Orchestra | Past Press Clients
The Czech Philharmonic: A History

In 2014/2015 the Czech Philharmonic embarks upon its 119th season. Since its first concert in 1896 the Czech Philharmonic has been made up of, and directed by, outstanding musicians, all of whom have contributed to the orchestra’s excellent reputation at home and internationally. The life of the orchestra has frequently reflected the artistic, cultural, and political changes of the era, resulting in a fascinating and gripping history.

Antonín Dvorák and the Czech Philharmonic

The Czech Philharmonic’s historic first concert took place on Saturday 4 January, 1896. The great Czech composer, Antonín Dvorák, conducted the orchestra in performances of his own works: the third Slavonic Rhapsody, the world-premiere of his Biblical Songs, Nos.1-5, the Othello overture, and his Symphony No.9, ‘From the New World’.

The venue was Prague’s Rudolfinum, where the largest concert hall was later named after Dvorák himself, and where the Czech Philharmonic still resides today. The influence of another great Czech musical figure, Bedrich Smetana, was also apparent at this concert: the composer had wanted to create a tradition of symphonic concerts for Czech audiences as far back as the 1860s, but had died in 1884. Also present were founding members of the ‘Society for the Maintenance of a Large Orchestra in the City of Prague’, an organisation established in 1882. Its objectives had at last been realised thanks to the Czech Philharmonic and Dvorák.

The foundation of the Czech Philharmonic

On 7 June, 1894, the Czech Philharmonic was founded with the official approval of the Governor’s Office in Prague. The orchestra was defined as ‘an organisation for the enhancement of musical art in Prague, and a pension organisation for the members of the National Theatre Orchestra in Prague, its widows, and its orphans.’

Until 1901, the Czech Philharmonic remained a forum for National Theatre musicians, who were committed to giving at least four large symphonic concerts each year. The money these concerts raised went into a fund created to support members of the organisation who could no longer play, as well as the immediate survivors of deceased musicians. Members of the organisation were required to participate in rehearsals and concerts, with a high level of attendance expected. Musicians who arrived at rehearsals more than 15 minutes late received penalty payments of one gold piece, and unexplained absences at concerts were punishable by payment of five gold pieces.

During these early years, the Czech Philharmonic did not have a permanent Chief Conductor; rather, its concerts were led by conductors such as Adolf Cech and Moric Anger (both from the National Theatre), Karel Kovarovic, Oskar Nedbal (then the violist in the Bohemian Quartet), and composer Zdenek Fibich.

The orchestra becomes independent

On 9 February, 1901, the National Theatre Orchestra – whose members were also in the embryonic Czech Philharmonic – went on strike, protesting against the head of the National Theatre Opera, Karel Kovarovic. On 15 February, the strikers were dismissed from their orchestral positions, and Kovarovic began to build a new theatre orchestra.

The displaced musicians decided to establish the Czech Philharmonic as an independent symphony orchestra. 31-year-old Ludvík Vítezkav Celanský (1870-1931) was elected as the first Chief Conductor. A fight for survival then began, and the orchestra performed continuously in order to establish its reputation. Between October and December 1901, the Czech Philharmonic gave 49 concerts: 22 in Bohemian and Moravian cities, and 15 in Prague. The orchestra even performed in the brewery in Smíchov, where it gave its first full rendition of Smetana’s Má Vlast on 8 December, 1901. The Czech Philharmonic’s debut appearance abroad took place in Vienna, with conductor Oskar Nedbal directing an orchestra of 62 musicians.

A tour to London, Czech premieres, and collaboration with Mahler

Fresh challenges faced the Czech Philharmonic when Ludvík Vítezslav Celanský unexpectedly resigned in April of 1902. Oskar Nedbal turned down the offer to become the orchestra’s Chief Conductor, but he did lead the Czech Philharmonic on a significant tour to England during May and June of 1902. World-famous Czech violinist Jan Kubelík accompanied the orchestra, which travelled under the title ‘The Kubelík Bohemian Orchestra’. Nedbal wrote to his friends from London that, “this is the first time that an orchestra from the Continent has settled in London for a longer period of time. The London Philharmonic is allegedly raging…”

In January 1903, Vílem Zemánek (1875-1922) became the orchestra’s Chief Conductor. Under his leadership, the Czech Philharmonic offered regular subscription concerts, as well as concerts of popular music. In addition to performing music by composers from around the world, the orchestra gave premieres of significant works by Czech composers including Janácek, Suk, and Novák.

On 19 September, 1908, Gustav Mahler conducted the Czech Philharmonic in the premiere of his own Symphony No.7. Nevertheless, financial ruin remained a threat to the orchestra, which supplemented its income by playing in restaurants, alongside bold projects such as a five-month tour of Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1904.

Political change

Matters eventually came to a head when the orchestra deposed its Chief Conductor, Vílem Zemánek, on 16 April, 1918. Yet Zemánek had brought order to the Czech Philharmonic, and conductor Václav Talich later paid tribute to his contributions: “…without the passionate, dogged persistence of Zemánek, there would be no Czech Philharmonic. He worked for what the orchestra needed and truly pushed it”.

Later in 1918, on 28 October, the orchestra’s dress rehearsal for the world premiere of Josef Suk’s new symphonic composition, Zrání, took place in the Municipal House in Prague. The streets of Prague were simmering, as rumours abounded that an independent Czechoslovak state would soon be declared. The then relatively-unknown 35-year-old conductor Václav Talich was working with the Czech Philharmonic. He recalled:

When we were in full fire, Hubicka, then the executive director of the Czech Philharmonic, ran into Smetana Hall with cries of, “We’re free! Everyone to the streets!” In the heat of our work we were unable to immediately feel and experience the range of meaning brought by Hubicka’s news, so I said: “That’s nice, but we must rehearse!” We did not know what was happening in the streets, we did not hear because Smetana Hall was full of the sounds of Suk’s Zrání, and so we continued with our rehearsal. At once when we emerged into the streets, we experienced and felt what had actually happened! And that feeling of intoxication was so strong that I could not imagine how I might reunite the entire orchestra in order for a concert to take place.

The premiere did take place, on 30 October, 1918, and represented the first concert given by the Czech Philharmonic in the new Czechoslovak Republic. Zrání was a success, as was Václav Talich, who proved to be an exceptionally energetic and persuasive orchestral director.

Václav Talich

“You hate routine, pattern, comfort. You like to discover.” So wrote Stanislav Novák, concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic between 1917 and 1936, to Václav Talich, one of the most important figures in the history of the orchestra.

During the 22 years during which Talich directed the Czech Philharmonic (1919-1941), a provincial ensemble evolved into a world-class orchestra. Talich was the first conductor to work consistently and purposefully with the orchestra. He strove to bring into the orchestral sphere the interpretational ideals he had developed during his time with the legendary Bohemian Quartet. Talich emphasised individuality and spontaneity, the balancing of voices within the orchestral sonority, and respect for each composer’s intentions. Aware of the innate musicianship and sincerity of his musicians, he strove to develop their technical precision and discipline.

Talich regarded the performance of Czech works as an essential part of the orchestra’s ethos, and in the first years of his leadership led the orchestra through a detailed inventory of his country’s music. In the 1921-1922 season Talich focused on Czech symphonies, and in the following two seasons on Czech symphonic poems. He also brought French Impressionist music, Mahler symphonies, and the works of Bartók, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, to the core of the orchestra’s repertoire.

Acts of service, at home and abroad

Václav Talich wanted the Czech Philharmonic to help cultivate a Czechoslovak public space. He strove for excellence in the orchestra’s performances, while also pioneering concerts for workers, young people, and a variety of organisations, including the Czechoslovak Red Cross, the Czechoslovak Sokol (a sports organisation for young people), and the Union of Slavic Women. In 1923, the orchestra gave a series of three benefit concerts for Russian, Austrian, and German orchestral players, “intending to accentuate human cohesion alongside the suffering of other nationalities – cohesion which the politics of the day cannot affect.”

The Czech Philharmonic’s tours in the years 1918-1928 were particularly special: the orchestra became a cultural ambassador for the young republic. In 1922, the orchestra travelled with Talich to Italy and to Vienna, and in 1926 to Slovenia and again to Italy. Three tours to western Europe were especially outstanding: Talich took the orchestra to Great Britain, Belgium, and France in 1935; and Rafael Kubelík directed the orchestra in trips to England, Scotland and Belgium in 1937, and again to Great Britain in 1938.

Má Vlast in the shadow of War

Smetana’s Má Vlast became a particularly potent part of Czech musical life during the Nazi occupation of 1939 to 1945, when the work was performed with great frequency across the country. On some occasions it incited such strong patriotic feeling that its performances were prevented, and two of the cycle’s symphonic poems, Tábor and Blaník, were banned altogether.

On 11 and 12 February, 1941, Joseph Goebbels demanded that the Czech Philharmonic perform in Berlin and Dresden. In a brave and provocative move, Talich put the entire Má Vlast cycle on the programme. The Czech Philharmonic continued to give concerts for different political groups: in March, 1942 it played Má Vlast for the Czech National Socialist Union, whereas in April of 1944 it was compelled to give a concert to celebrate “the 55th birthday of Führer Adolf Hitler”.

On 8 February, 1945, the 31-year-old violist Zdenek Nemec was murdered by the Gestapo. He had written about a Czech Philharmonic concert featuring Má Vlast, in which “…the triumphant march of the Knights of Blaník heard during some of the nation’s most difficult moments brought salvation and rescued the nation from the shackles of darkness and bondage. Thus Smetana’s work fulfilled its purpose during the First World War and continues to do so today.”

Rafael Kubelík

Rafael Kubelík (1914-1996) became Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in the autumn of 1941, although he had conducted the orchestra for the first time in January 1934 at the age of just 19. During the War, Kubelík primarily conducted works which he believed would bring hope and faith to the people: Novák’s Svatováclavský triptych, Janácek’s Taras Bulba, and, of course, Má Vlast. The orchestra performed Má Vlast in a newly-liberated Czechoslovakia at a Concert of Thanks on 21 June, 1945.

Kubelík’s programming sought to right the orchestra’s wartime controversies with Russian, French, and Anglo-American music. He conducted Britten’s Sinfonia da requiem in a concert in November 1945 given in honour of the Nazi-exterminated towns of Lidice, Lezáky, and Javorícko. Kubelík also restored the Czech Philharmonic’s pre-war concert diversity: the orchestra played for the World Student Congress, in Czech churches, and in Spain.

Kubelík also oversaw the renationalisation of the Czech Philharmonic, bringing 50 years of uncertainty to a close on 22 October, 1945. The Czech Philharmonic, under Kubelík, founded the Prague Spring International Music Festival, and performed at all of its concerts during its first year, in 1946. Kubelík conducted the Czech Philharmonic for the last time on 5 July, 1948. He left Communist-dictated Czechoslovakia soon afterwards.

The orchestra in flux

After Rafael Kubelík left Czechoslovakia in exile, temporary conductors worked with the Czech Philharmonic for the next two years. Václav Neumann (1920-1995) and Karel Šejna (1896-1982), two members of the orchestra with aspirations toward conducting, appeared most frequently. Violist Neumann led the orchestra for the first time in March 1948, and then in September took over the concerts for that season. Karel Šejna had been a bassist with the orchestra since 1921, and a co-conductor since 1922, directing the orchestra in some 588 concerts. He became Artistic Director of the Czech Philharmonic on 18 May, 1949.

From February 1948, the Czech Philharmonic was faced with an increasing number of political orders from a totalitarian regime. In September 1949 it gave a concert in honour of the 700th anniversary of the country’s mining industry, and in November it launched the ‘Days of Czechoslovak-Soviet friendship’. On 12 December the orchestra performed in honour of the sixth anniversary of the signing of the Czechoslovak-Soviet contract; on 20 December it appeared at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia held for Stalin’s 70th birthday. On 20 January the orchestra performed during a memorial held on the 26th anniversary of Lenin’s death – and so on.

Karel Ancerl

Karel Ancerl (1908-1973) had a challenging start with the Czech Philharmonic. Minister Zdenek Nejedlý appointed Ancerl to the position Chief Conductor on 20 October, 1950, and an atmosphere of spontaneous resistance descended upon the orchestra almost immediately. The reason for this reaction was that the musicians saw their new leader as an intruder selected for political purposes. The orchestra’s state security reports recorded that:

Almost every member of the orchestra is against Ancerl, whom they curse aloud and taunt, and they say the worst about him. It stems from the fact that the Czech Philharmonic’s level is high and Ancerl is not good enough – he inhibits the Czech Philharmonic.

Ancerl, however, proved to have an incredible degree of strength and resourcefulness, responding to the orchestra’s resistance with helpfulness, calm, and diligence. He was always well prepared for rehearsals; he worked efficiently; he prioritised quality and precision. Ancerl anchored orchestral programmes with Bartók, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich alongside Czech composers such as Martinu, Hanuš and Kabelác. Eventually, Karel Ancerl left for Canada, protesting the occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. He conducted his last two concerts with the Czech Philharmonic at the Prague Spring Festival in 1969.

International acclaim

Thanks to his exceptional artistic quality, Karel Ancerl’s direction of the Czech Philharmonic brought the most significant boost to the orchestra’s international reputation since it was formed. A total of 60 tours to 28 countries around the world included prestigious venues from Vienna’s Musikverein to New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The orchestra performed most frequently in Vienna, where critical acclaim was fulsome:

… if only our orchestras played Mozart’s Prague Symphony as elegantly yet vigorously, as naturally, they would be in a particularly good mood. Its effects have been demonstrated through Herbert von Karajan’s applause.

Additional performances followed in Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, Hungary, the Soviet Union, France, Yugoslavia, Canada, Romania, USA, Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, China, Denmark, Finland, Holland, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, Turkey, and West Berlin. The Czech Philharmonic had arrived on the international stage.

Jan Palach

On 16 January, 1969, university student Jan Palach set himself on fire, protesting the sense of hopelessness afflicting the post-occupation Czech people. On 23 and 24 January, 1969, the Czech Philharmonic’s concerts commemorated Jan Palach, with a performance of Dvorák’s Stabat Mater following in April.

A year later, political ‘normalisation’ prevented further direct commemoration of Palach’s sacrifice. Nevertheless, Ivan Medek, whose task it was to select the orchestra’s programmes, arranged a symbolic performance of Honegger’s cantata, Joan of Arc at the Stake, in January 1970. Preparation for the concert was not without incident, but eventually it took place 14 days later than originally intended. Conducted by Václav Neumann, the concert was exceptionally powerful and moving.

Václav Neumann

On 19 December, 1968 Václav Neumann had conducted his first Czech Philharmonic concert as Chief Conductor, and he proved to be a leader of great generosity and depth. In 1969, he directed the orchestra at the Prague Spring Festival, and on tour in Japan. The 1970-1971 season was devoted to Beethoven: the Czech Philharmonic played all of Beethoven’s symphonies and piano concertos, with Jan Panenka as soloist. Neumann also conducted contemporary music by composers such as Hanuš, Havelka, Kalabis, Kapr, Feld, and Slavický.

In August 1971, the Czech Philharmonic made its debut at the Salzburg Festival, directed by Neumann. The Neumann era also brought a close relationship with the record label Supraphon, including recordings of the complete Dvorák symphonies – twice, in 1973 and 1987 – Martinu's and Mahler’s symphonies, and Dvorák’s opera, Rusalka. There was even a television show, Performance and Conversation with the Czech Philharmonic, which became very popular in the 1970s. Neumann’s tenure as Chief Conductor came to an end in September 1990, after 22 years.

Taking a stand against injustice

In October 1989, Václav Neumann ceased to cooperate with Czechoslovak radio and television. He was protesting the persecution of those who had signed the petition Nekolik vet (‘A few sentences’), which had been prepared by the Charter 77 movement. Information about the petition reached people in other countries through the Czech journalist Ivan Medek, who was then working with the news broadcasters, Voice of America.

On 25 October, 1989, while on tour in Stuttgart, the vast majority of the orchestra backed Neumann’s stand. During concerts on 16 and 17 November, the orchestra informed its listeners of its decision, just before the outbreak of the Velvet Revolution. Orchestra members subsequently participated in the November demonstrations, issued a statement called the ‘Opinion of the Czech Philharmonic’, and joined in general strikes.

Special concerts were given for students, the orchestra performing Smetana’s Má Vlast, Dvorák’s Te Deum, or the student hymn, Gaudeamus igitur. Subscription concerts were also transformed, with sociologists, civic politicians, and actors addressing the audience before each concert. This unforgettable era in the orchestra’s history reached its climax with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 on 14 December, 1989, in a concert for the Civic Forum. The orchestra, and Václav Havel, were given standing ovations.

Rafael Kubelík returns

“I have passionately waited for this moment and I have believed that one day it will come. I am thankful to God, our whole nation, friends, and all of you.” These were the first words spoken by Rafael Kubelík on 8 April, 1990 after his return from a 42-year exile. During that time he had received several offers to return to the orchestra, and he repeatedly replied that he would happily return, but only under the condition of “freedom of opinion, freedom of creation, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement for every decent Czech and Slovak with or without talent.”

At the Prague Spring Music Festival in 1990, Kubelík conducted the orchestra in the opening concert on 12 May. As with the end of World War Two, Smetana’s Má Vlast resounded over Old Town Square in honour of all Czechoslovaks. The orchestra also performed a ‘concert of mutual understanding’ on the day of the first free elections, 9 June, 1990. On 1 July, Kubelík wrote to the orchestra:

Dear friends – in my thoughts I am still in Prague – home! – For all the beautiful music, loyalty and love – which you have so generously given me – I thank you – from my whole heart! Be healthy and strong – for the health of our music! I embrace you most warmly – Your Rafael Kubelík.

Kubelik’s last concert with the Czech Philharmonic was in November 1991, on tour in Japan.

Jirí Belohlávek begins his relationship with the Czech Philharmonic

Jirí Belohlávek (b.1946) became Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic after Vaclav Neumann’s departure. Belohlávek worked with the orchestra until 1992, and then made a welcome return as Chief Conductor from 2012.

German conductor Gerd Albrecht (1935-2014) led the orchestra from 1 October, 1993 until 30 January, 1996, widening its repertoire to include, for example, works by the ‘Terezín composers’, Ullman, Klein, and Haas. Both Belohlávek and Albrecht participated in the Czech Philharmonic’s 100th anniversary celebrations, sharing the conducting duties for the concert on 4 January, 1996.

After Albrecht’s departure, the orchestra was led by Vladimír Válek (b.1935) for two years. On 7 March, 1996, Krzysztof Penderecki conducted the orchestra in the premiere of his Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra. On 6 September, 1997 the orchestra played for Václav Havel’s first annual conference, Forum 2000.

From Vladimir Ashkenazy to Sir Charles Mackerras

Pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy (b.1937) conducted the Czech Philharmonic for the first time in January 1997. A year later, he became the orchestra’s Chief Conductor. Some of his programming choices included ‘Nordic Sound in Prague, 2001-2002’ and the project, ‘Agreement and Protest in Soviet Music’. Under his baton, the Czech Philharmonic performed 32 concerts in the USA and 20 in the Far East.

Zdenek Mácal was Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic from August 2003 to September 2007. During his time with the orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic appeared at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, in Taiwan, and in Japan. Mácal also recorded the complete Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and Brahms symphonies with the orchestra, on the Octavia Records label.

The Czech Philharmonic’s Chief Conductor from 2009, Elijahu Inbal (b.1936), placed particular emphasis on the music of Mahler. It was also in 2009 that the orchestra’s a long era of collaboration with the British conductor Sir Charles Mackerras (1925-2010) came to a close. He recorded works including Janácek’s operas Šárka and Káta Kabanová, and Dvorák’s Rusalka, with the orchestra, and also conducted the orchestra’s concerts in Edinburgh (2000), at the BBC Proms, and in the Musikverein in Vienna (2004).

The Czech Philharmonic: a brief timeline

• 16 April, 1903: Edvard Grieg conducts the Czech Philharmonic for the first (and last) time.
• 11 May, 1925: Radiojournal gives its first live broadcast of a Czech Philharmonic concert, from Smetana Hall.
• 1929: The orchestra records Smetana’s Ma Vlast for the first time, under Václav Talich, for His Master’s Voice.
• 26 June, 1926: Václav Talich gives the world premiere of Janácek’s Sinfonietta.
• 26 February, 1930: Igor Stravinsky appears as piano soloist with the Czech Philharmonic for a concert in honour of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk’s 80th birthday.
• 20 January, 1949: Arthur Honegger conducts the Czech Philharmonic for the first and last time.
• 8 February, 1956: Karel Ancerl leads the orchestra in the Czechoslovak premier of Bohuslav Martinu’s Symphony No.6.
• 13 September – 19 December, 1959: the Czech Philharmonic takes its first trip across an ocean. The orchestra performs 55 concerts in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, India, and the Soviet Union.
• 1963: The Czech Philharmonic appears at the Salzburg Festival for the first time in 1963.
• 1965: The orchestra makes its first appearances in the USA and Canada.
• 20 May, 1966: Darius Milhaud conducts his Music for Prague; Zdenek Mácal makes his Czech Philharmonic debut at the same concert.
• 9 June, 1970: Jirí Belohlávek makes his debut with the orchestra.
• 19 October, 1972: Vladimír Válek first appears with the orchestra.
• 16 January, 1997: Vladimir Ashkenazy first conducts the orchestra.
• 28 November, 2004: The Czech Philharmonic gives its first performance in Taiwan.
• 4 October, 2012: Jirí Belohlávek gives his first concert with the Czech Philharmonic as the orchestra’s new Chief Conductor.

Hall of Fame

So many celebrated artists have worked with the Czech Philharmonic over the years that it is impossible to list them all, but here are some highlights:

Guest Conductors
Leonard Bernstein, Serge Baudo, Charles Dutoit, Christoph Eschenbach, Manfred Honeck (currently the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor), John Eliot Gardiner, Jakub Hruša, Neeme Järvi, Herbert von Karajan, Erich Kleiber, Erich Leinsdorf, Lovro von Matacic, Diego Matheuz, Jevgenij Mravinskij, Charles Munch, Antonio Pedrotti, Gennadij Rozdestvenskij, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Leonard Slatkin, Leopold Stokowski, George Szell, Bruno Walter, Alexander Zemlinsky, Nikolai Znajder.

Martha Argerich, Rudolf Buchbinder, Pablo Casals, Nicholas Daniel, Gerald Finley, Ida Haendel, Evgeny Kissin, Leonid Kogan, Lang, Christa Ludwig, Mischa Maisky, Yehudi Menuhin, Ivan Moravec, Garrick Ohlsson, David Oistrach, Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, Josef Špacek, Josef Suk, Henryk Szeryng, and Pinchas Zukerman.

Back to Top