Kaprálová was born into Czechoslovakia's musical elite. Her father, Vaclav Kapral, was a composer, her mother a singer. They knew everyone in close-knit Czech musical circles. Kapral was a student of Janáček, and contributed an article on the elder composer's choral music in a magazine celebrating Janáček's achievements. Evidently young Kaprálová heard or read the scores of everything Janáček wrote, and no doubt was familar with a great deal more. She came into contact with almost every big name in Czech music circles, so perhaps it was inevitable that she was something of a child prodigy. She started writing her own music from the age of 9 and entered the Brno Conservatory aged 15.
Kaprálová's chamber music is becoming fairly well known because it's original and lively. There's only one recording of her vocal music, however, "Forever Kaprálová" with Dana Burešová (soprano) and Timothy Cheek (Supraphon 2003). You might do well to track down the printed scores because the recording is no great shakes, but some of these songs are so interesting that they should make their way into the repertoire.
Two songs, Morning and Orphaned, were written when Kaprálová wass a teenager. Simple and unadorned, but better that than the over-ambitious pieces young people usually attempt before they learn that less is more. Nonetheless, the songs aren't innocent, for the composer, though young, is well aware of the the way composers around her didn't ape folk idiom but adapted its spirit. Sparks from the Ashes op 5 (1932-3) is a cycle of four songs to texsts by Bohdan Jelinek, a mid 19th century poet who only lived to age 23. The texts are quaintly archaic, the setting isn't.
Even better is January, for voice, piano, flute, two violins and cello (1935, the month when Kaprálová turned 20. This is a beautiful piece, the non-vocal writing exquisitely balanced. Kaprálová was a conductor from her teens (see the photo) and knew how music works in performance, not just in theory. Sophistication in the choice of text, too. The poet is Vítězslav Nezval (1900-58), whom Kaprálová probably knew personaly. He was a musician who studied with Janáček but is better known for his association with the thriving Czech avant garde in the 1920's and 30's, where literature, music and gilm art flourished in a kind of Czech renaissance largely unknown to anglophones. "In the night the frost painted on my window a delicate vase. I am horrified of winter days and vases!" The protagonist sees frozen virgins in a boarded up house, a chill church organ, ceilings falling in. Exquisite balance, the instruments (especially seductive cello) curving round the voice, slowly encircling it. And this is just Kaprálová's op 5!
An apple from the lap is another group of four songs to texts by Jaroslav Seifert (1901-86) another avant garde liberal and colleague of Nezval - Kaprálová chooses contemporary texts, nothing safe or easy. Here, the piano figures are exuberantly quirky, pointing to deeper levels in the imagery. Kaprálová then takes a creative leap forward. Navždy (Forever)(1936-7) is a 4 song cycle."Wild geese are flying south. Someone is leaving soon and will never return". Obviously Kaprálová didn't know that in leaving for Paris to study with Charles Munch and Nadia Boulanger, that she'd never really return home. Yet there's nothing maudlin about it. In Ruce (Hands) also to a text by Seifert, the protagonist imagines her hands shaped like a lyre, combing through her lover's hair."Then the world fell with us into an abyss...we drank the last drops of wine in Canaan". Like her poets, much older and cannier than she is, Kaprálová mixes different moods deftly. Listen to the piano part in Ruce, where the pianist's hands create another new image, reinforcing the spirit of the poem.
Sbohem a šáteček (Waving Farewell) exists in both piano song and orchestral song. Below, I've added a clip of the latter, sung by a tenor. It's infinitely deeper than the soprano version on the CD I'm refering to. It's a masterpiece. The text is Nerval, not symbolist, but extremely sophisticated emotionally. Two people are parting, knowing they may never meet again. Yet no sentimenatlity. Czech is a language that bristles with consonants and sharp, pungent stresses, nothing like English with its tendency to fluid approximation. "...A waving farewell! Carry on, fate!" the last defiant cry.
Kaprálová's ability to write different moods is demonstrated in several songs that follow, ranging from a Christmas song written for her parents, to cheerful songs of nature and birds, to a beautiful, bell-like Alleuia to songs where melancholy is hinted at, while spirits are held high. There's also a song in memoriam Tomáš Masaryk, probably also an acquaintance though not an intimate.
By 1937, Kaprálová has moved to Paris. She's poised to begin a promsing career. The final song Dopis (Letter) was written four days after Kaprálová's marriage to Jiri Mucha, son of the artist Alphons Mucha, who created Czech art nouveau. It's tempting to read coded meaning into the song, because it's about a lover rejecting someone who has let them down. Since we don't know what really happened between Kaprálová and Martinu, and why she married Mucha, we can't really speculate. Kaprálová had written songs to strong-minded poems of farewell before, like Sbohem a šáteček and With a white handerchief he waves, one of the group of Vteřiny (Seconds) songs. Had she lived, dare I suggest, Kaprálová might have eclipsed Martinu altogether, much as I like him, as she was such an individualistic original. We don't know, but we can sing the refrain from The Years are Silent . "The years are silent, the years go by, the song doesn't die away".