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.

Made in the Czech Republic – Velorex

Who Needs Four Wheels Anyway?

The head turning, if ungainly, lines of the Velorex on display.

Three wheel automobiles are nothing new or unique; the world’s first practical motor vehicle, designed by Karl Benz in the 1880s, was a three wheeler.

Since the very beginnings of automotive production, many companies from around the world have been developing three wheel vehicles alongside four wheel ones. Some companies have even specialised in three wheeler types.

The Czech contribution to three wheel motoring was the diminutive and simple Velorex. Even among other three wheel designs, the Velorex is a distinctive shape: A durable plasticised textile cover stretched over a tube steel frame puttering along the road at modest speed under the power of a small motorcycle engine, the Velorex seems more a tent on wheels than any sort of credible automobile.

Such deceptive appearances belie a machine that was ingenious in simplicity and wildly successful in the early post WWII economies and in several European nations that came under Socialist governments soon after.

In a production run that lasted from 1945 to 1971, over 15,000 Velorex three wheelers were built with nearly a full half of the production being exported to other Socialist European countries.

That said, let’s spend some time with this little Czech three wheeler that has gone from being a car to a cult:

The Right Machine at the Right Time 

Another angle on the Velorex.

The work of the Stránský brothers, František (1914-1954) and Mojmír (1924-2011), design of the three wheeler that would eventually be called the Velorex started in 1936 in their bicycle repair shop in the vicinity of Česká Třebová, a small city in the north of the country.

The timing of their design could not have been better. The world was still in the throes of the Great Depression and a few short years away from the outbreak of the Second World War. As with so many nations, the industial base of Czechoslovakia would have trouble meeting public demand for many items, including automobiles in the immediate post war economy.

As with the bulk of three wheel vehicles, economics inspired the Stránský’s machine. They took primary inspiration from the designs of the Morgan Motor Company of Great Britain. Morgan had made a name for themselves in three wheel vehicle design from their foundation in 1910 through to the end of the 1930s and certainly were a good example for the Stránskýs to follow.

Following the Morgan example, the Stránský brothers designed their machine with two wheels at the front and a single one at the rear. However, unlike Morgan designs, the Stránskýs placed the engine in the rear of the vehicle. The brothers called their creation the Oskar. The Oskar prototype was built in 1943 and differed from production versions by having sheet metal covering as opposed to textile.

The distinctive tube steel frame of the Velorex visible with a section of the covering pulled back.

The Stránský’s goal was to create a machine that could fill a gap that existed between motorcycles and standard four wheel cars; a vehicle that was large enough to carry two adults at reasonable speeds while being light and small enough that it could be powered by motorcycle engines.

The brothers built an intitial batch of 12 Oskar cars in 1945 that were equiped with a variety of motorcycle engines and could be built for approximately a quarter the price of a four wheel car.

In 1950, the Stránský’s workshop was placed under the control of another small company called Velo and their manufacturing facilities were moved further north to the town of Solnice in 1951.

Produced under the name Oskar until 1956, the vehicle enjoyed a year on year increase of production from the 1951 total of 120. By 1954, the average production was 40 vehicles per month.

1954 marked a significant change as the Stránskýs were cut off from any further involvement in their creation. That year, František died in an accident while test driving a prototype for a new version of the car while Mojmír was removed from the company for refusing membership in the Communist Party which was ruling Czechoslovakia at the time.

By 1956, the vehicle’s name had been changed from Oskar to Velorex and late 1950s production was totalling around 120 per month. in the early 1960s, a second production line was opened in nearby Rychnov nad Kněžnou.

Minimalist Motoring 

The power to move. A two cylinder motorcycle engine was used to power the final version of the Velorex.

The Velorex is believed by many to be the simplest motor vehicle ever made that was still practical. Certainly the simplicity and the economy that came with it was a huge selling point in favour of it.

The simplicity of it meant that it could be produced quickly enough that buyers did not need to wait as long to have their Velorex as they would to have a standard four wheel car. The simplicity also meant that there was very little that could go wrong with a Velorex that the owner could not fix themselves with basic tools.

From a practicality standpoint, the Velorex could attain speeds that were quite adequate for driving in towns and were very useful for everyday errands and as runabouts for companies to use in business. Additionally, due to the power output of the engines used in them, the Velorex could be operated legally on a motorcycle license.

The simplicity of the Velorex is exemplified by the driver controls.

While these three wheelers were widely exported and popular in the Eastern Bloc countries, their availability in Czechoslovakia was subject to some limitations. Primarily, they were directed at people with disabilities who might have trouble operating a standard car. The government of the day offered generous purchasing subsidies to anyone who passed an examination to prove their disability and qualify them to obtain a Velorex.

Collectively, three wheelers built under the Oskar and Velorex names covered a range of four main models.

All versions were powered by engines made by either the ČZ or Jawa motocycle companies and used forced air to cool the engines. The driver started the engine via a hand lever near the steering wheel; this lever was a modification of the kick start mechanism typical to motorcycles.

The ulimate version, the Velorex 16/350, was equiped with a two cylinder engine that allowed it to cruise at a respectable 60 km/h and could push it to a maximum speed of around 85 km/h.

Life After Three Wheels 

Sidecars became the prime business of Velorex from the mid 1970s.

After three wheeler production ceased in 1971, Velorex made a failed attempt to enter the four wheel automobile market. By the time they made the attempt, the market was well saturated and they simply could not compete with the likes of Škoda and Trabant who were dominating that sector.

From the mid 1970s, the Velorex name became prominent on a long series of motorcycle sidecars. The earliest Velorex sidecars were built with Jawa motorcycles in mind as their companion pieces though it would not be long before they were adapted for use with a variety of motorcycle makes.

Velorex did very well in the sidecar business and developed a worldwide reputation for products that were affordable and of good quality.

Velorex Today and Learning More

While the historical Velorex company did not survive the fall of Socialism, their legacy is kept alive today by the Velorexport company and the Velorex name is still a fixture on motorcycle sidecars today as a result.

In spite of all practical reasons for owning a Velorex three wheeler being long in the past, a very strong fan base has kept the vehicle type alive over the years. Many have been restored, dedicated clubs have been set up for them around the world, Velorex rallies and meets are organised and a huge spare parts market exists to support them.

If you come to the Czech lands, several museums have three wheelers in their collections to view and restored running examples are not particularly rare to see.

Given the worldwide popularity the type has developed, there might just be one near you.

The following links will take you to sites with further information on the Velorex three wheeler:

Villa Tugendhat – Mastery of Modernism

Brno’s Modernist Crown Jewel 

The villa, as seen from the gardens.

One does not need to be in Brno for very long or to have a particularly deep interest in architecture in order to take note of the city’s varied array of building styles. Everything from medieval Gothic to examples of contemporary Deconstructivism and Eco-architectural styles can be found within the city limits.

Particularly notable in Brno’s architectural landscape are the numerous examples of early 20th century Modernism that have survived to the present. From family homes to offices and the city’s sprawling exhibition centre, Modernist structures dot the city. Such prominence of that specific movement is quite fitting as Brno played a major role in the development of it; many practitioners of Modernist design spent some time working in Brno in the early 20th century.

The best known Modernist structure in Brno is the UNESCO listed Villa Tugendhat in the city’s Černá Pole district. Designed by the legendary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), it is considered to be an outstanding example of the priciples of Modernist style at the international level.

The Minds Behind the Monument 

The villa’s living room, featuring the famous onyx wall and furniture designed specifically for the building.

While the villa’s commission and start of construction took place in 1928, the seed for it was planted in the early 1920s.

Greta Tugendhat (1903-1970) was still married to her first husband in the early 1920s and spend much of that time living in Germany. It was during her time in Germany that she became particularly taken with the works of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Modernist style in general. It was Greta’s wish to have a modern, uncluttered house to call her home.

After her first marriage fell apart, she married Fritz Tugendhat (1895-1958) and they settled in Brno. The Tugendhats were prominent members of Brno’s Jewish community and Greta’s family, who had been in Moravia since the 17th century, had built a fortune over generations in the textile and sugar industries. The land on which Villa Tugendhat stands was a gift to Greta from her father upon her marriage to Fritz.

With land to build on, Greta was able to make contact with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe through mutual acquaintences and invite him to Brno and commission him to design the modern home she had dreamed of.

Mies was impressed with the plot of land to build on as well as the quality of workmanship in Brno’s existing buildings and had no qualms in hiring a local construction company, Mořic and Artur Eisler, to carry out the construction.

With wide freedom of design given to him by Greta and her father financing the construction, Mies was set to create a structure that would at once embody Greta’s dream home and his own “Less is more” design philosophy to the fullest.

From Vision to Reality 

Another angle on the living room. This view shows the large main window partially lowered.

The basic philosophy of Modernism is that the aesthetic and appeal of a building should come from the structures and materials used in making it rather than any extra decoration. Additionally, spaces should flow into each other and work seamlessly with the human activity inside as well as the natural world outside.

Staying faithful to such ideals, Mies and his partners in the project exercised a great deal of care in both structural design and selection of materials when creating the villa, associated fixtures and furniture to ensure that everything worked together perfectly including how the villa was designed to work harmoniously with the slope of the land it was built upon. The construction of the villa lasted from 1928 to 1930.

Part of the villa’s uniqueness lies in the use of a structural steel framework, it was the first detached residential building in the world to be built as such. Sections of the steel framework are on full view throughout the villa and those sections which run through living areas are covered in chromed cladding.

Another notable aspect of the villa interior includes a translucent onyx wall which separates the livng room from the study and gives a warm glow to the rooms when the sun is low in the sky.

The living room, which overlooks the villa garden, includes a large window which can be completely lowered into the floor by electric motors to create an uninterupted flow of exterior and interior space and give a panoramic view towards the city centre.

Changing Fortunes and Decline 

Looking into the study.

The Tugendhats moved into the completed villa in December of 1930 and stayed there until the impending German occupation forced the family to leave the country for Switzerland in May of 1938. By early 1941, they had relocated to Caracas, Venezuela.

1938 also saw the villa’s architect leave Europe for America. He settled in Chicago, worked as a university professor, set up his own architecural firm and eventually achieved American citizenship over the years.

Under German occupation, the villa was used by the Gestapo as well as an aircraft engine manufacturer among others. It was in this period that much of the furniture was removed and extensive rebuilding of the interiors was carried out. During the period of German occupation, the onyx wall was bricked in and concealed, an action which most certainly led to it’s survival.

Spring of 1945 saw the arrival of the Soviet army to “liberate” the city. The villa suffered particularly under Soviet use. They used the living areas as stables for their horses and used much of the wood that remained in the structure for fuel.

For a period of five years, starting in August of 1945, the villa was used as a dancing school. The state took possession of the villa in October of 1950 and it was used by the city’s nearby children’s hospital as a rehabilitation facility until the late 1960s.

The late 1960s and the 1970s were a true low for the villa. Toward the end of the 1960s, local Brno architect, František Kalivoda, contacted Greta Tugendhat and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to discuss the possible restoration of the villa; both Greta and Mies were quite supportive of the idea. However, fortune would not be on their side.

1969 marked the begining of “Normalization” in the former Czechoslovakia; it was a very oppressive backlash by the Socialist government in the wake of the quashed Prague Spring demonstrations of 1968. Under this movement, any attempts at reconstruction of the villa were blockaded by the state.

Greta Tugendhat, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and František Kalivoda all died between 1969 and 1971. Their deaths marked the end of any sort of work on the villa for approximately a decade.

Reconstructions and Restoration 

The villa’s conservatory.

The ownership of the villa shifted from the state to the city of Brno in 1980.

Between 1981 and 1985, the villa received and extensive renovation and a basic restoration of functional equipment. While this did ensure that the building  was kept structurally sound and accumulated structural damage was repaired, no regard was given to historical accuracy. The city saw it as a place to host important guests and political functions; they made little allowance for the research required to return the villa to it’s former glory.

In 1994, the villa came under the jurisdiction of Brno’s city museum and remains so today. In 2001, the villa was inscribed on the UNESCO list as a World Heritage Site and research to restore it to historical accuracy began in earnest in the same time period.

While most of the research for restoration was carried out in the early 2000s, several delays pushed back the start of the work until 2010.

The villa reopened to the public in 2012, after two years of restorations, and is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

Visiting Villa Tugendhat and Learning More 

The view to the villa garden from the living room.

Villa Tugendhat is not difficult to access by Brno public transport and a small bit of walking.

As it is a very popular attraction and the number of visitors is limited, booking well ahead is required if you wish to see the interiors. Availability of tours, tour languages and admission prices can be found on the villa website. Tour reservations and ticket purchases can also be made at the website.

The following two websites will give you a good background of the villa’s history as well as what makes it architecturally unique.

This is the villa’s own website:

This is the villa’s entry at the website of the Brno Architectural Manual: