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Vitezslava Kapralova in 1935. Photo V. Klaska, Brno Vitezslava Kapralova, Czech composer and conductor, b. Brno (now the Czech Republic), January 24, 1915; d. Montpellier (France), June 16, 1940.
Kapralova began composing at the age of nine and at fifteen she entered the Brno Conservatory where she studied composition with Vilem Petrzelka and conducting with Zdenek Chalabala. She graduated with an award-winning Piano Concerto that she conducted herself. In 1935 she moved to Prague and continued her musical education at the Prague Conservatory, attending the masterclasses of Vitezslav Novak (composition) and Vaclav Talich (conducting). In 1937 she received a scholarship to study in France, at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, and became a pupil of Charles Munch (1937-1939) and briefly also of Nadia Boulanger (spring 1940?). She also studied composition as a private student of Bohuslav Martinu (1937-1939) whose Harpsichord Concerto she conducted in Paris (1938). Her award-winning Military Sinfonietta, premiered in Prague in 1937 by the Czech Philharmonic and conducted by the composer, opened the 1938 ISCM Festival in London. At this occasion, Kapralova conducted the work with the BBC Orchestra. Following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939 Kapralova decided to stay in exile in France. In April 1940, she married the writer Jiri Mucha. Only two months later her marriage and musical career were cut short by her tragic death in Montpellier, allegedly from miliary tuberculosis.






Kapralova's life has inspired no less than two monographs and three novels. Her works were published by Baerenreiter, Eschig (La Sirène Editions Musicales), Editio Supraphon, Czech Radio Publishing House, HMUB, Melantrich, Svoboda, Pazdirek, Editio Praga, and Amos Editio, and released on record by Supraphon and on compact disc by Supraphon, Koch Records, Northeastern Records, Studio Matous, Stylton, and Tomas Visek.

Kapralova's music was critically acclaimed during her lifetime and continues to be praised by music historians today: "There is no doubt that had she lived she would have become one of the greatest women composers in Europe." (Hartog, Howard [Ed.]: European Music in the Twentieth Century. Penguin Books: 1961. P. 322). In 1946, in appreciation of her distinctive contribution, the foremost academic institution in the country - the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences - awarded Kapralova membership in memoriam (by 1948 this honour was bestowed on only 10 women, out of 648 members of the Academy). In 1981, the same institution appraised her work as "representing a distinctive and progressive moment in the development of Czech music in the first half of the twentieth century." (History of Czech Music Culture 1890-1945, p. 289). In 1999, after the release of the composer's landmark CD by Studio Matous, BBC Music Magazine (June 1999) hailed Kapralova as "a genuinely fascinating voice in inter-war Czech music".

The Kapralova Society is a non-profit arts organization based in Toronto, Canada. Founded by Karla Hartl in 1998, the society's mission is to promote interest in Kapralova and other women in music through education, research, and special projects, in collaboration with other organizations. We encourage and support recording and publishing of Kapralova's music, and seek to build awareness of women's contributions to musical life through our online resources and other support.

Vitezslava Kapralova
[24.1.1915 Brno - 16.6.1940 Montpellier]

Vitezslava (Vita) Kapralova naquit à Brno le 24 janvier 1915. Son père, le compositeur Vaclav Kapral - qui fut plus tard aussi professeur au Conservatoire de Brno -, guida ses premiers essais en composition. Entre 1930 et 1935, elle étudia la composition avec Vilem Petrzelka et la direction avec Zdenek Chalabala au Conservatoire de Brno. Au cours des deux années qui suivirent, elle poursuivit ses études au Conservatoire de Prague avec Vitezslav Novak pour la composition et Vaclav Talich pour la direction d'orchestre.

En 1937, elle reçut une bourse pour étudier à l'Ecole normale de musique de Paris où, entre 1937 et 1939, elle fut l'élève de Charles Munch et prit des cours particuliers de composition avec Bohuslav Martinu dont elle dirigea le Concerto pour clavecin à Paris en 1938. Elle produisit des oeuvres en abondance. Sa Sinfonietta militaire, créée en 1937 par la Philarmonie tchèque, sous sa direction, ouvrit le Festival ISCM à Londres en 1938. A cette occasion, elle dirigea l'oeuvre jouée par l'Orchestre de la BBC.

Après l'invasion de la Tchécoslovaquie par l'Allemagne le 15 mars 1939, elle choisit la France comme patrie d'exil. En avril 1940, elle épousa l'écrivain Jiri Mucha, fils du peintre Alphonse Mucha. Avant que les Allemands n'envahissent Paris, elle fut évacuée à Montpellier où elle mourut à l'hôpital, le 16 juin 1940, terrassée par une maladie subite.

Traduction: Marie-Noëlle Maillard

In Search of a Voice: The Story of Vitezslava Kapralova

By Karla Hartl – IAWM Journal (2003)

When I approached IAWM Journal editor Eve Meyer, requesting publication of my annotated catalogue of Vitezslava Kapralova’s music, she asked a legitimate question: why should the Journal devote so much space to a fairly unknown woman composer? Indeed, I had to pose the question to myself: why should anyone care about a woman who lived in Europe between the two world wars and who had earnestly searched for her own voice before dying tragically young, at the age of 25, the day France fell. Being as familiar with the composer’s music as I was, I already knew the answer: Kapralova was the most important woman composer in 20th-century Czech music. “There is no doubt that had she lived she would have become one of the greatest women composers in Europe.”1

When her first profile CD was released in 1998, it came as a revelation; the BBC Music Magazine (June 1999) declared Kapralova “a genuinely fascinating voice in inter-war Czech music,” while Tempo evaluated her as “a substantial creative personality who had already hit her stride before her career was so cruelly cut short” (October 2000). Since then, Kapralova’s music has found many passionate advocates, best represented by Timothy Cheek, of the University of Michigan, who claims that some of Kapralova’s songs are among the finest in the art song repertoire.2 Admirers such as Maurice Hinson consider her music “eminently pianistic”;3 and brilliant performers such as Virginia Eskin, Jenny Lin, the Hawthorne Quartet, Ronald Corp and New London Orchestra, plus a host of others, keep her legacy alive.

Yet, despite this steadily growing recognition, Kapralova remains fairly unknown even in her own country,4 where the towering heroes of Czech music—Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek and Martinu—seem to forever overshadow the many gifted but “lesser” composers. In her homeland, she has been doubly disadvantaged both as a composer outside the “big four” and as a woman. With notable exceptions, her music (and women’s music in general) is not being performed in the Czech Republic today, unlike during Kapralova’s own time, when she was believed to be one of the brightest composers of her generation, with her music frequently performed in Prague and Brno.

During her life Kapralova was considered a major phenomenon: vulnerably young, attractive, and blessed by many firsts. She was the first woman to graduate as a composer and conductor from the Brno Conservatory, the first woman to receive a prestigious Smetana Award for her Military Sinfonietta,5 the first woman to conduct the Czech Philharmonic, and— if not the first—one of the few women ever to conduct the BBC Orchestra prior to WWII. Like Lili Boulanger, Kapralova found her distinctive voice very early. Incredibly prolific, she left behind over 40 completed works (25 of them with opus numbers) and a number of sketches and fragments. Among her teachers were some of the best European composers and conductors of the time.

Vitezslava Kapralova was born on January 24, 1915 in Brno, the provincial capital of Moravia that was then still part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. She was an only child growing up in a musical family. Her mother, Vitezslava Kapralova (1890-1973), nee Uhlirova, was a classically-trained singer; her father, Vaclav Kapral (1889-1947), was a composer, music critic, writer and teacher. Kapralova started composing at age nine, guided by her father, a student of Janacek. At 15 she entered the Brno Conservatory, where she studied composition with Vilem Petrzelka and conducting with Zdenek Chalabala.

Her choice of two entirely male-dominated disciplines at first met with the strong disapproval of her skeptical father, who did not believe a woman could succeed in these professions and wanted to spare her the disappointment. He did, however, believe in her talent, and in spite of occasional moments of criticism (“you think that if you write an out of tune carol that it is modern”6), he was a devoted promoter of her music until his death in 1947.

In 1935, Kapralova graduated from the Brno Conservatory at the top of her class with a Piano Concerto that she conducted herself at its public premiere in Brno. It was her first public appearance as conductor, and she made quite an impression on the curious but at first wary audience. She spent the summer after graduation in her beloved summer retreat, Tri Studne, where she sketched her first and only String Quartet, an ingenious work that “blends something of the spirit of Janacek’s Intimate Letters with a free chromaticism reminiscent of Berg’s op. 3.”7

In the fall of 1935 Kapralova moved to Prague, where she hoped to advance her technical skills at the Prague Conservatory. She was accepted to the prestigious master classes of the then leading Czech composer, Vitezslav Novak, and the best Czech conductor of all times, Vaclav Talich. She plunged into the active musical life of the country’s capital; and, thanks to a fair amount of fame that preceded her and continued to grow, her music was soon heard at the concerts of the two most important societies of contemporary music in Prague in the 1930s: Pritomnost and Umelecka Beseda. At the Conservatory, she earned much respect for her creative powers and determination. She was again the best student, which enabled her access to Novak, and she greatly benefited from his special attention and rigorous training. During her “Novak” period, she experimented with impressionistic and expressionistic idioms and wrote some of her most beautiful music, including April Preludes and the songs For Ever and Waving Farewell.

In June 1937, when Kapralova graduated with a work for large orchestra, the Military Sinfonietta, it came as no surprise that the work was chosen to be premiered at an important event organized by the National Women’s Council. It was performed in the presence of the president of the Czechoslovak Republic, Edward Benes, to whom the work was dedicated. Kapralova composed the Sinfonietta at a time of political unrest in her homeland. She noted that the word “Military” in its title was “not an appeal for war, but an appeal for...the preservation of national independence.”8 She went on to describe the work as follows:

The first note of the small drum and short fanfare on the trumpets prepare the basic mood of the whole work. The aggressive main theme (in the Aeolian mode) is heard several times in different keys, rising to great intensity and breaking into a singing movement with peaceful, rhythmic waves. Another theme emphasizes still more the fighting spirit of the work, based on fourths. This ends the exposition. Slowly the deep singing of the basses and ’cellos rises, representing freedom. They are interrupted at intervals by contrasting dance rhythms. After this the development of the themes begins. It reaches its climax in the call of the trumpets....The main theme and the singing movement recur, and the fourths are heard again in the final coda, which culminates in an outburst of the whole orchestra in victorious jubilation.9

The premiere of the Sinfonietta took place at Lucerna Hall in Prague on November 26, 1937. The orchestra was the Czech Philharmonic, the conductor—Kapralova. Witnesses recall how very unusual it was for the Czech Philharmonic to perform under the baton of such a young conductor, especially when that young conductor happened to be a woman. The players were skeptical at first, but Kapralova’s professionalism and her energetic gestures were persuasive arguments even for such experienced players. After the first few bars of the score, she won over the hundred-piece orchestra completely.10

In October 1937, a month before the premiere of her Sinfonietta, Kapralova moved to Paris to study conducting with Charles Munch at Ecole Normale. Originally, she planned to study composition with Felix Weingartner in Vienna, but on K.B. Jirak’s recommendation, and after meeting with Bohuslav Martinu during his short visit to Prague, she decided instead to seek a French Government scholarship. Kapralova must have made a deep impression on Martinu; when they first met in April 1937, he did not hesitate to propose that she move to Paris to study composition privately with him. Kapralova appreciated Martinu’s music, which by then was frequently being performed both in Prague and Brno, and she was therefore open to the idea. After her arrival to Paris, she accepted Martinu’s offer. She also accepted out of necessity because her French was so poor that she could not enroll in the classes taught by Boulanger. (With Munch, she communicated in German.)

Paris was to broaden Kapralova’s intellectual horizons. She immediately immersed herself in the city’s cultural life and was a frequent visitor to art galleries, concert halls and even literary evenings. But most important for her artistic development was the rich musical life of Paris, especially the concerts of La Société des Concerts du Conservatoire and La Société de la Musique Contemporaine (Triton), where she heard the latest works of Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Milhaud, Honegger, Martinu and others, and later also saw her own works performed. She was particularly attracted to Stravinsky. Her Suita Rustica from 1938, a large orchestral work commissioned by Universal Edition (London), is a personal tribute to his Petruschka, so much so that when the work premiered at the Brno Opera in 1945, it was intuitively staged as a ballet.

Of course, among the new impulses and influences that were to transform Kapralova’s voice, a particularly important one was the music of Bohuslav Martinu. Their initial teacher-student relationship gradually changed into a relationship of two colleagues, albeit one senior to the other, who spent hours discussing and arguing the tenets of music theory and analyzing each other’s works. Kapralova’s remarkable Partita for Piano and String Orchestra represents an entirely new direction in her output and can be considered a direct result of those discussions.

Kapralova’s personality, her beauty, charisma and immense passion for life inspired the aging Martinu. His Tre Ricercari (a “hit” of the 1938 Venice Biennale), the intimate String Quartet No 5, and his powerful Double Concerto are just a few examples of the strong emotions awakened by Kapralova. But he also had an enormous respect for her music and did not hesitate to promote her at every opportunity and open a few important doors for her. For example, in May 1938 he recommended to one of his publishers, Michel Dillard of La Sirene Musicale, to accept Kapralova’s Variations sur le Carillon de l’Eglise St-du Mont, in which she experiments with polytonality. Although Kapralova was not new to publishing (by then many of her songs and chamber pieces had already been published by the largest publishing houses in Czechoslovakia), this was her first international recognition. Martinu also had great faith in her abilities as a conductor, so much so that he had her conduct a performance of his Harpsichord Concerto in Paris, on June 2, 1938, with Marcelle de Lacour as soloist.11

Two weeks later Kapralova arrived in London for the 1938 ISCM Festival. She conducted her Military Sinfonietta as the Festival’s opening work in a performance at Queen’s Hall on June 17. She created quite a bit of excitement, and it was with enormous pride in the achievements of his 23-year-old protégé that Martinu wrote the following in his review of the festival for the Czech national daily, Lidove Noviny:

The very first item on the program of the Festival was Military Sinfonietta by Vitezslava Kapralova—an opening with great promise for both the festival and the composer. Her performance was awaited with interest as well as some curiosity—a young woman with a baton is quite an unusual phenomenon—and when our “little girl conductor” (as the English newspapers called her) appeared before the orchestra, she was welcomed by a supportive audience. She stood before the orchestra with great courage and both her composition and performance earned her respect and applause from the excellent BBC Orchestra, the audience, and the critics....Vitezslava Kapralova’s international debut is a success, promising and encouraging.12

After two such eventful semesters abroad, Kapralova was ready to go home for the summer holidays. Martinu had left Paris a day earlier to spend some time in Prague and in his hometown of Policka before joining Kapralova in Tri Studne for a few weeks that brought him much happiness. He could not know, when he returned to Paris on August 1, 1938, that this was to be his last visit to his homeland. Kapralova had intended to follow him in the fall, but her request for the renewal of her scholarship was unexpectedly denied, and it took a a great deal of effort, by Martinu in particular (he had to engage in a vigorous letter-writing campaign), before she was granted her stipend.

When Kapralova finally returned to Paris in January 1939, the world she was familiar with was already disintegrating. War seemed inevitable. That year’s winter was bitterly cold and on March 15, 1939, the day of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, it snowed. Three days after the forceful annexation of her country, the emotionally-exhausted Kapralova began working on Concertino for Violin, Clarinet and Orchestra. She wrote to her parents, “I’ve started something new but I am not sure what it is,”13 and she explained:

Well, it is for two solo instruments and orchestra, if I only knew what the other instrument was. One must be a violin but the other — oboe? clarinet? trumpet? Now, after forty bars, I had to stop and get an answer before resuming the work. I have been writing it most likely for a clarinet, but what a strange combination....It is cold here like in Siberia but not colder than in my heart.14

It was only a year earlier that she told her mother “all and everything is all right!”15 She wrote:

Are you whining about a night following a day? About a storm following a beautiful sunny weather? Are you complaining that there are ugly, nasty things in the world? Why are you so discontent with people? There will never be only good people in the world had there been ten Jesus Christs—because what you call “ugly” was, after all, given to us by the Creator. And it is meant to be like that! The entire world is based on one simple but rather marvellous principle: plus and minus, the good and the bad. That is the balance. So why should it be taken away from people? There have always been and always will be extremes that sometimes allow evil to win, for a while at least. What remains to be done is to look for the good with an open mind and eyes and to become stronger through our struggle with the evil. To enjoy simple and small things, to live with a smile as long as we can.16

Now, Kapralova only scribbled the following two references before the last two measures of the autograph sketch of her Concertino: Psalm 57 and Job 30, 26 (“Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness”).

Separated by war from her loved ones, Kapralova was now looking to Martinu for all her emotional support. The two began—seriously for a while—planning their future together as far from the vulnerable Europe as possible. Both started yet another letter-writing campaign, this time to Martinu’s friends and contacts in the United States, where they hoped to temporarily relocate. Kapralova applied for a Juilliard School scholarship (it is unclear whether her application was ever received or processed), while Martinu contemplated a back-up plan that involved a visiting artist position with the famous Liberated Theatre, now in exile in New York, where Kapralova was to replace ailing conductor Jaroslav Jezek, himself an accomplished Czech composer. But nothing came of the plans, and Kapralova spent the summer alone in Augerville la Riviere.

She returned to Paris in September but left again to spend a couple of weeks with the Martinus in Vieux Moulin, bringing with her a friend she met a few months earlier among the young Czechs on stipend in Paris. The friend was her future husband, Jiri Mucha.17

That fall Paris began preparing for war. Kapralova now lived with Mucha and a few mutual friends in a sort of a bohemian commune in the city’s Quartier Latin. Mucha had just been entrusted with a regular broadcast to occupied Czechoslovakia. He was also responsible for preparing the weekly Ceskoslovensky boj, an official publication of the Czechs and Slovaks in exile, for which Kapralova wrote several concert reviews. On Christmas Day 1939 Kapralova wrote to her parents:

My dearest mom and dad, I am writing to you right after Christmas Eve. Have you listened to my small present for you, my Prélude de Noël, which was broadcast on Sunday at 11:00 o’clock, your time? I could not let you know ahead of time because it was only on Tuesday when Jirka [Mucha] came home and told me: Tomorrow morning I need a small orchestral work for Christmas and you will be conducting it —on the Radio [France]. Hurry up! And I gave him a sour look and complained why he did not tell me earlier and that it wasn’t to be any good because I didn’t have enough time for it, etcetera, but by Wednesday morning it was written as a score and thus I can’t send you a sketch because it doesn’t exist. It was recorded on Friday...they liked my performance and the piece too—as a result I got a contract for half an hour every month. It is a smart little thing and everybody around here has been whistling its tune.18

The year 1940 began promisingly with the astonishing success of Kapralova’s April Preludes, performed by initially reluctant Rudolf Firkusny on January 28 at Triton. That winter and spring Kapralova worked on a number of commissions, including some incidental music on which she collaborated with Martinu. In March Mucha was no longer in Paris. Like many other young Czechs in exile, he volunteered to be conscripted for army service in Agde, Southern France. Kapralova was growing restless in Paris, and he returned in April for a few days. They married on April 23. Three days after her wedding Kapralova composed a song, Letter, possibly as an assignment for Nadia Boulanger. The words by Petr Kricka are written as a letter from a man to his lover who has just rejected him:

You said “no.” Well, be it.... | It was fate that separated us.| I regret that but I see you’re happy | - so I accept it. | I don’t judge who’s more guilty | or whose loss is bigger. | Yesterday there was just one path | today there are two. | I understand that now, and blame no one. | Who knows?... Perhaps, one day | your heart will recognize me again. | For God is a great artist | and has his mysterious ways....

If this was meant to be Kapralova’s farewell to her love affair with Martinu and a closure (she desperately needed to move on with her life), she forgot to take away the hope.

In early May, around the same time Kapralova was finishing her last and arguably best chamber work—Ritournelle pour violoncelle et piano—the first symptoms suddenly appeared of the mysterious illness that was to kill her.19 She was briefly hospitalized in Vaugirard Hospital, on May 20 she was evacuated by her worried husband from Paris to a small university hospital in Montpellier, and on June 16, 1940—the day of the armistice—Kapralova died, at the age of 25.

In 1947 Martinu was asked to contribute to a small volume of reminiscences about the composer. He wrote:

The loss to our music is greater than we might think. I know it, because I was there when she was transforming into an artist....I was not her teacher per se—I was more of an advisor; but a very attentive one—and I can say that only rarely have I had the opportunity to encounter such genuine talent and such confidence in the task she wanted to—and was to—accomplish....She was a fast learner, immediately grasping what I had in mind almost before I could finish my argument. She accepted these arguments only after due consideration, however, and only when she was certain that my suggestion solved her immediate problem and fit within the framework of her ideas....It was a pleasure to discuss musical problems with her. In fact, I was learning along with her and it was a great joy as well as an experience to see the fight between the soul and the material again....Only rarely have I met someone with such a sharp sense for envisioning the work before it was written down. If you find someone who...actually fully understands how the parts of the whole relate to each other, whose primary interest is the whole, then you know that you have encountered a first-class artist—and that was the very case with Vitulka.20

Vitezslava Kapralova was a distinctive voice in Czech music of the first half of the 20th century. Her music reveals great originality and a mature mastery of form and contemporary musical language. Only now, after several decades of undeserved neglect, her considerable worth as a composer is being rediscovered. The time is long overdue.


1. Howard Hartog, ed., European Music in the Twentieth Century (Penguin Books, 1961), 322.

2. Timothy Cheek, from his soon to be published essay, “Forever Kapralova: The Songs of Vitezslava Kapralova.”

3. Maurice Hinson, in his correspondence with the author (January 23, 2002).

4. There have been some isolated efforts recently to acknowledge her important artistic contribution, such as the 2001 documentary on Kapralova, a project of Czech Television (Studio Brno).

5. Kapralova shared the prize with Pavel Haas, who received it for his opera, Sarlatan.

6. Vaclav Kapral to Kapralova (December 20, 1939).

7. Calum (Malcolm) MacDonald in his review for Tempo 214 (October 2000): 60.

8. The 1938 ISCM Festival brochure, p. 12.

9. Ibid.

10. Jiri Macek, Vitezslava Kapralova (Prague: Svaz cs. skladatelu, 1958): 133-34.

11. Michael Henderson, “Bohuslav Martinu and Vitezslava Kapralova,” Czech Music 20 (1997/1998): 76.

12. Bohuslav Martinu, “Mezinarodni festival v Londyne,” Lidove noviny (June 28, 1938): 7.

13. Kapralova to her parents (March 28,1939).

14. Ibid.

15. Kapralova to her mother (spring 1938, not dated).

16. Ibid.

17. Jiri Mucha (1915-91), Czech writer and son of the famous art-nouveau painter, Alphonse Mucha. His autobiography, published in 1988, focused on the years he spent in Paris before the war, his relationship with Kapralova, and her clandestine affair with Bohuslav Martinu.

18. Kapralova to her parents (December 25,1939).

19. The official diagnosis tuberculosis miliaris was never fully proved.

20. Premysl Prazak, ed., Vitezslava Kapralova, Studie a vzpomink (Hudebni Matice Umelecke Besedy: Praha, 1949), 122-25. “Vitulka” is a diminutive of Vitezslava.

The Kapralova Society

The Kapralova Society was founded in Prague in 1997 with the mandate to promote interest in the life and work of this remarkable composer. In 1997-98, the organization took an instrumental role in publishing Kapralova’s music, a project undertaken in collaboration with Studio Matous, a publishing house based in Prague. The project received the support of many well-known personalities of Czech cultural life, including the spouse of the President of the Czech Republic, Dagmar Havlova, who became the organization’s honorary president.

In 1998 the Kapralova Society moved to Ontario, Canada, where it was incorporated by its founding director, Karla Hartl, as a non-profit organization. Since launching its website in Toronto in August 1998, the society has been successful in attracting members from all parts of the world. It has been transformed into a truly international organization. The society continues to promote interest in Kapralova and other women in music through education, research and special projects in collaboration with other organizations.

For the Kapralova discography and scoreography and for additional information, please visit

Karla Hartl is founder and chair of the Kapralova Society, an international music society based in Toronto, dedicated to promoting Kapralova and other women in music. A graduate of Charles University (Prague) and University of Toronto, she has worked as Program Consultant for Status of Women Canada and more recently as Arts Consultant for the Department of Canadian Heritage.

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