Sunday, 14 August 2011

Vítezslava Kaprálová - songs of Czech independence

Vítezslava Kaprálová was five years old when Czechoslovakia gained independence. She left the country before the Germans invaded in 1937, and died in Montpellier, soon after the fall of France. Like the first Czech Republic's, Kaprálová's life ended far too early. Kaprálová is largely forgotten, for anyone who dies aged only 25 leaves little for posterity. They haven't had a chance to fulfil their potential. Kaprálová's known today mainly for having had a brief affair with Bohuslav Martinu, but what music she did leave behind is surprisingly mature.

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".


John Babb said...

Good to see the music of Kapralova getting some advocacy , but like your previous article, your account contains a few factual errors and unwarranted speculation.

Kapralova did not leave Czechoslovakia permanently in 1937 , but in that year started 12 months of study in Paris and once that was over she returned to Prague until she was able to gain the finance for additional study, which commenced January 1939. The importance of this is that she never took the decision to leave permanently and it was only the war and her death that prevented her return.

You say that ‘we don’t really know what happened between Martinu and Kapralova and why she married Mucha’. In fact we know a lot more than you say even if there is some confusion. Witnesses like Firkusny state that the relationship between composer and pupil was a physical one ( he also talks of Kapralova’s promiscuity, in Prague and Paris) . There seems to have been another Czech man who she became engaged to between her ditching Martinu and becoming engaged to Jiri Mucha. Kapralova tried to end the affair with Martinu because he was ‘too old’ and wrote to her Czech lover that ‘she no longer loved Martinu but did not want to see him suffer’. What we don’t know is what Kapralova told Martinu at this point. Martinu’s friendship continued including friendship with his rival Jiri Mucha and they all continued to socialise with each other. It is not the case that Martinu ‘could not leave his wife’ as you say. He made plans and suggested to Kapralova that they both move to the USA. Your suggested interpretation of the final song , ‘Letter’ gets things the wrong way round and it does not imply Martinu treated her badly. Rather the words are from a man to his lover who has deserted him, and so if anything she is trying to console Martinu after leaving him. Whatever was happening in their affair, they respected each other greatly in terms of musical ability. Martinu never gave up hope of being with her.

Many commentators, including Martinu himself , praise the exceptional quality of Kapralova’s music. But you say ‘after leaving for Paris, Kapralova’s music opens out …..showing the potential for leaving Martinu far behind.’ But the Partita ,for which you provide a sample, is heavily influenced by Martinu and he worked with Kapralova on her sketches for this work The style is neo-baroque like many of Martinu’s works at that time and includes quotations from Martinu’s opera Julietta.
There are no great modernist tendencies and her music doesn’t have the unique identity of Janacek ‘s music. Martinu is a far bigger influence than Janacek in her later music. However that is not to say that her works copy Martinu, since they show a distinct personality that is Kapralova’s alone.

All this information is available in musical journals and in a couple of recent books about Martinu.

Doundou Tchil said...

Rekmeber we are taklking about someone whio died aged only 25 and left relatively little testimony. No one is suggesting that Kapralova knew she wouldn't permanently return home. Given her close connections with the Czech musical elite, it's unlikely that she wouldn't have, had things been different. But most young people, travelling abroad, starting with new teachers and experience does expand creatively.

As for Dopis, read Timothy Cheek. I'm less certain of a connection for the simple reason that no-one really knows for sure what goes on in relationships, not even the people themselves. And even when they leave testimony it might be misleading for many perfectly normal reasons.

Obviously Kapralova was influenced by Martinu, for he was her teacher. She didn't have to write like Janacek to be influenced by him, either. Nearly everyone else she knew was influenced by Janacek and often knew him personally.

Kapralova was such an independent person that chances are that she would have continued developing in many new directions. So it's perfectly reasonable to suggest that Kapralova might in time have gone beyond where she was with Martinu. It's absolutely probable that she would have absorbed other influences. All truly great composers find a distinct voice of their own.

Much as we admire Martinu, had Kapralova lived longer she might not be tied to him in the way she is now, because she would have gone onto other things. Someone who dies at 25 hasn't had the chance to reach their full potential. There's almost no way they'd be the same at 50 or 75 as they were in their 20's. So it's better to keep an open mind and use emotional intelligence.

G.Roy said...

For a scholarly monograph on Kapralova, with both biographical and analytical chapters on the composer, see Hartl, Karla and Erik Entwistle, The Kapralova Companion, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011 (available from your local bookseller, and many other online outlets). This book, first in English on Kapralova, will hopefully replace the often uninformed mentions in books on Martinu!

Doundou Tchil said...

Hooray ! I will order it and review.