A dedicated Czech patriot who fought against Nazi oppression through the underground resistance movement, composer Rudolf Karel continued to compose impressive works using only fragments of charcoal and toilet paper during his arrest and imprisonment.
Rudolf Karel was born on 9 November 1880 in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. Although he originally read law at Charles University in Prague, from 1899 to 1904 Karel pursued a degree at the Prague Conservatory in composition, studying organ with Josef Kliĉka, piano with Karel Hoffmeister, and music theory with Karel Knittl. In 1903, he joined Anton Dvorǎk’s composition masterclass as his last student. Among the many recognised composers who also studied with Knittl and Dvorǎk was Karel’s fellow Czech composer Josef Suk.
Upon completing his music training, Karel served in the military until 1906, when he began working as a freelance composer in Prague. Over the next three years, he completed two works which were inspired by his Bohemian surroundings. These included his opera Ilseino srdce (Ilsea’s Heart) and the symphonic poem Ideály (Ideals) Op.11 in 1909. These works, along with his work Renesanční symfonie (Renaissance Symphony) Op.15 completed in 1911, began to raise his profile as a composer and led to a publishing contract with Simrock the same year.
Growing success meant a stable income for the young composer and he began to undertake excursions throughout Europe. One such excursion to the Russian town of Morkvashi on the Volga river took place in 1914, shortly after the Austrians had declared war on Serbia. Karel was suspected of being an Austrian spy and was summarily arrested. After a hasty escape, he managed to elude his pursuers, moving across a succession of Russian towns through the rest of the First World War, and ultimately settling in Rostov as a music teacher.
The Bolshevik Revolution forced Karel to move once again and in 1918 he travelled to the city of Irkutsk in Siberia where he joined Czechs living abroad as a member of the Czech Legion. Upon the recommendation of fellow Legionnaire Ludvik Kundera, Karel became the leader of the new Legionnaire Symphony Orchestra which followed the Czech army through Siberian towns such as Mariinsk, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk and Vladivostok.
In 1920, he returned to Prague where the earlier gains in his profile as a composer had faded. However, only three years after his return, he took a position as professor at the Prague Conservatory and in 1926 was awarded the Czechoslovakian State Prize for his work Capriccio for violin, Op.21.
Karel’s return to the Czech capital coincided with a shift in his music concentration from one primarily of orchestral and instrumental works to compositions focused on the voice as its main medium. His primary oeuvre to this point consisted of orchestral, chamber and instrumental works whereas the majority after 1920 consists of vocal works, many of them taking on nationalistic themes. Two reasons for this are proposed by scholar Jan Charypar in his paper ‘The Fate and Works of Rudolf Karel during World War II’. Charypar points to Karel’s immersion in Russian folk culture from 1914 until the end of World War I as a potential reason. His marriage to the concert singer Josefa Winter (daughter of author Zikmund Winter) in 1922 may serve as another.
Some examples from this period include the vocal/orchestral work Vzáří helenského slunce (In the Beams of Light of the Hellenic Sun) Op.24 written in 1921, the work Zborov (Ruins) Op.25 from 1922, and the Cantata Vzkřišení (The Resurrection) Op.27 written from 1923-27. The second two examples contain lyrics by friend and fellow legionnaire Rudolf Medek. Karel’s change toward simple folk style was solidified with the premiere of his work Smrt kmotřícka (Godmother’s Death) which was completed in 1932 after four years’ work. It premiered in 1933 and was awarded the Smetana Jubilee Foundation prize by the Smetana Foundation. The next five years marked a productive period in which Karel completed a symphonic vocal work Vlajka (The Flag, 1935), the Jarní Symfonie (Spring Symphony, 1935-38), the String Quartet No.3, op.37 (1935-36) and several song cycles.
1938 marked a life-altering shift for Karel. After the Munich Pact, which ceded parts of north-western Bohemia and northern Moravia to Germany in an attempt to ‘appease’ Hitler, Karel became active in the leftist resistance movement. He became a member of the anti-Nazi group Koširk and actively provided support to the families of imprisoned and executed. He also served as a relay between the group and the central movement of resistance. Karel continued to compose and wrote the patriotic piece Revoluční predehra (Revolutionary Overture) Op.39 over the next three years. On 15 March 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and its remaining territories in Bohemia and Moravia. At this point, Karel’s activity switched to Koširk. Their activities included supporting families of those executed and imprisoned. He worked with the organisation until 19 March 1943, when he was arrested for his involvement with the resistance and imprisoned in Prague’s Pankrác prison.
Karel’s health suffered from the poor conditions of the prison and numerous interrogations. Despite these factors, he was able to begin composing again after a period. Although he was not given writing equipment or paper, Karel managed to complete several works using medicinal charcoal on sheets of toilet paper. Several works from this period survive thanks to the prison warden, František Müller, who smuggled the fragments out of the prison with his daughter’s notes. According to Karel’s student Vítězslav Novák, hundreds of fragments eventually made their way out of the prison in the form of sketches; this made the composition process of the larger works very difficult as the inability to review completed fragments meant Karel had to rely on his memory. Müller’s activities were eventually discovered and he was also arrested. Some examples include Pankrácký valčík (Pankrác Waltz), Pankrácký pochod (Pankrác March), Pankrácký polka and the song Žena moje štěstí (Woman – My Happiness). A collection of these songs and piano works was later published as Skladby vězeni (Works from Prison) Op.42 in 1944-45.
Karel began work on larger works while in the prison including a fairy-tale opera titled Tři vlasy děda Vševěda (Three Hairs of an Old Wise Man) in 1944-45 and a chamber work (titled Nonet) for the ensemble Czech Nonet. Both were sketched on hundreds of fragments of toilet paper.
On 6 February 1945, Karel was moved to Theresienstadt north of Prague. The 18th century Habsburg fortress had been converted by the Nazi regime and served as a ‘model ghetto’ for Jewish and political prisoners, including many artists, composers, and intellectuals. While the city was portrayed as a ‘normal country town’ in Nazi propaganda and in their 1944 film Theresienstadt, the camp’s conditions were abysmal with regular food shortages, brutality toward prisoners and rampant disease caused by the poor hygienic state of the camp. Among the prominent composers held at the camp were Czech composer Hans Krása (1899-1944) who composed the beloved children’s opera Brundibár, Czech composer/pianist Gideon Klein (1919-1945), Romanian composer/conductor Rafael Schächter (1905-1945), Czech composer Pavel Haas (1899-1944) and composer and former Schoenberg student Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), among numerous others. Among these examples, only Schächter remained in the camp upon Karel’s arrival in February 1945; Krása, Klein, Ullmann and Haas had been transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in mid-October 1944, where they were murdered.
Karel was already ill before his arrival in Theresienstadt but managed to create several small pieces in the camp including Pochod häftlinků (March of the Prisoners, otherwise known as the Terezínský pochod, Terezín March), Terezínský valčík (Terezín Waltz) and the song Terezín, with lyrics by Rudolf Medek’s brother and fell prisoner Stanislav Medek.
Karel’s precarious health steadily worsened when he fell ill with pneumonia and dysentery. He was held in a small cell with numerous other sick prisoners. In early March 1945, he and his fellow cellmates were ordered outside in freezing temperatures while the cells were disinfected. Karel and eight other prisoners died the following day, on 6 March 1945 and the group was buried in an unmarked grave in the Theresienstadt cemetery.
Music and Style
Karel’s music can be roughly divided into two periods. The earlier is represented by large forms generally grounded in the late Romantic style. His opera Ilseino srdce (Ilsea’s Heart, 1909), the symphonic poem Démon, Op.23 (1920) and the symphony Renesanční symfonie (Renaissance Symphony) Op.15 (1911) are examples of this period.
The later period, from 1920 onwards, marks a shift toward a simplified style on more traditional themes, appealing to wider audiences. This shift also coincides with Karel devoting more compositions to the voice rather than instrumental mediums, according to scholar Jiři Bajer. This is apparent Karel’s surviving works, both from his incarceration in both Pankrác prison, including the opera Tři vlasy děda Všvěda (The Three Hairs of the Old Wise Man) and his Terezín-themed works from the concentration camp. Equally, his earlier fairy-tale opera Smrt kmotřička (Death the Godmother) Op.30 from 1932 was based on folk fiddler tunes and was one of his most popular during his lifetime.
After decades of neglect, many of Karel’s works have been recently rediscovered by Italian composer and musicologist Francesco Lotoro, one of many scholars leading an effort to preserve works created during the Holocaust. To date, Lotoro has preserved over eight thousand items from the period, including ‘The Three Hairs of the Wise Old Man’ and Pochod vězně (Prisoner’s March) which was completed four days before his death on 2 March 1945. Many of Karel’s works have now been recorded, most notably as part of the large KZ Musik series ‘Encyclopaedia of Music Composed in Concentration Camps (1933-1945)’.
Bajer, Jiří and Lébl, Vladimír. ‘Rudolf Karel’ in Dějiny české hudební kultury 1890/1945. 1, 1890/1918. Ed. Robert Smetana. Praha: Academia, 1972, p.164-166.
Charypar, Jan. The Fate and works of Rudolf Karel during World War II. Musico Logica website. 2019. Accessed 15 November 2020. URL: http://www.musicologica.cz/studie-2-2019/the-fate-and-works-of-rudolf-karel-during-world-war-ii
Esterow, Milton. The questo to preserve music made by inmates of Nazi concentration camps. The Independent. London. 3 July 2020. Accessed 23 February 2021. URL: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/preserving-music-prisoners-nazi-concentration-camps-a9593206.html
Herman, David. Ghosts of Terezín. Classical Music section of The Guardian. London. 6 September 2003. Accessed 26 February 2021. URL: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2003/sep/06/classicalmusicandopera
Karas, Joža. Musi in Terezín 1941-1945. Pendragon Press. Stuyvesant, NY. 1985.p.191.
Music by WWII prisoners collected in special archive. CC Arts.Toronto, Canada. 17 March 2007. Accessed 24 February 2021. URL: https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/music-by-wwii-prisoners-collected-in-special-archive-1.681063
Novák, Vítězslav. O sobě a o jiných. Prague: Edition Supraphon, 1970, p.360.
Schröder-Nauenburg, Beate. Karel, Rudolf. Groves Music Online. Oxford University Press.2001. Accessed 16 November 2020. URL: https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.14707
Sourek, Otakar. Rudolf Karel : cariace c životě I dile. V Praze : Hudební matice Umělecké besedy, 1947. P.44-45.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. ‘Annexation of the Sudetenland’ from Czechoslovakia section of Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Washington D.C. Accessed 23 January 2021. URL: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/czechoslovakia