By © Karla Hartl
Vitezslava Kapralova (b. 1915 in Brno - d. 1940 Montpellier) is generally considered an important representative of the inter-war Czech musical avant-garde. Regarded once as one of the most promising composers of her generation, her memory was almost obliterated in the second half of the twentieth century before it began infiltrating our awareness again in the twenty-first. Today, there is no doubt that Kapralova's music has withstood the test of time with admirable ease, proving its relevance for new generations of musicians and music listeners. Kapralova's legacy should not be considered a mere torso of "what could have been," for her catalog includes a respectable number of about fifty compositions, among which there are remarkable works in all genres of music literature: piano, chamber, orchestral, and vocal music.
The cultured environment of Kapralova's family and its circle of friends, among whom were some of the finest musicians and scholars of the new Czechoslovak republic, played an important role in the creative development of young Vitezslava. She also benefitted from the musical offerings of her native Brno, which in many respects measured up to those of the country's capital, Prague. Kapralova's talent was recognized relatively early and nurtured by her musician parents. Her mother Vitezslava, (born Uhlirova, 1890–1973), was a qualified voice teacher who studied with Marie Kollarova in Brno and Kristina Morfova at the National Theater in Prague. Kapralova's father, Vaclav Kapral (1889–1947), studied composition with Leos Janacek and piano performance with Marie Kuhlova and Klotilda Schaferova in Brno. He was also an outstanding teacher who never stopped educating himself throughout his life; although his own private music school, which he founded in 1911 in Brno, grew in reputation and continued to attract generations of aspiring pianists throughout the twenties and thirties, he still found it necessary to perfect his pianistic skills with Alfred Cortot in Paris in 1924 and 1925. He also perfected his skills at composition under Vitezslav Novak, who was to become in due time also the teacher of choice for his daughter. Throughout the 1920s, Kapral devoted much of his time to piano perfomance: together with his friend Ludvik Kundera, they promoted four-hands repertoire, and also performed in concert as a two-piano team. In addition to his performing career, Kapral worked as a lecturer at Brno's Masaryk University, and, beginning in 1936, also as a tenured teacher at the Brno Conservatory, where he taught composition.
Music was therefore a natural part of Kapralova's life since childhood. It was primarily her mother's influence, however, that led to Kapralova's lifelong passion for art song. Kapralova's contribution to the genre has indeed been significant: her songs in general and the opuses 10, 12, and 14 in particular represent one of the late climaxes of Czech Art Song. The song was the most intrinsic genre for Kapralova - in it, she combined her passion for the singing voice with her love of poetry. Kapralova had excellent judgment when it came to poetry: she not only had a penchant for high quality poems (one of her favorite poets was Jaroslav Seifert who at the end of his life won Nobel prize for literature) but she also wrote good poetry herself - her first song cycle from 1930 and the orchestral song Smutny vecer (Sad Evening) from 1936 are believed to be set to her own texts.
Both parents were supportive of Kapralova's interest in music but had rather practical plans for her: she was to take over her parents' private music school. Kapralova had her own plans, however; her mind was already set on composition and conducting, and it was this double major program that she chose for her studies at the Brno Conservatory. It is worth noting that she was the very first female student to graduate from the demanding program in the history of this respectable institution.
At the Brno Conservatory, Kapralova studied composition with Czech composer Vilem Petrzelka and conducting with Vilem Steinman and Zdenek Chalabala, who was one of the finest Brno conductors and dramaturgs. Kapralova wrote a good number of compositions during her "Brno period": one of the earliest was a piano suite that she later orchestrated under the title Suite en miniature and assigned it her first opus number. Other noteworthy compositions that followed include Two Pieces for Violin and Piano, op. 3, song cycles Dve pisne, op. 4 (Two Songs) and Jiskry z popele, op. 5 (Sparks from Ashes) and the remarkable song Leden (January) for higher voice and flute, two violins, violoncello and piano, set to words of Vitezslav Nezval, another great Czech poet. The finest among her compositions from the Brno period are, however, the two-movement Sonata Appassionata, op. 6 and the Piano Concerto in D Minor, op. 7, with which Kapralova graduated from the Brno Conservatory both as composer and conductor. Her graduation concert received highly favourable reviews not only in the regional newspapers but also in major dailies. Among them was the German Prager Tagblatt whose reviewer expressed his disappointment over the conservatory's decision to present only the first movement of Kapralova's concerto which attested to an extraordinary talent: "Es is zu bedauern, das die Veranstalter nur den ersten Satz des Werkes aufführen liessen, doch auch diese kleine Probe zeigt eine erstaunlich temperamentvolle musikalische Begabung."
In the fall of 1935, Kapralova was accepted into the Master School of the Prague Conservatory where she continued her double major studies, this time with the best teachers she could find in her own country: composition with Dvorak's pupil, Vitezslav Novak, and conducting with Vaclav Talich, a chief conductor of Czech Philharmonic and Prague's National Theater. (It is worth noting that in the academic year of 1935/36, when Kapralova began her studies at the Prague Conservatory, Talich's master class was opened to only eight first-year students; even more competitive was Novak's class with just five students.) The Master School and the musical life of the country's capital provided a stimulating environment for Kapralova, in which her natural talent, coupled with her strong work ethic, continued to thrive. By joining the Society for contemporary music Pritomnost (The Presence) and as a regular participant of Silvestr Hippman’s musical "Tuesdays" of Umelecka beseda (Artistic forum), she was exposed to contemporary music, both Czech and international. The two societies later also became important platforms for premiering Kapralova's new works.
During her studies at the Prague Conservatory, Kapralova composed some of her best known music, such as the song cycle Navzdy, op. 12 (Forever) and the art song Sbohem a satecek, op. 14 (Waving farewell) that she later orchestrated in consultation with Bohuslav Martinu in Paris. Other creations of Kapralova's "Prague period" include her remarkable String Quartet, op. 8 and her most popular work for piano solo, Dubnova preludia, op. 13 (April preludes), dedicated to Rudolf Firkusny who brought attention to its qualities by his masterly performance several years later in Paris. But one composition in particular brought her the most public attention - Military Sinfonietta, op. 11 - Kapralova’s graduation work, which was premiered by the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of the composer on November 26, 1937 at Lucerna hall in Prague. It was with the sinfonietta that Kapralova achieved not only wider recognition at home but also abroad when it was performed at the opening night of the 16th edition of the ISCM Festival in London on June 17, 1938. The British premiere of the sinfonietta, in which Kapralova conducted the excellent BBC Orchestra, (today's BBC Symphony Orchestra), was transmitted across the ocean to the United States where it was broadcast by CBS. According to the reviewer of Time magazine, Kapralova not only fared well at the international competition at the festival but she also became the star of the opening concert, and so "to composer Kapralova, who conducted her own lusty, sprawling composition, went the afternoon’s biggest hand." Among all the reviews mentioning her performance, Kapralova would have cherished that of her colleague, Havergal Brian, who in his festival report for Musical Opinion wrote: "The first work played and broadcast at the recent festival, a Military Sinfonietta by Miss Vitezslava Kapralova of Czechoslovakia, proved an amazing piece of orchestral writing; it was also of logical and well balanced design." But it is unlikely that she ever read it.
Kapralova travelled to the ISCM festival in London from Paris where she had lived since October of the previous year. She arrived in Paris on a one-year French Government scholarship to advance her music education at the Ecole Normale de musique, initially hoping to continue her double major studies: conducting with Charles Munch and composition with Nadia Boulanger. However, her knowledge of French was not good enough to study with Boulanger; and so she decided to enrol just in the conducting class, because with Munch she could also communicate in German. She also accepted an offer of private consultations with Bohuslav Martinu, who was by then established in France and well respected both in Paris and his native Czechoslovakia. Kapralova met Martinu in Prague; they became acquainted on April 8, 1937, during Martinu's brief visit to the capital, where he arrived to negotiate with Vaclav Talich the details of the premiere of his new opera Julietta at the National Theater.
In Paris, Martinu became first Kapralova's mentor, later also her friend, and, in the end, her soulmate. From the very beginning, he was generous with his contacts and time; and, besides hours of free consultations, he also opened quite a few doors for Kapralova. Soon after she arrived in Paris, Martinu introduced her to a circle of composers who were members of Triton, a Parisian society for contemporary music, whose concerts Kapralova diligently attended. He entrusted her with the task of conducting his Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra in Paris on June 2, 1938, just two weeks before her well-received ISCM Festival appearance. He also facilitated the publication of her Variations sur le carillon de l’église St-Etienne-du-Mont, op. 16, which he much admired, by La Sirene éditions musicales (later bought by Eschig).
In the fall of 1938, Martinu spent much time and effort to secure another stipend for Kapralova so that she could return to France. His anxiety over the rapidly worsening political situation and over the separation from Kapralova found its way into his Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani, whose score Martinu finished on the very day of the Munich Agreement. During the same time, Kapralova continued to work, back home, on her Partita for strings and piano, op. 20, in which Martinu, as he put it himself, "interfered more than he would have liked but both (he and Kapralova) looked at it as a learning exercise (for Kapralova)." However, he did not interfere in her Suita rustica, op. 19, commissioned by Universal Edition London, which Kapralova composed in just three weeks during late October and early November 1938. Neither did he interfere in her Concertino for Violin, Clarinet, and Orchestra, op. 21 (1939), the last movement and orchestration of which Kapralova later set aside and did not finish. (It received its extended life thanks to Milos Stedron and Leos Faltus, two Brno musicologists who completed the work's orchestration in 2000.)
The Triton concerts and the thought-provoking discussions with Martinu were some of the elements of Kapralova's new environment that further stimulated and accelerated her creative development: during the two years she lived in Paris, Kapralova produced almost as much music as during the five years in Brno and two years in Prague. The highlights of her first "Parisian period" (October 1937-May 1938) include Variations sur le carillon, op. 16 and her (unfinished) reed trio. Another work that Kapralova composed in Paris during this period, the large orchestral cantata Ilena, op. 15, is important in the context of her own oeuvre. Its musical ideas occupied Kapralova's mind as early as 1932. When she finally began working with them, however, she found the music rooted in the post-romantic idiom from which she had already moved; consequently, she felt ambivalent about the composition and finished it only because Martinu valued it. Unfortunately, she did not complete its orchestration (which was finished in 2007 by Martin Kostas, as part of his graduate studies requirements at the Janacek Academy of Performing Arts, so that Ilena could receive its world premiere on May 31, 2007, in Brno).
During her second Parisian period (January 1939–May 1940), Kapralova was even more productive. Soon after her return to Paris in January 1939, she composed two works honoring the memory of Czech writer Karel Capek, whose passing during Christmas 1938 was mourned by the nation: the Elegy for violin and piano, and the melodrama Karlu Capkovi (To Karel Capek). On March 15, 1939, German armies marched into the streets of Prague. Devastated by the occupation of her homeland, Kapralova sought solace in her music. The result was the Concertino for Violin, Clarinet, and Orchestra, op. 21 which reflects much of the composer's mental state at the worst period of her life. She scribbled on the score Job 30, 26 (a telling reference to the Book of Job: "Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness"). The Concertino, with its bold ideas and modern musical language, was to be Kapralova’s last major work; only two high points were to follow: the song cycle Sung into the Distance, op. 22, and the Deux ritournelles pour violoncelle et piano, op. 25, her last composition.
The German occupation of Czechoslovakia changed Kapralova's life literally overnight. As a return home was not an option, Kapralova was now facing the arduous task of earning her own living; she no longer received financial aid from home, (as financial transactions were subjected to new, strict rules), nor her stipend. Throughout the spring of 1939, Kapralova was also trying to obtain a scholarship at the Juilliard School so that she could relocate to the United States (in the company of Martinu). Nothing came of the plan, however; and at the end of summer 1939, Kapralova entirely depended on assistance of several of her friends and a few benefactors. The most generous among them was Jewish-Czech entrepreneur Pavel Deutsch to whom she was introduced by generous Martinu; she also received two financial contributions from Czech ex-President Edvard Benes to whom she once dedicated her Military Sinfonietta. During this final year of her life, Kapralova spent much of her precious time on small commissions in an effort to support herself - one of them was the lively Prélude de Noel, an orchestral miniature that Kapralova composed for a Christmas program of the Paris PTT Radio.
Lacking regular income, Kapralova joined the household of her artist friends who found themselves in a similar position and decided to pool their resources to get through hard times. One of these friends was her future husband Jiri Mucha. She also joined the efforts of the Czech community in Paris that organized activities for and around the newly formed Czechoslovak Army. Soon she became heavily involved: from founding a choir and writing reviews for La Cause Tchécoslovaque to composing music for the radio (Paris PTT Radio), stage (together with Martinu she composed stage music for a theater group) and even screen (most possibly a commission facilitated by Kapralova's friend, film actor Hugo Haas). In the last months of her life, Kapralova also resumed her studies at the Ecole Normale (whether she was taking class with Boulanger remains inconclusive), adding to her already busy schedule. In April 1940, less than two months before her death, she married Jiri Mucha. In early May, Kapralova exhibited first symptoms of her terminal illness. Since Paris was threatened by German invasion, she was evacuated by Mucha to Montpellier, near his military base in Agde, on May 20. By then Kapralova was already seriously ill; and, following several weeks of suffering, she succumbed to her illness on June 16, 1940.
In 1946, the foremost scholarly institution in Czechoslovakia, the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts, acknowledged Kapralova's distinct contribution to Czech Music by awarding her a membership in memoriam. She was one of only ten women members, out of more than 640 domestic members elected to the Academy since its inception in 1890, and the only woman musician.
In her short life, Kapralova composed over fifty works in a variety of genres. Particularly well represented in Kapralova's oeuvre are her songs. Together with the composer’s sophisticated works for the keyboard, they have remained the most vital part of the Kapralova repertoire. Kapralova's orchestral works are lesser known and, with a few notable exceptions, have yet to be discovered by performers. The orchestral catalog is strong and includes two orchestral songs, two piano concertos, a sinfonietta, an orchestral cantata, a concertino, a ballet-suite for large orchestra, and a couple of minor classics for chamber orchestra. Relatively least represented in Kapralova's compositional output is chamber music, but the compositions she did produce in this genre are often remarkable, be it her early string quartet or her last opus - the ritornel for cello and piano.
Although a few Kapralova compositions were published during her lifetime and several more published and even recorded soon after her death, it was only in the late 1990s that any concentrated efforts were made to publish and release Kapralova's works systematically. The founding of the Kapralova Society in Toronto in 1998 has played a seminal role in this revival of interest in Kapralova's music. The same year Studio Matous released in Prague a first profile CD of the composer. A Supraphon recording of Kapralova's art songs followed in 2003, a result of the dedicated efforts of the Society's member, Timothy Cheek, Associate Professor of Voice at the University of Michigan School of Music, and the financial partnership of the University of Michigan and Kapralova Society. In 2008, a third all-Kapralova release, this time by Koch Records in New York, added significantly to the Kapralova discography with piano and chamber music recordings. This project too was initiated and financially assisted by the Society. The fourth profile CD of the composer, featuring Piano Concerto in D-Minor and released by Czech Radio with the assistance of the Society in 2011, further narrowed a gap in Kapralova recordings, as did the Czech Radio recording of Concertino for Violin, Clarinet, and Orchestra, released as part of the fifth profile CD of Kapralova's orchestral works in 2016. The final gap in Kapralova's discography was closed in 2017 with Naxos' release of Kapralova's complete music for piano solo, another project assisted by the Society.
The most important among the projects the Society initiated and assisted over the past decade, however, has been the Kapralova Edition - the joint effort of the Kapralova Society and Czech Radio, Amos Editio and Baerenreiter Verlag - to make Kapralova's music available in print. Almost all of Kapralova compositions have been published to date, many in a first, critical edition. While the Czech Radio and Baerenreiter have been primarily interested in Kapralova's orchestral catalog, Amos Editio has focused on publishing the composer’s songs, works for piano, and chamber music. Among the publisher’s greatest accomplishments to date has been the critical edition of Kapralova’s art songs, expertly edited by Timothy Cheek and made possible thanks to the substantial financial support of the Kapralova Society.
Besides making Kapralova’s music available on record and in print, the Society has initiated and financially assisted some of the world premieres and other important performances of the composer’s music. Finally, the Society has been playing a key role in promoting and advancing knowledge about the composer by assisting scholarly research, publishing an online periodical, Kapralova Society Journal, and maintaining a website, kapralova.org.
 Czechoslovakia became an independent democratic republic on October 28, 1918.