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František Sláma Archive > Václav Talich - Czech Chamber Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Václav Talich - Czech Chamber Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra


"The Czech Chamber Orchestra was established through a decision on the part of Czech musicians to create an ensemble of exceptional quality and character and thus it is an honour for every instrumentalist to become a member of this ensemble." (Taken from the ČKO employment contract)


During the war, I regularly went to sit in "the gods" at the National Theatre, where Talich was director of the opera company and he often conducted there. But it wasn't until many years later that I met him in person in the Czech Chamber Orchestra [ČKO]; the first occasion was some time in the spring of 1946. Much has been written, and undoubtedly will still be written, about Talich's ČKO. It is often described as something of a legend, even though, today, a time of inflated words and untrustworthy superlatives, all labels like this are predestined to lose any substance they might have had. However, as one of the last people to have witnessed that era, I have to state that probably anyone who had the opportunity to work with the ČKO, even if he did so only once, sensed that here was something exceptional. Today, after a period of more than fifty years, a period which allows us to make comparisons, this feeling is stronger still. I believe that, for everyone concerned, not only was this a unique orchestral experience, but it also gave rise to the most remarkable relationship between conductor and his players I have ever known.

The chief impulse which led to the founding of the ČKO was generated by several circumstances working together. In 1946, and especially afterwards through the intervention of Minister Jaroslav Stránský in 1947, Václav Talich was able to resume his work to some degree, although there were still few opportunities. Apart from this, at that time he still cherished an idea he had long since entertained, namely to cultivate a new, more efficient way of working with instrumentalists. In January 1948 he spoke about this in a letter written from hospital: "For years [I had been] increasingly enticed by the idea of smaller forms and working with a well-arranged ensemble. In me grew the desire to form a chamber orchestra, a chamber choir and chamber opera." Studying a piece thoroughly and bringing it to perfection, down to the last tiny detail, was naturally very time-consuming and something which any professional player could ill afford to do, given the tight working schedules of the majority of orchestras. Thus Talich decided to choose students from the Prague Conservatoire, selecting the pupils of violinists Josef Micka and Stanislav Novák, viola players Ladislav Černý and Karel Moravec, cellist Karel Pravoslav Sádlo and double bassist Oldřich Šorejs. A few wind players joined the strings somewhat later. It was in the ČKO that I met my future colleagues from the Czech Philharmonic: violinists Václav Kolouch, Josef Vlach, Luděk Koutník, Jiří Novák, viola players Karel Fiedler, Jaroslav Motlík, Soběslav Soukup, Lev Gsöllhofer, cellists Vladimír Nedbálek and Václav Kovařík, double bassist Zdeněk Trkal, flautist Lutobor Hlavsa, the excellent oboist Jiří Tancibudek, Jaroslav Chvapil, clarinetists Miloš Kopecký and Karel Dlouhý, and horn-player Vladimír Kubát. And also Otakar Stejskal, with whom I later taught at the Conservatoire for many years.



We began in the Conservatoire (later ballet) hall on Na Rejdišti street. Václav Talich took every individual through the music, note by note, then short motifs, phrases - this was the foundation of the majestically unified phrasing he became famous for. He then added more players: he rehearsed desk by desk, then in instrumental sections, then several sections together, and finally with the entire orchestra. It took a week at least to study a single work. The advantage was that the majority of players had no other obligations or jobs and our rehearsals with the ČKO, in fact, replaced the orchestral lessons we had with professor Dědeček. Even then we overstepped the schedule allotted to us many times, every day - instead of four hours, Talich spent twice that amount with us. We knew then, however, that this wasn't perfectionism as an end in itself. We were aware that Talich's patient authority bore within it the mature experience of an exceptional artist, and a clear idea of the goals we were to attain. And it was our good fortune that it was shaping us at an age when the smugness and superficiality of youth could have done a lot of damage. And Talich knew this very well. "When we are young, we think artistic satisfaction can be gained solely in volume and quantity; when we're wiser, we see that artistic execution is determined not by range, but by intensity and judicious restraint," he once wrote to the tenor Miloslav Jeník. (From a letter to Miloslav Jeník, 20 April 1938. In: Kuna, Milan. Václav Talich. Prague: Panton, 1980, p.49)

He later added in another letter: "There are all sorts of requirements which our orchestras do not observe, or if they do, not sufficiently so. It's quite clear that, if the character of a certain passage requires that the nut of the bow be used, all players without exception must play right at the nut of the bow and not somewhere near it or even somewhere in the middle of the bow. The same discipline must be applied when spiccato, detaché or staccato is required, one should not be substituted for another. Bowing technique is important for expressing the intentions of the composer and the character of the given piece of music. And something else also plays its role: not all our listeners are musical to the extent that they are able to listen with their ears alone; the majority of the audience has a visual interest in what is going on and the sight of wonderful unity of performance evokes in them admiration, sometimes for the piece itself. Attaining this requirement for unity (total unity) is not a matter of some kind of formal and spiritless pedantry, but the most intrinsic aesthetic precondition for musical performance..." (From a letter to Tibor Gašparek, 18 July 1949. In: Kuna, Milan. Václav Talich. Prague: Panton, 1980, p.47)

This was the way in which the ČKO shaped up during the preparations for its first concert, this period being about six months, and naturally Talich also applied the methods of his teachers Ševčík and Nikisch. What was strange about it was that, while Ševčík wrote his bowing techniques for individual players, Talich used them for the whole orchestra - we all had to play as one, in intonation, rhythm and phrasing...

His ideal vision, which he wanted to instil in all of us, I believe required the greatest input from Talich himself, a huge amount of energy and psychological strength. Despite this, to me, he was always an exceedingly kind person. He wanted maximum discipline, but he achieved it for the most part with the greatest of patience and nothing could dampen his mood. Except one thing: lack of interest in the matter at hand. For instance, it wasn't possible to chat during the rehearsal, or, put more accurately, none of us even thought to do such a thing. If someone did start talking, we were then completely stunned by the explosion that followed. I experienced this for the first time when Talich's assistant conductors, Vogel, Kroupa and Dvorský, began a whispered argument in the front row. Talich turned his head round a few times and, in the end, hurled his score at them.


The ČKO's first concert on Monday, 7 October 1946


The ČKO's first concert was held on Monday, 7 October 1946. It was originally to have started at six in the evening, with a second performance planned for 8pm. The afternoon full rehearsal at 5pm went on a little too long, however, and a seemingly minor organisational hiccup led to our first public performance being brought back almost thirty minutes. No-one in the hall seemed to mind, though, on the contrary, more people kept arriving to take their seats in the auditorium. And then it was time...

We were petrified but Talich was in his element. I remember that, after Georg Benda's miniature Symphony in B flat major, there was an uneasy silence because most of the audience didn't know the work and they didn't want to applaud in the wrong place. Talich turned to the auditorium, smiled and said: "My dear friends! This symphony is superb, but short, and in order that you fully appreciate its beauty, we'll play it for you once again." After the repeat performance, the audience naturally broke out into rapturous applause and our nerves were forgotten. At our first concert, the violin solo in Stamic's Concerto in D major was performed by the excellent Richard Zika - the first violin professor at the newly founded Academy of Performing Arts, first violin of the Ondříček Quartet and, in my opinion, the best of Czechoslovakia's post-war violinists. We liked him, but not only because he was a marvellous player. He was a wonderful person and probably no-one was aware that he was suffering from a serious illness and, for him, it was a race against time. He wasn't present for our repeat concert on 17 October, he had gone to London for a lung operation. Unfortunately the operation was not a success and, probably for every one of us, our beginnings in the ČKO will always be associated with his premature death.

Zika was ably replaced by one of our contemporaries, Evžen Prokop, outwardly a true Paganini type and a bohemian; I was still playing with him in the Sixties in the Trio Baroque Prague, and we also got together in the 1990s - just for fun - during a last encounter in Pollença.


Czech Chamber Orchestra roster (first concert on Monday, 7 October 1946)


Talich put the ČKO repertoire together with great care and foresight; he had already rehearsed the majority of these works with other orchestras. For our first concert he chose a Czech programme, not too complicated but with audience appeal - in other words, what you might call "firecrackers": the above-mentioned Benda symphony and Stamic concerto, a symphony by Fils, Vitásek's minuets and, newly discovered and edited at the time, Symphony in D major by František Míča. We played the same programme in Prague on 17 and 29 October and in Plzeň on 18 November.

In December we performed a Janáček programme in the D-47 theatre, featuring Suite for Strings, Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Nursery Rhymes and Diary of One Who Disappeared - we were joined by Beno Blachut, František Maxián, Štěpánka Štěpánová and the chamber choir set up by Jaromíra Tomášková. Nursery Rhymes was conducted  by Miroslav Dvorský, the son of R. A. Dvorský. Some months later, he met the same fate as Richard Zika and another of Talich's assistant conductors, Václav Kroupa. These were difficult times for Talich and for all of us. No-one could have known that two of our friends from the orchestra would die as well, talented musicians who performed as soloists both in the ČKO and elsewhere.

In January and February 1947 we tried out another new repertoire, in Prague and again in Talich's beloved Plzeň: Purcell's Overture in G major, Arne's Suite for String Orchestra, Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in A major with Josef Vlach as soloist, Händel's Concerto grosso in B flat major and Bach's Suite in D major.

The ČKO ended its first concert season with a Mozart programme, performed in the Rudolfinum on 11 April 1947 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Prague Symphony, the aria Bella mia fiamma sung by Stanislava Součková and Sinfonia concertante in E flat major, where the concertante parts were played by professors from the Czech Wind Quintet, oboist Václav Smetáček, clarinetist Vladimír Říha, horn-player Emanuel Kaucký and bassoonist Karel Bidlo).

The ČKO returned to Mozart once again, in the autumn of 1947, giving six performances in the Estates Theatre. The last of these was conducted by František Škvor standing in for an indisposed Václav Talich. Mr Škvor was wonderful, I'll never forget the time he said: "I'm not going to change a single stroke of what the professor has done, this is the result of his work." Apart from Symphony in E flat major the programme on this occasion also included Mozart's Les petits riens, a one-act ballet choreographed by the famous Saša Machov and, of course, Bastien und Bastienne, directed by Machov. The production featured the attractive Miloslava Fidlerová as Bastien, Milada Jirásková in the role of Bastienne and the experienced Jan Konstantin as Colas. None of us is likely to forget our collaboration with Saša Machov - he flitted about inconspicuously between the stage, auditorium and also backstage, and he always reliably appeared whenever he was needed. He probably even slept in the theatre. He rehearsed the work with us just as keenly and passionately as Talich would have done - it really put the fear of God in us when he yelled at the otherwise superb Míla Fidlerová when he deemed her performance during rehearsal too sober: "For goodness' sake, innocent delights, innocent delights, have you got any idea what you're saying?" The result of Machov's and Talich's collaboration was one of the greatest successes we ever experienced.



The ČKO was scheduled to have three concerts at the 1947 Prague Spring. On 10 May we performed an evening of early Czech music in the Belvedere, on this occasion with violinist Evžen Prokop. There then followed a Mozart programme at Bertramka on 18 May, which was also attended by Talich's friend Yevgeny Mravinsky and his wife. To this day I remember how torrential rain nearly deprived us of an audience and Mrs Mravinsky of her splendid white hat with its red ribbon.

On 26 May the festival bulletin also announced a third ČKO concert dedicated to 20th century composers (Stravinsky's Concerto in E flat, Aubade by Francis Poulenc with pianist Germaine Leroux, Bartók's Three Village Scenes, Vaughan-Williams's suite Flos Campi and the premiere of Řídký's Symfonietta Op.40). We rehearsed a lot, I remember there was also a public rehearsal with a slightly modified programme, but the concert itself never took place. I only vaguely remember that some improvised programme was organised in a hurry. Instead of us appearing in the Rudolfinum that evening, the audience was treated to a star-studded line-up involving Shostakovich, Oistrakh and Miloš Sádlo together with the Czechoslovak Quartet performing works by Dmitri Shostakovich.



By this time it was essentially a public secret that Talich would be reappointed head of the National Theatre Opera - one of the first examples of this renewed collaboration was a concert featuring Smetana's Má vlast held on 11 May. For this performance Talich also invited certain members of the ČKO to join the Opera orchestra, thus we were given the chance to become acquainted with an ensemble he had conducted during the war: the concertmasters of the cello section were František Berka alternating with Ladislav Zika (brother of Richard Zika and member of the pre-war Zika Quartet), principal viola was Bohumil Klabík, and leader of the violins was Spytihněv Šorm. While the Philharmonic usually performed vlast after only two rehearsals, on this occasion Talich rehearsed it for two weeks. We new-comers only knew the cycle from having heard it during war-time concerts with Kubelík and, during the first few days, we must have seemed extremely ham-fisted amongst the experienced orchestral players. At least I must have done. Talich rehearsed in detail as always, with each section separately, each phrase separately, and people who had been around long enough said that the only artists to do it like that before him were Toscanini and Molinari. They put me next to the senior of the section, the talkative Mr Votruba - I discovered he was a native of Budapest, that he'd travelled to Moscow, Odessa and Plzeň and had also played in the Vinohrady opera orchestra. Otherwise, he seemed like a typical member of the stylish pre-war generation: he had a snow-white mane down to his shoulders, he wore a black hat with a broad brim, and was elegantly attired. He was kind to me but he was annoyed that I didn't talk very much during rehearsal. There was no point explaining to him about Talich's authority in the ČKO. When we had worked like this for several days, me full of enthusiasm, Mr Votruba said to me: "You're giving it too much, young man, you won't last long." But then he gave up and remarked: "You'll get over it." His prophecy was never fulfilled, thank goodness. The concert in the National Theatre was a roaring success; the critics wrote at the time of the triumphant return of Václav Talich and of the unequivocal reception he got from music circles and audiences alike. 


Prague Spring festival brochure from 1947 with František Sláma's notes on the roster for the National Theatre Opera orchestra as it stood then. The photo also shows members of the Czech Chamber Orchestra who took part in the performance (from the left, highlighted: Pavel Kling, Jiří Novák, František Sláma), including Mr Votruba, the orchestral senior with his snow-white mane  


After the summer holidays the ČKO began its concert series in the Rudolfinum once more. The ensemble presented a new Czech programme on 17 and 18 September: Míča's Concertino in Es (the newly discovered violin solo was played by Jiří Novák, later leader of the Smetana Quartet), Serenade by Bohuslav Martinů, Voříšek's Symphony in D major and Concerto for French Horn by Jan Václav Stich-Punto with celebrated horn professor Emanuel Kaucký. This was our first concert in a somewhat different line-up. The Philharmonic management, who had until now been indulgent towards members of the Philharmonic working in the ČKO, now indicated to them that they would have to choose between the two ensembles. The majority of players naturally opted for security with the Philharmonic. No-one blamed them for it, they were in quite a different position from us, Conservatoire students, and everyone also knew that, in the event that they were dismissed, the symbolic fifty-crown fee they received from the ČKO wouldn't be sufficient to live on. Our young colleagues were replaced almost immediately by professors from the Conservatoire and the Academy of Music, Talich's friends: Vladimír Říha, still both teacher and Czech Philharmonic soloist, Václav Kotas from the National Theatre Opera orchestra, and Oldřich Slavíček from the Brno Conservatoire, among others. Thanks to professor Karel Pivoňka, the ensemble even managed to resolve the situation created by Dalibor Brázda, our bassoonist and Talich's conducting pupil. Brázda had seized the chance to perform with the American Negro Opera, whose conductor had fallen ill, and he set off with them on a tour of Europe. Of the new members of the ČKO, the audience at the very first concert was probably most eager to hear horn-player Emanuel Kaucký - the posters were already advertising his legendary triple horn; moreover, he performed on principle in a forester's jerkin, he had a silver horn, a balding head and long grey hair at the back, quite like the Nimrods who used to turn up at the gamekeeper's lodge to see the forest steward. People used to describe him as a great Don Juan, an image reinforced by his lavish, cultivated moustache and his worldly manners. He lived in Klárov and walked to rehearsals, always wearing a blue velvet jacket and waistcoat which matched it perfectly.

It became a tradition for the ČKO to perform with outstanding soloists. After Richard Zika came Evžen Prokop and, during a repeat performance of a Czech programme on 30 October, Alexandr Plocek in Slavík's Violin Concerto in A minor. On 2 and 4 November the ČKO was given the honour of appearing with an international star, the French cellist Pierre Fournier. At the time he was universally recognised as the best of Casals's successors, and by many as - to use today's terminology - the world's number one, above all, for his refined performance, a superb range of expression and brilliant bowing technique. We knew that he was a keen promoter of Bohuslav Martinů, and the majority of us had heard him during his visit to Prague the year before. He was around the age of forty, he had dark hair, he was slim and agile, like Gérard Philipe and, in a similar way to Munch or Cluytens, he had become a synonym for French charm. He responded affably, wittily and gently, and he never raised his voice. He was one of the first modern performers, his bearing and mode of playing never had the slightest hint of affectation, nor forced inflated emotion. He was convincing because he was, at all times, natural and himself. I encountered him several times after that and I noted that he never changed, even in his attitude to the way he worked: he was always entirely focused, able to work systematically, giving it everything he had, simply the embodiment of self-discipline and earnestness. Even in this he was on the same wavelength as Václav Talich and this gave their collaboration a very special atmosphere.

A particularly challenging programme awaited the ČKO for its November concert with Fournier: apart from Haydn's Cello Concerto in D major, we had C. P. E. Bach's Symphony in D major, Schubert's Symphony No. 5 and Beethoven's Große Fuge, Op. 133, which, until that point, had only been performed as a quartet. The audience was highly appreciative, Talich and Fournier deservedly triumphed, and the music critics wrote that the ČKO's musical interpretation had reached its peak. Fournier himself spoke about the ensemble in an interview with Dr Vilém Pospíšil: "The Czech Chamber Orchestra is the finest ensemble I have ever heard, the finest in existence. I look upon it as I would an instrument which is technically perfect and, despite the youth of its members, wholly mature. Its conductor, Professor Václav Talich, is an integral part of it, the purest musician of my acquaintance, devoted, whose faith is music, flawless, a true father of his wards. One feels great responsibility performing with him, since one must unconditionally give out one's best. It is a joy to play with these young people - I am extremely fond of young musicians and place my greatest hopes in them. The only way to foster the audience of the future is to teach young people to love music. I will do all I can to ensure that this exceptional ensemble and professor Talich come to Paris and to France so that the French can see how chamber music is done. I have performed with all sorts of orchestras, but never have I encountered such precision at rehearsal as I have here, where they play true chamber music." - In his opinions on cello technique, Fournier agreed in many respects with Sádlo: "I can say that [your cellists] have great left-hand technique, but I think that the majority of cellists in general [...] do not have sufficient technique in their right hand. Vibrato isn't the only means by which to attain expression. It is the bow which forms the tone and gives it the majority of colour. I, myself, was raised on Ševčík's bowings, which I cannot recommend highly enough. You ask about the role of the instrument? I play on an average French instrument - I would love to have an Italian instrument, but I think it's better to make a more inferior instrument play well, rather than the other way round."  


Pierre Fournier with Václav Talich and his Czech Chamber Orchestra (1947)


Pierre Fournier - ČKO's concert with Bedřich Dobrodinský on 3 December 1947 - Leoš Janáček Evening conducted by Talich's pupil Otakar Trhlík  on 28 January 1948 - A review by Otakar Trhlík (ČKO's Evening with Leoš Janáček in December 1946) 


In spite of his professional euphoria and fervent dreams about the future of the Czech Chamber Orchestra, Talich probably sensed then what we did not yet know. We could see that his strength was increasingly beginning to fail him, a fact which also marked the atmosphere of the last two months of our mutual collaboration. I'll never forget the concert on 12 November, when Jirka Tancibudek gave a superb performance in the Rudolfinum of Händel's Oboe Concerto in G minor; Talich just beamed. He dedicated the whole of the next programme at the beginning of December to one of his friends from the Philharmonic, the harpist Bedřich Dobrodinský - the harp was the solo instrument in all the works. And again with the same emotion, as if this were his farewell. The newly rehearsed Russian repertoire which we tried out a few days later at two evening concerts for the Regional Advisory Board of volunteer nurses from the Czechoslovak Red Cross, seemed to us to be more of a sign that he was beginning to fade. Talich mustered all the last remaining energy he had - and I think it shows from the photographs taken of these concerts.

We repeated our Evening with Leoš Janáček in the Rudolfinum on 28 January 1948, a programme we had performed a year earlier in the D-47 theatre. The concert was a great success, conducted by fresh debutant Otakar Trhlík, who had already earned recognition at the December premiere of the Russian programme for his rendition of Stravinsky's Concerto in E flat -Talich by that stage was in the Prusík clinic on Karlovo náměstí, being supervised by professor Pelnář; his pupil, the conductor of Janáček's Nursery Rhymes Miroslav Dvorský, had died shortly before.

These events made for a pretty gloomy atmosphere, and not even Talich's wonderful letter, published together with the programme, could change that: "It is my opinion that, not since the founding of the Czech Quartet, has there been an ensemble formed from pupils of the Prague Conservatoire so totally single-minded as the Czech Chamber Orchestra. I am delighted that it has been through me that these two ultimate platforms of Czech reproductive art came together [...] As my musical sensibility developed I always felt increasingly tempted by the chamber form and the idea of working with a more transparent ensemble and, for eight years at least, I yearned to start up a chamber orchestra, chamber choir and chamber opera. It has now been two years since I put together the first of these. We have come to the end of our first two-year period. We completed it earlier because we didn't waste time deliberating, but set to work with the utmost of diligence. It wasn't a matter of how much we worked, but of attaining quality in its purest form. And from the extraordinary success resulting from our conscientious endeavours in Prague and outside the capital, we may state that our audiences fully appreciate the way we work and sense the need for it.

My illness might seem to be causing a disruption to the successful development of the Czech Chamber Orchestra. But this is truly only a seeming disruption since, on the one hand, the ensemble has developed its own style over the last two years of meticulous application, through which it will certainly overcome any temporary faltering. And on the other hand, my pupils here are highly capable, and are well instructed to know where they are from and where they are going; it is in the interests of the development of the wonderful idea that is the Czech Chamber Orchestra, which conceals within it so many untapped opportunities, that, in this great fellowship, our audiences remain faithful to these young passionate chamber musicians in the event that my state of health does not allow me to return to these young people, among whom I feel so at ease.

I ask you, my young friends, when you take your places on the Rudolfinum podium on 28 January and 7 February, to give out everything you are capable of as musicians. Remember your sick dad, who is thinking of you. Remember with gratitude your two friends Kroupa and Dvorský, who did so much for the ensemble in their capacity as organisers, without even living to see the fruit of their work. But do not be sad. He who witnesses death early on will then learn a great deal about life and, if you are aware of this, you will shake your head with a smile at anyone who describes making music as some kind of sweet pleasure, and who promises you some form of residual estate instead of hard work. Turn your back on people like this."


Excerpt from Talich's letter to the Czech Chamber Orchestra, published with the programme for its concert on 28 January 1948



On 7 February Talich responded in another letter to the reviews of the Janáček evening: "My dear chamber musicians, they read me pieces from all kinds of sources and everyone tells me how well you fared during the Janáček concert. You were probably unsettled. So was I. We needed some miraculous potion to soothe those agitated nerves. And your audience must have been upset as well. But this is the only way it should be, since artistic endeavour is born from restless tension, not from egotistical self-confidence. The pre-requisite for creating art is that every performance must be technically perfect. But technique on its own is not sufficient. It's the difference between the juggler who performs his flawless, well-practised tricks daily with a sense of empty self-assurance, and the artist who, even after the most thorough preparation, is never absolutely sure of the outcome. And I would underline the fact that, for the artist, the environment in which he performs is of the utmost importance. The audience must itself be restless, it must experience the concert in a certain state of tremulous joy, because it is this which draws out of the musician the very best he has within him. There is nothing worse than knowing that we are making that effort for an audience who is not much interested. This is essentially the malady of our subscription audiences, which we in the ČKO will have to eliminate as our wisdom dictates. We do not have to suffer it, thank God, since the joy with which our audiences greet you when you step out onto the concert platform, the interest they take in everything you do, testifies to the fact that they appreciate your efforts with the same youthful spirit which guides you when you perform the music for them.

I hope that you perform today's concert with the same restless excitement as before; I assure you that your efforts will invigorate me to the same degree, even though I will be with you only in spirit, and I do not doubt that you will fill your audience with similar joy. One day in the future, when I am recovered, we will all try together to find a suitable way to sustain this warm, exhilarating musical environment as a stable precondition for the activities of the Czech Chamber Orchestra.

Please do not interpret my letters as some kind of vanity. I stifled my vanity once and for all in the corridors and courtyards of Pankrác prison. If I speak to you, I speak to you only because, in the solitude of the hospital, I feel an urgent need to maintain contact with you in some way. I send you my heartfelt greetings, let us remain loyal to one another. Yours, Václav Talich."

What could be read between the lines of Talich's letter we probably all sensed: without his leadership, the ČKO may not have lost its audience but it was lying in a state of winter hibernation. The next seven concerts were mostly repeats of previous programmes and focused work on new material had slackened somewhat. Even so, the ČKO was still performing new pieces and continued to work with soloists. We had a succession of conductors - Otakar Trhlík, Vojtěch Vogel and Živojin Zdravković, a temperamental Serb of small stature, one of Talich's most experienced pupils who came to him straight after finishing his studies in Belgrade. During rehearsals he smoked nineteen to the dozen, which made his voice extremely gravelly. He conducted us in the Rudolfinum in a programme entitled An Evening with Franz Schubert on 21 February and, on 30 March, we performed under him in the Municipal Library, the ČKO's first concert for the Czechoslovak Jeunesses Musicales, which Talich promoted so much in this country. We also performed Zdravković's graduation concert on 3 April, for which, apart from repertoire works, he also presented Concerto written by his compatriot Boris Papandopulo. New works in the ČKO series included Karol Szymanowski's Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin, featuring Marie Tauberová, and Bořkovec's Concerto grosso for Two Violins, Cello and Piano, performed in concert under conductor Vojtěch Vogel on 20 March 1948.  


Two of ČKO's concerts with Živojin Zdravković - Programme for the last Czech Chamber Orchestra concert on 29 April 1948 (conductor Vojtěch Vogel) - Reverse side of the programme with ČKO members' signatures


Even during the last few weeks of the ČKO's existence we did occasionally experience some lighter moments, chiefly thanks to Honza Rychlík, who presented our three concerts for Jeunesses Musicales. This short, rounded red-cheeked young man was not only a composer, but also a famed and tireless entertainer. His symphony How the Frosts Set In  was legendary - the score was apparently one metre by one metre, on each leger line for about one hundred instruments he had prescribed sforzato - several times over - and, following this, a single note.

29 April 1948 signalled not only the end of the season for the Czech Chamber Orchestra, but also the end of its short history. Negotiations were being held at the Ministry of Culture, the substance of which we found out about mostly from the orchestra's secretary Ivan Medek. We were told that either we could continue with financial support from the Ministry, but without Václav Talich, or continue with Talich without any state subsidy. And then there was Talich's health to consider. We decided unanimously not to continue and, on 5 May, each of us received the following testimonial: "We certify that Mr..... worked in the ČKO from 1.3.46 to 30.4.48 and that he proved himself, as musician and employee, a highly capable and committed member of the orchestra. (ČKO stamp, signed by V. Talich and I. Medek.)"



None of my contemporaries, certainly not Václav Talich, would have been gratified if the Czech Chamber Orchestra had sailed out of my narrative like a mythical ship which valiantly braved all storms only to disappear, equally majestically, into the mists of history. I think that not even our curious collective of stubborn enthusiasts would last the distance for long without a good measure of humour and, indeed, self-humour. Some of those in our circle sympathised with us for this crazy obstinacy, but there were those who laughed at the mere mention of our fees (to which we were entitled only after eighteen months in the ČKO, when we had become full members). For example, for our Janáček programme in the D-47 theatre we received 50 crowns - the same as the amount we had to produce for hiring our somewhat shabby tails for the evening from a costume hire shop run by Mr Veselý in Smíchov. Of course, I had my own omniscient guardian angel in Karel Pravoslav Sádlo - during a lesson once he kitted me out with a beautiful newish-looking tailcoat and said: "You keep it, you need to save those fifty crowns for a rainy day." I later found out that the tails used to belong to his brother Miloslav, and apparently the Philharmonic had just received new concert attire. Whatever the case was, for me, when I think about that time, the tailcoat from the Sádlo brothers was much more than just an item of clothing, and when I joined the Philharmonic a year later, it came back there with me. I wouldn't have exchanged it for the world.

I think I have already mentioned that Václav Talich was an exceptionally calm and patient person. Of course, the exception always proves the rule and, on occasion, we witnessed this as well. But every storm quickly blew over.

One day, we had started rehearsals in the Rudolfinum's Small Hall and, all of a sudden, Talich became visibly perturbed. We understood why a moment later when, raising his voice, he asked where the lead bassoonist was. We stiffened. Our colleague Dalibor Brázda had gone to his friend's wedding in Moravia, but it seemed impossible just to announce this to Talich. Someone blurted out an answer in a roundabout way and Talich reacted with repulsion as if someone had committed a cardinal sin - he screwed up his face, ran his fingers agitatedly through his hair as was his habit when he was simply outraged, and spoke of loutishness and impertinence. But the rehearsal continued nevertheless. During the break a mission headed by Ivan Medek and orchestral secretary Vladimír Nedbálek went off to see Talich and the situation calmed down somewhat. But we all shared the same thought: There would be uproar when Brázda eventually turned up. In dramatic anticipation of what was to come, we came together on the Monday for our next rehearsal. Dalibor had got up earlier than usual, he gave everyone a shot of slivovice, began recounting his adventures and everyone was relaxed. Then Talich came in. Everything went quiet, but surprisingly nothing happened. On the contrary: Talich was all smiles during the rehearsal, he praised the woodwind to the skies, the bassoonist in particular. Some attributed this to Dalibor's truly wonderful performance, others to the demijohn of pure alcohol which "Brázdíček" had brought back with him as a peace offering. I just think that Talich was simply never able to stay angry for very long.


From ČKO's rehearsal schedule (autumn of 1947)


The Small Hall of the Rudolfinum, where the ČKO rehearsed so often that it almost had enduring right of domicile there, would have a lot of stories to tell. When we were rehearsing Stravinsky's Pulcinella, we found ourselves doing a completely different type of music with Talich. This was no longer Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. All kinds of time signatures prevailed, a myriad tempos: 2/8, 5/8, then suddenly 12/8, 7/8 etc. This frenzied explosive brew is the acid test for concentration and physical energy, and the conductor has his work cut out, not to mention the orchestra. We were half an hour into our first rehearsal when things came to a head. Talich had been stopping to correct all kinds of mistakes, in despair he ran his hands through his shock of hair and mumbled quietly to himself. In the end he slammed the score shut and left the podium. Medek, the assistant conductors and Nedbálek went after him to try and ease the situation. The rest of us gathered in the toilets, had a smoke and tried to assess what Talich's response would be: "He'll struggle on with us for a while longer but then he's bound to hurl something at one of us." At that moment, someone started washing their hands in the basin next door, which instinctively rattled us and, cowards that we were, we all scattered as fast as we could. Hidden behind the pillars by the main entrance, some of us had a quick look to see if it had indeed been Talich. It was him. But things turned out as they always did with an unexpected twist and, once again, Talich displayed his magnanimity and sense of what was important. He came back to the concert platform grinning and declared: "Young music must be created by young people". At which point he nodded to one of his assistant conductors. And he had good judgement: his Pulcinella was very successful.

Not long after the ČKO's last concert, we found out that Talich had returned home from hospital, but that he had no income and, most of all, he greatly missed being able to work. A cycle of Beethoven chamber music evenings was therefore to be arranged through the Chamber Association, where former members of the ČKO would appear with works rehearsed under Talich. Of course, we gladly accepted this idea with the hope that the proceeds from the concerts would find their way to Talich. Thus, some time in the summer of 1948, Beethoven's Septuor was to launch one of the most fascinating periods of my life. We rehearsed like we had done previously in the ČKO: first with individuals, then in groups. Except that the rehearsal room wasn't in the Rudolfinum this time, but at Talich's home. And even though I went there many times over the following few months, I always had the feeling halfway up this famous Vršovice hill that this was a special day, a holiday, and I also felt butterflies in my stomach, as if before a concert. Once there was an accident near the tram line down the bottom of the hill, and I came late to rehearsal. Talich was already waiting for me, but his impatience and ill humour didn't show. When I stuttered an apology to him - I've no idea how - he stopped me in mid-sentence, took me round the shoulders and said in a calm voice: "My little Sláma, I know all that, but the main thing is you like music!" That day I stayed much longer at the Talichs' home; if someone asked me to write down all the things we talked about, I don't think I could.


The first Beethoven Evening performed by former members of the ČKO on 18 December 1948 - Excerpt from Milan Munclinger's text introducing the concert


Saturday 18 December 1948 heralded the true start of the Beethoven concert series in the Rudolfinum. My colleagues Tancibudek, Chvapil and Mikeš performed Trio for Two Oboes and Cor Anglais, Op.87, Václav Kolouch and Ljuba Straková played two Romances for Violin and Piano and then it was our turn to play Septuor; the programme contained a note that Messrs. Josef Vlach, Jaroslav Motlík and František Sláma were performing with the kind permission of the management of the Czech Philharmonic state orchestra. The auditorium was made up of a fair number of curious members of the public, but the majority comprised our regular audience, among them Talich's admirer Milan Munclinger, who wrote an accompanying text introducing the concert, one of his first.

Over the next six years Talich worked with increasing intensity, but his health was not good and his spiritual well-being ebbed and flowed with the tide. On his return to the Czech Philharmonic in 1954 he was to open the Czech series with vlast but, in the end, he only conducted Vyšehrad and then Karel Ančerl had to stand in for him. Nevertheless, he pulled himself together for the concerts on 18 and 19 March and was able to conduct the entire programme. On 12 May he opened the Prague Spring festival↗, this time without any sign of nervousness; he was in fine form. Even the older members of the Philharmonic agreed that they had never experienced Má vlast like this and they thought Tábor particularly stunning. The audience, of course, had a great deal to do with this. Before the concert, Talich had been afraid of the kind of reception he would get. He knew what the papers had been writing about him during the whole period of his absence. His insecurity disappeared the minute he entered the hall - huge applause accompanied him all the way to the conductor's rostrum and there were probably more people out there than later on for Karajan's concert.

Medek, who was the Philharmonic's concert agent at the time, subsequently planned an amazing season for Talich: ten Mozart evenings and several other concerts in each of the other three Philharmonic series. Talich started the series, but he only conducted the first Mozart programme in the Rudolfinum on 18 and 19 November 1954. After that he only made LP recordings.  



From the Czech Philharmonic subscription series for the 1954/1955 season: five Mozart programmes with Václav Talich, of which only the first - with Talich's friend, the former Czech Philharmonic and Czech Chamber Orchestra soloist Vladimír Říha - was performed


In 1955 he conducted the entire set of Slavonic Dances↗ with the Philharmonic for Czechoslovak Television, recorded in the Hostivař studios - the programme was directed by Václav Kašlík, one of his best pupils. The cinematographer was Josef Střecha. Talich appeared physically and mentally exhausted and our daily work routine hardly gave him any chance to relax: we were recording for several days in succession, from morning to night. We started the sixth dance from the first series several times, but no sooner had Talich conducted the opening bars than he succumbed to an emotion that he couldn't control for anything in the world. The orchestra gradually fell silent, a break was called and we waited to see what would happen. After about ten minutes, Talich came back looking cheery, he seemed all right. But once we had begun again and were approaching the same passage, try as he might to stop himself, he collapsed onto the score and tears welled up in his eyes. This was a time when all of us in the orchestra worshipped the ground he walked on, just his presence fascinated us. Hunched forward, his lips slightly parted and his eyes glazed over the whole time as he stared into some place in the distance, as if he saw no-one and nothing around him, he looked as if he had sunken into himself and he seemed desperately tired. Yet despite all this, in his almost imperceptible gesture was incredible concentration and strength. We hung on his every movement, we responded to every change in his expression and, at that moment, we would have been capable of going with him to the last minutest detail of his imagination, even blindfold.


Václav Talich with the Czech Chamber Orchestra in 1947, and with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955 (Slavonic Dances) 


He had the same effect on other people as well at that time. I remember the young hothead Sviatoslav Richter giving a special concert with the Czech Philharmonic on 9 June 1954 (he was appearing in Talich's evening to perform Bach's Concerto in D minor). He was ecstatic about Talich and meek as a lamb. Other great names reacted in the same way in his presence, whether these were conductors or soloists; it seemed as though Talich, silent, almost taciturn, had a strange power over everyone.

When they gave Talich the title National Artist in 1957, in his honour we played a concert which he himself was no longer able to conduct. They led him into the hall slowly and set him down gently in the stalls by the door. We stood up and rapped our bows on the music stands, the wind players clapped and the audience broke out into rapturous applause. Talich responded to this as a half-blind person would, being suddenly exposed to bright light. It was as if he didn't feel the joyful atmosphere, or any satisfaction and was now living in quite another world.


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


Photographs and documents: František Sláma Archive, Marie Jetonická Archive

More information on Václav Talich's Czech Chamber Orchestra (e.g. complete list of concerts, names of players on photographs) 

For more information on Václav Talich, see the sections Czech Philharmonic and the people around itConductors - Parts 1-3, Czech Philharmonic in documents, Ars Rediviva, Milan MunclingerSound Archive and  František Sláma 1923 - 2004.


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