Rafael Kubelík was the sixth of the eight sons of the distinguished Czech violinist Jan Kubelík and the Hungarian-born Countess Marianne Csaky-Szell. Between 1921 and 1929 he studied the orchestral repertoire daily by playing four-hand piano arrangements with his uncle František Kubelík, prompting this comment from his father in 1926: ‘He could realise great things. He is eleven, plays splendidly violin, piano, sight-reading scores and has a good knowledge of the orchestra. Some time ago he had a look to one of my orchestral works and asked me to add a horn to a particular part: he was right!’ He entered the Prague Conservatory in 1929 where for the next four years he studied piano, violin and composition.
At the beginning of 1934, Kubelík made his first appearance as a conductor with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, in a programme that included his own Fantasy Op. 2, played by his father, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. He accompanied his father at the piano on recital tours through Romania, Italy and America during 1935 and 1936, appeared with the Czech Philharmonic playing a Mozart violin concerto himself, and was appointed as a conductor with the orchestra in 1936. Václav Talich, the orchestra’s chief conductor, sent him on tour with the orchestra to the United Kingdom in 1937 and 1938, and he also appeared as a guest conductor in America during 1937, turning down the offer of a permanent position there. Kubelík was the chief conductor of the Brno Opera between 1939 and 1941, staging the first Czech performances of Berlioz’s Les Troyens there, but after the National Socialist administration closed the theatre, he returned to Prague, where he held the position of chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1941 to 1948 in succession to Talich.
Resisting political interference in the orchestra’s affairs, Kubelík conducted a wide repertory with it that included much Czech music. At the end of World War II he led the orchestra in a performance of Smetana’s My Country in Prague’s Old Town Hall Square, supported the nationalisation of the orchestra in 1945 and assisted with the establishment of the Prague Spring Festival; but following the establishment of the Communist regime in what was to become Czechoslovakia he decided to defect while conducting Mozart’s Don Giovanni with the Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the Edinburgh Festival in 1948. Kubelík commented about working under extreme political conditions: ‘I am an anti-communist and anti-fascist. I do not think that artistic freedom can cope with a totalitarian regime. Individuals cannot do anything in a totalitarian country; people who think they can – from their own merits – are really naïve.’ He accepted engagements with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, and also appeared in South America and England, where he was much admired by the members of the BBC Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestras.
Kubelík first appeared at the head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1949 and made such a positive impression that he was invited to be the orchestra’s chief conductor with effect from 1950, but after three seasons with the orchestra he resigned in 1953 as a result of virulent press attacks from the critic Claudia Cassidy, who disliked the number of contemporary works which he programmed and the employment of black musicians. Having enjoyed great success conducting Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová with the Sadler’s Wells opera company in London in 1954, Kubelík was appointed chief conductor of the Covent Garden opera company at the Royal Opera House in 1955. Here he conducted the first complete performance in the United Kingdom of Les Troyens as well as legendary stagings of Verdi’s Otello and Janáček’s Jenůfa; and also vigorously promoted the idea of a resident company of permanent singers, which lasted more or less intact until the end of Sir Georg Solti’s regime. Once again however he reacted strongly to personal attacks, which this time came from a former director of opera at Covent Garden, Sir Thomas Beecham, who criticised the employment of foreign conductors: ironically Kubelík was to make some very successful recordings with Beecham’s own post-war orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic.
After resigning from Covent Garden in 1958 Kubelík concentrated on recording and working with many of the finest orchestras in the world, such as those of Berlin and Vienna. Following the death of his first wife as a consequence of a car accident, he married the Australian soprano Elsie Morison, who may be heard in his recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Kubelík had first conducted this orchestra in 1960, in a concert of music by Martinů, Mozart and Beethoven, and became its chief conductor the following year, remaining with it until 1979. These were to be highly productive years: the orchestra’s status as a radio orchestra allowed it to give Kubelík the extensive rehearsal time which had been the subject of criticism in Chicago and London; and freed from commercial constraints, its repertoire could be more adventurous than that of most rival orchestras. His programming was extremely original: for instance in individual seasons he would present religious pieces from Palestrina to Stravinsky (1967–1968); a symphony by Haydn in each concert (1970–1971); dedicate each concert to a single composer (1971–1972); or a complete season to twentieth-century music (1972–1973); or to symphonic poems (1973–1974). He conducted a wide range of operas with the orchestra, including Iphigénie en Tauride by Gluck, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Lohengrin and Parsifal by Wagner, Oberon by Weber, Dalibor by Smetana, Palestrina by Pfitzner, Mathis der Maler by Hindemith, Prometheus and Oedipus der Tyrann by Orff, and Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor by Nicolai. He made numerous recordings with the orchestra and toured with it often.
Kubelík took Swiss citizenship in 1967, becoming involved with the Lucerne Festival; and for a short period was chief conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1973–1974), an appointment made by a new general director, Goeran Gentele, who died before he was able to take up his post. During the 1970s and early 1980s Kubelík suffered increasingly from poor health, especially arthritis, and by 1985 had effectively ceased to conduct; but he returned to the podium in 1990 to celebrate the transition of his home country to democracy, and once again led the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of My Country at the Prague Spring Festival. A distinguished composer himself, he gave numerous first performances, including Martinů’s Three Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, Frank Martin’s Sechs Monologe aus ‘Jedermann’, Schoenberg’s Die Jakobsleiter, and Hartmann’s Symphony No. 8. He was critical of his own genius as a conductor, noting, ‘There has not been a single concert in my life of which I could say that every thing matched my hopes, and I gave thousands!’
On the podium Kubelík conducted with great energy, ‘throwing the beat off himself’ to quote the graphic description of Sir Charles Mackerras. He was not a disciplinarian, and his style was aptly described as that of ‘the velvet hand in the velvet glove’. His flexibility was ideally suited to the music of late-Romantic composers such as Mahler, and expressiveness was occasionally achieved at the price of rhythmic drive. Kubelík was liked by orchestras across the world, which would all play for him in a heart-warming style that represented the absolute best of the Czech school of musicianship. His discography is large, extending across the whole of the era of the long-playing record, from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. After making a number of 78rpm recordings for EMI, he recorded an extensive repertoire with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the American company Mercury from 1951 onwards. With the ending of his formal relationship with the Chicago orchestra and therefore with Mercury, he recorded for Decca, including a notable series of recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; and towards the end of the 1950s he returned to EMI, before moving to Deutsche Grammophon, the company which had the closest relationship at this time with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra through its founder and first chief conductor, Eugen Jochum.
Since Kubelík’s death a wide range of radio recordings has been released, which has further extended his already substantial recorded repertoire. Among the numerous highlights of his discography are the complete symphonies of Beethoven (each with a different orchestra), Brahms, Mahler and Schumann; Pfitzner’s Palestrina, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Verdi’s Rigoletto, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Lohengrin and Parsifal; together with individual works by Bartók, Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů, Mozart, and Smetana. Although he recorded relatively few concertos, those that stand out are Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the British pianist Solomon; four of the Mozart piano concertos with Clifford Curzon, and Schoenberg’s Piano and Violin Concertos with Alfred Brendel and Zvi Zeitlin respectively.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).