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From Skutec to Cleveland, A Journey to Freedom through Music: A conversation with Karel Paukert

March 18, 2024
Lorraine Brugh, Richard Webster, Karel Paukert
Lorraine Brugh, Richard Webster, and Karel Paukert, November 2023

Lorraine Brugh is senior research professor of music at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana. Richard Webster is interim director of music at Saint Paul’s Choir School and Church, Harvard Square, Boston, Massachusetts, and music director of Chicago’s Bach Week Festival.

The celebration

“These people will be your friends for life,” Karel Paukert pronounced to his organ class at Northwestern University in the mid-1970s. Looking around, we students likely smirked, unable to imagine this motley crew being lifelong friends. Almost exactly fifty years later, on November 17, 2023, many of those former students along with colleagues, family, and church members gathered to celebrate Karel’s life of teaching, leading, and performing.

Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, named Karel Paukert artist-in-residence on August 2, 2023. He has served at Saint Paul’s since 1979, first as organist and choirmaster, and now continues as organist for their Sunday early service. Most days he is there, practicing and working on a memoir he is writing at the request of two colleagues in the Czech Republic.

Kevin Jones, director of music at Saint Paul’s since June 2022 and a former student of Karel’s, organized an evening of celebration and tribute. Attended by more than 200 people, the evening opened with a recital by five of Karel’s former students. The rector, the Reverend Jeanne Leinbach, welcomed everyone to the recital. Performers were former students of Karel’s from Northwestern University—James Higdon, Richard Webster, and Lorraine Brugh—and the Cleveland Institute of Music—Brian Wilson and Kevin Jones. The recital displayed evidence of the wide range of Karel’s teaching and influence with works of Jehan Alain, Paul Hindemith, César Franck, Nicolas de Grigny, Richard Webster, Petr Eben, and Maurice Duruflé.

A gala reception followed the recital. Wine flowed freely, complemented by delicious canapés and desserts. The Reverend Leinbach again greeted and thanked all who came from near and far to attend. Lorraine Brugh, James Higdon, Richard Webster, and Kevin Jones all gave tributes, as well as a bit of roasting to Karel. Karel then closed the evening by recalling his love for Saint Paul’s and the staff and parishioners who continue to be a source of great love and support for him, his family, many of whom were in attendance, as were his former students. It was a grand evening of sharing across many decades and places where Karel continues to inspire with his music and wit. All shared admiration for his humanity. Indeed, we students had remained friends for life.

An interview

On November 17, before the festivities, Lorraine Brugh and Richard Webster interviewed Karel, focusing on his early life in Czechoslovakia (thereafter the Czech Republic and now Czechia), his escape to the West, and passion for lifelong teaching 
and learning.

Lorraine Brugh: You have been a lifelong mentor to so many students, including the two of us. Would you talk about that role and then tell us who your mentors were?

Karel Paukert: This is very interesting, because I never thought of you two as teenagers. I don’t think I treated you that way. You were both seventeen when you came to Northwestern. I simply saw two young people, extremely gifted; it was oozing from you. I was as excited as I used to be as a child when I was cultivating herbs and flowers. As a kid I loved to grow plants. This was fantastic for me.

I was first teaching young students as a young person myself when my teachers J. B. Krajs in Prague and then Gabriel Verschraegen in Ghent asked me to work with certain students while they were absent. I like to deal with people, especially young people. You two were very eager, like sponges. It was just a pleasure from the very beginning.

Richard Webster: It’s significant that you mention your love of people because many teachers don’t have that love as you do.

I really feel strongly about the role love plays in our lives. It surpasses language, racial, and geographical barriers. Also, good will. I felt it in abundance as soon as I left my oppressed native country and began my life in the West. It instantly changed me, and I became more trusting and harmonious within myself.

During my second week in Iceland, I was entrusted with the role of an oboe teacher in the music school. In my own mind I had no business being a teacher of oboe, but as a member of the Radio Orchestra and being one of the very few oboe players on the island, I fulfilled my task. My student Kjartan became the oboist of the Iceland Philharmonic a few years later.

I think that my positive instincts in that field are in my DNA, as most of my forefathers on one side of my family were teachers in the Sudetenland (frontiers drawn after the First World War in 1918–1919 and in 1938 appropriated by Adolf Hitler). Consequently, I have the need to share good things with other people.

LB: Which side of your family was that?

My father’s family. My grandfather just happened to come to my hometown Skuteč as the new postmaster. He married there. The object of his admiration was my grandmother Hedvika. He ate in a restaurant for ten years watching this young woman, the daughter of the owner, before he asked her to marry him. He had a dignity about him and thought we teenagers were rude for welcoming girls without shirts on, even though it was a hot summer. I was twelve, my brother eight, and he considered us loose, with no manners. He gave us an example of a time he was mortified when his teacher in elementary school took his class to the river and requested them to take their shirts off before swimming. His shyness did not allow him to do it. He was tearing up, sharing this episode with us. I would definitely say I got my love of teaching from his side.

LB: Can you talk about some of your mentors outside of your family?

There was a Catholic priest, Monsignor Jiri Sahula, who, though poor as a church mouse, had a great assortment of musical instruments. When I was about ten years old and was his acolyte for morning Mass in the local Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, he lent me books to read. They were way over my head, but I just perused them to please him and then brought them back. For a change he started to talk about the beauty and nobility of the church organ. That was before it began to mesmerize me. In the same context he talked about a composer, František Musil, a priest, who composed a beautiful sonata.

Many years later, when I played the sonata, I was often in tears, recalling Monsignor’s poverty and humility. You could see him from afar. He walked by our house to the next village, probably to visit ailing folks. Walking through the neighborhood, he would carry a huge leather bag, and village folks often offered him goods. “Just baked, Monsignor.” People loved him and took pleasure in feeding him.

Monsignor Sahula was well known as a published historian, rather conservative, but enlightened. It was moving to see him play a variety of instruments, including a musical saw, a zither, and a one-key flute. When I came home for a visit from the conservatory in Prague, he wanted us to make music together—violin and piano. I was pleased to oblige. Often it was painful because he did not practice and his intonation was painful. In the winter, around Christmas, his huge room with a high ceiling was atrociously cold. It was touching to see him tear up playing or talking about music. (I learned from him and others how much music moves people.) I loved those times with the Monsignor, nevertheless.

RW: Would you tell us about your teachers?

My organ teacher at the Prague Conservatory, Jan Bedřich Krajs, was the nephew of the composer and organ virtuoso, Bedřich Antonín Wiedermann. He was like a father to me, in part because he had the same kind of view on present-day government policy and was opposed to the Communists, as my father was.

Our discussions in the organ studio were without boundaries. At a certain point, perhaps in my second year, a recording line was installed, so that we could record our playing. That was a pretext, and what we did not think of was that they also could tape our conversations. We didn’t realize that when we talked politics, even students among ourselves, someone could record us, and they did. It was brought to the attention of the conservatory authorities, and they threatened to close the department if professor Krajs did not dismiss me.

I seemed to have been the chief culprit. My standing was magnified by an anonymous letter from my hometown Skuteč about my class origin: petit bourgeois. This indicated that I was not worthy to be part of the cadre, the working class in the new Socialist state, but should first prove myself in a factory.

Fortunately, the man who installed the telephone was our instructor of acoustics and the son of Comrade Prchal, a leader of the Revolutionary Movement of the Trade Unions (ROH). He was a friend of my teacher, who, among other maintenance tasks, oiled our organ motors. He asked Professor Krajs with urgency to dismiss me, to prevent the closing of the department of organ. On ideological grounds, Krajs said he was not going to do that. What followed was a search of the apartment of the Krajs family. Professor Krajs was a friend of Jan Masaryk, the son of the first president of the Czech Republic, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. He “died” in Czernin Palace [in Prague] in 1948, by suicide or was possibly thrown out of a window. To this day it isn’t certain how he died.

My father listened to Jan Masaryk and other Czech dissidents on regular shortwave radio transmissions from London on the BBC (London Calls) and from New York (Voice of America) during the War. Broadcasts were in the Czech language, received on our Telefunken radio. This was considered to be illegal activity and could be punishable by prison or even death, as the required orange tag on the dial indicated.

Before leaving the country, Masaryk left Professor Krajs his famous hat, books, letters, and other memorabilia. One day the secret police came to check his apartment, probably to look for objects that could compromise him so that they could take action against him. The Krajs family lived in Malá Strana, in a centuries-old house, below the Prague Castle in Thunovská Street. Upon hearing the doorbell, the professor peeked down from the upper floor and saw men in leather coats, a typical attire of the secret police. Before he opened the doors downstairs he took the things that might be compromising and threw them all into an oven, a ceramic stove that went up all the way to the ceiling in the large room, which housed a small two-manual organ. Unfortunately, later in the day when the professor was at the conservatory, Mrs. Krajs came back and lit a fire in the stove, not knowing what all the papers were about. She burned it all up. There were notes, letters, enough incriminating evidence that almost certainly would have resulted in incarceration.

The early 1950s were tough times after a few peaceful years following World War II. It was the “dictatorship of the working class on the way to Socialism and Communism.” In many ways it mirrored the German occupation and their beastly deeds.

RW: What year would this be?

It began after the February 1948 Revolution with the confiscation of properties of the rich and the nationalization of industry, and climaxed in the last years of Stalin. The years 1952 and 1953 were terrible, because any Soviet doctrine would be copied by the Czech Communists. It was the art and culture of social realism; everything had to be optimistic, with positive depictions of the Russians. Whatever it was, it had to be in agreement with the party line. This was the reign of Socialist realism. So we couldn’t play music that wasn’t relatable to the working classes, especially anything with religious titles. Music that named Jesus Christ or mentioned anything religious was prohibited, with a few exceptions. If a piece was called “Meditation” it might have passed the ideological control.

My colleague, Jan Hora, retired professor of the conservatory and the Academy of Musical Arts, often played in the concert halls of the Soviet Union. He said that there were never printed programs in the Soviet Union. The works would be announced from the stage so that any religious connotations would be erased.

Thanks to Jan I got to know Professor Verschraegen. Jan was my best friend from the conservatory years. He was a fine organist and was allowed to travel abroad. While still in school he won several competitions. In fact, Jan met Professor Verschraegen when he was taking part in the J. S. Bach competition in Ghent. He always brought back organ scores of contemporary composers published in the West. This was music that we never had access to in the “Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.” I was able to borrow and copy some of them.

I also told you about Paul Hindemith and copying his Sonata I. When he came to Prague, I asked him if he would be so kind as to sign it. That much I could say in German. He was very upset—I might say furious. I must have been in a tearful disposition, as his kind wife, Frau Gertrud, had mercy on me, took me by my hand, and invited me to sit with her in the loge at Smetana Hall during the second half of his rehearsal with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. After I explained to her in broken German our situation, vis-à-vis new music from the West, she took me after the rehearsal to the green room. I could tell that she was explaining the predicament of music students to Hindemith. He obviously changed his mind, because he did sign the sonata (“With thanks to the copyist”!!). He also requested my address, and during one of the ensuing summer months I got a package from Schott in Vienna, addressed to my parents’ house in Skuteč, with all three of his sonatas.

Back to Professor Verschraegen. It happened that he was allowed to concertize in the Czech Republic. I was in military service between 1957 and 1959 in Pisek and Tabor. It was in 1958 that I met him. Mr. Palasek, who was the minister at the prayer house of the Czech Brethren, had for our circumstances a nice, small two-manual organ, and allowed me to practice there whenever I had permission to leave the barracks. He told me about an upcoming Verschraegen concert there and asked if I could assist him during his recital.

There was a youngish lady named Vera who was translating for him. The two seemed to have been affectionate with each other. She was a Jew and had spent several war years in the concentration camp. I could tell because she had a tattoo on her arm.

Later in Ghent, I realized that her story fascinated Verschraegen from the very beginning, and he was attracted to her. She asked me if I liked his playing; I said, yes, very much, and she asked if I would like to study with him. She talked to Gabriel about me, and the next time he came to Prague I played for him. He came there to premiere his Concerto for Organ and Strings with the Prague Chamber Orchestra in the Rudolfinum.

He loved Prague and stayed for several days. I tried to communicate with him in my elementary German. He spoke his native Flemish, French, and German. Afterwards, Vera convinced me that I had to improve my German to communicate with him. I listened to her and took private German lessons, making fairly rapid progress.

The Pragokoncert housed him in the Hotel Alcron, a hotel for guests from the West. One evening he invited me there for supper. As we spoke a waiter came to us and silently pointed above his head, toward the chandelier. That indicated to me that there was a recording device. Fortunately, I had not said very much. But I was so grateful, so grateful to the waiter for warning us.

The next day, through the help of Vera, I got to play for him. Later when I was in Belgium, he told me I was like some other Czech organists, who were so rhythmically undisciplined. (He had heard them in various competitions as a juror.) He said I had to buy a metronome and reached immediately for his wallet to give me money, but I did have some money. After two lessons with him I did what he asked me to do—to write in all the fingerings and pedaling in Bach’s Toccata in F (BWV 540i). Thereafter, I passed his requirement.

RW: Just like you, he was very generous to his students.

Thank you. Anyway, so then after two or three lessons, he said that he would like me to teach his son, Dirk. “You can play as you want, but I want you to teach him to use the metronome and note the fingerings.” Obviously, he wanted me to instill discipline in him.

After that I didn’t get many lessons from him. He would listen to me and make a few, always helpful comments. We discussed interpretations away from the organ as well. He was a deep thinker and liked to talk a lot about himself and life in general. I lived nearby, and he would often ring my doorbell in the evening and ask if I wanted to have coffee or a beer chat. We might also meet in the square at a brasserie in front of the cathedral where I was playing weekday Masses, Sunday morning Masses, and other important offices. Or we would talk and walk through the old town. He would talk politics, the world, and Vera in Prague, and I would comment here and there. He loved his city and was a proud “Vlamink” (Flemish citizen).

RW: Last year you received an honorary doctorate from the Academy of Musical Arts in Prague, and a week thereafter the Prize of the Ministry of Culture. What was it like for you to be there and to receive the award?

It was like a dream. My entire U.S. family and Czech relatives came to support me. When I legally left Prague in 1961 I had a suitcase containing some music scores and my oboe for a one-year engagement in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. By not returning for the obligatory summer military training and disregarding all the letters from the Czech authorities, the military court issued me a ten-year prison term. I did not think that even a short visit would ever be a possibility.

I never thought I would be going back. But things changed. The Velvet Revolution was a miracle. I told you about my mother. When I took a train to Skuteč to say goodbye before leaving for Iceland and told her I might not be coming back, she was standing in front of the armoire and was so startled she dropped a mirror on the floor. “You cannot do it.” I didn’t even say goodbye to my father because he was working in an ammunition factory and could only come home on the weekend. I didn’t know myself if I could get to the point where I could divorce myself from my past and never be back again.

Playing in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in Reykjavik, existing modestly, I had saved some money, made some more in Oslo with the recording of Czech organ music in the cathedral in Oslo for the Norwegian Radio. I kept my savings in my shoes, believing that with a little bit of luck I could survive two to three months.

In Oslo I put my suitcase into a railway depot before embarking by autostop to the west coast. I splurged on a pair of blue jeans (my first ones), a small backpack, and a navy t-shirt. Then in the harbor I was trying to find work. I did find it on a packet boat servicing Kristiansand and Bergen. I meditated about my future under the starlit sky when the boat moored at night in one of the magic fjords. The sailors would leave me on the boat alone, sleep somewhere on the shore, and would come back in the morning. I was to clean the kitchen and the deck. After I was finished I watched the stars and made my plans. My kingdom was the deck of the smallish boat.

On the way to Prague in 2022 I was again replaying in my mind the circumstances of my leaving in 1961. It took me many months in Reykjavik to tackle the parting step with my past. The final decision, the realization that I had to leave my past in order to at least touch my dreams, was made during my journey in 1962, hitchhiking from Bergen back to Oslo. After a nap in a haystack in the Telemark region of Norway, awakened by the scent of hay and hearing singing from a beautifully carved chalet (there must have been more than a dozen of them, scattered in the valley), I made the decision to stay in the West. I bought a ticket to Ghent, checked my suitcase, boarded the train, and was on my way to Belgium.

In Sweden there was no passport control from Norway. When we reached Denmark, however, there was a casual passport control at the border to Germany. The officer selected me and said I needed a valid visa. I told him I had one. He stated I needed a visa for each country since my passport was from a Communist country. He said I had transgressed Scandinavian rules. I explained what I was contemplating—to ask for asylum. He said he would let me go to Germany, and there I would need to ask for asylum.

The German border police got me off the train. The realization came to me too late that my suitcase, a “Mitgepäck,” was going to Ghent. Out of fear that I could be apprehended, I had left in it the letters from Verschraegen that could prove he had invited me to come to study with him, plus anything else that would reveal my intentions not to return home. This was August, and I didn’t get to Ghent until November. Meanwhile, I had to exist. The Germans said it would be possible to stay in Germany because I was a musician. But I would have to change my name and go to a camp for refugees, because I didn’t want to become a German citizen.

I was sent back to Denmark on the next train. The same officer, Mr. Poulsen, waited for me at the Padborg station and brought me to a small police station directly in the railway station. There he interviewed me and wrote a protocol. I was jailed overnight and taken with two men, obviously criminals, to Copenhagen by rail and boats. Today the bridges make that part of the voyage a delight.

They brought me to the officer for refugees. I deposited my Czech passport and the return airline ticket to Prague. His office would help me apply for a visa to Belgium. In the meantime, I was required to find housing and periodically report to his office. I was terrified that I would not have enough money to stay in the city while I waited for the visa.

I wrote a desperate letter to a friend in Iceland, Didda Gudrum Kristinsdottir. She was a pianist who studied with Bruno Seidlhofer in Vienna and was at that time the best pianist in Iceland. I gave her the address of the rented room where she could write to me.

Instead of receiving a letter, one day a Danish woman came to my door, introduced herself as Hanne Poulsen, a friend of Didda from Vienna, where she had studied broadcasting. She already knew that I needed help here and offered me the use of her apartment. “I am leaving my apartment and going on vacation. I will be with my mother for six weeks. I would like you to use it.” I just couldn’t accept it. She said she would come in the afternoon and would show me Copenhagen. She drove me all around the city in her beautiful Saab. We ended in Nyhavn with a glass of delicious Tuborg beer. During our sightseeing I decided to accept her kind offer. That helped me to survive in Copenhagen because I had no job. For many years thereafter, whenever I would be nearby, I would meet her for dinner.

I would go to the Belgian embassy to check on my visa almost every day, wearing sunglasses so that I would not be recognized. That feeling of being pursued stayed with me for a long time. It finally disappeared in 1964, when I arrived in the United States.

During my waiting time for the visa I was able to take advantage of the musical life in Copenhagen. Tickets were inexpensive. In Tivoli, the famous amusement park, I heard amazing concerts of all sorts, including Danish avant-garde composers, conductor Zubin Mehta with the Tivoli orchestra, even a piano recital by the seventy-five-year-old Arthur Rubinstein.

One day, in a cafeteria, I met a young man who looked at me quizzically and addressed me in English. By that time I could speak some English. He was a Fulbright student from the USA, Raymond Harris, studying with Finn Viderø. I knew the name of his teacher as he was well known as a prophet, specializing in the works of Buxtehude. Mr. Viderø didn’t mind if I came to his lessons. I learned a lot by observing him and listening to the beautiful Marcussen organ on which he taught. I summoned the courage to visit other organ lofts and was received cordially. Many of the organists were also composers. I could not believe the clarity of those instruments!

Then one day at the Belgian embassy, a kind consular officer, a distinguished older Jewish woman told me, “Do not despair. It will happen.” It wasn’t happening fast enough. I was writing desperate letters to Verschraegen, “Please, please, Herr Professor.” I got no answer. He needed to attest that he was inviting me to Belgium. We had made the agreement in 1961 that he would send me a Christmas card with his signature and an asterisk if the invitation was still valid. Shortly thereafter I received it and still have it. It’s a Christmas card, more than half a century old, with a landscape painting of an old Flemish master, and on the reverse, his signature and the asterisk.

After coming to Ghent I found out that Professor Verschraegen traveled during the summer with the whole family in Europe and was also giving concerts. His mail was collected by one of the sextons, Roger Van de Wielle, a musicologist and author, who was also one of the organists.

LB: Tonight you will be honored for another award, artist-in-residence at Saint Paul’s. Share some of your thoughts about this celebration.

The rector, in her generosity, and Kevin Jones, director of music here, made it possible for me to stay on. I treasure the office I have, because I can hopefully finish my memoirs. I also have a resting place here in the columbarium for Noriko [Fujii-Paukert, Karel’s wife] and myself. She agreed to be buried with me.

Look at this beautiful space. I’m often here until 8:00 p.m. working on details of the remembrances, making sure all the details are correct. Sometimes I come to pleasant, even stunning discoveries. Today, for example, I was reading about two musicians who concertized at the Cleveland Museum of Art in their early careers, Christine Brandes and Joshua Bell. Christine, a sought-after soprano in early music, shone in several of our concerts thirty years ago, and Joshua, now a world-class violinist, was scheduled for one of our summer concerts when he was thirteen or fourteen. He was the first winner of the Stulberg International Competition for string players under age twenty.

This competition was founded by the friends of Julius Stulberg, professor of violin in Kalamazoo [Western Michigan University], a year after his death. It was a stroke of luck, and it happened because of my skiing accident. I found out about Joshua from my orthopedist, Dr. Stulberg, whose father was a German immigrant and the famed violinist. The good doctor, who apparently frequented our concerts, raved about Joshua and put me in contact with his mother. I was fortunate in that regard; so many good things happened to me.

LB: How did the invitation to write your memoir come about?

It was the editor of Prague Radio, Eva Ocisková, who recorded a series of talks for her program Pameti (“Memories”). It was a successful program in many installments on Radio Vltava Prague. From that she must have gleaned some inspiration and asked me to consider writing the story of my life. Her husband, my close friend, renowned organist Jaroslav Tůma, supported it.

LB: They are planning a publication in Czech?

Yes, and there is support for the Czech edition from official circles. What happens further, with the English edition, I don’t know as yet.

LB: What accomplishments are you most proud of, or satisfied with, in your long professional arc?

Well, here in the church I am pleased with the acquisition of instruments. We acquired an Italian organ by Gerhard Hradetzky, the Italian harpsichord by Matthias Giewisch, and the positiv of Vladimir Slajch. Of course, we have the iconic Holtkamp organ.

At the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) procurement was one of my chief preoccupations from the very beginning. I wanted to acquire instruments that would enable us to present a variety of musical styles. Those instruments included harpsichord copies for French, Italian, and German repertoire, an organ positiv, an original Broadwood fortepiano, a copy of Mozart’s Walter clavier, and a clavichord. We used them in the auditorium and in various galleries for concerts. This gave the musical arts also a visual artistic presentation. In both instances it required patience and perseverance to obtain the necessary funds from private individuals and foundations.

Unfortunately, the CMA instruments are now in storage and are not played. That situation pains me very much. Even more, the human capital we assembled through the many activities is no longer nourished by the CMA as it was for almost 100 years. You cannot measure such things with a yardstick, but you can see and feel the respect people paid to music over the years. I was not the first one. I simply continued in that trajectory of the first curators, following in the footsteps of my predecessor, Walter Blodgett.

There are many instrumentalists and composers who were studying here at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) and students at other institutions who, even now after many years have passed, acknowledge how much the CMA program enriched their professional lives through the concerts, listening to rehearsals, and meeting with the artists. We wanted it to be precisely that: a supplemental music laboratory for as many as possible. The young professionals who studied with Donald Erb at CIM got to meet William Bolcom, William Albright, Jacob Druckman, Messrs. Carter and Crumb, and dozens of others. Imagine the young organist to be a few steps away from such legends as Jean Langlais, Pierre Cochereau, Madame Duruflé, Olivier Messiaen, or Yvonne Loriod. There is something sacred in meeting great artists.

It was the same with masterclasses. If we had harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt or Edith Picht-Axenfeld playing fortepiano, students would come from CIM, from Case Western, Cleveland State, or the Oberlin Conservatory, just to experience their artistry. It was the education tangent that I valued very much. What is heartwarming to me now are the occasional encounters with folks I meet in the street or a store, or musicians who participated in our endeavors, age-wise all over the spectrum, expressing gratitude for our musical mission.

LB: Was the new music direction your own, or had it been already established?

I was following Walter Blodgett. He was interested in new music. The CMA juried exhibitions of local artists. Walter complemented this with May festivals, mostly performances of new music. He had people like Karlheinz Stockhausen here before I came. I could not believe it.

So I felt very safe in pushing the envelope. Among others in programming music of different nations, I also wanted to promote Czech music. The general manager of CMA, Beverly Barksdale, previously assistant to George Szell, assured me that because Szell presented Czech music often [with the Cleveland Orchestra], programming Czech music would not be objectionable to Clevelanders. On the contrary, we would frequently combine resources from CMA, the choir from Saint Paul’s, as well as local instrumentalists, and present concerts in the CMA, the Bohemian National Hall, and elsewhere in the city. During the oppressive regime, ending with the Velvet Revolution (Prague, November and December 1989), local folks were unable to visit the homeland and enthusiastically supported our programs of Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček, and others.

RW: What are your regrets?

As humans we all sin. Perhaps I sinned more than others. Feeling guilty helped me do good things and helped me, in part, to overcome my guilt. I should have loved more. I should have spent more time with my family. I should have been more understanding of some of my students. I should have worked harder from the beginning.

RW: What advice do you have to young musicians, particularly organists, composers, and church musicians who are at the beginnings of their careers?

I just really think that, in today’s market, it is necessary to be multi-faceted, to be capable of stepping into diverse situations, in order to earn enough for the basic necessities. I am speaking now as the father of a family. The brilliant ones and those who are hard working will most likely make it. [Young musicians] do not need any advice from us. They just need to find a mentor and continue to love music and know what and why they are doing it.

LB: Well, there aren’t even enough church jobs to go around anymore.

I think you have to follow your call, whatever it is. My teacher at the conservatory, Mr. Krajs, said, when he taught me privately,

Darling, you are ready to take the exams at the conservatory. Think it over. You have to be sure you love music enough. You know how the government treats the church, and it may not change in your lifetime. You may have to play for free in the church, if they are even open, and be employed in a radio station as a sound engineer. But you play oboe; you will be okay.

The satisfaction of being a musician is enormous, especially in religious realms. I was fortunate to have a dream position at the museum (CMA), not in terms of financial rewards but in being an unofficial musical missionary in the city. To that end was added another dimension, serving people in the church, first [at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church] in Evanston and now in Cleveland Heights. I was fortunate to work under great rectors—in Evanston, Tom Ray, and in Cleveland Heights, Chave McCracken, Nick White, Alan Gates, Jeanne Leinbach, and a host of wonderful musical colleagues. I learned from all of them, and I am still learning.

RW: It’s a calling.


Postscript by Karel Paukert

I wish Frank Cunkle were still alive. Thanks to him I made it all the way to the U.S. In 1963 Gabriel Verschraegen asked me to take care of an American music journalist, Mr. Cunkle, who was planning to visit the Festival of Flanders to see diverse organs and attend as many recitals as possible. I agreed to be his guide, not realizing that this encounter would change my life forever.

Frank was the editor of The Diapason, based in Chicago. As I quickly found out, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the U.S. organ scene. He let me know right away that he disliked certain organists, but did like very much the playing of Catharine Crozier and also Robert Noehren. I proudly told him that I met both in Haarlem and that they recommended me to come to the U.S. Frank did not promise me anything but indicated that he would contact a few acquaintances in churches and schools for a possible recital or a class on Czech organ music. It all became reality when I landed in Chicago on December 19, 1964. I was welcomed by Frank, organ builder John F. Shawhan, and two doctoral students at Northwestern University, Benn Gibson and James Leland. They brought me to Frank’s house (he did not drive) in Oak Park.

The Chicago Chapter of the American Guild of Organists invited me to play a recital for their midwinter conclave, undoubtedly, thanks to Frank’s recommendation. It was announced in the December 1964 issue of The Diapason.

In 1968 I returned to the Chicago area to teach at Northwestern University in Evanston and reconnected with Frank. Upon his retirement in 1970 he moved to our small house on Noyes Street and became a frequent babysitter of our children. He eventually fulfilled his plan to retire in Mexico. After he found the experience disappointing, he returned to the U.S. to live close to his sister in Chula Vista, California.

A child of the Great Depression, he was born in Arkansas and was accustomed to living frugally. In his younger years he earned his living in music as an organist, pianist, composer, and arranger. He possessed absolute pitch. His music education was broad. I am his grateful mentee, for imparting to me the skills of American life I would need for the rest of my life.

Special thanks to my friends, Lorraine and Richard, and also to Stephen Schnurr and The Diapason, for allowing me to share my memories.


Karel is currently receiving treatment at the University Hospital’s Seidman Cancer Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

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