The Czech conductor and composer, Rafael Jeroným Kubelík, was the sixth child of the Bohemian violinist Jan Kubelík, whom the younger Kubelík described as "a kind of god to me". His mother was a Hungarian countess, Anna Julie Marie Széll von Bessenyö. Kubelík studied violin with his father, and later violin, composition, and conducting at the Prague Conservatory. He graduated from the conservatory in 1933, at the age of 19; at his graduation concert he played a Paganini concerto and a composition of his own for violin and orchestra. Kubelík was also an accomplished pianist, and served as his father's piano accompanist on a tour of the USA in 1935.
In 1939, Rafael Kubelík became music director of the Brno Opera, a position he held until the Nazis shut the company down on November 12, 1941. The Nazis allowed the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra to continue operating, and Kubelík became its principal conductor. (He had first conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1934 when he was 20 years old.) In 1944, after various incidents, including one in which he declined to greet the Nazi Reichsprotektor Karl Hermann Frank with a Hitler salute - along with his refusal to conduct Wagner during the War - Kubelík "deemed it advisable to disappear from Prague and to spend a few months undercover in the countryside so as not to fall into the clutches of the SS or Gestapo". Kubelík conducted the orchestra's first post-war concert in May 1945. In 1946, he helped found the Prague Spring Festival, and conducted its opening concert.
After the Communist coup of February 1948, Rafael Kubelík left Czechoslovakia, vowing not to return until the country was liberated. "I had lived through one form of bestial tyranny, Nazism," he told an interviewer, "As a matter of principle I was not going to live through another." He defected during a trip to the UK, where he had flown to conduct Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Glyndebourne Festival, where he had been engaged on the recommendation of Bruno Walter (whom Kubelík had assisted in this work at the 1937 Salzburg Festival). Kubelík told his wife of his decision to defect as their plane left Czechoslovakia. Upon arriving in London, Kubelík and his wife surrendered their Czech passports.
In 1953, the Communist government convicted the couple in absentia of "taking illicit leave" abroad. In 1956, the regime invited him back "with promises of freedom to do anything I wanted," said Kubelík, but he refused the invitation. In a 1957 letter to The Times of London, Kubelík said he would seriously consider returning only when all the country's political prisoners were freed and all émigrés were given as much freedom as he would have possessed. He was invited back by the regime in 1966 but again refused; in 1968, after the Prague Spring had ended by the Soviet invasion, he organized an international boycott, in which many of the major classical artists of the West participated.
Rafael Kubelík eventually did return to Prague after the fall of Communism, leading the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the Prague Spring Festival in 1990. In 1950, Kubelík became music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, choosing the position over an offer from the BBC Symphony Orchestra to succeed Sir Adrian Boult as Chief Conductor. He left the post in 1953. Some hold that he was "hounded out of the [Chicago] job" (to quote Time Magazine) by the "savage attacks" (to quote the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians) of the Chicago Tribune music critic Claudia Cassidy. But Chicago Sun-Times music critic Robert C. Marsh argued in 1972 that it was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra trustees who were behind the departure. Their foremost complaint, and that of Cassidy as well, was that Kubelík introduced too many contemporary works (about 70) to the orchestra. Recordings made by Kubelík in Chicago for Mercury Records, many available on CD, are now greatly admired by critics.
After leaving Chicago, Rafael Kubelík became Music Director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 1955 to 1958. Among his notable conducting achievements there was the 1957 production of Berlioz's Les Troyens, performed on a single evening. Although Covent Garden sought to renew his contract, he chose to leave, partly because of a letter to the newspapers by the aged Sir Thomas Beecham decrying the engagement of "foreign" artists at the Royal Opera. Kubelík then accepted the position of Music Director of the Bayerischer Rundfunk Symphonieorchester in 1961; he remained until 1979, when he retired. Kubelík's association with the Bayerischer Rundfunk Symphonieorchester is generally regarded as the high point of his career, both artistically and professionally.
In 1971, Göran Gentele, the new general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, asked Rafael Kubelík to accept the newly created position of Music Director of the Met. Kubelík accepted partly because of his strong artistic relationship with Gentele. The death of Gentele in an automobile accident in 1972 undermined Kubelík's reasons for working at the opera house. The first production that Kubelík conducted as the Met's Music Director was Les Troyens. Kubelík had prior conducting commitments away from the Met in his first season in New York City, and these so diverted his attention from the Met that the opera company began to experience stresses that undermined their situation, and Kubelík's position. Thus Kubelík resigned from Met in 1974, after only 6 months as Music Director.
In his post-Czechoslovakian career, Rafael Kubelík worked closely with such orchestras as the Berliner Philharmoniker, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His penultimate conducting appearance, in October 1991, was with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; at the end, the orchestra gave him an honorary fanfare, a tribute it had offered conductors only rarely in its history. His final concert was with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1985, ill-health (notably severe arthritis in his back) caused Rafael Kubelík to retire from full-time conducting, but the fall of Communism in his homeland led him to accept a 1990 invitation to return to conduct the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the festival he had founded, the Prague Spring Festival. He recorded Bedřich Smetana's Má Vlast live with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra for Supraphon, his 5th recording of the piece. He also recorded the Mozart "Prague" Symphony and Antonín Dvořák's "New World" Symphony at the Festival. During the rehearsal of the "New World," he told the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, "It is my joy to hear this. I always wanted it to sound like this but never really found it with any other orchestra in the world. That eighth [note] is great!”
Among Rafael Kubelík's compositions are five operas, a number of symphonies, three settings of the Requiem text, other choral works, and many works of chamber music.
Rafael Kubelík married the Czech violinist Ludmilla Bertlová in 1943. Their son, Martin Kubelík (b 194) is an architectural historian. Bertlová died in 1961 from injuries sustained in an automobile accident in Switzerland, where the couple resided. In 1963, Kubelík married the Australian soprano Elsie Morrison (b 1924). Rafael Kubelík died in 1996, aged 82, in Kastanienbaum, in the Canton of Lucerne, Switzerland. His ashes are interred next to the grave of his father in Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague.
His awards include: Sonning Award (1983; Denmark), National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity.
Rafael Kubelík recorded a large repertoire, in many cases more than once per work. We have two complete recordings of his traversals of three major symphony cycles - those of Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, and L.v. Beethoven. When Kubelík recorded his first complete L.v. Beethoven symphony cycle for Deutsche Grammophon, he insisted on using nine different orchestras, one for each symphony. His complete cycle of Gustav Mahler's symphonies (recorded from 1967 to 1971 with the Bayerischer Rundfunk Symphonieorchester) is widely regarded as one of the essential G. Mahler sets. Of his Mahler, Daniel Barenboim remarked, "I often thought I was missing something in Mahler until I listened to Kubelík. There is a lot more to be discovered in these pieces than just a generalized form of extrovert excitement. That is what Kubelík showed." (Daniel Barenboim: A Life in Music, p. 223) Kubelík also left much-admired recordings of operas by Verdi (his Rigoletto was recorded at La Scala with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), Mozart, Janáček, Dvořák and others, including Wagner, whose music he had shunned during the war, but which he led to great effect in later years. Kubelík's complete discography is enormous, with music ranging from Malcolm Arnold through Jan Dismas Zelenka, with recordings both in the studio and in concert. Aside from complete cycles of L.v. Beethoven, J. Brahms, Dvořák, and G. Mahler, Kubelík made recordings of great orchestral and operatic works by composers such as J.S. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Verdi and many others, including many modern composers.