A splendid DVD from Deutsche Grammophon, Rafael Kubelík: A Portrait, reminds us that multiple tyrannies can govern a conductor’s life. Kubelík (1914 –1996) was a mightily gifted Bohemian-born conductor, scion of a legendary musical family (his father was the superstar violinist Jan Kubelík). Rafael Kubelík was music director of the Brno Opera when the Nazis shut the company down in 1941. A year later they executed the Opera’s administrative director, Václav Jiříkovský (1891-1942), who had smuggled Jews out of Occupied Prague. Small wonder that Kubelík states in a 1970’s documentary (which is reprinted along with brilliant performances of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bruckner on the new DVD), “A conductor should be a guide, not a dictator. I could never stomach dictatorships.”
When he was named wartime conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, he declined to perform Wagner, and would not give German notables the Nazi salute as required, nearly causing him to be arrested. A stunning interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Smetana, and Dvořák, Kubelík helped establish the Prague Spring Festival in 1946, but finally was driven from his homeland by the 1948 Communist coup.
Kubelík told one interviewer: “I am an anti-Communist and anti-fascist. I do not think that artistic freedom can cope with a totalitarian regime. Individuals can do nothing in a country dominated by an Iron Curtain, and only truly naïve people think that they can.” He added: “I had lived through one form of bestial tyranny, Nazism. As a matter of principle I was not going to live through another.” Even in exile, he encountered other (if less dangerous) forms of despotism. A brief, artistically productive stint as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1950-1953) was aborted when orchestra trustees and the all-powerful Chicago Tribune music critic Claudia Cassidy (1899–1996) decreed that Kubelík was performing far too much modern music. Cassidy was known as “Acidy Cassidy” for her views that Janáček’s “Taras Bulba” was “trash” and Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta” a “potboiler.” She scorned Kubelík’s “curious beat, being distorted by arms stiff as driving pistons or limp as boiled spaghetti.”
Despite continuing success in Europe, Kubelík’s second attempt at a permanent post in America was even more short-lived, when Metropolitan Opera general manager Göran Gentele invited him to be the Met’s Music Director, a year before Gentele was killed in a car accident. Without Gentele’s supportive presence, Kubelík lasted only six months at the Met.
Kubelík could be tender and charming, as seen on the Deutsche Grammophon DVD, when he mentions during a rehearsal for Haydn’s St. Cecilia Mass that the patron saint of church music is “not so sacred any more, poor girl, How times change!” When Kubelík, who had been based in Switzerland for decades, died in 1996, Václav Havel wrote of his admiration for the conductor, “not only for all the glory he brought to Czech music, but also because he was an extraordinary character and a patriot.”