Once upon a time there was a little girl named Vitka who lived in Brno, Moravia, in what is now called the Czech Republic. Vitka’s mother, Viktorie, was a very pretty classically trained vocalist. Vitka’s papa, Vaclav Kapral, was a composer who studied with the master of early modern Czech music, Leos Janacek. Vitka, whose full name was Vitezslava Kapralova (kah-PRAH-loh-VAH), was born in 1915, began studying music with her parents as soon as she could read and write, and produced her first compositions for piano at the age of nine. Whereas Viktorie encouraged her daughter’s ambition to pursue a career as a composer, Vaclav adamantly opposed this course as unrealistic in a profession dominated by men. Vitka, however, persevered.
At the age of fifteen Vitulka, as her friends now addressed her, enrolled in the Brno Conservatory and began studying not only composition but choral and orchestral conducting as well. By 1935 she was at the Prague Conservatory, and three years later she obtained a scholarship to L’Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, where she absorbed the modernism that was in the air and developed a close working relationship with the famous Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. Their collaborations resulted in a great deal of cross-pollination, clearly audible in the works of both individuals, and her influence upon him has yet to be properly acknowledged. Martinu remembered: “It was a pleasure to discuss musical problems with her. In fact, I was learning along with her. Only rarely have I met someone with such a sharp sense for envisioning the work before it was written down.”
Kapralova’s rapid convention-dismantling progress as a female composer and conductor was abruptly terminated in 1940, when she developed a serious illness and perished while being evacuated from Nazi-occupied Paris. Musicologist Liane Curtis observes that while “surely to die at age 25 at the beginning of a cataclysmic World War is not great for one’s legacy,” Kapralova’s continued marginalization is also symptomatic of entrenched sexism. Throughout her centennial year, opines Curtis, we are “beat over the head” with music by male composers (Tchaikovsky for example) in observance of their anniversaries, while performances of Kapralova’s works are few and far between.
Beginning on Sunday, September 20, the U-M School of Music will host a six-day Kapralova Festival of unprecedented thoroughness, with lectures, recitals on North Campus, and an all-Czech concert at Hill Auditorium, presenting the American premiere of her D minor Piano Concerto. The recitals will feature virtually all of her vocal, solo piano, and chamber works, including several world-premiere performances. According to a representative of the Toronto-based Kapralova Society, this is the most comprehensive Kapralova Festival that has ever been put together, anywhere in the world.