Mission to London
A performance of Kaprálová’s “Military Sinfonietta” in 1938
I wasn’t going to write about classical music on Substack, but in Honour of International Woman’s Day I’m reposting this essay which initially appeared as a guest post on Simon Sweetman’s Off The Tracks here. I’ll be writing about some of my other, electrical, musical heroines soon enough.
“Music in itself is privileged to be a kind of spiritual Esperanto, the purest diplomatic language” – Vítězslava Kaprálová
“A people of whom we know nothing” was Neville’s Chamberlain’s verdict on Czechoslovakia at the time of the Munich agreement, which saw Britain and France trade away, for a brief prolongation of peace, the Czech border with Germany and Austria, and the possibility of an Anglo-French treaty with the USSR to guarantee it. Chamberlain’s view was shared by the English intelligentsia, still hypnotized by the death-throes of the Spanish republic. In the words of eye-witness historian Elizabeth Wiskemann, “if it had been known the Czechs were Bohemians it might have been different”. Czechoslovakia, a successor state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under the Versailles treaty, was a newly-minted composite country, and further, one with a seemingly impossible language which no-one in English public life spoke. Inter-war Czech cultural achievements were largely unknown, as was Czechoslovakia’s liberal political life – alone among the Versailles successor states, it had not become a dictatorship, and remained a democracy despite the inflammatory influence of Nazi propaganda and intrigue among its irredentist “Sudeten” German minority.
One young Czech would make a brief dent in this wall of indifference. Vítězslava Kaprálová was the daughter of composer Václav Kaprál, who had studied under Leoš Janáček, and the singer Viktorie Kaprálová. She had studied both composition and conducting at the Brno Conservatory, becoming the first student to major in both simultaneously. After her graduation she had gone to Paris to study under Bohuslav Martinů, becoming both his lover and musical soulmate, and in 1938 Kaprálová was selected by an international jury to conduct a performance of her Military Sinfonietta at the International Society for Contemporary Music festival being held in London, where it would be heard alongside the latest works by Webern, Bartók, Copland, Hindemith, Britten and others (including the first Australian composer to be represented in an ISCM festival, Peggy Glanville-Hicks). Considered purely as propaganda (a subject Kaprálová would later write about) the Military Sinfonietta, begun in 1936 and already a success with Czech audiences, was an ideal choice, establishing as its themes the Czechoslovak preparedness for war (Nazi Germany’s possession of the Czech tank arsenal would later become an important factor in the conquest of France), love of peace, and the threats to that peace – the exact factors to put before a potential ally. It is, for all its modernity, an accessible and memorable composition; its militarism is energetic and modern, and free from jingoistic overtones. Even so, the title was problematic in the 1938 diplomatic context, causing Kaprálová to downplay the military aspects in her festival program notes. “My Symphonietta is not an appeal for war, but an appeal for a conscious defensive attitude”.
To conduct the work in London, Kaprálová, who spoke no English and very little French, needed two translators, one to translate her words into English and another to convert this back into musical instructions for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Kaprálová singing their parts to the musicians when necessary. Even so, her performance, which opened the festival on the 17th June, was a complete success. The English press praised the slightly-built 23-year-old as their “little girl conductor”, while the great British symphonist Havergal Brian, reviewing the festival for Musical Opinion, singled out the Military Sinfonietta for praise – “The first work played and broadcast at the recent festival, a Military Sinfonietta, by Miss Vítĕzslava Kaprálová of Czechoslovakia proved an amazing piece of orchestral writing: it was also of logical and well balanced design.”**
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An opening to the festival, featuring Kaprálová with festival organiser Hubert Foss of Oxford University Press and fellow conductor Hermann Scherchen had been recorded at Crystal Palace* the day before for an early television transmission – in a letter home Kapralova mentioned seeing herself on screen (and referred to Scherchen, who had a reputation for treating composers and musicians badly, as “that dreadful man…”) – and the opening concert of the festival was sent by shortwave radio to Europe and the United States and rebroadcast in America by the CBS radio network. Time Magazine wrote “In its 16 years of existence, the society has now and then turned up a really golden egg. At the festival’s opening concert last week, seven strictly fresh compositions were chipped open, sniffed at. Four attracted considerable critical attention: …4) a Military Symphonietta in one movement by 22-year-old Vítĕzslava Kapralová, a good-looking Czechoslovakian girl. To Composer Kaprálová, who conducted her own lusty, sprawling composition, went the afternoon’s biggest hand.”
It was all, of course, too late. Kaprálová stood on the threshold of international fame, but her fate was tied to that of her homeland. Immediately after the Munich agreement of September 1938 Germany began an undeclared war against Czech border posts before invading what remained of Czechoslovakia on the 15th March 1939. Kaprálová left her homeland for the last time in January 1939, continuing her studies in Paris while surviving on occasional commissions and a contribution from Czechoslovakia’s President Eduard Beneš, now in exile, to whom she had originally dedicated the Military Sinfonietta. During this period her works were recorded and broadcast to Czechoslovakia, and in 1939 Kaprálová met Jiří Mucha, the son of Czech art–nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, whom she married in April 1940, no longer able to see a future with the older, married Martinů despite their continued attachment. Falling seriously ill soon afterwards, Kaprálová was evacuated from Paris as the Germans approached, dying in Montpelier in the South of France on June 16th 1940 with her husband by her bedside. Her death certificate listed the cause of death as miliary tuberculosis.
Despite her successes, and a degree of regard in which she was still held in post-war Czechoslovakia (though classified as a “decadent” composer by the communist regime - when I ordered a 1954 Czechoslovakian album of piano scores which the Auckland library had bought in 1958, the “Prelude” from Three Piano Pieces Op 9 was one of the 3 works that had been neatly sliced out by the censor), Kaprálová, like many woman composers, was forgotten by history, except as a tragic or salacious footnote in Martinů’s story. Her appearance as “Slava” in Ken Russell’s 1992 fantasy for television The Mystery of Dr Martinu is typical – her ghost is always naked, and her music is not heard. Toronto-based Karla Hartl, who as a Martinů scholar became curious about Kaprálová’s music and rediscovered her story in 1997, founded the Kapralova Society which has advocated effectively for the performance and recording of her work in recent years (www.kapralova.org). A new Naxos recording by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Kiesler, the first commercial recording of Kaprálová’s orchestral works outside the Czech republic, presents the Military Sinfonietta alongside her romantic, cinematic Piano Concerto, a brilliant short Prelude de Noël which was her last completed orchestral work and was, under her baton, broadcast to occupied Czechoslovakia from Paris on Christmas Eve 1939, the elegant early work Suite en Miniature, and two songs; the orchestral version of her song Waving Farewell (Sbohem a Šáteček), and a song discovered among her papers in 2006 by Karla Hartl, Cold Evening (Smutný Večer). All of these – like her other songs, piano compositions, and chamber works – are engaging and original works by a technically accomplished and highly distinctive composer, the lost genius of mid-20th century music.
Kaprálová’s story, and Czechoslovakia’s story, have a renewed relevance today with the tragic events that have unfolded in Ukraine. The video I made for the new recording of Kaprálová’s Military Sinfonietta uses found footage of the Czechoslovak preparations for war in 1936-38 which it was written to honour.
* Kaprálová, in her letters home, describes being driven, with Martinů who had accompanied her on the trip to England, by Hubert Foss to Crystal Palace for the filming; however all but one of the Baird TV studios had burned down in the Crystal Palace fire of 1936, and the Baird logs have no record of her visit. At this time Crystal Palace and the BBC studios at Alexandra Palace were often confused, even by Londoners.
** Kaprálová was the only composer mentioned by name in Havergal Brian’s short review of the festival. I have, in the name of research and in search of fresh delights, listened through the rest of that first day’s program (which did not impress Kaprálová and Martinů) without hearing any other piece that has survived the passage of time. Brain’s compositional language was the most simpatico with Kaprálová’s (minus the Czech and Slovak influences) of any composers’ I know, and in his Concerto for Orchestra in E Flat (1964) he would use orchestral colouring and thematic material so reminiscent of the Military Sinfonietta as to suggest he was remembering it.
Algorithmic hint: D'un soir triste by Lili Boulanger (1918)