Rafael Kubelik: Homeland and World Art

By Kadlec, Petr | Czech Music, April 2004 | Go to article overview
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Rafael Kubelik: Homeland and World Art

Kadlec, Petr, Czech Music

Rafael Kubelik most certainly isn't a "Swiss conductor of Czech origin", as the Grove Music Encyclopaedia describes him. He has always been a passionate and genuine patriot, and as the conductor Daniel Barenboim perceptively put it, "through his beloved Smetana and Dvorak he has always been more connected with his homeland than many people who were living in the Czechoslovakia of the time". Of course artistic emigration has been a part of Czech history from the times of the baroque and classicism. Many artists used to leave for economic reasons, to find better material conditions for the development of their gifts, but as the 20th century has shown, there can be other reasons for emigration.

Chicago Grateful and Ungrateful

In the summer of 1948 he went with his wife and small son Martin to the Edinburgh Festival to conduct Don Giovanni and did not go back. Helped in the initial stages by Sir Adrian Boult, Kubelik started to direct leading English orchestras and in 1950 accepted an invitation to become chief conductor of the orchestra in Chicago.


He was to stay only three seasons, however, because the conservative local public had little appreciation for efforts to present original American composers and 20th-century music. Concert programmes that would have been considered normal in Prague often caused conflicts in America. Many people acknowledged and respected Kubelik, but the prejudiced music critics finally got what they wanted. Over the three seasons, however, the young Kubelik had studied more than sixty new pieces with the orchestra, including Ma vlast [My Homeland]. His Chicago premieres included Taras Bulba and Dvorak's Piano Concerto, but also Mahler, Brahms and Bruckner. After his departure in 1953 the view of his time as conductor in Chicago changed somewhat, and he came to be seen as the first important conductor to have raised the orchestra's profile after the uncertain war years and to have provided it with a stable repertoire. He often returned to Chicago as guest conductor.

A Foreigner in Covent Garden

Following his return to England he drew public attention with his production of Janacek's Katya Kabanova at Sadler's Wells, and shortly afterwards in 1955 he was appointed musical director of Covent Garden. Just as in Brno, here too he presented a successful production of The Bartered Bride and tried to build up the broadest possible core repertoire. For example he presented Verdi's Othello, Janacek's Jenufa and Berlioz's The Trojans.

His departure was partly the result of a personal attack launched by Sir Thomas Beecham. Beecham, a conductor who in his youth had embraced the same principles as Kubelik and done so much for English music before the war, had turned into an intolerant and conceited old man. He wrote a chauvinist piece for a British newspaper criticising the Covent Garden management for |appointing foreigners to the post of musical director "in defiance of all common sense, even though they had plenty of opportunities to choose some capable Englishman." The management didn't take Beecham's absurd attack particularly seriously--later they appointed Georg Solti to the same post--but the affair confirmed Kubelik in his decision to resign. In addition he felt that the London public was mainly interested in big soloist names, while he wanted to build up a stable domestic company. In his 1957/58 season, which was his last, his productions included Boris Godunov. He never remained in any position, however prestigious, if he felt a lack of readiness and goodwill around him. His interpretations of Katya Kabanova and Jenufa won Janacek a proper reputation as an operatic composer on the international scene. His other English premiere, Berlioz's The Trojans, went down in music history as an evening to remember. He had a particularly close relationship with this opera, perhaps because its grand musical dramatic conception appealed to him, and perhaps also because of Virgil's story of Aeneas, the Trojan hero forced by the voice of conscience and his ancestors to leave what he most loved.

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