Rafael Kubelík

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* 29 June 1914 Býchory (near Kolín) †11 September 1996 Kastanienbaum (near Lucerne, Switzerland)

Rafael Kubelík is one of the most important Czech expatriates of the 20th century. He gained recognition not only for his artistic achievements but also for the stances and initiatives he took in the public interest. He worked with the greatest orchestras and opera houses and was especially famous for his long tenure as chief of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. In his own country he is known chiefly for his work with the Czech Philharmonic, with which his career began and also finally ended. After 42 years in exile, where he continuously refused any compromises with the communist regime, he lived long enough to be able to return to his native country and this orchestra, with which at the end of his life he gave several concerts which were perceived by the general public as symbolic events in the return of freedom. Musicians esteemed him as a spontaneous individual with outstanding human qualities and as an enquiring, highly emotional, and vastly musical artist, who can still today stir within them vivid memories of thrilling experiences.

When he was conducting concerts, he sometimes would take on an absent look. I saw him conduct Jenufa. In the prelude to the third act, you could see how close he was to that music. He gazed intently off into the distance. Somewhere far way, not at the orchestra. I experienced such situations with him often. In a certain passage that captivated him, he would forget all doubts and float up and away into a different sphere. The last movement of Mahler’s first symphony begins with a cymbal clash. As the third movement was coming to a close, I always noticed that there already Kubelík was inwardly focused on the introduction of the last movement. Then he would rise up to his full height and signal for the clash of the cymbals. Like a guillotine. I shall never forget it. It made a huge impression. After that clash things were chaotic but precise, just as he liked them.(Bernd Herber, first violin, BRSO)

Rafael Kubelík was born into the family of famous violin virtuoso Jan Kubelík and the musically gifted Hungarian countess Marianne Csáky-Széll. He was surrounded by five artistic and talented older sisters and two younger brothers. In his youth he spent time in his family’s various homes abroad and was educated in the spirit of the Renaissance, with emphasis on reading, cultural awareness, and proficiency in foreign languages. At the age of six he started studying the violin with his father and the piano with his uncle František, at the same time trying his hand at composing. At that time he began attending the opera and then later concerts too, but his interest in conducting was aroused only later when at the age of fourteen he was thrilled by a concert with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic in Prague. While still in elementary school he had daily sessions with his uncle playing four-hand piano versions of chamber, symphonic and opera works, from Handel up to and beyond Debussy, a practice that would later greatly facilitate his study of scores.

In 1928 Rafael Kubelík entered the Prague Conservatory, not yet decided about his main focus but with his interests spread over several areas: he studied violin with Jindřich Feld Sr., then later composition with Otakar Šín, and conducting with Pavel Dĕdeček – and graduated in all these areas. Concurrently he diligently attended rehearsals, where he observed the methods of working with an orchestra: “The important principle is when, where, and what is to be done.” The conductors who made the greatest impression on him were Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, and Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Rafael Kubelík made his debut with the Czech Philharmonic when he was nineteen. That same year, 1934, he went on tour with Jan Kubelík to Italy and Romania and on his father’s last American concert tour, during which he accompanied him as pianist and conductor. Rafael ended the tour early in 1936 when he was called back by the Czech Philharmonic. He was to share concerts with its chief conductor, Václav Talich, who had become head of opera at the National Theatre. With this orchestra Kubelík performed dozens of concerts both in Prague and elsewhere in the country, also completing with it a tour of Great Britain, Belgium, and Ireland. And yet Kubelík’s first efforts did not come off quite as smoothly as it might appear from this list. In a Bavarian Radio interview he still remembered from those days his feelings of self-criticism and instances of conflicts with the musicians.

In August 1939 Rafael Kubelík was appointed chief of the regional theatre in Brno, where he remained until November 1941 when the Nazis closed the theatre. There he prepared seven operas: Smetana’s Dalibor and The Kiss; Dvořák’s Jacobine and Rusalka; Janáček’s Jenufa; and Mozart’s Magic Flute. The rarity was Berlioz’s Les Troyens, which he would also later conduct at Covent Garden, at the Metropolitan, and at La Scala. He attached equal importance to conducting the symphonic repertoire as to the operatic. He often commented that just as the conductor should make the orchestra sing and breathe, he must with opera too know how to sustain the architectonic element of form; and thus it was necessary for every conductor to know both genres. And yet in many cases Kubelík was more intensely moved by vocal music thanks to its psychological dimension.

In the 1939-40 season, Jan Kubelík organized a jubilee cycle of ten chock-full concerts, four of which were performed along with Rafael Kubelík and the Czech Philharmonic. In July Jan Kubelík underwent an operation for a serious illness but still succumbed in December 1940. This was yet another blow for Kubelík, who himself that year was ill with meningitis, and all this in the difficult circumstances of the war. For Rafael his father had been a lifelong model for his interpretive skills and also for what his life stood for and for his human qualities.

After leaving Brno, Rafael Kubelík became head of the Czech Philharmonic. During the war years its programme was restricted for political reasons. Approximately half of Kubelík’s concerts were made up of works by Czech composers, including contemporary composers, and the foreign composers most often performed included Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Brahms, and after them Bruckner, Haydn, Verdi, Gluck, Berlioz, Franck, and Wagner. After the war Kubelík was a co-founder of the Prague Spring International Music Festival. He undertook other foreign tours with the Czech Philharmonic and invited outstanding artists to Prague. He conducted Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E flat in Moscow in 1945, and a melancholy meeting with the composer gave Kubelík forebodings of grim political developments to come. The Communist Party seized power in February 1948, and after conducting Ma Vlast for the last time in July of that year, assuming he would never return, Kubelík with wife Ludmila and his not quite two-year-old son flew off to England, where he had been hired to prepare Don Giovanni. Kubelík continued to take an interest in developments in his homeland but in spite of invitations from the leaders of the regime refused to return there under the prevailing circumstances.

Having as yet no contracts, Kubelík was helped in his beginnings in England by the conductor Sir Adrian Boult, who had guest-conducted the Czech Philharmonic after the war and now shared his concerts with the BBC Symphony with Kubelík. In 1950 the leadership of that ensemble invited Kubelík to take over from Boult, but Kubelík decided instead for the position of artistic director of the Chicago Symphony. During his three years there he introduced its rather conservative concert-goers to more than sixty modern works. Other novelties were his inviting black singers and the fact that in the interests of quality, Kubelík replaced 22 players even though the human aspect made these difficult decisions. After the war he quickly began to work intensively with other top-class orchestras such as the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Israel Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and then later, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Symphony, the London Symphony and others.

In 1953 Rafael Kubelík established permanent residence in Lucerne in Switzerland. In London he conducted Janáček’s Katya Kabanova at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre and Smetana’s Bartered Bride at Covent Garden. There too, as artistic director of the Royal Opera House (1955-58), he went on to perform Verdi’s Otello, Puccini’s La bohême, Mozart’s Magic Flute, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, Janáček’s Jenufa, Bizet’s Carmen, Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Verdi’s Aida, Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov. It was his intention to establish a national opera at Covent Garden with a permanent ensemble, and he preferred performing works in English so that opera might become accessible to a wider audience.

In 1960 Kubelík made his debut with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO) and was immediately invited to take over leadership of this ensemble replacing its founder Eugen Jochum, who was leaving. Kubelík’s first contact with BRSO was described as “love at first sight.” His position as its chief conductor was to be the longest-lasting engagement in his whole professional life, and still today this period is considered to be the golden age of this orchestra. With the BRSO Kubelík filled the Bavarian Radio’s archives with an abundance of recordings (including the acclaimed complete cycle of Mahler symphonies, Dvořák’s symphonic poems, and selected Bruckner symphonies) as well as undertaking several concert tours abroad (particularly noteworthy were those to Japan and South America). Of the established count of twelve subscription concerts he always conducted at least half. The works he programmed covered a broad repertoire from the Baroque era (works not too often performed in those days) up through the modern classics. He often created thematic cycles: over two seasons, for example, he might with other guest conductors, go through all the symphonies of Schubert, Bruckner, or Hartmann. At other times he offered in chronological order all of Beethoven’s symphonies or a cross-section of sacred works from various stylistic periods.

Although as chief conductor Kubelík maintained a certain distance, orchestra members appreciated his humane approach. He was authoritative and uncompromising and yet otherwise very cordial and spontaneous: if he did get angry, he quickly forgot and was soon joking again. He did not rehearse down to the last detail because he trusted his orchestra members, and they in turn could be certain that at the crucial moment of the performance he would produce his greatest energy. It was not easy for the orchestra to play complicated contemporary scores and certain operas under Kubelík if their approach was technical rather than emotional; and precision was not his chief priority even in rehearsals. Kubelík did, however, have the precious ability to “read between the lines” of a score and to communicate the heart of the music powerfully to both orchestra and audience. Often he laboured over unwritten nuances, focusing on phrasing, balance of individual voices, and the honing of the sound of the orchestra, which BRSO orchestra members agreed in describing as full, soft, warm, and dark. He demanded inward, expressive playing and aimed for large sweeping lines, this in accordance with the repertoire which was closest to him and which he especially esteemed: that is to say, along with Czech music, most of all Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. As a composer, Kubelík had no high ambitions: he composed because he felt the need to express himself through music. Among other works, he wrote five operas, three requiems (each composed after some tragic personal event), several instrumental concertos, and a number of chamber pieces.

Kubelík’s wife died in 1961. Two years later he married Australian soprano Elsie Morison. He settled down permanently on the shores of Lake Vierwaldstätt in Kastanienbaum near Lucerne. In 1967 he became a Swiss citizen, but he never relinquished his strong feeling of Czech patriotic solidarity. In protest against the Warsaw Pact troop invasion of Czechoslovakia and against the violent repression of the Prague Spring, he organized an artistic performance boycott of Eastern block countries that would last until they were ruled by legitimate governments. In an open letter of 1979 along with Yehudi Menuhin he called on Leonid Brezhnev to accede to the demands of Charter 77. When in late August of 1969 the Czech Philharmonic was performing in Lucerne, Rafael Kubelík invited its members to his own home and dedicated to them a commemorative medal in memory of the events of the previous August. His engagement at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where starting in 1973 Kubelík was for the three following seasons supposed to be the first artistic director in its history, came to nothing with the sudden death of the general manager and the resulting changes in the leadership’s plans. Kubelík did conduct that house’s first production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens and also prepared Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, but afterwards he again concentrated on his work with the BRSO. In 1979 for reasons of health he resigned from the position of chief conductor of the BRSO, but until 1985 remained a guest conductor of the orchestra. On a hot June 7th in 1985, after the second movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, falling ill, he had to cancel this concert with the BRSO in Munich, and he decided to end his career. He believed it was his responsibility to give the maximum of his strength, but he had doubts about whether he could accept engagements that were planned years in advance. Spending some time in California helped him deal with some of his health problems.

After the collapse of the communist regime, as the general public was looking on, Rafael Kubelík returned after 42 years to his native land and on 12 May 1990 symbolically opened the Prague Spring Festival with the Czech Philharmonic as its newly appointed honorary chief conductor for life with Smetana’s My Homeland. There followed several more joint concerts in Prague and in Japan. At the close of his life, Rafael Kubelík received many honours and awards, among others, an honorary doctorate of philosophy from Charles University for his “lifelong artistic activity and personal contribution to the treasury of world musical culture” and the T.G.M. Order First Class for his “efforts in favour of democracy and human rights.” He died on 11 August 1996 at Kastanienbaum in Switzerland. He was buried alongside his father in the Slavín Cemetery in Vyšehrad.

Author: Nikol Kraft