Everyday Rather Live in Classic Eras

Rereading the classic interview with Rafael Kubelík, who spoke to Alan Blyth for Gramophone in March 1968

Rafael Jeroným Kubelík (29 June 1914 – 11 August 1996) was a Czech-born conductor and composer. He recorded a large repertory, in many cases more than once per work. There are two complete recordings of his traversals of three major symphony cycles – those of Brahms, Schumann, and Beethoven. His complete cycle of Mahler’s symphonies (recorded from 1967 to 1971 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) is highly regarded.

Kubelík also left much-admired recordings of operas by Verdi (his Rigoletto was recorded at La Scalawith Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), Mozart, Janáček, Dvořák and others, including Wagner, whose music he had shunned during the war, but which he conducted in later years. Here is the interview for Gramophone:

As well as being one of the most generous and open-hearted people in the profession, Rafael Kubelík immediately impresses you with the frankness and genuine attitude to his life and his career. His genial, rosy face, expressive hands, and wayward hair mark him out immediately as an artist but no mere caricature of one – Kubelík is the real thing.

Brought up in musical surroundings – his father was the great violinist Jan Kubelík – music has been his life since he was a little boy. ‘My uncle Frantisek – a piano teacher in Prague – was the greatest influence on me after my father and from the age of seven I used to play duets with him every day. He taught me the spirit behind the music of Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann and many other composers.’

At this time he read scores, specially of operas, voraciously and he began to learn composition too. ‘My father, of course, taught me the violin and I was soon able to play all the concertos as well as taking part in chamber music performances. I had no particular ambition to be a conductor. I knew I wanted to be a musician but in what field was undecided – whether I would compose my own works or reproduce those of others.’

He studied at the Prague Conservatoire from 1928 until 1933, and in January 1934 made his debut as a conductor at the age of 19 with the Czech Philharmonic. ‘My father was the soloist and he gave the first performance of my Fantasy for Violin. A few days later at another concert, he played his own concerto. Then I went on an 18-month world tour as his accompanist. Back in Prague I finished my violin studies and conducted more concerts with the Czech Philharmonic. I was musical director at the Brno Opera from 1939 till 1941.’

He conducted eight operas there, including the complete Trojans, which he was later to direct with such enthusiasm and success at Covent Garden. The Brno Theatre was shut down by the Nazis in 1941 and Kubelík returned to Prague, where he was appointed chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 1942, the year of his first marriage.

After the 1948 Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, Kubelík emigrated, and he is quite outspoken about his reasons for leaving his native land. ‘I am as anti-Communist as I am anti-Fascist. I just don’t believe that artistic freedom can co-exist with a political dictatorship. An individual cannot do anything in iron-curtain countries and it’s naive of anyone to suppose that they can, or that they could change the system by their endeavours. No, I have never been back and I suppose I’m a black sheep in their eyes – specially as they have frequently invited me to return.’

He was conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1950-53, when he showed his interest in modern music by conducting at least 60 contemporary works. He is sympathetic to music today but not when it becomes, what he terms, noise. ‘There may be a culture of noise, and that’s fine but don’t let’s confuse it with music. Don’t mistake me. I’m not against change. Music has always developed by moving on to something new once one idiom has been exhausted. For instance, after polyphony had led to a dead-end, composers turned to monody. But it has always had a form. Like a tree, like a man, it must have a skeleton, flesh and veins – it must have its own logic.’

After a successful British operatic debut at Sadler’s Wells conducting Katya Kabanova in 1954, he was appointed musical director at Covent Garden the following year, and remained in the post for three successful years during which the British stage premieres of Jenufa andThe Trojans were given. He resigned only after a bitter attack on Covent Garden by Beecham which offended him deeply.

His ideal of a good opera house was then, and continues to be, an ensemble house. ‘Just because I think that this kind of opera is no longer possible in today’s conditions of jet-age singers, I would not like to be at the head of an opera house again. One is constantly forced into compromises. But I like opera and, when I can work with a producer I can fight with properly, I love to conduct a work for four or five performances – and then go.’ It is good news that he is to record Janáček’s From the House of the Dead.

When I asked him if he was really too good-natured to be in charge of an opera house, ‘Oh no, I don’t think that. It’s not necessary to be a dictator to control a house. You can get a great deal out of people by being nice!’

After Covent Garden he freelanced for a while before taking up his present post in 1960 as conductor of the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Bavarian Radio Orchestra). He conducts about 35 concerts a year with them in Munich and on tour – he will be with them at this year’s Edinburgh Festival – and about 30 concerts elsewhere as a guest. Divided another way, he spends four months out of the year in Munich, four months travelling and four months resting. But this rest time is often taken up with composition.

It was news to me that he has, for instance, written three full-scale operas as well as numerous orchestral and chamber music works. He is philosophical about his compositions. ‘After I left Czechoslovakia, I somehow felt it was my duty to neglect my own work and conduct other people’s. Besides in Prague other conductors knew my pieces, and conducted them and they were well received. I am not worried about the neglect of my own music because it is there, it had to be written, and it can stay in the cupboard for the moment. If it’s any good, it will still be good in 25 years.

‘But I know sometimes that I must compose. That’s why we live in a 300-year-old chalet by the Lake of Lucerne where I can have absolute quiet, get away from all the many influence of the concert hall and have my own world of composition in a neutral atmosphere. There, I go for long walks and get a work arranged in my head before I write it down. I don’t think I belong to any school, though that’s for others to judge, and I vary my musical language from piece to piece.

‘Yes, I think you could say I’m a double person and one part hates the other. As a composer, one is thoughtful, passive and introvert – a philosopher, if you like. As a conductor, one is extrovert, energetic – like an athlete.

‘As a conductor I like to have an audience. That’s why I’m pleased all our radio performances are given before a public in Munich’s Herkules-Saal. For the same reason, I like to do a “live” performance of a work before I try to record it. Besides there has been plenty of chance then to rehearse it fully. After that, for preference, I like to have a week’s break before the recording sessions.

‘Once in the studio, I like to go straight through the work. Then I listen to the result on the tape. If it is different from what I’ve heard on the platform, the technicians make changes, to improve it, because a record must sound as I hear it on the rostrum. Then we make a second “take” and this is usually the right one – with just one or two small insertions if anything’s gone wrong. If this lasts for more than a few bars, I like to do a largish section over again.

‘Oh no, I hate to listen to my old records. Once it’s done, it’s done and I go on to something else.’

Kubelík is gradually recording all the Mahler symphonies with his orchestra for DG. ‘I am inclined to believe that with the advent of stereo, more of a Mahler symphony can be heard in a recording than in the hall. His complex sound only comes over in a hall if the acoustics are really very good.’

His ‘complete’ Mahler will stop short at the Adagio of No 10 because, in spite of his admiration for Deryck Cooke’s skill, he believes that the sketches are too incomplete for a true Mahler symphony to be concocted. ‘After long and careful study, I cannot believe that the symphony would have turned out quite like that, had Mahler finished it. He changed a great deal as he wrote his symphonies and nobody can really tell what the completed work would have been like. One simply cannot put oneself into Mahler’s mind.’

He has one 21-year-old son called Martin who is studying to be an architect at Cambridge. ‘He has a natural talent for the clarinet – inherited no doubt from my grandfather, the first musical member of the family and also a clarinettist – but he won’t take up music as a career.’

Kubelík’s first wife died in 1961 and in 1963 he married the Australian soprano Elsie Morison, whom he had known at Covent Garden but not seen again after 1958 until 1963. She only sings these days ‘when it makes her happy.’

When Kubelík is not conducting or composing, he collects antiques and plays chess (or at least works out chess problems).

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