The Czech Philharmonic’s First Half-Century

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The Bohemia Quartet, c 1895. Soon, Oskar Nedbal (2nd from right) would conduct the Philharmonic. Josef Suk is to his left.

It has been a respectable 117 seasons since the Czech Philharmonic performed its first concert on Jan 4, 1896. But the journey has not been an easy one, and there is something to be learned about perseverance in the first 50 years of those early, humble beginnings.

The orchestra had its start as a leisure time activity of National Theatre musicians, according to the history on the orchestra’s website. The reason for its existence was not only to contribute to the musical arts in Prague, but also to raise money for National Theatre Orchestra members who could no longer perform, and for the widows and orphans of deceased musicians.

In those early years there was no permanent chief conductor. Concerts were led by conductors whose names are still known among Czechs today — Adolf Čech and Mořic Anger (from the National Theater), Karel Kovařovic, and composers Oskar Nedbal and Zdeněk Fibich.

Early Austerity Measures
For a leisure time activity, it certainly did not lack motivation. If a musician arrived more than 15 minutes late to a rehearsal, the fine was one gold piece (about $20 US at the time, or about 385 Euros today); an unexcused absence would cost 5 gold pieces.

That’s an idea that could have some currency today: What if a similar fine were imposed upon audience members who came late or didn’t switch off their mobiles?

But even back then the musicians weren’t immune from other austerity measures. On Feb 9, 1901, the National Theatre Orchestra went on strike. The strike accomplished little more than getting everyone fired.

So they decided to turn their ‘hobby’ into a job. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra performed an incredible 49 concerts between October and December 1901. It was truly a struggle to survive. They played not only in prestigious venues, but, ironically, even at the brewery in Smíchov, where they first performed the complete My Country by Bedřich Smetana.

On Tour – and Fired!
In May and June 1902 the orchestra toured England, which apparently enraged the London Philharmonic; they weren’t used to long visits from the Continent. This was followed up by another adventurous enterprise consisting of a five month stay in St Petersburg, Russia. These tours — and restaurant performances — saved the orchestra from financial ruin.Opus Osm

The orchestra’s repertoire was sure to include the top names among Czech composers, and on Sept 19, 1908 Gustav Mahler conducted the Czech Philharmonic in the premiere of his own Symphony No. 7.

In its teen years, the Czech Philharmonic was gaining reputation and financial stability with the help of conductor Vílem Zemánek, but it could still be a bit rebellious. On Apr 16, 1918, the orchestra fired Zemánek — at the train station in Pardubice!

A New Conductor, Named Václav Talich

The next person to take over the conductor’s hot seat made music history for a lot of reasons. Václav Talich began his tenure with the Czech Philharmonic in 1918, a partnership that lasted until 1941.

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The young conductor Václav Talich and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, 1919.

For example, during the Nazi occupation, the Protectorate banned the performance of My Country for its patriotism.

In a brave move, conductor Václav Talich had it performed in Berlin and Dresden. It was a raging success and consequently could no longer be banned.

Ironically it was even performed in April of 1944 at a concert to celebrate “the 55th birthday of Fűhrer Adolf Hitler.”

Prague Spring Arrives

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Rafael Kubelík

After the war the Czech Philharmonic, under legendary conductor Rafael Kubelík, founded the Prague Spring International Music Festival (1946).

Within a few years, the orchestra had been placed under the control of an increasingly meddlesome government. By 1950, the communist party was empowered to select their conductors. When Karel Ančerl was appointed chief conductor, it was to the disapproval of the orchestra and open revolt almost ensued.

Fortunately, he proved competent and the Czech Philharmonic enjoyed great international success. The orchestra continued to mature and develop, earning a strong reputation not only for its live performances, but for its quality recordings and appearances on radio and television. Today it is an internationally renowned orchestra and a symbol of the Czech Republic.

The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra concludes the 68th Prague Spring Festival with the closing concert June 2. True to its earliest traditions, it will perform work by Dvořák, Suk, and Stravinsky. — oo

– Hana Trollman

Photo Credits: All photos public domain, except for the photo of Václav Talich, courtesy Czech Philharmonic Orchestra archives.

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