On This Day
29 June: Rafael Kubelík Was Born

Renowned for his eloquent, deeply personalised interpretations, conductor Rafael Kubelík was most at ease in the symphonic repertory, particularly the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, and the works of his fellow-countrymen Martinů, Janáček, and Mahler. Loved by critics and his audiences, Kubelík was gifted beyond measure and idealistic to the point of naivety. Sympathetic towards contemporary compositions, he was a man of principle and a stranger to compromise. “If a musician doesn’t fight for freedom,” Kubelík exclaimed, “he is a coward and a deserter to the human family. Music is a force for good.”

Rafael Kubelík Conducts Janáček’s Sinfonietta (Excerpt)


Rafael Kubelík, 1950

Rafael Kubelík, 1950

Rafael Kubelík was born in Býchory, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary, today’s Czech Republic, on 29 June 1914. He was the sixth child of the famous violinist Jan Kubelík and the Hungarian countess, Anna Julie Marie Széll von Bessenyö. Rafael’s musical aptitude can be traced back to his grandfather, who accidentally lost his sight. To support himself financially, he learned to play at least seven instruments and performed in pubs, churches, and street fairs. In turn, he taught his son Jan, who was a child prodigy.

Music was clearly part of the home, and young Rafael was able to read music before he could write or count. He remembers, “I read scores in bed, under my desk at school. The first impressions were tremendous, and they have remained with me ever since.” His father taught him to play the violin and he was soon able to play all the concertos as well as taking part in chamber music performances.

Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 (Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Kubelík, cond.)

Prague Conservatory

Rafael Kubelík's parents

Rafael Kubelík’s parents

Kubelík counts his uncle Frantisek, a piano teacher in Prague, as one of the greatest influences in his life. “I used to play duets with him every day,” remembers Kubelík. “He taught me the spirit behind the music of Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann and many other composers.” Kubelík entered the Prague Conservatory at the age of 14, studying violin, piano, composition, and conducting.

“I knew I wanted to be a musician” he explained in an interview, “but in what field was undecided. I had no particular ambition to be a conductor, or whether I would compose my own works or reproduce those of others.” He graduated in 1933, at the age of 19 and at his graduation concert he played a Paganini concerto and a composition of his own for violin and orchestra.

Rafael Kubelík Conducts Smetana’s Ma Vlast, “Blanik”

Debut and Brno

Jan Kubelík

Jan Kubelík

In 1934, Kubelík first stood on the podium as the conductor with the Czech Philharmonic. His father played the Beethoven Violin Concerto and then the Violin Fantasy composed by his son. For Kubelík, this was a period of leaning on the job, as “conductors must have an instruments like any other performer.” Shortly thereafter, Kubelík went on an 18-month world tour accompanying his father. Returning to Prague, he finished his violin studies and conducted more concerts before taking on the post of musical director at the Brno Opera from 1939 to 1941.

Kubelík conducted eight operas, but 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. When the Communists took over in Czechoslovakia in 1948, Kubelík decided to leave and he was rather outspoken on the topic. “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.”

Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) – VI. Der Abschied


Rafael and Jan Kubelík on tour

Rafael and Jan Kubelík on tour

Kubelík defected while at the Edinburgh Festival, and after refusing offers from the BBC he accepted the position as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1950-53. He explored his interest in modern music by conducting at least 60 contemporary works. As a conductor and musician, Kubelík always drew the line when contemporary music turned to noise. “There may be a culture of noise, and that’s fine but let’s not confuse this 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… but it must have its own logic.”

The post of music director for the Chicago Symphony is sometimes known as a conductor’s Waterloo. Rodzinski lasted one year before the dissatisfied trustees booted him out. In the case of Rafael Kubelík, he was hounded by the relentlessly hostile critic of the Chicago Tribune, Claudia Cassidy. Cassidy was persistently negative towards Kubelík’s programming, which she claimed was too limited in repertory. The real reason for his short tenure in Chicago, according to a scholar, “was that he introduced too many new works, demanded exhaustive rehearsals, and engaged several black artists.”

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Rafael Kubelík Conducts Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

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