The Fate and Works of Rudolf Karel during World War II

Jan Charypar Studie 2/2019

Rudolf Karel was one of the composers who were interned in Terezín during World War II. He did not belong among those whose origin was Jewish; the cause of his arrest was his activity in the anti-Nazi resistance. Therefore, he was not held in the ghetto and then deported to an extermination camp, but in the Small Fortress where he died in 1945. The terrible conditions there did not enable him to compose more than several little pieces. However, he composed two significant works in the Pankrác prison where he was held by the Nazis before, one of those being even a whole opera.

Karel’s life and his activities in the two world wars

Rudolf Karel was born on November 9, 1880 in Pilsen. He was one of the last students of Antonín Dvořák’s masterclass where he studied between 1901 and 1904. He was an active person in both world wars. He became a legionnaire in Russia during WWI. That was a consequence of accidental events. In 1914, he was in Morkvashi on the Volga in Russia on holiday but it was already after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand d’Este, at the time when Austria declared war on Serbia, and Karel was arrested with his wife (daughter of the writer Zikmund Winter) as an alleged Austrian spy. After some time, he managed to escape, and thanks to his compatriots, he could spend the wartime in several Russian towns as a music teacher. After the Bolshevik revolution, he had to escape from Rostov to Siberia, and in 1918, he came to Irkutsk. This town was controlled by the Bolsheviks, but at the time it was occupied by Czechoslovak Legion and Karel eventually entered the Czechoslovak army. Nonetheless, he continued to work as a musician because the pianist Ludvík Kundera, who was also active in the Legion, suggested him as a conductor of the newly established Legionnaire Symphony Orchestra. Despite the problem with the lack of good performers and often very difficult rehearsal conditions (they had to rehearse for example in a train), Karel managed to develop a relatively good ensemble which performed in all major Siberian towns – Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Mariinsk, Vladivostok etc.

After the war, Karel’s position was difficult because he was almost forgotten in his country and the legionnaire orchestra was disbanded. As a captain in the army, he started to work at the newly established Memorial of Resistance led by the writers Rudolf Medek and Josef Kopta. His renown as a composer got better after the successful performances of several of his works, and in 1923, he finally became a teacher of composition at the Prague conservatoire.

The adventurous, often very dangerous events in Karel’s life during WWI were a foretaste of his activity in WWII. As a former legionnaire, he joined a group of underground anti-Nazi resistance where he managed the support of families of executed and imprisoned people, and also maintained the connection to the central movement of resistance. He carried out these tasks in Prague and Nový Jáchymov near Beroun, where he hid from the Gestapo and helped paratroopers who hid in the nearby gamekeeper’s lodge. He was arrested by the Gestapo on March 19, 1943, and held in the Pankrác prison until February 1945. According to witnesses, Karel was very brave and never revealed any of the other resistance fighters during the many interrogations he had to undergo. Thanks to a continual help of the physician Oldřich Navara, also a former Russian legionnaire, the conditions of Karel’s imprisonment in Pankrác improved enough so that he could compose again, particularly when he was moved to the hospital department of the prison in the summer of 1944. The allied wardens provided him with writing instruments but he often had to use pieces of toilet paper for sketches. The warden František Müller carried the pieces of sketches out and put them amongst his daughter’s notes. Navarra and Müller were exposed and arrested but there were others who helped Karel, and thanks to that, he created there not only little compositions but also a sketch of the opera Tři vlasy děda Vševěda (Three Hairs of the Wise Old Man) and Nonet. These works actually survived on hundreds of little pieces of paper, often toilet paper.

On February 6, 1945, Karel was moved to the Small Fortress in Terezín where he still composed little pieces. Thanks to surviving Karel’s fellow prisoners we know some details of his life and death in Terezín. He became a victim of the terrible local hygiene and cruelty of the Nazis. He fell ill with dysentery and pneumonia. All the ill prisoners were put on the floor in one cell intended for that. The well-known Terezín murderer Stefan Royko, who was, by the way, later condemned to life imprisonment but lived almost till his 90, ordered to disinfect the cell, and therefore, all the ill prisoners, most of them with high fever, had to go out to the freezing cold. Then they were closed into the other cell where Karel’s fellow prisoners, including physicians, tried to warm him up by a stove, but his health state was already critical and they didn’t have a chance to save his life; moreover, Karel allegedly would have died without this cruel action anyway. He and eight of his fellow prisoners were found dead in the cell a day after. He is buried in one of the unidentified graves at the National Cemetery in Terezín.

Karel’s works

There are too few recordings of Karel’s works available and neither is the literature numerous. In any case, there is a noticeable difference between views of Karel in the monographs written by his biographer Otakar Šourek and in later criticism. Šourek wrote one little[1] and one larger[2] biography of Karel’s in 1946 and 1947 respectively, and in both, we can notice the intention to emphasize the significance of Karel’s artistic legacy, perhaps also owing to them being written quite shortly after his tragic death. In 1967, Jiří Bajer wrote an article in which he rated Karel’s works much more sceptically.[3] We can also read similar reflections in the first part of the comprehensive historical work Dějiny české hudební kultury 1890/1945 from 1972 (The History of Czech Musical Culture since 1890 till 1945) in some chapters written by Bajer, Vladimír Lébl, and Jitka Ludvová.[4]

In his earlier period, Karel often tended to very large forms and some of his works are characterised by neo-romantic expression and topics. We can name the opera Ilseino srdce (Ilsea’s Heart, 1909), Renesanční symfonie (The Renaissance Symphony, 1911) or two symphonic poems with very romantic, somewhat Berlioz-like message: Ideály (Ideals, 1909) and Démon (Daemon, 1920). Šourek appreciated Karel’s works of this period, his inspiration and technical skills. However, he criticised a lack of contrasts between the parts of Ideály.[5] The above mentioned much more critical treatises by Bajer, Lébl, and Ludvová indicate that before 1920, Karel’s forms were often too extensive, meaning that the musical contents were not adequate to their large length and monumental conceptions and that led to monotony. In Démon, the composer finally found a mature solution of the composition problems, as Bajer and Lébl point out, too.[6] Its style is characterized by strong effort for expression and quite complex musical language that is typical for late neo-romanticism.

Bajer states that the quality of Karel’s invention in his earlier works lies in the rational skills – not in strength and originality of the motives but in the structural thinking, which is essentially linear-based and interesting in this respect (linear orientation was typical for many Czech progressive composers at the beginning of the 20th century), the ability to form a rational structure by development of the motives and their variants. This rationalism of Karel’s composition thinking contrasts with the subjective romantic message of the works. There were different opinions whether the monumental conceptions of Karel’s early period stand on a thematic material that is distinctive enough; unlike Otakar Šourek, Jiří Bajer didn’t think so, claiming that Karel’s melodic ideas were too abstract, little specific.[7] However, the first performances of Démon were a great success in Czechoslovakia and also in Turin in Italy where Oskar Nedbal performed it.

Either way, Karel changed his style during the 1920s. At first, he focused on vocal music, while he had composed mainly instrumental works earlier. This change may have been related partly to his connection to Russian culture and partly to the fact that his wife, whom he married in 1922, was a concert singer. His earlier tending to monumental conceptions was crowned with the cantata Vzkříšení (The Resurrection) on the words by Rudolf Medek and Josef Kopta (1926), which was dedicated to the memory of the war victims and to the 10th anniversary of Czechoslovakia. At the end of the 1920s, he starts to tend to a more simple and traditional style comprehensible to a wide audience. According to Jiří Bajer, also Karel’s motives are now more specific in relation to the genre and topic.[8] The most important work representing this new orientation was the opera Smrt kmotřička – Death the Godmother (1932). Its libretto by Stanislav Lom, perhaps the best he set to music, is based on a folk fairy tale which portrays death non-tragically and without mysticism – as a wise power that brings life to an end. Music of the opera is based on the motif of a country fiddler and traditional opera forms. It was this opera what was the most played of Karel’s works during his lifetime, he was even simplified as a “one work composer” after his death.

After the previous effort for expression, complex means and monumental form, this new orientation ranked Karel among the composers which turned back to the tradition. It could have been a consequence of the questions that composers had to deal with at that time – the social function of art music and the importance of its contact with a wide audience. However, a turn away from complex subjective neo-romanticism to more classical aesthetics was also one of the typical tendencies of the modern styles. For example, the Nonet composed in the Pankrác prison can be considered a valuable contribution to Czech neo-classicism.

The war period of Karel’s music starts with Revoluční předehra (The Revolution Overture, 1941), which is the last work he composed before he was imprisoned in Pankrác. When Karel, thanks to the allied wardens and physicians in Pankrác, had at least the most basic conditions for composing, he dedicated them several little pieces as a token of gratitude – Píseň svobody (Song of Liberty) on lyrics by his young fellow prisoner, Pankrácký valčík (Pankrác Valse), Pankrácký pochod (Pankrác March), Pankrácká polka (Pankrác Polka), the little song Žena moje štěstí (Woman – My Happiness). The main work he dealt with was an opera. He could not continue working on the opera The Taming of the Shrew after Shakespeare that he had not completed before the imprisonment. However, he planned to compose an opera based on the fairy tale Tři zlaté vlasy děda Vševěda (Three Golden Hairs of the Wise Old Man) by Božena Němcová and was able to write a libretto to that in prison. He left the word “golden” out of the title because he changed the colour of the Wise Old Man’s hair to grey. It is a story of a boy called Plaváček[9] who happily overcomes all the obstacles that evil puts in his path since his birth. Using this naïve happy story is an image of that Karel needed to escape the cruel reality in his mind and to find optimism even in the tragedy of his fate.

Vítězslav Novák wrote about this work in his memories O sobě a o jiných (About Me and Others): “the optimistic mood of this work is admirable, and what is even harder to believe is Karel’s memory in the fragmentary composition process that makes it impossible to view the whole.[10] Karel could not revise anything in prison because the wardens could take out only little pieces of the sketch. The work was created in hundreds of finished fragments that Karel continuously handed in. It is admirable that he managed to compose a five-act opera in this way in nine months. The work was completed by his pupil Zbyněk Vostřák.

Immediately after finishing the opera, Karel started to work on a nonet that he dedicated to the members of the Czech Nonet. He was probably keeping a promise he had made to them before the war. The composition process was the same as with the opera. The sketch was instrumented by the double-bassist of the Czech Nonet, František Hertl. The violinist Václav Snítil later reworked the arrangement. Karel's nonet is played to this day and there are recordings of both versions available. It is a 15-minute composition of a classical type. Karel concentrated very effective music to its three approximately 5-minute movements. The ideas are developed in both melodically and harmonically rich linear thinking and a well-planned construction. Despite its lyrical profundity and connotation of the author’s emotions in prison, it is a completely non-pathetic and objective work. The reason why this nonet is not forgotten, unlike many of Karel’s compositions, cannot be just the tragic circumstances of its genesis. It is surely also the amount of lively and impressive music that Karel managed to put in such a compact, concise composition. It is an interesting enrichment of the nonet repertoire.

The most significant of Karel’s works of this period were composed in the Pankrác prison. In the terrible conditions in the Small Fortress in Terezín, he could only compose little pieces: Pochod häftlinků (March of the Häftlings,[11] the original title in the manuscript) called also Terezínský pochod (Terezín Marche), Terezínský valčík (Terezín Valse), an arrangement of three folksongs for a child chorus, and the song Terezín on lyrics by his fellow prisoner Stanislav Medek, a brother of the writer Rudolf Medek. There he also allegedly sketched an overture to Tři vlasy děda Vševěda but it was destroyed as well as the song. The exposition of the museum in the Small Fortress in Terezín contains the manuscript of Pochod häftlinků, which was considered lost earlier.

Conclusion: Karel’s artistic and human legacy

Rudolf Karel was an exceptional personality of Czech music with his bravery. As a Czech patriot, he was active in both world wars where he faced the greatest dangers. His compositions from Pankrác and Terezín were created secretly, only thanks to his unbending mental activity and a help of his friends who arranged the most necessary conditions for him. As a composer, he is rated as an artist full of contrasts.[12] However, in his mature period, he found his own style following tradition; and, as the nonet indicates, he found his distinctive melodic invention. In 1998, the Czech president Václav Havel honoured Rudolf Karel with the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, III. class in memoriam.


[1] ŠOUREK, Otakar. Rudolf Karel. Praha: Orbis, 1946.

[2] ŠOUREK, Otakar. Rudolf Karel: variace v životě i díle. V Praze: Hudební matice Umělecké besedy, 1947.

[3] BAJER, Jiří: Rudolf Karel. Hudební věda, 1967, roč. 4, pp. 299–303.

[4] BAJER, Jiří and Vladimír LÉBL. Rudolf Karel. In Dějiny české hudební kultury 1890/1945. 1, 1890/1918. Ed. Robert Smetana. Praha: Academia, 1972, pp. 164–166. See also: LÉBL, Vladimír, Karel RISINGER, and Jitka LUDVOVÁ. Orchestrální tvorba. Ibid., p. 178.

[5] ŠOUREK, 1947, op. cit., pp. 44–45.

[6] BAJER and LÉBL, 1972, op. cit., p. 164.

[7] BAJER, 1967, op. cit., pp. 300–301.

[8] BAJER, 1967, op. cit., p. 301.

[9] The name means something like “The Swimmer” because the baby was found in a river where it had been thrown at the command of an evil king.

[10] NOVÁK, Vítězslav. O sobě a o jiných. Praha: Editio Supraphon, 1970, p. 360.

[11] “Der Häftling” means “the prisoner” in German language.

[12] BAJER a LÉBL, 1972, op. cit., p. 166.

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