prague Conservatory. She was accepted into the composition masterclass of Vítĕzslav Novák, a former student of Antonín Dvořák and one of the most highly regarded Czech composers of the day. She also began her studies in conducting with Václav Talich, a popular and distinguished Czech conductor. In Prague, as would have been expected of a talented music student, Kaprálová began composing in earnest.

Her first assignment for Novák's masterclass proved to be a bit of a struggle for Kaprálová; she found her new composition teacher to be demanding and highly critical of her efforts.  After several revisions, the resulting work, a witty modernist work for piano entitled Grotesque Passacaglia, won first prize in a composition competition and was later published in Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 9.  After that first assignment, Kaprálová began composing quickly, often working on several works at the same time and completing them in rapid succession.  First were the remaining two piano works (Preludium and Crab Canon) for her opus 9, followed by her orchestration of a suite originally composed for piano.  When this Suite en miniature was premiered in Brno, it received a positive review from Czechoslovak musicologist and critic Otakar Šourek.  Also composed during this early period in Prague was a string quartet (opus 8), additional works for solo piano, and some sketches for vocal works.  But perhaps the most significant work begun by Kaprálová was her Military Sinfonietta, which she began sketching early in 1936.  Although Kaprálová composed several other works during her Prague years, the Military Sinfonietta would become one of her best-known works.

While her musical ideas for Military Sinfonietta (opus 11) were coalescing, she continued her studies at the Prague Conservatory.  In January 1936, Kaprálová graduated from Talich's conducting masterclass and, in May, she passed the state piano teacher certification examination.  During those months, she also composed several works, primarily for small ensembles or voice and piano, and several compositions premiered in Prague and Brno.  Two highlights from the year include the premiere in early October of Kaprálová‘s String Quartet, Op. 8, by the Moravian Quartet in Brno and the radio premiere of her Piano Concerto in d minor, Op. 7, a couple weeks later by the Brno Radio Orchestra with Kaprálová on the podium (Kaprálová had also conducted the premiere of the concerto's first movement at the Prague Conservatory the year before).  The performances received rave reviews in the Czechoslovak press, particularly from Šourek, who was becoming an important proponent of Kaprálová‘s work.

Perhaps the most important work to come out of Kaprálová‘s time at the Prague Conservatory was her Military Sinfonietta.  A single movement work for large orchestra, Kaprálová completed the composition in February 1937.  The work had several performances that were key to the young composer's future.  First, the work served as her graduation piece; in June 1937, Kaprálová graduated with distinction from the Prague Conservatory.  Her teacher, Novák, with whom she worked very closely on the composition, was greatly impressed by it and recommended it the Czech National Women's Council who wanted to include a piece by a Czech female composer at their gala in November.  In honor of that performance, Kaprálová dedicated the work to the Czechoslovak president, Edvard Beneš, who was also patron of the Czech National Women's Council.  The reference to “military” in the title of the work often proved problematic for the young composer who had completed the work at a time when the future of the young Czechoslovak Republic seemed in jeopardy.  In her analysis of the composition, Kaprálová explained her choice of title: “The composition does not represent a battle cry, but it depicts the psychological need to defend that which is most sacred to the nation.” [quoted from kapralova.org, text translated by Leda Hatrick] The work was also included in the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in London in 1938 (see below).  At the end of 1938, Kaprálová was also awarded the Smetana Award by the Bendřich Smetana Foundation in Prague for her Military Sinfonietta.

In addition to her activities at the Conservatory, Kaprálová was also involved with the modern music scene in Prague.  Shortly after her arrival in Prague, she joined the Přítomnost Society, an organization dedicated to the creation and performance of contemporary music, which was very active in the capital during the inter–war years.  The musicians of the Přítomnost Society premiered several of Kaprálová's works.  Works premiered by the Society included Three Pieces for PianoApple from the Lap (cycle of four songs), and April Preludes (for piano).  Kaprálová was also a member of Ochranný svaz autorský, a Czechoslovak composers' rights organization.

Most of the works Kaprálová composed during her years at the Prague Conservatory, although relatively conservative in nature, do have a modernist bent.  As one might expect from student works, these combine the teachings of Novák with Kaprálová's attempts to find her own compositional voice.  Her talent as a composer can be heard in the earliest of her compositions and can be seen in her preliminary analyses included with several of the works.  Her development into a modernist composer would take on a new depth as she moved from Prague to Paris to study with Bohuslav Martinů.

With Martinů in Paris
Although Kaprálová was not formally introduced to Martinů until April 1937, Martinů had been a friend of the Kaprál family for several years.  A native of a small village in Bohemia, Martinů studied for a short while at the Prague Conservatory before moving to Paris in 1923.  Although he never lived in the Czech lands again, Martinů was highly regarded as a Czechoslovak composer.  In 1937, Martinů visited Prague to begin preparations with Václav Talich (Kaprálová‘s conducting teacher) for the premiere of his opera, Julietta (an opera which would soon take on a special meaning for Kaprálová and Martinů), at the city's National Theater the following year.  During that visit, Kaprálová met the much older composer, whose works she had admired for many years.  During that first meeting, Martinů advised Kaprálová that she should continue her studies with him in Paris.  Thus began a relationship that would deeply influence Kaprálová's musical and personal life for the remainder of her lifetime.

The prospect of traveling to and studying in Paris was an expensive one.  Kaprálová applied to the French government for financial assistance and, with the help of with the help of Otakar Šourek, was awarded a scholarship for one year's study at L'École Normale de Musique in Paris.  She arrived in Paris late in October 1938 and soon began to study conducting with Charles Munch and composition with Martinů.  During her first weeks in Paris, the young Czech composer was introduced to some of the most well known figures in Paris's modern music community, including Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger.

In November, Kaprálová made a quick trip to Prague to conduct the performance of Military Sinfonietta for the Czech National Women's Council, which received positive reviews in several publications.  Shortly after her return to Paris, she was informed that the same work had been selected by the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) committee as one of the works to represent Czechoslovak contemporary music at the 1938 festival in London.  The other representatives of Czechoslovak music included Iša Krejčí, Václav Bartoš, and Viktor Ullmann.

Before departing for the festival in London in June, Kaprálová settled into life as a music student in Paris.  She grew close to Martinů, both personally and professionally, as the two shared ideas about their work. During this time, they collaborated on several of each other's works, both in person and through correspondence; in the collection of Martinů's papers, there are copies of 33 letters from the teacher to his student.  One of Kaprálová‘s works from this period known to be influenced by her relationship with Martinů is her Partita, a work in three movements for string orchestra and piano.  Begun early in 1938, Kaprálová would revisit and rework the piece several times over the course of her time with Martinů.  Most scholars familiar with the work of both Kaprálová and Martinů agree that this work is by far her strongest imitation of Martinů's style.  However, what is unclear is whether her imitation of his style was a result of her admiration of him as a composer, her very close and personal relationship with him, the mere fact that she was studying with him and was expected to imitate his style, or a combination of all three.  Nonetheless, Kaprálová's Partita, with its angular melodic lines and often dissonant harmonies, is one of her most modern works.

Martinů's works from this period also reflect his close relationship with Kaprálová.  For example, in May 1938, he composed his String Quartet, No. 5, often considered to be a deeply personal work, and dedicated the completed sketch to his student.

International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM)
In June 1938 Kaprálová, accompanied by her teacher, traveled from Paris to London to participate in the ISCM festival.  In addition to her conducting duties, Kaprálová was also interviewed by the BBC and met with Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak ambassador to Great Britain.  But for the young Czech composer and conductor, the highlight of the trip must have been her appearance as conductor, leading the BBC Orchestra in a performance of her Military Sinfonietta at the festival's opening concert.  Although she was the youngest composer participating in the festival, her performance on the podium and her skills as a composer were widely praised by those in attendance and in published reports of the concert.  Both The Daily Telegraph and La revue musicale printed reviews praising the work and its performance.  In his account of the ICSM festival, British composer Havergal Brian wrote, “The first work played and broadcast at the recent festival, a Military Sinfonietta, by Miss Vítĕzslava Kaprálová of Czechoslovakia proved an amazing piece of orchestral writing: it was also of logical and well balanced design.”

The concert was also sent by shortwave radio to the United States and rebroadcast by Columbia Broadcasting System.  A review of the festival in Time magazine shortly after the broadcast also described Kaprálová‘s work as a composer and conductor in glowing terms: “In its 16 years of existence, the [ICSM] society has now and then turned up a really golden egg. At the festival's opening concert last week, seven strictly fresh compositions were chipped open, sniffed at. Four attracted considerable critical attention: …4) a Military Symphonietta in one movement by 22-year-old Vítĕzslava Kapr&#225lová, a good-looking Czechoslovakian girl. To Composer Kaprálová, who conducted her own lusty, sprawling composition, went the afternoon's biggest hand. Dedicated to Czechoslovakia's President Eduard Beneš, Composer Kaprálová's Military Symphonietta was not supposed to summon up any aggressive blood. Said she: ‘My Symphonietta is not an appeal for war, but an appeal for a conscious defensive attitude.’”

The performance at the ICSM festival was a testament to Kaprálová's talent as a conductor and composer.  Although her scholarship to continue studying in Paris with Martinů was in jeopardy, she was on the threshold of becoming a successful and well-known composer and conductor – a feat rarely attained by a young woman in the late 1930s.

Her Final Compositions
Following her success at the ICSM festival, Kaprálová returned to Paris before taking a holiday in home country.  It was a time of uncertainty and unrest in the countries of Eastern Europe.  Hitler had been gaining power in Nazi Germany and was eager to gain control of the Czech Sudetenland.  On September 29, 1938, in an agreement reached as part of the Munich Accord granted those lands to Germany; the Accord marked the beginning of the carving up of Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe and opened the door to the full-scale German invasion of the Czech Lands the following year.

While she was in Czechoslovakia, Kaprálová continued composing, completing a couple of pieces that were already in the works and beginning the sketches of a few others.  In July, with the help of Martinů, she worked on the orchestration for her song Waving Farewell for solo voice and orchestra, a project begun earlier that year.  In September, she completed the sketches for Ilena, a work which began as a ballad and morphed into a cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra, and began orchestrating the work the following month; unfortunately the work remained unfinished.  In both works Kaprálová continued to search for her “voice,” using what she learned from her time at the Prague Conservatory together with what Martinů had taught her, combined with what she believed her compositional voice to be.

In October 1938, Kaprálová received a letter from Alfred Kalmus of Universal Edition (London) asking about the status of an orchestral work based on Czech folk songs that he, on behalf of the publishing house, had commissioned from her.  Although the original letter requesting the commission is lost, it appears that Kaprálová immediately began working on the commission when she received Kalmus' second letter.  In just more than a fortnight she finished sketching the suite, which she titled Suita Rustica, and had completed the work by November 10, less than a month after receiving Kalmus's letter.  Unfortunately, for reasons that still remain unclear, Kalmus and Universal Edition rejected the orchestral suite.  Nonetheless, Suita Rustica, with its use of traditional Czech folk songs in a conservative yet forward-looking style, remains one of Kaprálová's most popular works, and is considered by many to be one of her finest works.

Kaprálová‘s future studies in Paris were far from certain.  Before the ICSM festival, her scholarship to study with Martinů and at L'École Normale de Musique had expired.  In order to resume her studies in Western Europe, Kaprálová needed once again to secure funding from the French government.  After a series of correspondence between representatives of the French and Czechoslovak ministries of culture, Otakar Šourek, Martinů, and even Czechoslovak author Karel Ĉapek, Kaprálová was finally able to return to Paris in late November 1938, just over a month after Edvard Beneš, the Czechoslovak president, was forced to into exile.  With the political situation in Czechoslovakia rapidly deteriorating, Kaprálová left her homeland for the last time, returning to Paris to resume her studies and her life with Martinů.

Her return to Paris marked the beginning of a busy time in Kaprálová's life.  Professionally, as she resumed her studies, she began composing at a frenetic pace, beginning several new works in many different genres and, under the guidance of Martinů, revising old works, most notably the Partita.  Of the many new works begun during this period, several were never finished.  Nonetheless, the works from this period represent her most mature works, and indicate her ability to work across genres and styles.  These compositions also chart the development of Kaprálová's personal voice.  Works begun and/or completed during the time (1939) include: In Memoriam of Karel Ĉapek (who died at the end of 1938) for violin and piano (later renamed Elegy); Concertino for ViolinClarinet and Orchestra, Op. 21 (unfinished); V zemi české / In the Czech Land, for voice and piano; the song cycle Zpívano do dálky / Sung into the Distance, Op. 22 [including Píseň tvé nepřítomnosti / A Song of Your AbsencePolohlasem / Under One's Breath]; Sonatina for Violin and Piano [unfinished]; Můj milý človĕče / My Dear One [from Seconds, Op. 18].  As the political situation under Nazi occupation in the Czech lands continued to worsen, Kaprálová was inspired to compose works that expressed her feelings of loss for her homeland.  Some of these works, often dedicated to her parents, were recorded in Western Europe and rebroadcast in Czechoslovakia.

Due to the deteriorating political conditions across Europe and particularly in Paris, Kaprálová also began looking for ways to continue her studies in the United States.  She wrote letters making inquiries and asking for financial assistance.  She also applied to the Juilliard School in New York.  However, none of these attempts proved to be fruitful.

On a personal level, the beginning of 1939 saw the relationship between Kaprálová and her teacher deepen.  The two worked closely together on their respective compositions.  Martinů gave Kaprálová a piano sketch of his opera Julietta; the opera had previously been meaningful to both of them and the sketch confirmed its importance, and perhaps Martinů's romantic feelings, for Kaprálová.  By June, Kaprálová wrote to her parents that she and Martinů were making plans to live together.  However, those plans never came to pass.

Around the same time, Kaprálová met Jiří Mucha, the son of the Czech art–nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, in Paris.  Being of similar age and with similar interest in the events happening in their common homeland, the two began to spend time together.  Kaprálová soon began to realize that a future with Martinů was not in her best interest.  As World War II spread across the European continent at the end of 1939, the political unrest grew in Paris and across France.  Martinů and his de facto wife, Charlotte, started to make plans to leave France, and Martinů and Kaprálová began to spend less time together as she became involved with Mucha.  Although Mucha enlisted in the French army, the two continued their relationship.

On April 23, 1940, Kaprálová and Mucha were married in Paris.  A week later, the first signs of the illness that would take Kaprálová's life were documented.  Although she managed to maintain her musical activities in Paris, continuing to compose, publishing articles, and directing the newly formed Czech women's choir in Paris, the illness rapidly took its toll.  She was in and out of the hospital for several weeks and on May 20 was evacuated by her husband from the increasingly stressful conditions in Paris to a hospital in Montpellier.  The day before her evacuation, Kaprálová saw her mentor and teacher, Martinů, for the last time. On June 14, the German's occupied Paris.  Two days later, on June 16, 1940, with her husband by her side, Vítĕzslava Kaprálová died.

Kaprálová's Posthumous Legacy
Most likely due the conditions of war–torn Europe and the presence of the Iron Curtain, Kaprálová was largely forgotten by the music community in France and in Czechoslovakia.  Several of the works she completed at the end of her life were premiered in the years immediately following the war; however, Kaprálová and her works were soon lost in the shadows of history.  Any mention of the young Czechoslovak composer was limited to a footnote in the studies of Martinů‘s life and music; usually these footnotes referred to her only as Martinů's young mistress and made no mention of her ability as a composer, conductor and musician.

Starting in the last two decades of the twentieth century, interest in Kaprálová began to re–emerge.  In 1988, Jiří Mucha published a memoir of his life with Kaprálová; the following decade saw the publication of a fictional account of Kaprálová's relationship with Martinů.  Scholarly interest in Kaprálová and her music received a healthy boost from the work of Karla Hartl and the Kaprálová Society.  Several of Kaprálová‘s works were also performed and recorded by musicians around the world.  Perhaps Kaprálová, a promising composer and musician and young victim of World War II, is now once again on her way to becoming an important part of the early Czechoslovak modernist movement.

Article by Clare Thornley