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The Women in Music Anthology, ed. Eugene Gates and Karla Hartl, The Kapralova Society, 2021.
In 1998 musicologist Karla Hartl founded The Kapralova Society, a Canadian non-profit music society based in Toronto, whose mission “is to promote the music of Czech composer Vítezslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) and to build awareness of women’s contributions to musical life.” This website provides access to current and past issues of the Society’s journal, which has been in production since 2003. Over the years, numerous exceptional and well-documented articles by leading scholars have appeared in its biannual releases. The purpose of The Women in Music Anthology, published in 2021 by The Kapralova Society, is to bring together under one roof the best of these contributions to ensure their availability for the long term.
The volume is divided into two parts. The first emphasizes women composers and musicians, opening with two essays by Eugene Gates in which he establishes a backdrop for understanding from philosophical, psychological, and historical perspectives the gender-related challenges faced by women composers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The remaining essays in this section are devoted to individuals who experienced such challenges but were, nevertheless, remarkably successful in their careers, namely Fanny Mendelssohn; Clara Schuman; Norwegian pianist, composer, and teacher Agathe Backer Grřndahl (1847-1907); English composers Maude Valérie White (1855-1937) and Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944); American pianist and composer Amy (Mrs. H.H.A.) Beach (1867-1944) and teacher and composer Florence Price (1887-1953); and English singer and entertainer Dame Vera Lynn (1917-2020) as well as a chapter on early women orchestras and their maestras. Eight of the thirteen chapters were invitingly written by Eugene Gates.
The second portion of the book focuses entirely on Kaprálová, with essay topics ranging from the Society’s role in disseminating her work and the role of muse shared between Kaprálová and Bohuslav Martinu to directed studies of her compositions: the song Smutný vecer and the instrumental Trio for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon as well as her Two Dances for Piano, op. 23. The book closes with the complete transcript of the interview on Kaprálová granted by Karla Hartl to BBC Radio 3 as part of their October 12-16, 2015 Composer of the Week series.
Not only is this volume valuable for its information on Kaprálová, which can be expected from a collection published by the Society, but as a means to fulfill the mission of the organization—through the insights its authors provide on other women composers, including women of color, who are both well-known and only now being rediscovered.
During the nineteenth century, with philosophical and historical writings emphasizing the beliefs that women lacked the creative ability and abstract reasoning to compose musical works other than those intended for the parlor and the salon, women such as Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann worked as best they could within these societal and cultural limitations. Schumann, for instance, experienced and expressed self-doubts about her abilities as a composer while confident in her status as a pianist. Gender roles of the time emphasized a woman’s duties as a wife and mother, which Schumann performed admirably, including when Robert experienced bouts of extreme depression after a period of intense creative effort. Fanny Mendelssohn expressed similar gender-enforced doubts coupled with her social position as an upper middle-class woman. She refrained from publishing her music for some time after receiving stern criticism from both her father and brother, the former of whom wrote of his displeasure at the prospect, admonishing her to “prepare earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman—I mean that of a housewife.” Even when she decided to publish some of her best works, she was not entirely convinced of her abilities. As Gates quotes from Rudolf Elvers “Bote & Bock [Berlin publisher] have made offers to me [date: 1846] the likes of which have perhaps never before been given to a dilettante composer of my sex, whereupon Schlesinger [another Berlin publisher] even outdid them. I do not in the least imagine that this will continue but am pleased at the moment.” It is an abundance of quotations such as these that provide primary source documentation for the topics addressed in these essays and further their already exceptional value.
The lesser-known composers addressed in the pages of this collection receive no less rigorous attention, and arguments regarding their standings historically, along with the associated implications of whether they should be studied presently, are convincingly made. For example, in the case of Agathe Backer Grřndahl, the author confirms that as a pianist she was compared favorably to the likes of Anton Rubinstein and Hans von Bülow; but for Swedish composer and critic Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, she was “too blonde and friendly,” not to mention that her own compositions were “tiring” and could be likened to “needle work and baking.” On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw felt her works exceeded those of Grieg. And at her death, she was described as “the man” among numerous “lady pianists.” Should she be better known today? After reading this essay, the answer must be “Yes, and that there is more work to be done here.”
Advocacy through simply stating the facts in the remainder of the essays is equally compelling. Some composers, such as Dame Ethel Smyth and Florence Price are already enjoying increased attention from performers and scholars today, even though not solely because of these articles. Nevertheless, the information presented in The Women in Music Anthology on these and other female artists only emphasizes that such attention is the only judicious decision to be made.
There is very little missing from this collection. A minor point, and it is truly minor, is that it would be useful to have the author of each essay presented with the essay itself instead of only in the table of contents. In the end, it must be said, however, that this book contains solid, efficient, and effective introductions to the contributions of lesser-known women composers and performers at the same time that it solidifies and amplifies what we know about the “wives and sisters” of master composers in the Western canon (Clara and Fanny). Kudos to the authors and editors for bringing this scholarship together in a single volume.
Review by Judith Mabary for Kapralova Society Journal 20, no. 2 (Summer 2022): 22–23.
Halle Orchestra, St. David's Hall
That exuberance may have had its source equally in Jonathan Bloxham, one of Britain’s busiest and airborne young conductors,
in a programme of cheerful high spirits beginning with the little-heard Suita Rustica by the Czech composer Vítezslava Kaprálová.
Kaprálová’s is an interesting corner of Czech music history. Born in 1915, she lived for just 25 years, dying in Montpellier from an
illness wrongly diagnosed as miliary TB. She studied in Paris with Charles Munch and her compatriot, the composer Martinu, and was becoming an
important and prolific figure. Rafael Kubelik and others championed her. The Suita Rustica quotes from Moravian, Slovak, Silesian and Czech folk
songs and echoes with the assertive and uncompromising example of Stravinsky. It’s the sort of music, often dense and dissonant, that’s grist to
the Hallé’s mill. The opening summons heavy inputs of brass and percussion, presaging the dramatic tensions throughout the three-movement piece
and its moments of relief. There is much going on within the orchestra, and Bloxham was assiduous in uncovering the bright detail.
Echoes in the lento-vivo-lento second movement owe more to Smetana and Dvorak than to Stravinsky but the Russian is never far away,
certainly not in the final movement, in which there are influences of Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps. The build-up to the sudden end
was nicely judged by Bloxham.
Froma review by Nigel Jarrett for Wales Arts Review, 12 May 2022.
THE Hallé, St. David's Hall, Cardiff
First, the orchestra, under the baton of Jonathan Bloxham, performed a splendid work called Suita Rustica,
by Czech composer and conductor Vitezslava Kapralova, who died aged just 25 in 1940 from suspected typhoid fever.
Jonathan Bloxham marshalled in players with great enthusiasm and ebullience.
From a review by Peter Collins for Nation/Cymru, 14 May 2022.
THE Hallé was on scintillating form for this Sunday afternoon concert of music, mainly by Czech composers.
Tragically shortlived Brno born composer, Vítezslava Kaprálová, (1915-40) opened the programme. Her orchestral Suite Rustica embraces folk melodies
from Moravia and Slovakia and has dissonant echoes of Stravinsky. It was played with tremendous elan by the Hallé under Bloxham’s baton.
From a review by Geoffrey Mogridge for Ilkley Gazette, 10 May 2022.
Karla Hartl (ed.) Vitezslava Kapralova: Tematicky katalog skladeb a korespondence s nakladateli / Karla Hartl (ed.) Kauza Kapralova v dobove korespondenci a dokumentech.
Both publications present a major and much needed contribution to Kapralova scholarship. The thematic catalogue, with its complexity and remarkable detail, is an invaluable resource for music researchers, students, and performers, while the edited
letters have a potential to attract a much wider readership and hopefully excite even more interest in Kapralova's legacy and musical work.
From a review by Barbora Vackova for Hudebni veda 59, no. 1 (2022): 131–35.
Pohadka: Tales from Prague to Budapest. Chandos CHAN20227. 75 min.
Van der Heijden and Coleman are spirited and illuminating tour-guides on this musical journey
'from Prague To Budapest', bringing just the right blend of muscularity and lyricism to the sonatas
by Kodaly and Janacek, with plenty of grit in the sound and metaphorical dirt under the fingernails
in the former's finale. Of the shorter works, Vitezslava Kapralova's song Navzdy
(published after her death at just 25, and adapted here by Van der Heijden) stands out for its
Catherine Cooper for Presto Music. Presto Editor's Choice, February 2022.
Melodram der Komponistin. Er und sie - Komponistinnen im Schatten - Ehrbar! Ensemble. Clavier.
Zu hören sind kammermusikalisches Lied und Instrumentales der berühmten Männern Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Massenet, Faure und Poulenc,
durchsetzt mit den gängigen Komponistinnen Fanny Hensel, Clara Schumann (geb. Wieck), Lili Boulanger und Cecile Chaminade. Dazu Rares von Delphine von Schauroth und –
eine echte Entdeckung - Melodramen der Engländerin Amy Elise Horrocks und der Tschechin Vitezslava Kapralova.
... Diese Mischung aus Entdeckerlust, musikalischem Verstehen und Begeisterung überzeugt.
From a review by Christiane Franke for Klassik.com, February 7, 2022.
Vitezslava Kapralova: vibrant rhythms, Slavic melancholy
Waving Farewell is the name of the CD dedicated to Vitezslava Kapralova, that was released in 2021 on the budget label Naxos. She would have celebrated her 107th birthday on 24 January 2022. … Although she only lived to be twenty-five, at her premature death she left behind an impressive oeuvre of some fifty compositions, varying from orchestral works to intimate chamber music. She elaborated on the style of her compatriots Janacek and Martinu, and was also inspired by the neoclassicism of composers such as Milhaud and Honegger, whom she met in Paris. Her music is full of capricious melodic lines and harrowing harmonies in which a glowing, Slavic passion rages. …. Had Kapralova been granted time to live, she would undoubtedly have become one of the most valued composers of the 20th century.
From a review by Thea Derks for Contemporary Classical, January 24, 2022
A stirring introduction to a nearly forgotten composer. 5 out of 5 stars.
Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, Julius Reubke, Guillaume Lekeu, Lili Boulanger…. Add Vítezslava Kaprálová to the list of promising composers who didn’t get past the age of 25. Born in 1915 in Brno, she was fortunate enough to be nourished by the musical aristocracy of her day. Her father (and first teacher) Václav Kaprál had been a student of Vítezslav Novák (himself a student of Dvorák), and young Kaprálová in turn went on to study composition with Novák, too, as well as with Bohuslav Martinu (who may or may not have become her lover) and perhaps Nadia Boulanger (sources differ). Chalabala, Talich, and Munch guided her studies as a conductor; and she was befriended by Rudolf Firkušný and championed by Rafael Kubelík.
A quick learner in a rich and supportive environment, she was certainly making a splash in the 1930s—virtually every biographical note reminds us that she conducted the BBC orchestra in her own Military Sinfonietta to lead off the 1938 ISCM festival in London (a concert that also included, among other things, the world premiere of Webern’s Augenlicht, conducted by Scherchen, and one of the first performances of Markevitch’s Nouvel âge). Her life was cut short in 1940, when she fell ill (perhaps tuberculous, perhaps typhoid fever) as she was trying to make an escape to America in the wake of the German occupation of Paris. But given the brevity of her life, her output was surprisingly large. This disc, titled Waving Farewell, offers a large chunk of her orchestral output.
What does it sound like? Many of its influences and kinships are what you might expect from a curious, adventurous pre-War Czech who spent time in France and who was loosening the constraints of 19th-century tonality without venturing into the avant-garde. You’ll hear traces Martinu (who exchanged ideas with her until the end) and Janácek, of course, but also of Debussy (there’s a touch of Pelléas-like brooding in Waving Farewell) and Les Six. There are also signs of the broader musical community of the day: some Szymanowski (in both of the heartfelt orchestral songs), early Schoenberg (the somber and texturally imaginative Prelude of the Suite harks back to Verklärte Nacht), and even perhaps the Grainger of The Warriors (in the Military Sinfonietta).
Yet while that list of composers gives a sense of the orbit she’s spinning in, it doesn’t really give a good sense of her confidence and independence. This CD includes music from 1935 (the Suite and the Concerto) to 1939 (Prélude de Noël), and while she’s assertive from beginning to end, you can hear a definite growth in authority and coherence, even in this short period. The four-movement Suite, a 1935 recasting of a five-movement piano work written when Kaprálová was 16, seems like four unconnected pieces, each calling for a different orchestral makeup, each intriguing on its own (especially that Prelude, for strings), but not casting much light on each other. And while it’s even more attractive and imposing, the 1935 Piano Concerto, for all its fluency and all the skill of its writing, does not quite hold together. There’s certainly plenty of guilty pleasure to be had in its pseudo-Rachmaninoff opening (looking ahead to such grandiose Hollywood concertos as Adinsell’s Warsaw Concerto and Rózsa’s Spellbound Concerto); but that high Romanticism fits uneasily with the Poulencian wit of the finale.
The Military Sinfonietta of 1936–37, while similarly wide-ranging in its combination of snarky swagger and sweet reminiscence, eerie threat and bold punch, has far more integrity, as do the two gorgeous songs. (Barry Brenesal’s exceptionally informative review of Kaprálová’s mature songs, which included the earlier voice-and-piano version of Waving Farewell, aptly referred to the work’s “astonishing mixture of intimacy, vulnerability, and strength”; Fanfare 28:3.) As for the lightweight Prélude de Noël: composed in a few hours in 1939 as a Christmas greeting to be broadcast from (so-far) free France to occupied Czechoslovakia, it shows not only her ability to work under pressure, but also her ability to shed light in dark times. Its cheer must have cost her a lot, given the circumstances.
All in all, this is a poignant memento of lost talent—but one well worth hearing for what we have as well as for what never came to be. These recordings have their roots in a Kaprálová Festival at the University of Michigan in September 2015, but the recording dates suggest that most, if not all, of the performances were recorded later in the academic year. And while the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra would never be mistaken for a major orchestra (ensemble can be rough, colors can be dulled), the enthusiasm is palpable. Nicholas Phan, who has gotten mixed reviews in these pages, sings with an infectious ardor, and Amy I-Lin Cheng knocks off the Piano Concerto with aplomb. Through it all, conductor Kenneth Kiesler shows commitment to the cause. Notes are very detailed (get your magnifying glass out); and texts and translations (by Timothy Cheek, who also reconstructed the ending of Sad Evening) are included. Even with erratic engineering (if you raise the volume so that the mysterious opening of the Suite is even barely audible, you’ll regret it later on), this is a top priority.
A review by Peter J Rabinowitz, Fanfare Jan/Feb 2022.
Pohadka - Tales from Prague to Budapest. Kodaly, Dvorak, Mihaly, Kapralova. Laura van der Heijden, vcl; Jams Coleman, pno. Chandos (2022) CHAN 20227.
The surprise winner on this album is a three-minute piece by Vitezslava Kapralova, phenomenally gifted girlfriend of Bohuslav Martinu who died in France in 1940, tragically young at 25.
Where the Hungarians have a midfield of Dohnanyi, Bartók and Kodály, the Czechs always have talent to spare on the bench.
From a review by Norman Lebrecht for Ludwig van Toronto, January 7, 2022.