SMTD’s Kaprálova Festival celebrates work of little known female Czech composer

Vítězslava Kaprálova (1915-1940) was a Czech-born composer and conductor with abundant talent whose life reads like a sweeping novel. One of the 20th century’s most accomplished female composers, her prodigious repertoire, produced before her untimely death at age 25, has largely been overlooked due to an unfortunate mix of scandal, chauvinism, and political upset.

However, thanks to the efforts of School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) Professor Timothy Cheek, Kaprálova’s fan base in Ann Arbor is very possibly more established than that of her home country. Now, in honor of the centenary of her birth, Cheek has programmed a week-long Kaprálova Festival (September 21-27) featuring STMD students, faculty, and alumni in multiple concerts, recitals, and lectures that shine a spotlight on Kaprálova’s largely unknown works. All festival events are free and open to the public.

A highlight of the festival is the world premiere of an orchestral song sung by rising star tenor and SMTD alumnus Nicholas Phan (BM ’01) with the University Symphony Orchestra (USO) on September 25 at 8pm. The USO will also be recording an album of Kaprálova works for commercial release.

An associate professor of voice, Cheek is an expert on Czech music who happened to stumble upon a Kaprálova work in a Czech library prior to a performance some years back. Since then, he’s become a devoted fan of her music and has learned all he can about her life while endeavoring to establish her legacy.

“It was like nothing I’d ever heard before and the personality just jumped off the page as I was playing,” Cheek said about that first encounter with Kaprálova’s music. “I still remember the feeling: it was as if the composer, who I didn’t know anything about, was right there and about to put her hand on my shoulder.”

Cheek added that he hasn’t felt anything like that before or since his introduction to Kaprálova, and that he finds her work “indescribable” but very alive. Though he’s played that piece countless times, Cheek said never tires of it, but he hasn’t memorized it, as he does most other pieces.

In her short life, Kaprálova wrote 25 opuses and more than a dozen other works, and realized unprecedented success for a female composer and conductor. Living in Paris, she was also heralded as a great beauty and is reported to have had a romantic relationship with her teacher and mentor, the renowned composer Bohuslav Martinu, before marrying the Czech journalist Jiri Mucha. But just two months after her wedding, she died, at age 25, allegedly from miliary tuberculosis, on the same day that France fell to the Nazis.

Cheek believes Kaprálova may be relatively unknown because Eastern Europe was cut off from the rest of the world in the period following World War II, causing the work of many up-and-coming Eastern European composers to be lost.

Kaprálova’s case is unique because she was forgotten by her own country, in addition to being hidden from the rest of the world. Cheek believes Czechoslovakia was preoccupied with rebuilding politically after the war, causing her to slip through the cracks, as well as the fact that many of her works were unpublished manuscripts at the time of her death. Many people were also critical of Kaprálova because of the rumored affair with her married instructor, Martinu. Czechs were also unimpressed by Kaprálova’s Western influences, following her studies in France, which they found offensive.

In fact, the Czech Republic has only recently begun to recognize Kaprálova for her achievements, though Cheek believes the U-M festival, and a previous one held on campus in 2002, rival their efforts, postage stamp instillation aside.

Cheek says he’s doing everything he can to spread awareness about Kaprálova and her work. Every two years, he teaches a Czech composition class and each student is required to perform one of Kaprálova’s pieces in her native language. Cheek views  all of his students, and others, as future Kaprálova fans because everyone he’s introduced her to has been “stunned and amazed” by her music.

He’s also been invited to teach a master class at the Czech Conservancy, and was later asked to give a talk on Kaprálova because his knowledge of her music is considered the most extensive. Cheek interprets this as a good sign and believes the Czech people may finally be more receptive to Kaprálova’s musical accomplishments.

Cheek also released a Kaprálova CD in 2003 with the help of the University, The Kaprálova Society, and a Czech singer. Because Kaprálova’s work was relatively untouched at this time, Cheek himself was tasked with going to the archives and deciphering Kaprálova’s handwritten notes and shorthand.

“I’m happy with how that turned out,” he said. “I just think sometimes it takes an outsider to say ‘Look at what you have here.'”

As part of the Kaprálova Festival, Cheek will perform the song that first sparked his interest in her work. Measure by measure, he hopes to bring his inspiration to the forefront of peoples’ hearts and minds.

Stephanie Shenouda is a senior at LSA majoring in English and political science.