Geraldine Mucha: still composing at 88 and guarding the legacy of the most famous painter in Czech history

Even if you have never heard of the Czech artist Alfons Mucha, you will almost certainly have seen his work. He is probably the defining artist of the Art Nouveau period at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the wonderfully lush and expressive posters he designed in Paris - most famously of the actress Sarah Bernhardt - have been reproduced many times the world over. Today Alfons Mucha's works are in the loving care of his grandson John and daughter-in-law, Geraldine Mucha, here in Prague. Geraldine is an accomplished and internationally respected composer, and at 88 is still hard at work, living in the beautiful and romantically impractical 18th century flat which has been her home for most of the last 50 years. But how did she, as a Scot, come to settle in Prague, living through some of the most dramatic events of the second half of the 20th century? Over the next twenty minutes she tells her amazing story in conversation with Patricia Goodson.

Geraldine MuchaGeraldine Mucha Geraldine, I want to thank you for having us to your rather incredible home today. It's like a museum, full of fascinating objects and old mysterious things, and it really is a delight to be here. Thank you.

"Well, it's my pleasure [laughs]."

I wanted to ask you how you got to the Czech Republic in the first place. If I understand correctly, you were trying to find your way to a party one night during the blackout in London during the war.

"It wasn't in London. It was in Leamington Spa. I was actually a student at the time studying in London, but the reason I went to Leamington Spa was because I had two old aunts, who had been living on the south coast of England, and they had been evacuated to Leamington Spa. And why had they been evacuated? This is 1941, the fateful year when Hitler was supposed to invade Britain, and everyone was getting ready for the invasion. You can't imagine what Leamington Spa was like, seething with youngsters, who'd managed somehow to get out of occupied Europe. Anyway, one of my cousins said, 'If you can stay the night, there's a party.' That's where the blackout comes in, because if there wasn't moonlight you just couldn't see a thing, and we just couldn't find the house, of course. She knew the road, and we did hear party noises coming from a house in this road, so we thought, this is probably it.

"Outside that house there was a young man in a French uniform - Britain was full of these French young men still in their uniforms - and he had been invited to a party, and so we decided that this is obviously the party, so we all three went in. So this young man - that's my husband you see, so I say I picked him up in the street! [laughs]"

And your husband was Jiri Mucha, a marvellously gifted writer and the son of the painter Alfons Mucha.

"Yes, that's right. I have to admit that I had never heard of Alfons Mucha. Of course the Mucha's come from Czechoslovakia, as it was in those days - now the Czech Republic - and all I knew in those days was Smetana, Dvorak and anything to do with music, because that's my thing."

And your husband was a music-lover too.

"Yes, because his first wife was a composer. She died very tragically at the age of 25. It was the very day that France fell, and he, of course, was in the army, the French army."

And that composer was Vitezslava Kapralova.

"That's right, yes. It's unusual, I think - at any rate for my generation - for a woman to be a composer, and there's Jiri my husband who had two!"

How difficult was it for you? I believe you came from a musical family, which must have helped.

"I was very fortunate. My father was a real musician, and he noticed that I sat at the piano more or less as soon as I could sit up and that I started improvising. Of course, being a proud father he quickly started to note down what this baby was playing. Then of course he hadn't time to do that, so he taught me to write down what I improvised, with the result that I could read and write music before I went to school."

So then you went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

"That's right. I was determined to be a composer. It was quite clear, I think, that that was what I was going to do."

Were you encouraged there or did they discourage you because you were just going to have babies and quit!?

"It never occurred to me that I would do anything else but write music. Yes, I think I thought I would get married and have lots of children, that was my dream. But that didn't seem to me as though it was going to interrupt writing music."

What surprises me, having known you for several years, is that you seem absolutely unambitious about your pieces.

"No, I never was ambitious, somehow. Of course living here in Prague and looking back, I think I realized that without my composing I would hardly have survived, because - after all - what is it? It's concentration. And when everything is going wrong... well, where do ideas come from? Nobody knows that. But you get an idea and then you begin, and then you've got something. Everything else falls away and it's okay. You've got something, it exists and it's yours. You may throw it away after a month, but still it keeps you sane."

I've heard you say before that it kept you sane when your husband was thrown in jail for being a spy - which of course he wasn't - during the very hard years after the war, and during that time you went to live in the country, I believe, with your young son.

"Yes, it was easier to feed a small boy in the country. I was very fortunate that I managed to get a job in the state publishing house. They used to send me the work to the country and I did it and sent it back. It was much better altogether - foodwise. Money was very short, and of course that's where my mother-in-law was wonderful. She just refused to sell anything. The elderly started selling things, you know."

She kept the Mucha art collection together.

"Well that's the thing, of course, that people don't realize. You see, the posters were the only things which were known, but that's only about one third or even less of Alfons Mucha's work. And he spent every spare moment painting and drawing - there's an enormous body of work, but it was considered old-fashioned, out of touch, not interesting, and so nobody knew about it, and that is what has saved it. She kept it all."

And now you and your son are keeping it.

"[Laughs] Well, the pictures saved us certainly when we were thrown out of our house. You see, my father-in-law had a house built for himself. He lived for more than twenty years in Paris, as a bachelor, and when he finally came back to his native land he had a house built. The top floor was a studio, of course, and that's where I lived when I first came here. Well then the communists took that house for a diplomat and we just had to move out. My mother-in-law very early in the morning was woken up by this enormous removal van arriving - that they need the house."

They just showed up to kick you out.

"That's how they did it. And then they would cut off the telephone, you see, so you couldn't communicate with anybody. But we had already had the studio part made into a separate flat for us, and we had our telephone up there - a different phone - and my mother-in-law had the key to our bit. She went up there and phoned us. We were in Zelezna Ruda, about 100 miles away. Jiri said, 'You stay here with John, I'll deal with this,' and got into the car.

"So I wasn't actually present, but my mother-in-law told me that he arrived and apparently in a voice which could have been heard all over Prague, he leapt out of the car: 'Who's the idiot who gave the order to destroy this? This is culture, it belongs to the nation. Who's going to pay for the damage?" Apparently he went on and on and on - no stopping him - in this enormously loud voice, and the man in charge got uncertain. He actually stopped it, and he went off to find if he is doing the right thing.

"Well, that gave Jiri time to contact somebody. One of the people he knew in the Party - you know he had friends everywhere - well, this Party man said, okay, we want your house. Find somewhere else. And we had a month to find something else. And it was Jiri who found this apartment."

That was one of the negative aspects of living under communism, but perhaps one of the positive ones was that you got your works performed by people like the Czech Philharmonic and top class conductors and orchestras. So that may have been some compensation.

"Yes, it's interesting. You see the orchestras got a bonus. If they gave a premiere of a new work they got a bonus. So they did that. Of course there are a whole lot of Czech composers, and I felt that they shouldn't be playing me. And that's how I feel still today. There are so many Czech composers, you know, writing very interesting stuff, I must say, so why should they perform me? [Laughs].

In the middle and late 1960s things loosened up here a bit. That must have had an effect on you. Did you feel that thawing with the Prague Spring?

"Yes. It's interesting because in the 60s there was a sort of relaxation from the communist point of view. I think they felt they were so firmly in they didn't need to bother so much. But of course how wrong they were! It was coming up to the Dubcek time.

"It was in 1966 when our son (although I'd hoped to have a large family, I only managed one) had his 18th birthday, and he'd hardly had it before he announced that he was emigrating. He was totally brought up here - with Czech schools and everything. Well, he had a home to go to, with my mother. He wanted to study economy, and it was very doubtful that he would get to a university anyway with his background and so on [laughs], so - okay - he wants to emigrate, why not? And he did it officially, and he did his university and everything there.

"Well, life went on for Jiri and me here, until after the so-called Prague Spring, then the fall of Dubcek and all that. Jiri in the meantime had started doing small-scale exhibitions of his father's work. Now that began in the early sixties, so Jiri started a small private enterprise of giving exhibitions. They had to be small scale because he couldn't finance anything. The galleries had to provide their own finance. But he did it. And the communists turned a blind eye because it brought in hard currency.

"But they suddenly started refusing him his permission to travel. Somebody advised us. They said, if I would return to Scotland and simply live there, he could then apply through a different channel for a visit to his wife in our shared home in Scotland - which he did. I went to Scotland, I lived in my mother's house in the Scottish Highlands - this is in the 70s. I had to invite him, of course, but he never came near Scotland, naturally, he went off and did an exhibition. Well, he did come occasionally but it was too remote. He was all on edge to be doing the exhibitions. And then, of course, we met up in all sorts of interesting places."

With the communists never knowing the difference.

"They must have done. They didn't care. I think they thought we were mad to do it, first of all, and then they got hard currency."

Did you come back to Prague during the 70s?

"Occasionally I came for a visit, but not much, no. I didn't push it. But of course the moment it was possible I just came back."

This is in 1989.

"I didn't hesitate a moment [laughs]."

And this has been your home ever since.

"Yes, Prague is my home, definitely."

And since the Velvet Revolution your life has been greatly taken up with the Mucha collection. Now that there is an official Mucha Museum you have somewhere to show them.

"It's about seven years ago, there was a Swiss entrepreneur who took on an old building here and renovated it. The building belongs to the city, and the city told him, 'You must use part of it for something cultural,' and this Swiss man approached us and said, 'What about a Mucha gallery?' And that's how that Mucha museum came into being, and of course that's really a going concern now. It's such a pity my husband didn't live to see that."

Where is this museum now?

It's in a street called Panska. It's quite a small street, but it's off one of the main streets, the street where the old moat of Prague was - 'Prikopy' - that means 'moat'. It's open every day - it doesn't have a closing day - from 10 to 6."

It's a lovely exhibition, very well done, I think.

"There's something of everything there. There are the posters, the paintings, the pastels, the drawings, the photographs and there is a video, which is also, I think, very well done, and of course it's run by a Swiss. He knows how to run it! [Laughs]"

Geraldine, I understand you're having a birthday soon.

"Yes, I've got my 88th birthday next month."

And I must say I have a hard time keeping up with you. I hope that when I'll be just 66, I'll be half as active and in such fantastic shape as you are.

"Thank you very much."

And just before we close, can you tell me what piece of music you are working on now? Are you composing something?

"Yes, people are always coming. They seem to want my music. At the moment I've just finished a small piece for one of the best flautists here."