Božidar Kunc was born on July 18, 1903, in Zagreb, the fourth child of accountant Rudolf Kunc (1867 –1932), a scion of the Kunz van der Rosen family of Graz, and Ljubica Smičiklas (1873 – 1936).
Božidar Kunc was born on July 18, 1903, in Zagreb, the fourth child of accountant Rudolf Kunc (1867 –1932), a scion of the Kunz van der Rosen family of Graz, and Ljubica Smičiklas (1873 – 1936). Apart from Božidar, only Mira Tereza Zinka (May 17, 1906 – May 30, 1989), later a celebrated opera singer, was to attain adulthood.
Božidar grew up in a musical atmosphere encouraged by his musical father (he played the cello and also sang), who gave him an exemplary musical education. He started to compose when he was 12, and from the age of 18 he did this systematically and continuously. Although in 1926 he had completed his four year course of studies in law, the emphasis of his interest lay in music, which he studied at the Music Academy, choosing two areas that were to occupy him the whole of his life: pianism and composing. He took his piano degree on June 27, 1925, class of Svetislav Stančić, and obtained his diploma for composition and instrumentation on June 25, 1927 under Blagoje Bersa.
At the degree concert on June 23 the same year, Božidar figured as composer and as pianist, performing his own piano compositions, and also accompanying sister Zinka and violinist Ljerko Spiller. Immediately after his degree he started his rich concert and composing career. As early as June 29, 1927, the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra performed a concert dedicated to his works (Idila / Idyll, the cantata Na Nilu / On the Nile, Sonata for Cello and Piano), while the next year for his violin concerto he won the highly prestigious Zlatko Baloković Prize.
From 1929 on Kunc worked as a teacher as well, tutoring piano at the Music Academy and coaching young singers. For ten years (1941 – 1951) he also managed the Opera Studio.
In the 1930s Kunc rang up new international successes at European festivals: at the international festival in Dresden in 1934 the Staatskapelle performed his Piano Concerto in B minor, with the composer himself as soloist (on March 7, 1954, the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugène Ormandy performed the same work). After that came well reviewed performances in Karlovy Váry, Frankfurt/M and Prague. World War II halted any further development of his reputation. In these years, Kunc still composed, and after the war appeared throughout Croatia and in the Yugoslavia of the time, as soloist and accompanist for singers, often in improvised conditions.
A crucial turning-point in Kunc’s life was in 1951 when he decided to follow his sister Zinka (now Milanov) to the USA. An affectionate closeness with his sister, now a celebrated prima donna, as well as hope for an international career of his own (combined with an awareness of his peripheral position in the communist Yugoslav regime) all affected Kunc’s decision. He soon got involved in Zinka’s concert tours, and coached her for all the time she was under contract to the Metropolitan. In the framework of Zinka’s concerts, Kunc also played as a soloist, most often performing his own compositions. Still, his appearances stayed in the shadow of his sister’s art, and he did not manage to make that breakthrough into the world composing scene as he had hoped.
When he went to the USA, the external circumstances of Kunc’s life changed essentially. His new and essentially insecure musical status forced him, like so many before him (including Béla Bartók), into a struggle for mere existence. He worked in a broad field and this caused him lasting stress.
Year after year, Kunc undertook many tours with Zinka around the USA and Europe, he played at benefits and in recordings, coached singers and accompanied them at their appearances, played music in a four-handed ensemble, and performed celesta and triangle parts in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera. An invaluable source of revenue lay in his coaching in the ballet school of Mia Čorak Slavenska (although he considered this work to be beneath him as a pianist).
He kept up contacts with some of his friends from Zagreb, and they were joined by others in America. In addition to his versatile and vigorous artistic engagements, the last years of his life were burdened with personal circuities and crises. After his marriage with Karla, née Račić (later married name Cizelj), who to her death kept his Zagreb artistic legacy (today in the Croatian Music Institute) and his second marriage to American nurse Ruth Higgins, from which union came his son Douglas, in 1959 Kunc met DeElda Fiebelkorn (born 1923), and in his marriage with her, and with their daughter, Ivana Joy, found happiness and artistic inspiration.
The last performance of Božidar Kunc was in the packed Ford Hall in Detroit, on April 1, 1964. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sixten Ehrling and performed, with participation from Zinka, works from the international and Croatian repertoire. The focus of this benefit was the performance of Kunc’s Piano Concerto in B Minor, with the composer as soloist. Immediately after the concert, Kunc had a heart attack and died.
His friends remember him as a vivacious, always kindly and witty man, a brilliant improviser.
Koraljka Kos (c) Croatian Music Information Centre
Citation: Kos, Koraljka, „Božidar Kunc“. Introduction to the sheet music: Božidar Kunc. Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No 2 Op 55, Croatian Music Information Centre, Zagreb 2014, pp. VIII-IX.