Czechs in History – Vítězslava Kaprálová

Burning Brightly, Burning Briefly 

Grave of Vítězslava Kaprálová in Brno’s central cemetery.

Every nation and every culture has given birth to prodigies with seemingly natural talents for one professional endeavour or another. As far as Czechs are concerned, Vítěslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) most certainly stands out as a musical prodigy. She composed her first piece for piano at age nine and made her debut as a professional conductor at 20.

Between that professional debut and her death five years later, Vítězslava Kaprálová conducted orchestras both at home and abroad and distinguished herself as one of the most important Czech female musical figures of the 20th century through her compositional as well as conducting skills.

Vítězslava Kaprálová is, as are many of her contemporaries of the interwar period, considered part of the Neoclassicism movement of music inspired by the likes of Igor Stravinsky.

Though her life was cut tragically short, she was very productive in the time she was given and her legacy is kept alive today in spite of her name nearly disappearing from history in the latter part of the 20th century.

Let’s spend some time with Vítězslava Kaprálová:

Born in the Right Place at the Right Time

While Vítězslava’s status as a prodigy is undeniable, even the most talented of prodigies need to be in the presence of those who can see the talent within them and take an interest in developing it. Vítězslava was born in Brno and had the good fortune to have musical parents; her father was composer Vacláv Kaprál (1889-1947) while her mother, Viktorie (1890-1973) was a singer and qualified voice teacher.

The Kapráls were well established on the musical landscape of the still newly emergent Czechoslovakia and had connections with many more musical luminaries at home and abroad. Young Vítězslava most certainly did not lack for qualified individuals to inspire her and help sharpen her own natural talents.

While her parents encouraged and supported her interest in music, they discouraged her from persuing it professionally as they hoped she might take over the running of their music school one day. Despite her parents’ hopes, Vítězslava decided very early on that music at the professional level was her calling.

It can’t be stressed enough the importance of her geographic location and how it connects to her success. The “First Republic” period of Czech history marked the emergence of an independent Czechoslovak nation unfettered by outside rule and eagerly reaching out to connect with the rest of the world. As it was also a country with a burgeoning arts scene, many from outside were also reaching out to it.

The Education of a Master

By 1930, at the young age of 15, Vítězslava was enrolled at the Brno Conservatory and studying a double major in composition and conducting. The five years she spent there were marked by high compositional productivity and a very well recieved graduation concert. In 1935 she became the first female graduate of the Brno Conservatory’s program.

in late 1935, she was accepted into the highly competitive Master School of the Prague Conservatory to continue her double major studies and studied under the best instructors her homeland had to offer. She studied composition under Vítěslav Novák (1870-1949), himself a pupil of the legendary Antonín Dvořák, and conducting under Václav Talich (1883-1961) who was a chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and the National Theatre at the time. Some of her best known music was composed during her time studying in Prague.

It was her graduation piece, Military Sinfonietta, which was played by the Czech Philharmonic with her as conductor in 1937 that brought Vítězslava to the attention of wider audiences both at home and abroad. The following year, she premiered the piece in Great Britain at the annual International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival in London. She conducted the BBC Orchestra in playing it and was generally well received by both the festival jury and audiences. The London performance also garnered her attention in America as it had been transmitted across the Atlantic and broadcast there.

Following her studies in Prague, Vítězslava spent two separate periods studying and working in Paris between Autumn of 1937 and Spring of 1940. During her time in Paris, she studied conducting under Charles Munch and had intended to study composition with Nadia Boulanger. While she was able to communicate with Munch in German, Vítězslava’s command of French was inadequate for her to work with Boulanger. As such, she put the bulk of her efforts towards conducting.

Composed of Charisma 

Another angle on Vítězslava’s grave in Brno’s central cemetery.

Vítězslava Kaprálová was as gifted in her social skills as she was in music and many were charmed by her personal charisma and energy.

One person particularly taken with Vítězslava was fellow Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinů. Well established in both Czech and French musical circles, Martinů was instrumental in facilitating Vítězslava’s relocation to Paris, her continuing education there and indroducing her to his many contacts in the Parisian contemporary music community.

Initially, the relationship between Martinů and Vítězslava was that of mentor and student with Martinů tutoring her in composition. Their relationship quickly moved from professional to personal and they became lovers in spite of Martinů’s existing marriage.

Martinů was absolutely obsessed with Vítězslava and was very generous to her with both his time and resources. He expressed to her an intent to divorce his wife, Charlotte, and take Vítězslava with him to America. While he and Vítězslava laid some plans for their transatlantic relocation, the signing of the Munich Agreement and the subsequent occupation of Czechoslovakia by German troops destroyed any chance of their plan’s success.

The War Comes, the Curtain Falls

Shortly after the German army marched on Czechoslovakia, president Edvard Beneš established Czech governments in exile in both France and Great Britain. Free Czech troops were assembled and formed into regiments of the French army; failing to gain acceptance into military service, Martinů showed his support for the Czech military volunteers by composing a musical piece in their honour in 1939. This act made Martinů a marked man to the Nazis and force him to flee Paris and eventually Europe entirely. He fled with his wife and left Vítězslava largely to fend for herself in Paris.

Still stunned and reeling from seeing German troops occupy her homeland in late 1939, Vítězslava found herself in the French capital completely reliant on the generosity of friends and other benefactors, including Edvard Beneš.

With consistant employment difficult for her to find and Bohuslav Martinů effectively gone from her life, Vítězslava had no choice but to move in with a group of friends to pool resources. One of those friends, and Vítězslava’s future husband, was Jiří Mucha; the son of famed Art Nouveau painter, Alfons Mucha.

Jiří and Vítězslava were married in April of 1940 and shortly after she started showing signs of serious illness. With German forces advancing towards Paris, Jiří took Vítězslava to Montpellier in the south of the country. However, her condition rapidly deteriorated and she died in June.

The cause of her death has always been a matter of conjecture and debate. Officially, the cause of her death was recorded as tuberculosis. However, many have stated that typhoid was a more likely cause.

Though Vítězslava was buried in France in 1940, her remains were repatriated to her homeland and reintered in the central cemetery of her birthplace, Brno, in 1946.

Vítězslava’s Legacy and Learning More

Though her life was cut tragically short, Vítězslava Kaprálová left the world with no fewer than fifty finished pieces of work for both instrumental and vocal arrangements.

Her contributions to Czech music were recognised in 1946, when she was posthumously awarded membership in the Czech Academy of Science and the Arts, the most prestigious academic institution in the country. She became one of only ten women in the institution’s membership at the time and the only female musician.

For many years after her death, interest in Vítězslava’s music diminished. It would not be until the 1990s when interest in her work was renewed. Much thanks for this must go to the establishment of the Canadian based Kaprálová Society, an organisation dedicated not only to the preservation of Vítězslava’s life and work, but also to the furthering of women in music.

In 2015, she was commemorated on a postage stamp issued by Czech Post.

To learn more about Vítězslava Kaprálová, her life and work; the web site of the Kaprálová Society is a tremendous resource that contains not only a detailed biography of her, but also a list of her work and bibliography of printed works about her.

Visiting the Neighbors – Krakow, Poland

The Cultural Heart of Poland 

Cloth Hall, a Renaissance era market which sits on the main square of Krakow’s preserved Old Town.

Located in the south of Poland on the Vistula river, Krakow is the country’s second largest city and of great importance to the country in both historical and modern contexts.

While Krakow was established as a city in the 7th century, there has been human habitation on the ground it stands on since the Stone Age.

In Poland’s imperial past, the city served as the seat of royalty and the capital of the country. It held the role of capital until the royal court was moved to Warsaw in 1596.

Krakow’s history is steeped in academia and the arts, despite many forceful attempts by foreign regimes to change it, the city has remained faithful to those cultural roots into the present day and is home to several higher education institutions, theatres, galleries and museums. The city is recognised internationally as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it’s Old Town district holds the distinction of being one of the original UNESCO world heritage sites, inscribed onto the inaugural list in 1978 along with the nearby Wieliczka salt mine.

Perhaps Krakow’s greatest claim to fame, and what makes it one of Poland’s most visited places, is the level of preservation in the city. It was left relatively unscathed by the bombs that levelled so many other European cities in the Second World War and, as such, can claim a large percentage of original architecture to still be standing while other cities needed to be rebuilt almost entirely.

In late December of 2016, we took a few days in Krakow and enjoyed it very much. Here’s but a small sampling of what one can do and see in a short period in and around the city:

The Old Town 

The morning light hits the Barbican and the Florian gate, remnants of the city’s medieval defenses.

The logical place to start talking about Krakow is with it’s primary attraction, the preserved Old Town district. Our hotel was an easy ten minute walk from the area.

Entering the area from the north, the first structures you’ll see are the Barbican defensive rampart and Florian gate that date to the 15th century. Florian gate forms part of a preserved section of the old city walls. The Barbican is a heavily fortified building with seven watchtowers and 130 openings through which the city protectors could do battle with potential invaders. The Barbican is the largest structure of it’s sort in Poland and the best preserved of it’s kind in Europe.

Further in, Old Town is filled with numerous buildings representing a wide variety of architechural styles. Architectural highlights of the district include the Slowacki theatre, Main Market Square and buildings connected to Jagiellonian University.

St. Mary’s basilica as seen from the top of the Town Hall Tower.

With an area of 400 square metres, the Main Market Square is the largest medieval square in Europe. It dates to the 1250s and contains four architectural highlights: the Renaissance style Cloth Hall, the Gothic St. Mary’s basilica, the 70 metre high Town Hall Tower and the Romanesque Church of St. Adalbert.

The Town Hall Tower is the last remnant of the city’s old town hall. The rest of the town hall was demolished in the early 19th century due to damage.

It is possible to go to the top of the tower, but it bears mentioning that it is certainly not an attraction for claustrophobic people or those with poor physical health or mobility issues of any sort. While there are one or two places to rest on the way up, the individual steps are unusually high and narrow and the staircase takes some unexpected turns along the way. Additionally, the staircase is only about one person wide and poorly illuminated. The views are rewarding if you choose to make the climb up, but it is definitely for the more intrepid and fit visitor.

The Neo-Gothic main building of Jagiellonian University.

Along the western edge of Old Town, you can find buildings connected to Jagiellonian University. This institution, established in 1364, is one of the world’s oldest still functioning universities. It counts Nicolaus Copernicus and Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II, among notable alumni.

At the southern tip of Old Town is the imposing Wawel castle complex. The castle and adjoining buildings represent a mix of architectural styles that include elements of Baroque, Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque among others.

The castle is a very popular spot to visit and offers a range of tours. However, it should be noted that the number of tickets available per day for some of the tours are quite limited in order to protect the exhibits. It is best to visit the castle website to select a tour and reserve tickets on line if possible.

Going off Centre 

The Old Synagogue in the Kazimierz district, Krakow’s old Jewish Quarter.

A short distance to the south of Old Town is the Kazimierz district. This area has a notably different feel to Old Town. This is largely due to the fact that it has been the home of the city’s Jewish quarter since the 13th century.

The area fell into decline and disrepair under Socialist rule after the Second World War, but a change of fortune after the fall of that regime marked the start of a renewed interest in the area and a great deal of restoration work has been done since then. As a result, the district is popular with tourists.

A structure of particular note in the area is the Old Synagogue. The building dates to the 1400s and is the oldest synagogue in Poland. It is also a very rare example of a fortified synagogue; it was not only built for worship, but also built strongly enough to act as a community shelter against siege.

A guide at the Stained Glass Museum describes how finer details are applied to glass.

A short walk to the west of Old Town took us to the Stained Glass Museum and a very informative tour, from start to finish, of what goes into creating a work of art in this medium.

As well as a museum, this facility is also an active producer of stained glass windows and has been since 1902. They have done work for clients around the world and many of the stained glass windows you see in Krakow are their work.

If you were ever left wondering how some of the stained glass windows you’ve seen were created, this museum should definitely go on your itinerary if you visit Krakow. English language tours run Tuesday to Saturday on the hour and there is a small cafe on the premises.

Further Afield 

The Wieliczka salt mine, an easily reachable attraction from Krakow.

If you wanted to venture outside of Krakow, there are attractions for you within reach of the city. Most notable among those attractions are the Wieliczka salt mines and the preserved Auschwitz concentration camp complex. While you can join organized group tours from Krakow to both places, neither is particularly difficult to reach from the city on your own if you prefer to save some money.

If you like to theme your holidays around UNESCO world heritage sites, Krakow and vicinity will reward you. Beyond Old Town, both the salt mines and Auschwitz are UNESCO listed. For the more devout visitor, the Calvary sanctuary and pilgrimage in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska to the south of the city is also UNESCO territory.

Paying a Visit and Learning More  

The view across the main courtyard of Wawel castle.

Being a city of both national and international importance, Krakow is well connected and accessible by air, rail and road.

As a university town and cultural centre, linguistic flexibility in the city is not difficult to find. English is widely spoken and the city is prepared for and welcoming to visitors.

To see a wider range of what Krakow and it’s surroundings offer to visitors, any of the three following links will give you a good start to planning your own trip there: