Vítězslava Kaprálová was a Czech born composer and conductor of the early 20th century. Despite her tragically early death at the age of 25, she left a remarkable legacy and was a hugely important trailblazer in the two most male-dominated musical arenas.
She was born in January 1915 in Brno – then still in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but later part of Czechoslovakia. The daughter of singer, Vítězslava Uhlirova, and composer, Vaclav Kapral, she was a ‘child prodigy’ and clearly extremely gifted from a very young age. Vítězslava was already composing music in early childhood and, by the age of nine, she had completed her first two compositions, both for solo piano. A year later she had completed another piece for piano, Na dalekou cestu (Before the Long Journey), her first published work.
In 1930, at the age of fifteen, Vítězslava attended the Brno Conservatory. She studied not only composition but also orchestral conducting. In her five years there she composed more than fifteen works, both for ensembles and for a variety of solo instruments. She received the first published reviews of her work, most of which were brimming with praise, and also made her conducting debut, leading the conservatory’s orchestra in a performance of her graduation piece, Piano Concerto in D Minor.
Vítězslava enrolled in the Prague Conservatory in 1935, studying composition and conducting under some of the most esteemed practitioners in Czech music at that time. She began composing in earnest, often working on several pieces at once, and composed some of her best known music, including her remarkable String Quartet, Op 8.
Perhaps her most important work of the period, however, was her graduation work, Military Sinfonietta, Op 11. It brought her great critical acclaim both at home and abroad. The Czech National Women’s Council chose the piece for inclusion at their gala in November 1937. The following year, Vítězslava herself conducted the BBC Orchestra in London (one of the first women to do so) at the ICSM Festival, bringing her international attention and praise. The concert was broadcast on American radio and Time magazine reviewed both Vítězslava’s composition and conducting in glowing terms.
In addition to her study of traditional composition at the Conservatory, Vítězslava was also involved in Prague’s modern music scene. She was a member of the Přítomnost Society, a group dedicated to creating and performing contemporary music, which premiered several of her compositions. Her move towards modernist composition developed considerably when she moved from Prague to Paris and began studying with Bohuslav Martinů.
In 1937 Vítězslava undertook a one-year French Government scholarship to study at the Ecole Normale de Musique. She also accepted an offer to study privately with renowned Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinů, a friend of her family and someone whose work she greatly admired. He would become her mentor, her friend and, despite the disparity in their ages, her lover and soul-mate. He encouraged and supported her, using his many contacts to further her work and secure a stipend to facilitate her second year in Paris. They influenced and collaborated on each other’s work, both in person and, when apart, via correspondence.
During the two years she lived in Paris, Vítězslava worked prolifically, producing a variety of compositions (work collectively known as her ‘Parisian Period’) including Variations sur le Carillon, Op 16, which, with Martinů’s help, became her first publication in France and garnered international acclaim.
In March 1939 the German forces marched on Prague. Though living in Paris, Vítězslava was heartbroken by the occupation of her homeland and sought consolation in her work. The resulting composition, Concertino for Violin, Clarinet & Orchestra, Op 21, demonstrates bold themes and contemporary musical language. It was to be her final major work.
Lacking a regular income due to the volatile political situation, Vítězslava and a group of friends decided to pool their resources and accommodation. One of these friends was Jiri Mucham, the man who would later become her husband. Vítězslava also assisted the efforts of the Czech population in France to organise activities in support of the Czech Army. She formed a choir and composed music for radio, stage and screen.
In April 1940 Vítězslava married Jiri Mucha. Only a month later she developed the first signs of tuberculosis. Suffering such a serious illness and with Paris threatened by Nazi invasion, she was evacuated to Montpellier by her husband. Her condition worsened and she died a few weeks later on 16th June. Although just 25 years old at her death, she left a remarkable catalogue of work numbering about fifty compositions.
In 1946 the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts honoured Vítězslava’s contribution to the nation’s cultural heritage by awarding her a membership in memoriam. Out of the 640 members elected, Vítězslava was one of only ten women and the only female musician.
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