By © Karla Hartl
The brief but full-lived creative life of Czech composer VITEZSLAVA KAPRALOVA (b. 24.1.1915 in Brno – d. 16.6.1940 in Montpellier) was distinguished by many outstanding accomplishments, some of which will be mentioned within the context of her captivating life-story that follows. Although Kapralova was once regarded as one of the most promising composers of her generation, her music was given less and less attention during the years following her death, resulting in her memory being obliterated by the end of the twentieth century. And yet when her music began to infilitrate our awareness again in the twenty-first, there was no doubt that it had withstood the proverbial ‘test of time’ with admirable ease, proving its relevance to new generations of musicians and music listeners. It should be noted that Kapralova’s legacy is not just a mere torso of ‘what could have been’, for her well-balanced catalogue includes about fifty compositions, among which there are many remarkable works in all categories: piano, chamber, orchestral and vocal music. In fact, her list of works contains as many compositions as that of her composer father who lived thirty-three years longer. Given that Kapralova was granted nine creative years in total, the amount and quality of the work she managed to produce in such a short time is truly astonishing.
Kapralova’s creative development began in the 1930s in Brno, the regional capital of Moravia. She grew up in a cultured middle-class family and its circle of friends, among whom were some of the finest musicians and scholars of the new Czechoslovak Republic. She also benefitted from the musical offerings of her native town, which in many respects measured up to those of the country’s capital, Prague. Her talent was recognized relatively early and nurtured by her musician parents. Kapralova’s mother Vitezslava (born Uhlirova, 1890–1973) was a qualified voice teacher; her father Vaclav Kapral (1889–1947) was a pianist, teacher, choirmaster, music critic and one of the few alumni of Janacek’s teaching who emerged as composers (besides Kapral there were only four: Vilem Petrzelka, Osvald Chlubna, Jaroslav Kvapil and Pavel Haas). Kapral played a particularly important role in his daughter’s early musical development, later also becoming her somewhat self-appointed but nevertheless indispensible agent.
While today Kapral is basically unknown outside the Czech Republic, during his lifetime he was one of the most respected Czech composers of his generation because he was perceived as having been able to ‘reconcile Novak’s technical precision’ and appreciation for form ‘with Janacek’s innovation and emotionality’. 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 intensified his aptitude for 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-hand 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. She was only nine when she started composing, and only twelve when she wrote her Valse triste, already an accomplished piece written in a generic romantic style reminiscent of Chopin. It was her mother’s influence, however, that led to Kapralova’s lifelong passion for song. In vocal music Kapralova combined her deeply-felt identification with the singing voice with her love of poetry; she not only had a penchant for selecting high-quality poems to set to music but also wrote good poetry herself. Kapralova’s contribution to the genre is indeed significant, and her songs represent one of the late climaxes of Czech art song.
While Kapralova’s parents were generally supportive of their daughter’s interest in music, they had rather practical plans for her – she was to take over her family’s private music school. Kapralova had her own plans, however. She had already set her mind on a career in composition and conducting, and it was this double major program that she chose for her studies at the Brno Conservatory when she enrolled there at the age of 15. She was to become the first woman in the history of this institution to graduate from it.
At the Brno Conservatory Kapralova studied composition with composer Vilem Petrzelka, harmony with Max Koblizek and Jaroslav Kvapil, orchestral conducting with Zdenek Chalabala (who later moved to Prague on the invitation of Vaclav Talich to become conductor at the National Theatre), choir conducting with Vilem Steinman, instrumentation with Osvald Chlubna, music history with Gracian Cernusak (an esteemed Brno musicologist who wrote many reviews of Kapralova’s music), aesthetics with Ludvik Kundera (who premiered her Piano Concerto of 1935 and Carillon Variations of 1938) and piano performance with Anna Holubova.
Kapralova wrote quite a few compositions during her studies at the conservatory. One of the earliest, from 1931, was a piano suite which already shows a seriousness of purpose and emotional maturity as well as increased pianistic demands; its colourful harmonic language at times evokes an almost orchestral sound. Kapralova must have been aware of this quality when she decided to orchestrate it four years later under the title Suite en miniature and assign it a first opus number. Other noteworthy compositions followed: Two Pieces for Violin and Piano, op. 3 (1932); the song-cycles Dve pisne, op. 4 (Two Songs, 1932) and Jiskry z popele, op. 5 (Sparks from Ashes, 1932–1933); and the remarkable song Leden (January, 1933) for higher voice and flute, two violins, violoncello and piano, set to a text by Vitezslav Nezval.
Among the finest compositions Kapralova composed in Brno, however, were the virtuosic two-movement Sonata Appassionata, op. 6 (1933) and the Piano Concerto in D Minor, op. 7 (1934–1935), her graduation work. The composition convincingly displays the versatility of Kapralova’s musical talent, with its typical energy and passion, lyricism and intelligent humour, spontaneity as well as discipline. Its performance at Kapralova’s graduation concert received highly favourable reviews not only in the regional newspapers but also in major dailies, including the German Prager Tagblatt, whose reviewer expressed his disappointment over the conservatory’s decision to present only the first movement of Kapralova’s Piano Concerto which, in his opinion, attested to an extraordinary talent: ‘Es is zu bedauern, daß die Veranstalter nur den ersten Satz des Werkes aufführen liessen, doch auch diese kleine Probe zeigt eine erstaunlich temperamentvolle musikalische Begabung.’ Indeed, the concerto’s last movement already anticipates the composer’s new creative period which was to blossom under the guidance of Vitezslav Novak at the Prague Conservatory.
The master school and the musical scene 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. She joined ‘Pritomnost’ (‘The Present’), a new music society chaired by avant-garde composer Alois Haba, and she regularly participated in Silvestr Hippmann’s musical ‘Tuesdays’ of Umelecka beseda (Artistic Forum), exposing herself to new contemporary music, both Czech and international. The two societies later also became important platforms for premiering Kapralova’s works.
During her studies at the Prague Conservatory Kapralova composed some of her best-known music, namely the song cycle Navzdy, op. 12 (Forever, 1936–1937) and the art song Sbohem a satecek, op. 14 (Waving Farewell, 1937), which she later orchestrated in consultation with Bohuslav Martinu in Paris. Other noteworthy creations of Kapralova’s ‘Prague period’ include her maliciously witty Groteskni passacaglia (Grotesque Passacaglia), the splendid String Quartet, op. 8 (1935–1936) and her most popular work for piano solo, Dubnova preludia, op. 13 (April Preludes, 1937), a work she dedicated to Rudolf Firkusny, who brought attention to its qualities several years later by his masterly performance in Paris. But one composition in particular brought her public recognition: the Vojenska symfonieta, op. 11 (Military Sinfonietta, 1936–1937), Kapralova’s graduation work, which was premiered by the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of the composer on 26 November 1937 in Prague. It was with the sinfonietta that Kapralova achieved not only wider recognition at home but also abroad when it was performed on the opening night of the 16th International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival in London on 17 June 1938. The British premiere of the sinfonietta, in which Kapralova conducted the excellent BBC Orchestra, was transmitted across the ocean to the United States, where it was broadcast by CBS. According to a reviewer of Time magazine, Kapralova not only fared well in the international competition at the festival, but she also became the star of the opening concert. Among all the reviews mentioning her performance, Kapralova would probably have cherished most 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 Kapralova ever read it.
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 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 also entrusted her with the task of conducting his Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra on 2 June 1938 in Paris, just two weeks before her well-received ISCM Festival appearance. In addition, he facilitated the publication of one of her compositions which he admired greatly, the Variations sur le carillon de l’eglise St-Etienne-du-Mont, op. 16 (1938), by La Sirene editions musicales in Paris.
In the autumn 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 his separation from Kapralova found its way into his Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani, whose score he finished on the very day of the Munich Agreement. During the same time Kapralova continued to work back home in Moravia on her Partita for Strings and Piano, op. 20 (1938–1939), in which Martinu, as he wrote in his reminiscence published by editor Prazak in 1949, ‘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, nor did he interfere in her Concertino for Violin, Clarinet and Orchestra, op. 21 (1939), whose last movement and incomplete orchestration 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 stimuli of Kapralova’s new environment that accelerated her creative development. During the two years she lived in Paris she produced almost as much music as she had during the five years in Brno and her two years in Prague. The highlights of her first Parisian period, from October 1937 to May 1938, include the already mentioned Carillon variations and her delightful (but unfinished) reed trio.
During her second Parisian period, from January 1939 to May 1940, Kapralova became even more productive. Soon after her return to Paris in January 1939, she composed two pieces of chamber music honouring the memory of Czech writer Karel Capek, whose passing on Christmas Day of 1938 was mourned by the nation: the Elegy for Violin and Piano, and the melodrama Karlu Capkovi (To Karel Capek) for reciter, violin and piano on a text by Vitezslav Nezval. On 15 March 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 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 ‘Job 30:26’ on the score, a telling reference to a passage from the Book of Job: ‘Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness’. With its bold ideas and modern musical language, the concertino was to be Kapralova’s last major work; only two more high points were to follow: the song cycle Zpivano do dalky, op. 22 (Sung into the Distance, 1939) and the Deux ritournelles pour violoncelle et piano, op. 25 (1940), her last composition.
The German occupation of Czechoslovakia changed Kapralova’s life literally overnight. As returning home was not an option, she now faced 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. During the final year of her life, she spent much of her precious time on small commissions in an effort to support herself. One of them was the lively Prelude de Noel (1939), an orchestral miniature that Kapralova composed for a Christmas program of the Paris PTT Radio. Throughout the spring of 1939 she tried to obtain a scholarship to study 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 by the end of summer 1939 she depended entirely on the assistance of several of her friends and a few benefactors.
Lacking regular income, Kapralova joined the household of her young 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 the exile weekly La cause Tchecoslovaque to composing music for the radio, the stage (she collaborated with Martinu on stage music for a theatre project directed by Karel Brusak) and even the screen (most possibly a commission facilitated by Kapralova’s friend, film actor and director Hugo Haas).
In the final months of her life, Kapralova also resumed her studies at the Ecole normale, adding to her already busy schedule. In April 1940, less than two months before her death, she married Jiri Mucha. In early May, she exhibited the first symptoms of her terminal illness. Since Paris was threatened by German invasion, she was evacuated on 20 May 1940 by Mucha to Montpellier, near his military base in Beziers. By then Kapralova was already seriously ill, and, following several weeks of suffering, she succumbed to her illness on 16 June 1940.
In 1946, in appreciation of her distinctive contribution, the foremost academic institution in the country - the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Arts - awarded Kapralova membership in memoriam. By 1948, this honor had been bestowed on only 10 women, out of 648 members of the Academy. Only one of the ten women was a musician - Kapralova.
 Jindriska Bartova, “Kapralova in the Context of Czech music”, in The Kapralova Companion, ed. Karla Hartl and Erik Entwistle (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011), p. 17.