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The Kaprálová Companion
Edited by Karla Hartl and Erik Entwistle
Hardback, 228pp, published 2011
ISBN-13 9780739167236
Lexington Books

Vítezslava Kaprálová’s untimely death at the age of only twenty-five was a significant loss to the world of 20th century music. Her father had been a pupil of Leoš Janáček, and guided the young Vítezslava through her first compositional steps. Later she attended the Brno Conservatory. Future composition teachers included Vítězslav Novák, a student of Dvořák, at the Prague Conservatory, and Bohuslav Martinů in Paris. She also spent a brief period with Nadia Boulanger. Her conducting teachers were no less impressive: Václav Talich and Charles Munch. When war broke out she found herself exiled in Paris. Tragically, two months after her marriage to journalist Jiří Mucha in 1940, she died in what was termed ‘tuberculosis miliaris’, but was most likely typhoid fever, leaving behind a substantial oeuvre of more than fifty compositions. She remained in obscurity for many years, being labelled ‘decadent’ by the communist authorities.

Although published in 2011, The Kaprálová Companion remains the go-to reference book for information on the composer. It consists of biographical and analytical essays on the Czech composer, and is billed as “an essential, comprehensive guide to the composer's life and music”. It also holds the distinction of being the first book published on Kaprálová in English. The editors are Karla Hartl and Erik Entwistle. The former is the founder and chair of the Kapralova Society, a society based in Toronto, which promotes the music of Vitezslava Kapralova by concerts, recordings and publications in addition to that of other female composers. It was founded in 1998.

Hartl sets the ball rolling in the introduction with a comprehensive biographical sketch. Interesting facts emerge. Kaprálová was an early achiever, producing mature works from an early age. She was the first woman to pursue a double major in both composition and conducting. She was the first woman to receive the prestigious Smetana Award for composition, the first woman to conduct the Czech Philharmonic, and one of the first to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In fact, she was a trailblazer for women.

Part 1 of the book features a series of contributions from various scholars, discussing various aspects of the Kaprálová oeuvre. Jindřiška Bártová presents the composer, whose life inhabits the period between two world wars, in the context of Czech music. The independence of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed on 28 October 1918 by the Czechoslovak National Council in Prague. The composer’s early attempts at composition reflected the euphoria prevalent at the time. The first Czechoslovak state existed until 1938. Bártová also discusses the role and influences of Janáček, Novák and Martinů on the young Kaprálová. Novák’s final assessment of her music was glowing: “imbued with youth, overflowing with lively temperament and creative daring…...fresh inventiveness and a fine compositional technique……..Her distinct talent justifies hopes for the brightest future”. Her family influence was also a major factor in her development. Her mother was an amateur singer and premiered some of her husband's songs. He fostered a love of art song in his daughter, and influenced her in her choice of texts.

The next four chapters concentrate on Kaprálová’s music, with essays by Erik Entwistle, Timothy Cheek and Judith Mabary. There’s technical analysis of the music, artfully scripted and copiously illustrated with music examples. These chapters will be helpful to performers who may be encouraged to take up the composer’s music. There are numerous notes, which are situated at the end of each chapter. Erik Entwistle’s contribution on Kaprálová’s piano works is the most substantial, understandably so, as the piano played a central role in nearly all of her compositions. Her father was a concert pianist and the instrument became her compositional tool. Timothy Cheek reevaluates the composer through her songs, for which she had a natural inclination. She was always on the lookout for suitable texts, was a poet herself, and set to music the work of prominent Czech writers including Vítězslav Nezval and Jaroslav Seifert. Cheek is of the opinion that Kaprálová’s songs are arguably her best works. Melodramas and orchestral works are discussed in depth by Judith Mabury. Once again, musical examples feature in abundance. Regarding orchestral works, she focuses on three significant scores: the Military Sinfonietta, the Partita Op 20 and the Suita Rustica.

In the second part of the book, Hartl provides an annotated chronology of the composer’s life, by drawing on autographs, diaries, notebooks, correspondence, concert programs, reviews and other documentation residing in public and private hands. These, together with published scores, also provide the source for her annotated catalogue of the composer’s works. These include such details as instrumentation, date and place of composition and author of texts, dedications, awards and first performances. The location of the manuscripts is also given. Hartl also supplies a comprehensive bibliography. This is extensive and embraces dissertations, theses, research papers, papers presented at symposia and conferences, in addition to books, articles from periodicals, CD liner notes and reviews. I was surprised by the size of the discography; there’s a great deal to explore.

This well-compiled, scholarly publication provides the ideal primer for those wishing to explore the life and music of Vítezslava Kaprálová. Thoroughly researched, insightful and comprehensive it provides the perfect overview of the most significant female composer in the history of 20th century Czech music.

Stephen Greenbank

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