Tribute to Rafael Kubelík, Part 1: The war years and exile

Monday night’s opening of the 69th edition of the Prague Spring International Music Festival will be in honour of the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of most important figures in 20th century Czech music, conductor Rafael Kubelík. In this special programme, his son Martin discusses Kubelík's remarkable life and career.

Rafael Kubelík | Photo: Týdeník Rozhlas
The son of the famous violinist Jan Kubelík, Rafael Kubelík had a long association with the Prague Spring. As well as being one of its founders, he helmed its first ever concert in 1946 – and returned after over four decades in exile to conduct the opening night in 1990, the first after the fall of communism.

In connection with Monday’s tribute, I spoke to the conductor’s son Martin Kubelík. In the first half of a two-part interview, we began by discussing his father’s war years. Rafael Kubelík had headed the Brno Opera, but when the Nazis shut it down he moved to Prague and the Czech Philharmonic.

“He was not a resistance fighter. His fight was through music: refusing to conduct Wagner during the war, refusing to conduct – although he was musical conductor of the Czech Philharmonic at the time – on Hitler’s birthday and whatever other special events there were.

“Before that, when he was director of the Brno Opera, it was partially his attitude [that led to its closure]… when in the last act of Dalibor, when they are freeing Dalibor, he has the peasants wave a Czech flag in front of the Nazi audience. This of course did not help.

“Then when he was musical director of the Czech Philharmonic in Prague he refused all these events. And he refused to speak German. He was fluent in German. It was one of the three languages he grew up in: Czech, Hungarian and German.

“But through the whole war he refused to speak German to anybody, even German officials. He just didn’t speak German to them.

“He refused to conduct until they said, now you have to come, and the SS will be there, or the Gestapo or whoever. And they gave him strict instructions as to how he was to salute and when he was to salute.

“But he locked himself into the toilet and refused to go on stage until all the heiling and all that business was over. He got away with it, until the next morning.

“I am told that at 5 AM the Gestapo came for him but of course he was long gone. His friend Vašata hid him until the hullaballoo died down, in the countryside.”

Could you tell us what role he played in particular in the foundation of the Prague Spring?

“I must pass in detail on this question. I know he was one of the co-founders. As far as I understand it, the idea of doing some sort of a musical festival in Prague was here already in the 19th century.

Martin Kubelík,  photo: CTK
“He was then the spiritus rector, so to speak, immediately after the war. He was in a position as musical director of the Czech Philharmonic… together with his friend Francis Schwarzenberg, who was a historian and was later a professor in Chicago, with whom he had been great friends during the war, together they hammered this piece of paper onto the door of the Rudolfinum saying, property of the Czech Philharmonic.

“So he was very much involved. Who actually and how actually the mechanisms worked, I don’t know. But I think definitely he was the driving force of an idea which was around.

“He probably shaped the idea very firmly in the months following… because after all there was only a year between the end of the war and the first festival.”

A couple of years later, of course, the Communists came to power. And he defected, I believe, during the Edinburgh Festival – is that right?

“More or less. He didn’t defect in that way. He left legally. He got my mother, my then mother, my first mother, the violinist Ludmila Bertlová, an official invitation.

“There are all sorts of crazy, fantastic stories about how they got me out, onto the plane. It was a British plane, so that helped. Anyway, I got out as well.

“When he landed at Croydon his first steps were to the Home Office in London. He handed in his Czech passport and with that, for him, it was finished. What happened afterwards here in Prague is, of course, a different story

“But his actual invitation was to Glyndebourne. [Festival director Carl] Ebert and these people invited him. He conducted Don Giovanni there, which was then taken to – yes, you are right – to the Edinburgh festival. And then he stayed out.”

Is it the case, as I’ve read, that your mother didn’t know they weren’t coming back?

“Yes. She didn’t know. Whether she had an inkling or not, I don’t know. But he did it very clearly, because he didn’t want his wife’s family, my grandparents, and one uncle who was still here, to suffer.

“The way I heard the story was that they were flying over Pilsen and between Pilsen and the frontier he said, now look outside, that’s the last time you’ll see it for a long time.”

Did it take him long to become established abroad? Or was he already well-known internationally?

“He was well-known internationally – of course not as much as in later years or decades. He had in the mid-1930s accompanied his father as a pianist on an American tour which lasted for over a year. So he was already well-known in America.

Jan Kubelík
“In England he was well-known as he had toured with the Czech Philharmonic in the fall of 1937 and 1938, two tours. They were always roughly 25, 30 concerts in as many days, more or less.

“So he was reasonably well-known. And the name was of course known. But he had met various people before the war who knew his conducting, people like Sir Adrian Boult. The conducting elite of the time knew of this young man.”

This may be a slightly strange question, but would he have had such a great career, and perhaps such an interesting life, if the Communists hadn’t come to power and if he hadn’t left?

“I personally am convinced. I mean, talent is talent, capabilities are capabilities. I’m sure his career would have been different. I think it would have been a much… straighter career, if you know what I mean.

“He had the great fortune that he had an incredibly large repertory. This is generally known. When he was a young lad, I mean a kid, a child, he played two to four hours every day, four hands, with his uncle František, the brother of Jan Kubelík, who was an excellent pianist.

“They went to the whole repertory on the piano, four hands. And he was a glutton for learning modern composers. That was one of the big things he did in Chicago [with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of which he was director].

“To introduce 70 new modern compositions in three years to the public in Chicago was quite something in the early 1950s.”

If I understand it right, all through these years, or at least through part of these years, the Communists were trying to lure him back?

“Absolutely. There were many different ways in which they tried it. They used the technique of disinformation. They spread rumours that it wasn’t him, that he wanted to come back, but first Ludmila Bertlová, his first wife and my mother, and then my second mother Elsie [Morison], didn’t want to come back. This was still the early 1960s.

“That it was my mother who forced him to because of the [ironically] good climate in the windy city of Chicago. I can’t think of a worse climate, not even London! That she preferred to stay in Chicago than to go to London or come back.

“What also surprise me is that your colleagues [journalists], who I would say should be considered to be serious, today still fall into the trap of believing this disinformation.

“That was on a ‘harmless’ level. They also tried to force him by taking him to court. He was sentenced in absentia to three years and all his property was expropriated, which he was then promised to be given back if he came back.

“He was warned that I would be kidnapped and brought back here, so that he would be forced to return or to abandon me, so to speak.

Rafael Kubelík's house in Luzern,  Switzerland,  photo: Petr Veber
“Later when I was teenager I was looking back at my childhood years and very young years… I was always surprised that I was never allowed to go to school on my own. That the head uniformed policeman in Switzerland, whom we knew vaguely, was always incredibly curious about how I was. And so on and so on.

“But the worst part, I would say, was the secret service’s attempt to turn him into an agent. They sent people out to Besançon, to London.

“For me one of the most poignant experiences in that sort of thing was when he came home right at the beginning of our London stay, at Covent Garden – the mid-1950s.

“He came home one day and said, great, I’ve had news from two pals, two student colleagues, an artist and a musician, they’ve managed to get permission to come to London. They can’t meet me in public but they will come here for supper.

“My mother cooked a big meal. I remember her making a very special apple strudel. They came – but we never got to the main course.

“I remember vehemently them sitting down at the table and my father suddenly getting up and pushing the table away and literally kicking them out of the flat.

“I have now found out that at least one of them – though my father always suspected that they were both agents – was an agent for the StB who was sent out to convince him to become an agent for the secret service.

“Only a year or less after this event there is a note in the archives of the secret service that he… they had already given him a temporary or provisional codename, Mozart [laughs], and there is a note in the archive saying, this man is so much against us, let’s stop working on him.”

Tomorrow in part two of this interview, Martin Kubelík discusses his father’s efforts to support freedom in Czechoslovakia and his return, despite ill health, to conduct in Prague in 1990.