It was a month after the general mobilization when little Karel marched into the first class. He got a violin in his hands and was assigned to a local amateur orchestra. It took another four years until the rather bigoted Habsburg monarchy finally ended up in the throes of World War I, marking the definitive end of the three-hundred-year period of terrible oppression and servitude of a small nation occupying an exposed place in the heart of Europe.
Karel Ančerl, an exceptionally musically gifted Jewish boy, was born in 1908. He seemed to confirm the theory the choice of place where our lungs inhale the first molecules of oxygen is probably not a coincidence. Karel might as well have chosen his place of birth himself. Born in the small South Bohemian village of Tučapy, north of České Budějovice (Czech Budweis), near the town of Tábor, about one hundred and twenty kilometers south of Prague, he took his first breath near the place that had become the seat of the nation’s reform struggle for religion and morality. The founders of the town Tabor, who in 1418 came from all over Bohemia to live in a new community of the righteous wanted to follow only the law of God.
From Tábor, under the protection of God, they overwhelmed enemy troops. The Pope and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire progressively assembled five crusades against the Bohemian ‘heretics’. Each ended in magnificent ruins or resigned in embarrassment. On each occasion the crusaders had to withdraw, fearful and ashamed. The nation understood that it had no other choice and that everything was at stake: either living in truth in accordance with the conscience, and salvation of the soul, or living a lie with eternal damnation: if you want to erase us from the face of the world, we will not go to the slaughter like sheep. Being forced to act against one’s conscience is worse than a war.
Strengthened by the hymn ‘Who are God’s warriors’ and the slogan ‘Let us not fear the enemy, nor look on their vast numbers’, the one-eyed general riding a white horse, the most capable military leader in the history of the world’s military, lost not a single battle – which is also why his name must not be spoken, for the most humiliating embarrassment of the powers that were. Although in principle the unlimited resources of a vast European empire were available to the ruling power, crusaders failed to subdue the small nation through killing and violence. The nation united prevailed.
The essential flourish of Karel Ančerl’s baton thus was presented simply through the title of his place of birth. He it was whom God chose to make a civilly captivating, compact, and technically perfect interpretation of the great history of a small nation, set to music in a cycle of symphonic poems by the ingenious Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. Perhaps it was up to a native of Tabor region, Karel Ančerl, with performances of Smetana’s ‘Má Vlast’ (Vyšehrad, Vltava, Šárka, Z českých luhů a hájů, Tábor and Blaník), to set the bar so high that it could be surpassed by no one since.
Two hundred years of blood-bought relative religious freedom passed like water. The bell tolled once again as the second Prague Defenestration of 1618 marked the beginning of the most frightening thirty years of an insane war. The Thirty Years’ War fell on the Bohemians and Moravians most terribly of all involved. The country lost nearly two-thirds of its population. Among the most educated peoples at the time were transformed into illiterate wild animals hiding in forests. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 paid no heed to the heroic efforts of the small faithful nation, which had paved the way for unprecedented religious freedom for all nations. Betrayed and at the mercy of intolerant counter-reformation rulers, the nation again lay at the threshold of a new round of struggle to preserve its distinctive existence. The emperor of the Holy Roman Empire professed and forcibly imposed on the population an already wholly alien faith. Reformed religious leaders were forced to flee. The nation’s elite were crushed, while persecutors subjected the nation’s spiritual leaders to physical abuse in an effort to make them renounce their faith. Many were robbed of their property, murdered, or hounded out of the country into exile, never to return again.
It was not until 1918 that, with the support of the highest representatives of the noble American public, a new hope, associated with the establishment of the first independent republic, shone in the hard-pressed nation. The independent democratic Czechoslovak Republic followed the idea around which six hundred years previously people had united into an invincible force. The new republic was built on the idea of democracy grounded on morality, on the ideal of true democracy as the realization of ‘love thy neighbor’ by political means. This was to fulfill the age-old desire and the dream of the fulfillment of the ideal of brotherhood, equality, justice and living in truth in accordance with conscience, an idea to which the people of the country had sacrificed so much. This state thus experienced an admirable cultural and economic boom. During the rather difficult interwar period Czechoslovakia became somewhat of a cultural, economic, and military power, an island of tolerance, freedom, and democracy, as well as an obstacle and a thorn in the side of the planners of the looming unholy European empire.
The democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia was barely born when Karel Ančerl stood on the threshold of adulthood. He didn’t much enjoy his study at the High School in Prague, and preferred to devote himself to the violin. That’s why in his upper fifth he moved to the conservatory. Fate decreed he start composing instead of playing the violin. Thus, from 1930, Karel found himself at the conductor’s podium for the first time, when he performed his own symphony for his graduation performance. He soon drew attention from abroad when he prepared Hába’s opera, Mother, for H. Scherchen in Munich, which he performed sixteen years later himself in Prague. He also worked as a conductor and violinist at the avant-garde V+W Prague Free Liberated Theater, also known for its very sharp and direct criticism of Nazism. At that time Karel became the first student at the master school of the outstanding conductor Václav Talich, where he solved problems of interpretation, and trained to realize his own musical ambitions.
But bigger events loomed for Europe. After the disgraceful Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938, the Wehrmacht marched into Prague in spring 1939. Betrayed and abandoned by its allies once more, the democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. Her nation, its firm high ground of moral values the last feared obstacle in the way of a war of extermination in the East, was cast straight into the maw of the beast in an attempt to appease it with ritual sacrifice.
The years 1939-1945 represented the only long interruption for Karel Ančerl, where he stayed in several concentration camps due to his Jewish origin. In the Theresienstadt ghetto, he founded a string orchestra of almost 40 musicians. He prepared, among other things, two large programs, which were misused by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. After the second program had been performed, the whole orchestra was sent to Auschwitz. However, Karel did not lose faith in people, and he later returned to work with full enthusiasm. In the newly established second Prague Opera, he continued his pre-war work for radio and, in the role of artistic director and chief conductor of the Radio Symphony Orchestra, made his first long journey abroad. After one rehearsal, his wife took from his jacket an unopened letter he had received from a stranger and paid no attention to during the rehearsal, which he intended to discard. Thus did Karel Ančerl learn of his appointment as artistic director of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
To be continued…