Author: Richard Freed
It is fitting in several respects that the opening concerts of the Prague Spring Festival 2014 have been designated a tribute to Rafael Kubelík, one of the truly great conductors of the 20th century and probably the most widely known of the eminent Czech musicians of his time. Early in his career, Kubelík was one of Jiří Bělohlávek’s predecessors on the podium of the Czech Philharmonic, and he was one of the founders of this festival. In its first year he conducted Smetana’s six-part celebration of his homeland, Má vlast (“My Country”), on the anniversary of the composer’s death, May 12, which eventually became fixed as this event’s regular opening date, with that glorious work as its celebratory offering. Moreover, this tribute takes place in observance of the centenary of Kubelík’s birth (June 29, 1914, in Bychory).
But, apart from anniversaries and the recognition Rafael Kubelík earned throughout the world as a musician, he became a figure of significance in his nation’s pursuit of freedom throughout the course of his international career. Indeed, his return to Prague, after 42 years of self-imposed exile, in time to open the 1990 Prague Spring with the customary performances of Má vlast, is regarded by many as the event that set the seal of jubilant validation on the “Velvet Revolution” of the preceding autumn. This work of Smetana’s, in fact, celebrating the history and legends and the very spirit of the Czech nation (and dedicated by its composer to the city of Prague), held great personal significance for Kubelík, marking off significant stages of his professional life and emblematic of his sustained commitment to his art and to his nation.
Both of those commitments may be said to have been inbred. He was the sixth child of the illustrious violinist Jan Kubelík (1880-1940), who was his first teacher, when he took up the violin as a child. Rafael Kubelík had two graduation concerts at the Prague Conservatory: one in 1933 for his graduation in conducting and composition, in which he conducted Dvořák’s overture Othello and performed his own Fantasy for violin and orchestra, and one in 1934 in which he played the solo part in Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1. In January of the latter year, still under 20, he conducted the Czech Philharmonic for the first time, in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and several works, including one of his own, with his father as soloist. In 1935 he accompanied his father as pianist on an American tour. Two years later he made his first recordings, conducting the Czech Philharmonic in London during a tour of the UK and Belgium, in the two most familiar parts of Má vlast: Vltava (“The Moldau”) and Z českých luhů a hájů (“From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields”).
In 1939 Kubelík, then 25, pursued the traditional route of the young conductor in Central Europe by starting out in the opera house, in this case, though, not as répétiteur but as music director of the Brno Opera. In that year Hitler completed his occupation of Czechoslovakia, and in late 1941 the Nazis shut down the Brno Opera, but the Czech Philharmonic was allowed to remain active, and in the fall of 1941 Kubelík, at age 27, became its chief conductor. Although unable to leave the country, he managed to live by his principles: he eliminated Wagner from his repertory for the duration of the occupation, and also refused to speak German, though he was fluent in the language. More remarkably, he defied a direct order from the Reichsprotektor to give the Hitler salute at the opening of a “special concert,” and the next morning the SS came for him, but he had been warned, and was able, as he said, “to disappear from Prague and spend a few months undercover in the countryside.” His refuge was the country cottage of the well known restaurateur Jaroslav Vašata, whom he later helped to come to New York and open a restaurant there. After the war, too, of course, he put Wagner back in his active repertory, eventually making landmark recordings of Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, and worked happily and productively with German orchestras. His quarrel was not with the German people, and the spirit of reconciliation was a basic part of his personality – but his feeling for his own people was part of his very core, and on June 20, 1945, with the war and the occupation finally over, Kubelík conducted Má vlast in Prague’s Old Town Square. He then set about, in collaboration with his lifelong friend the pianist Rudolf Firkušný (who had been based in New York since 1940 and had taken U.S. citizenship) and others, creating the Prague Spring Festival, which made its début in May 1946.
The festival was a grand success from the start. Firkušný, of course, was a major presence, and respected artists from all over took part; one of them was the young Leonard Bernstein, who introduced Aaron Copland’s new Third Symphony to Europe in the 1947 festival. After the Communist take-over, in 1948, that year’s Prague Spring did not include a performance of Má vlast, but Kubelik conducted the work a week before the festival opened, in a special concert in support of the newly formed Warsaw Philharmonic. On July 5, 1948, about a month after the festival ended, Kubelík conducted the Czech Philharmonic for the last time as its chief; twelve days later he, his wife (the violinist Ludmila Bertlová) and their two-year-old son Martin flew to England, where Bruno Walter, whom he had assisted with a production of Don Giovanni at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, had arranged for him to conduct that opera in the Glyndebourne Festival. It was not until their plane was airborne that Kubelík told his wife that they would not be returning until the Communist reign was over. He told a British interviewer, “I had lived through one form of bestial tyranny, Nazism; as a matter of principle I was not going to live through another.”
Once safely in England, Kubelík found himself in demand everywhere. He conducted and recorded with the big London orchestras, and appeared at major European festivals. Within a year or so he was offered several important positions. In 1950, facing a choice between the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in London, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the United States. He chose Chicago. That orchestra had had an uneven period since the death of its longtime conductor Frederick Stock, in 1942. After a single stormy season (1947-48) under the brilliant Artur Rodzinski, there were two seasons with some fine guest conductors but no music director. Kubelík won the hearts of the city’s music-lovers – the young ones who filled the “gallery” (the sixth level up, just under the ceiling of Orchestra Hall) and the musically aware who appreciated his adventurous programming. He commissioned and introduced more new music than any music director of that orchestra before him or since, and he brought Bruckner back into the repertory. He also made history with his recordings on the ambitious new Mercury label, starting with one of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition which became a landmark in the development of “high fidelity” sound and still retains its legendary status, in a splendidly remastered reissue on compact disc.
Despite the huge success of Kubelík’s Chicago recordings – among which are stunning accounts of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Sixth symphonies (a Pathétique with exceptionally clear lines – lean, vital, dramatic in the best musical sense), a robust New World and, major works of Mozart, Hindemith, Bartók and Schoenberg, and the first complete Má vlast recorded outside Czechoslovakia – conservatives on the orchestra’s board, together with a far too influential and too narrowly focused music critic, saw to it that his tenure was limited to three seasons. At its conclusion, in 1953, he established residence in Switzerland and continued performing and recording in Vienna and in London, where in 1955 he took up the post of musical director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
That position also ended after only three years, though under circumstances quite different from those in Chicago. At Covent Garden Kubelík again accomplished a good deal of upgrading, and presented many memorable performances, the most remarkable of which was a 1957 production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. (He had conducted that opera in Brno, nearly 20 years earlier, when it was virtually unknown everywhere.) He resigned in 1958, however, over certain artistic issues: he insisted on performing opera in the language of the audience, in this case English, and he favored the ensemble system over that built on individual star singers. There were also persistent problems over funding. David Webster, the company’s brilliant and respected manager, at first refused Kubelík’s resignation, but their talks, although friendly on both sides, did not lead to the hoped-for resolution.
During Kubelík’s Chicago years, a member of the orchestra, in response to a request from a colleague in Prague who was a known member of the StB (Státní bezpečnost, the Communists’ State Security agency), undertook to report on the conductor’s activities in America. Although there was no political activity to report, in 1953, the year Kubelík left Chicago and established residence in Switzerland, he and his wife were tried in absentia by the authorities in Prague, who found them guilty of the “criminal offence” of failing to return after their passports expired; a three-year sentence was pronounced and their property was confiscated by the state.
That extraordinary procedure would appear to have prefigured the Soviet government’s very public withdrawal of the citizenship of the cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, some 25 years later, and it turned out that both Rostropovich and Kubelík made dramatic returns to their respective homelands in the same year, 1990 – but Kubelík’s case was different from Rostropovich’s, not only in the length of his absence, but in the curious about-face gestures of the Communists in Prague, some of which might have suggested the comic bungling in a Viennese operetta if there hadn’t been so much at stake – and in this case there was no revocation of citizenship.
Around the time Kubelík began his tenure at Covent Garden, he had a surprise visit from two prominent men – a musician and an author – whom he had known in Prague since their student days. He was cheered to think his old friends had come from Prague to see him. His wife prepared an elaborate dinner for them. Then they explained that they had been sent to recruit him for some level of espionage. His swift and emphatic response was to throw them out of his flat, and they had to report to their masters in Prague that it was a hopeless quest, that Kubelík would simply never allow himself to have anything to do with them. This was confirmed, in fact, by a memorandum found in the archives of the Czech Ministry of the Interior which reads in part, “Regarding the person in question, it is my finding that further effort would only continue to be futile, because of his absolutely negative attitude toward us; therefore we will no longer try to work on him.” The person in question, of course, was Rafael Kubelík, for whom the code name in that foredoomed recruiting effort was “Mozart.”
Not long afterward, Kubelík was invited to come home, “with freedom,” as he reported, “to do anything I wanted.” But returning to a Communist dictatorship was not something he wanted to do: “I left my country,” he declared more than once, “in order not to leave my people,” and returning with the regime’s blessing would have been a betrayal. In 1957 The Times of London published a letter from him, commenting on the invitation and stating that he would not return to Czechoslovakia until the Communists were gone and every Czech enjoyed the same freedom offered to him. In 1966 Kubelík was again invited to return, and again refused. Two years later, when the hopes enkindled by the reform movement that took its name from the festival he had created – Prague Spring – were crushed by tanks and troops from the USSR and its satellites, he organized a boycott of the “five Warsaw Pact countries” (i.e., the invaders) on the part of fellow artists around the world.
By that time, Kubelík had settled into a richly productive and satisfying part of his life, though its onset was marred by a personal tragedy, the loss of his wife, who in 1961 succumbed to complications following surgery. In that same year, however, after three years of guest appearances and continued activity in the recording studio (including another Má vlast, with the Vienna Philharmonic), he found a haven of permanency and fulfilment as chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in Munich, succeeding that orchestra’s founding conductor Eugen Jochum, and two years later he married the Australian soprano Elsie Morison. A distinguished artist in her own right, she had been at Covent Garden herself during his tenure there and until 1962, taking leading roles in a number of premieres and other major productions. She was conspicuously active in oratorio as well, and made a number of significant recordings in repertory ranging from pre-classical works to the latest contemporary ones – and the leading roles in all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas under Sir Malcolm Sargent. In Munich she recorded with her husband as soloist in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli. Elsie Kubelík, whose open-hearted personality was a fine match for her husband’s, now divides her time between Kastanienbaum and Prague.
Mahler was a composer for whom Kubelík acknowledged and demonstrated a particularly strong affinity, nurtured in part by the Czech Philharmonic’s own Mahler tradition, which Mahler himself initiated in 1908, as Jiří Bělohlávek reminded us on September 19, 2008, when he conducted the Mahler Seventh on the centenary of its premiere, which this orchestra gave under the composer’s direction. In the second half of the last century the orchestra performed and recorded Mahler symphonies under several of its chief conductors, and several guests as well. The Mahler First was one of Kubelík’s earliest recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic, and in Munich he became the first conductor to record all the Mahler symphonies with a single orchestra. In discussing those recordings in a radio interview in 1971, he recalled a strongly influential Czech Philharmonic performance of the Fourth Symphony in the early 1930s under Alexander Zemlinsky, a composer and conductor who had known and worked with Mahler and who was subsequently active in Prague. In the same interview, and in numerous others, Kubelík stated his belief that no one can presume to perform this composer’s works without complete and unreserved belief and total involvement. When he took his Munich orchestra on tour, many a concert was devoted to the Mahler Ninth, a work that became strongly identified with him.
Apart from touring with his own orchestra, Kubelík enjoyed frequent appearances with other orchestras as a guest conductor, and his visits to Chicago were particularly happy ones, in stunning contrast to the atmosphere during his brief tenure as music director there. He was enthusiastically welcomed back, at the orchestra’s summer home at the Ravinia Festival as well as during the regular season at Orchestra Hall, where he conducted Má vlast no fewer than five times: twice in January 1969 and three times in October 1983.
Between those two dates, Kubelík recorded Má vlast superbly with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and accepted another operatic appointment, which proved to be shorter than the one at Covent Garden. In 1971, Göran Gentele, who had just been named general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, created the position of music director, which had never existed at that institution till then, specifically for Kubelík, with whom he had formed a particularly effective working relationship. Gentele’s death, in an automobile accident the following year, effectively shattered the conditions under which Kubelík had expected to function. He did take up his duties, and began with another grand production of Les Troyens (the first in the Met’s history) in October 1973, but without Gentele he did not feel his vision for the organization could be realised, and he resigned in the spring of the following year. Five years later (1979), Kubelík resigned from his position with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, but stayed on as principal guest conductor, essentially fulfilling all his regular duties while touring more actively as a guest conductor, until Sir Colin Davis succeeded him in 1984. His retirement became complete in 1985, not only from the Munich post but from conducting altogether, as by then he was suffering from painful arthritis which severely limited his movements. He intended to focus on composing, and, while continuing to enjoy his splendid house in Kastanienbaum (he had taken Swiss citizenship in 1967), bought a winter home in La Quinta, California, in which to take in the sun and write music.
As already indicated, composing was not something new to him: he had conducted works of his own before reaching the age of 20, and he eventually created a substantial body of works, among them five operas, three requiems, and numerous concert pieces, but he always made it clear that he would not use his conducting positions to promote his own music. On accepting the appointment at the Met, he stated firmly that he would never perform his own works there, and would also prohibit anyone else from performing them during his tenure. Only very late in his career did he perform and record some of his shorter orchestral works in guest appearances here and there. In any event, only two or three years after giving up the podium, he had to give up composing as well, because, he said, even holding a pen had become punishingly painful.
A “miracle cure,” however, came with the “Velvet Revolution,” in the fall of 1989. This time Kubelík received an invitation to Prague which he was only too happy to accept, and he put himself through an agonizing regimen of exercises in order to be able to conduct his beloved Czech Philharmonic once again, in the festival he had founded. He arrived in Prague on April 8, 1990; for Elsie Kubelík it was the first visit to this fairy-tale city. The previously announced events for the following month’s Prague Spring were changed on short notice, sparking uncontainable enthusiasm. Paul Moor, who covered the opening concert for the magazine Musical America, left us this vivid description of the conductor’s return to the Prague Spring:
“When he walked onto the stage at Smetana Hall after his long exile, at the age of 75, he had not conducted anywhere for five years. The audience, naturally, sprang to its feet, cheering. When Kubelík reached the podium, he turned a radiant face to the hall for just a few bows before turning around and interrupting the ovation by launching the orchestra into the fanfare from Smetana’s opera Libuše. At its first climax, in a coup de théâtre worthy of a born playwright with a quirky sense of humor, President Václav Havel and his wife appeared in the left-hand box overlooking the stage. Kubelík and his men …all wore, on the right lapels of their tailcoats, white discs larger than silver dollars bearing the impish logo of the ‘Občanské forum’ that had overthrown decades of oppression in a bloodless revolution and swept Václav Havel, against his will, into the Presidency.
“Following the fanfare, Kubelík led the orchestra and audience in both the Czech and Slovak national anthems. In the lengthy hiatus during which he collected himself to begin Má vlast, one could see not only many auditors but even the case-hardened symphonic musicians… brushing tears from their cheeks. Merely remembering, I find myself choking up all over again.
“If arthritic distress afflicted Kubelík that night, he did not show it. …The impassioned players gave him their all, in a definitive performance, and one left Smetana Hall aware of having experienced an event both musically and politically significant.”
After receiving an honorary doctorate from Charles University on June 1 (together with Firkušný, who had also returned and had taken part in the festival) Kubelík conducted another performance of Má vlast in celebration of the country’s first free election in more than 42 years, this time not indoors, but with the combined Czech Philharmonic, Brno State Philharmonic and Slovak Philharmonic orchestras, outdoors in the Old Town Square, where he had conducted the celebratory performance after the end of the war.
Being able to conduct again emboldened Kubelík to take on further concerts in the fall of 1991. In Prague again, on October 11, he conducted the Czech Philharmonic, with Firkušný as his soloist, in a benefit performance for the Olga Havlová Goodwill Fund: Dvořák’s New World Symphony and the two great concert works Mozart composed for Prague: the Symphony in D, K. 504, and the Concerto in C, K. 503. A week later he was able to participate in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s pair of gala concerts, in observance of its centenary, and later that month took part in the Czech Philharmonic’s tour of Japan. For the Chicago concerts, duplicating the program of the first concert given by that orchestra a hundred years earlier, under its founder, Theodore Thomas, Kubelík shared the podium with the incumbent music director Sir Georg Solti and his designated successor Daniel Barenboim (who also performed a concerto with Solti conducting). To Kubelík fell the honor of conducting the final work, Dvořák’s overture Husitská, following which the musicians gave him a Tusch, an extended fanfare of respect and admiration, reserved for the most special occasions. (The Chicago orchestra is apparently the only one anywhere to retain this grand old tradition: as the conductor returns to the stage, the concertmaster signals the timpanist to begin a roll; the brass players rise for their majestic contribution as the drum roll continues.)
Conducting duties on the Czech Philharmonic’s Japanese tour, which followed the Chicago concerts, were shared with his latter-day successors Jiří Bělohlávek, who recalls the occasion with undimmed enthusiasm and warmth, and Václav Neumann, who died a year before Kubelík. Kubelík’s two concerts were performances of Má vlast, in Osaka on October 27, 1991, and in Tokyo on November 2, which proved to be the last concert he conducted anywhere. He had actually signed with the Chicago Symphony to conduct three performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in April 1993, but that commitment was cancelled by the return of his disabling illness. He died in Kastanienbaum on August 11, 1996, and his ashes were interred next to his father’s grave on the Slavín at the Vyšehrad Cemetery in Prague.
Although Rafael Kubelík’s repertory enthusiasms were as unlimited by nationality as by time period, he was very consciously and purposefully a Czech musician. He is remembered not only as a great conductor, but as a straightforward, unpretentious, altogether good man.
There was nothing of the showman in him. He did not cultivate a glamourous mystique, he did not perform podium ballet, and he never regarded himself as more important than the music he performed. He was firm in his convictions, but arrogance was simply foreign to his nature. He appreciated applause, and the numerous prizes and awards he received, but he did not strive for these honors, and valued friendship more highly. Genuineness and kindness emanated from him; warmth of heart and generosity of spirit defined him. These qualities, which profoundly informed his music-making and gave such works as Má vlast and the Mahler Ninth the prominence they enjoyed in his repertory, continue to make themselves felt in his fortunately large discography, as well as in the hearts of all who remember the man himself and his performances in both the concert hall and the opera house.