Česky English

Conductors and a few more recollections besides

(From the book by František Sláma From Herálec to Shangri-La.  English translation: Karolina Vočadlo Hughes)



Czech Philharmonic roster, 1950s 


Part  3 

However, the Ministry wanted a Czech conductor. Someone with a strong personality, who had experience heading a first-rate orchestra and - as we were told - someone who hadn't had any dealings with the Philharmonic in the past. This was the first time that an unwritten rule had been waived, namely that the choice of new Chief Conductor should always be discussed with representatives of the orchestra. Which meant that, initially, his task would certainly not be easy. The decision was made to appoint Karel Ančerl. To this day I remember Mr Pavlásek, departmental head at the Ministry of Culture, bringing him to rehearsal at the beginning of 1950 in order to officially introduce him to the orchestra. There was an eerie silence, no-one spoke a word, and no-one acknowledged his arrival by tapping their bows on their music stands. Nevertheless, the ice quickly thawed and we gradually came to realise that the choice, even though ministerial and made without consultation, wasn't a bad one at all. Karel Ančerl had gone through more than any of us, since we had been sheltered from the worst of the war. Despite this - or, perhaps, because of it - he was never overbearing. He had a charming, quiet sense of humour, and he discussed things calmly and matter-of-factly. As a conductor he knew from the outset what he wanted to achieve, but his methods were different from Talich's and it took us a long time to get used to them. When we were working with Talich, he would appeal to our musical sensibility and imagination and would find a suggestive image or story to attach to every phrase and motif. His incredible knowledge of the score, familiarity with individual instruments, and precise, painstaking approach with regard to each individual instrumental section, and even with individual players, enabled him to attain perfection in his interpretation of a given work. After that, all we needed from him was a single glance, a simple indication, and we followed him.


Karel Ančerl with the Czech Philharmonic, 1950s 


But Ančerl was from a different generation; he was a modern conductor, as the press were fond of describing him. Even when he was young, he was famous for his readiness and success in the performance of difficult contemporary scores. During rehearsal he seemed unconcerned; he was straightforward in his analysis and gave concise instructions. His repetitive: "Strictly in tempo" drove us to despair. He never eased off, but he certainly wasn't a slave-driver either, and he never made any snide comments if mistakes were made. Like Talich or Pedrotti, he, too, was convinced that an orchestra, even if it is made up of fine soloists, will never get very far in its musical interpretation if it doesn't come together as a homogeneous unit. Thus he believed in hard work, and not only intellectual grind. He was a forest worker at one time, like I was; he once told me it was his happiest time during the war. He had respect for the most ordinary of pursuits, so long as it was carried out honestly and skilfully. He couldn't abide superficiality. 

The other day I heard a young Philharmonic player saying: "In your day Ančerl was able to work with the Philharmonic for twelve hours at a stretch. You wouldn't get them agreeing to that these days." I would have added: Not only was he able, but he wanted to as well. Twelve hours a day, every day, including public holidays. Rehearsal in the mornings, sometimes in the afternoons as well, concerts in the evening, or recording sessions. Regularly, month by month, year by year. Embracing similar ideals to Talich, yet taking another route, Ančerl thus transformed the orchestra into a compact organism which was continually perfecting itself. He stabilised the orchestral roster and regularly introduced new members who were highly accomplished musicians. He expanded the repertoire to an unprecedented extent and took his chances with contemporary works which were little performed elsewhere in the world. And his efforts paid off. We were recording much more than we had been in the past and started receiving increasing numbers of offers from leading agencies abroad. The Philharmonic's legendary "Grand Tour" in 1959 apparently turned out to be the longest that any orchestra had ever undertaken. At least according to Japanese correspondents who had counted them all up. The Czech Philharmonic has yet to break this record. 


On the left:  a colloquium certificate with Ančerl's signature - On the right: Ančerl's first season with the Czech Philharmonic featured a concert with Viktorie Švihlíková as soloist


Ančerl handled the incredible workload and gruelling several-month tour with a clear outlook and he certainly seemed to be in his element. So we didn't realise for a long time that he was, in fact, seriously ill. But there was this one time, I think, during our concert in Frankfurt, and it came out of the blue: He had conducted the first few opening bars, and then he collapsed on the floor of the conductor's rostrum and just lay there, unmoving. It all happened so quickly that we didn't have time to respond in any way, even though we were sitting the nearest to him. A moment later, though, he fortunately came round on his own and some of the orchestra helped him off the concert platform. Absolute silence descended upon the auditorium and concert platform; everyone was thinking the worst. So it came as a great surprise to see our indestructible chief coming back on stage about ten minutes later, unassisted. He was still a little unstable on his feet but he carried on with the concert - naturally to huge applause. This terrible moment was re-lived for a long time afterwards whenever there was a Philharmonic get-together and, if Ančerl was in attendance, he would entertain those present by acting out the part to add a little something to the narration.



On the left: Karel Ančerl's and Zdeněk Mácal's etude on the theme "Little Big Conductor" (Frankfurt, 1960. Photograph © F.Sláma) - On the right: The Herald Advertiser on Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra,  the CPO's first tour of the United States, November 7, 1965 



 Czech Philharmonic season subscription concerts, 1950s


 Concert with Yehudi Menuhin in the Musikverein, Vienna, 1960



 The Prague Spring festival in 1966, detail from the festival programme: Czech Philharmonic concert with Henryk Szeryng↗ 


Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic during a rehearsal with André Gertler↗


I often hear people remarking that, in comparison with our foreign colleagues earning God knows what kind of salary, our generation of Philharmonic players didn't even have the corresponding social standing and that, thanks to the Iron Curtain, even our culture went into hibernation, just like the Sleeping Beauty in her enchanted castle. I think that, as always, it's all relative and the past can only be interpreted in this blinkered and brazen way by a young, aspiring presenter who doesn't know much about it, nor is he curious to probe any deeper. It would be more honest to state that, on one side of the Iron Curtain, the orchestra's destiny lay in the hands of an artistic council, funding and politics, and on the other side, an artistic council and politics, since the orchestra's finances were secured by the state and we still had practically no idea of the significance of sponsors. It is true to say that, in comparison with our colleagues abroad, the life we led differed in many respects, but there were similarities as well, which we would go over time and time again in lively debates whenever we met up: this fact was clear as day, but it wasn't the most important.

Our generation (on both sides of the Iron Curtain) was fortunate in that we performed for people who wanted to listen, and knew how to, without requiring sophisticated video clips or advertising slogans that promise us "The best of..." . The concert halls used to be packed out, right up to the last standing tickets; people who wanted to hear a Philharmonic concert series stood in queues for subscription tickets every year, and not everyone was able to get them by any means. It was the same with our foreign tours.

We had lived through a period when the Czech Philharmonic ranked among the world's leading orchestras. And we had experienced times which the players wouldn't swap for all the money in the world, not even for the title of governor or thinker of the century: Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with André Cluytens, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra with Celibidache, Tchaikovsky's Pathetique with Ivanov, Beethoven's Ninth with Erich Kleiber, Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 with Klemperer, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Mahler's Song of the Earth with Kletzki, Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel with Konwitschny, Stravinsky's Firebird with Maazel and The Rite of Spring with Markevitch, Bruckner and Shostakovich with Matačić, Debussy and Honegger with Munch, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Smetana and Falla with Pedrotti, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich with Mravinsky, the miraculous performance of Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin with Rozhdestvensky, Dvořák's Stabat mater and Requiem with Sawallisch, Kodály's Háry Janos with Ferencsik, and Falla's La vida breve with Frühbeck de Burgos and Spanish soloists. I have particularly fond memories of this concert since I don't think I have ever played such interesting cello solos.

The time we spent with Václav Talich would cover an entirely separate chapter: Smetana's Má vlast, Dvořák's Slavonic Dances, Suk's Ripening - our last collaboration with a man who, for everyone, no matter where we went, was considered the greatest Czech conductor of all time.


Václav Talich with his Czech Chamber Orchestra in the Rudolfinum, 1946



At the Prague Spring festival in 1947:  Václav Talich signing a concert programme



During Talich's last recording with the Czech Philharmonic in 1955 (Antonín Dvořák's Slavonic Dances).  Art director: Václav Kašlík, cinematography: Josef Střecha. - More about this recording: Václav Talich - Czech Chamber Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra 


Czech Philharmonic in period documents

Czech Philharmonic and the people around it 


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