Tribute to Rafael Kubelík, Part 2: Supporting freedom at home and return after decades in exile

Prager Frühling - Rafael Kubelík (Foto: YouTube)

Monday’s opening of the 2014 Prague Spring music festival was dedicated to one of the greats of Czech music, conductor Rafael Kubelík, who was born 100 years ago this year. The honour was certainly merited; after all, not only did Kubelík help found the festival immediately after WWII, he helmed its first ever concert – and the first opening after the fall of communism.

Rafael Kubelík | Photo: YouTube
In the second half of a two-part interview with his son Martin Kubelík, we discuss the then retired conductor’s extraordinary return to Prague after over 40 years in exile.

But first let’s hear about the work Rafael Kubelík did in support of freedom at home, and the conditions he set the Communists, who employed all means to try to get him to return.

“He said, I will only come back if everybody is guaranteed the freedom you are guaranteeing me.

“He didn’t mean only the freedom to travel – he meant every human right necessary – which of course they were not prepared to do.

“Then in 1968 came his two, I would say, big moves. There were many smaller things – writing letters supporting people, he coined these medals for the Czech Philharmonic in 1968 when they came out.

“He did the music boycott, where basically the whole musical world in 1968 said they wouldn’t go to Czechoslovakia until the Warsaw Pact troops left. Interestingly, many, many, many of them never did, which I find admirable.

“In 1978 or 1979 there were his public letters to Brezhnev with [Yehudi] Menuhin, which he and Menuhin wrote when Havel was being tried. So yes, he did a lot of things.”

Tell us about his extraordinary return here in 1990, when he conducted the opening night of the first Prague Spring after the fall of communism.

“He had invitations, which he was taking seriously, in 1968. In the Prague Spring of 1968 – I love that symbiotic meaning of the words Prague Spring, I really do.

“He at that time wasn’t certain what would happen and was very much in two minds. He didn’t trust the situation, and he was right in the end.

“But it wasn’t the Warsaw Pact intervention that was the issue – he simply didn’t trust the moves which were being made here, 100 percent.

“In 1989 it was also with great patience… He’d been out for 42 years then, or 41 and a half years. He was a patient man and in this regard he wanted to be sure.

“He did not accept an invitation, I believe, until it was very late, in December of 1989, or early January 1990.

November 1989 in Prague
“Then he went, because he hadn’t conducted for three years, he went to his winter home, in California, in the desert, because of his arthritis and various joint and bone problems.

“And he literally underwent rigid training with dumbbells, which we’ve since found in California [laughs]. Then he decided to come back in early April for the May concert…”

Which took place not in a concert hall but on Old Town Square.

“No, no – there were two concerts. There was the official opening of the Prague Spring festival, in the Smetana Hall, as always. But then he instigated a concert on Old Town Square with all three orchestras: the Czech, the Moravian from Brno and the Slovak, the Bratislava Orchestra.

“Of course, there is a very clear parallel with the concert he conducted on Old Town Square after the liberation from Nazism. So there is a clear sort of alpha-omega situation of the liberation from Nazism and the concert on Old Town Square, and the concert marking the liberation from communism there in 1990.

“Interestingly enough, it was held on the day of the first free elections and he had been warned that if he didn’t finish exactly at 6PM, I think it was, the television would cut off the direct broadcast and go to the election studios. So he finished on time [laughs].”

Were you here then? And do you know how it impacted him returning here all those years later?

“If I can become very personal for a moment, he took me out. He gave me the freedom to be educated in a free world, to be allowed to become an individual, intellectually I mean, to form your own opinions, to have your teachers train you not to spout whatever they say but to have your own ideas – even if they’re wrong!

“To go through that mental protest is the biggest gift anyone can give you – and he gave me this gift.

“I never went back. Not out of fear, but simply if you carry a name like my father’s you have a lot of advantages, but I think you also have a lot of responsibilities.

“I was always very aware of the fact, and was sometimes laughed at by my schoolmates, that there were simply certain things I didn’t do. I didn’t want to embarrass my father.

“On a more moral or ethical level, for me not coming back before he did was for me natural.

“In fact, I have great memories of this return, because I was living in Vienna at the time and I decided that the shortest way from Vienna to Prague was via Zurich airport, where we met up and flew back together. So we had flown out together and flew back together.

“For him it was a very emotional moment. I know that throughout his physical training with the dumbbells it was also a mental exercise for him.

Martin Kubelík with his wife at Rafael Kubelík's grave,  photo: CTK
“He’d not been home for 42 years. He knew that he’d be meeting people of various timbres.

“I think his conciliatory heart and his deep feeling for his people – after all, on one hand he was right in saying, I left my country so as not to leave my people, or my nation, whichever translation you want to use. He said that in many languages and in many instances.

“For 42 years he did what he could and lived up to this maxim. But once you have this maxim, once you come back you have to also live up to it.

“I think balancing between living up to this maxim not to betray anybody, even after the Velvet Revolution, he felt… there was the conciliatory on the one hand, and on the other not betraying all those people who had suffered, which was the greater part…

“Let me put it in a slightly different way. We would often speak about why he met so few Czechs who came from Prague. It obviously wasn’t only because of his experiences in London and Besancon [when he was targeted by communist agents].

“He was very clear to me, and it made sense, and said, if I meet someone who comes out of Czechoslovakia, out of the communist system, either he works for the system, and then I don’t want to meet him, or he doesn’t work for the system and meeting me will harm him.

“I think it was this sort of emotional dialectic that was probably more difficult for him than any of us would guess.”