Ivan Zahradka
Ivan Zahradka

United We Stand, Divided We Fall (part II – remembering Maestro Karel Ančerl)

I consider my destiny to be intrinsically connected with the whole nation, and its Philharmonic in particular. The only thing that will probably never stop bothering me are worries about the fates of my friends and people I loved – and there are many of them. (Karel Ančerl, 1969)

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.

Although Karel Ančerl had been on the conductor’s podium of the Czech Philharmonic before the war, he became its chief conductor by chance. Václav Talich, the obvious candidate for the post, and the pre-war conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, faced charges for his wartime work. He was exhausted and on the verge of collapse. Meanwhile, the young conductor Rafael Kubelík, son of violin virtuoso Jan Kubelík, decided with the advent of a new irreconcilable ideology in 1948 not to tolerate the post-war regime. After heading the orchestra since 1942 he left it without a word and emigrated. The post thus remained vacant for a long time.

So, I was very surprised that I was appointed by the Minister. I didn’t think he liked me very much, our relationship was not friendly at all. I realized how my appointment came about. At that time, David Oistrach was a guest in Prague, rehearsing with several conductors, and finally sent for me, and I put the concert together during two rehearsals, and the concert took place. Then I later learned that the dinner in honor of Oistrach, which I was not invited to, deliberated the situation in the Czech Philharmonic, which had no head, and Oistrach seems to have been talking about me, and since he was a respected Soviet artist, apparently in the end the Minister decided to send me the decree. So that was my entry into the Czech Philharmonic.

Karel Ančerl remained with his orchestra almost throughout the post-war years, until the invasion of the “allied armies” of the Warsaw Pact in Czechoslovakia in August 1968. During his eighteen years at the head of the ensemble, he turned it into the world’s leading orchestra, touring five continents. At the beginning, the orchestra grumbled against their conductor, but only until the players realized that their somewhat demanding leader had turned them into celebrities with the whole music world at their feet. Wherever they visited, the musicians earned endless standing ovations for their unprecedented and unrepeatable performances. An obvious question was thus posed to Karel: what is the work of conducting? His answer:

There are a lot of books and scientific literature about that – I will limit myself to saying that every conductor or reproduction artist is a medium that realizes or is supposed to realize the composer’s idea, which naturally requires an instrument. For the musical artist it is a musical instrument, and for the conductor it is his orchestra, which is more complex than the instrument the artist plays. The orchestra is a collective of individuals. The conductor’s first job is to unite this collective so that everyone feels and experiences the same composition in the same way.  This is the first stage of natural realization. As the quality of the instrument plays a role for the musician, so the quality of the orchestra does for the conductor… In this question it would be good to realize a little bit what the orchestras used to look like and what they look like today… Today, technical perfection is required, but in the past the conductor had to educate a generation of players himself. I remember Václav Talich exclaiming in my conductor’s room – I have nothing to teach them, they play it the way I want it before I tell them… Today, a conductor has a much easier job with a good orchestra – today the performance of the orchestra is reflected in the requirements of the conductor, and today it is possible to achieve extraordinary performances as standard, which used to be the pinnacle of reproductive art… The conductor’s personality influences the style of play. Once one of the Boston Symphony players told me, we played Russian for Kusevicky, then Munch came and so he transformed us into a French orchestra… The conductor has and must have such an influence that he pulls the orchestra to a certain style of playing, to a certain way of playing, it requires a lot of rehearsals … I don’t have to speak to the Czech Philharmonic for a long time for it to understand how I want it to play, we’ve known each other for eighteen years.

 That was the year 1968. On the invasion of Czechoslovakia by foreign troops in August 1968, Karel Ančerl was travelling abroad. The Czechoslovak Foreign Minister protested the occupation at the UN, leading to his removal from office immediately afterwards. This time, the world watched helplessly as the nation that had breathed freedom through its own reform efforts during the Prague Spring, and wanted to imprint a human face on an insane regime, was stamped into the ground again, rolled over by the belts of tanks. Long gone were the times when people cried with joy, covered their former liberators from the east with heaps of lilac, and carried their liberators on their shoulders This time, the wolf seeking the lamb was pelted with paving stones and Molotov cocktails, and people’s faces acquired an expression of helplessness and anger.

First of all: from what the situation looks like- and I can’t go back on the advice of our former Foreign Minister, with whom I spoke in New York, and who advised me not to return until he gave me a personal report (he is no longer a minister in the meantime)- as a Zionist it will not be possible, because I can imagine where things are heading and how they will probably develop in our country. I am extremely worried about you all at home and I see everything in the blackest colors. Therefore, I would like to help anyone, and whoever turns to me can be assured that I will do everything in my power… I don’t know what to decide yet, because as soon as it became known that I am here, I received so many offers from all over Europe and America for the coming season that it would have be a season of at least 20 months. I miss the Philharmonic more than I expected, but I can’t look back. I already have experience with this… Anyway, I would return home immediately if only it was possible. I don’t like to write about this, because after everything I’ve read here and what I hear from people who are still flocking here, I’ve been seized by a terrible pessimism about the future at home. This time I can’t make the fundamental mistake I made in 1939 by firmly believing that everything would turn out well and that I had to stay so that I could help, where I assumed I could help.

Karel Ančerl returned to Czechoslovakia in May 1969, when the borders were still open, to perform two Prague Spring concerts with the Czech Philharmonic. It turned out that this was to be his last performance with his orchestra. He was preparing to start the season in Toronto. A very busy summer began with the Clevelands, and Karel managed to conjure up a beautiful performance of Janáček’s `Sinfonietta’. It was hard work, because according to Karel, his predecessor Szell had incorporated a lot of it with them, and Ančerl, as everyone knew, excelled in Janáček, so he spent most of the rehearsal time cleaning up the adjustments. Then he went to Tanglewood and began rehearsing Smetana’s `Má Vlast’ with the Boston Symphony. Apart from `Vltava’ and `Z českých luhů a hájů’, they knew nothing of it, and it caused Karel a lot of work. But they liked their `Má Vlast’ and played it with real interest. The audience welcomed the piece tumultuously. `Má Vlast’ has never had such success anywhere abroad as when Karel performed it. The 8,000 listeners persevered despite the rain, from which the roof of the auditorium could not fully protect them. A good result for Smetana. Karel got on well with the orchestra and they looked after him. Then it was Philadelphia’s turn. Karel was most curious about that, because he had never heard the orchestra before, except on records. They were excellent, especially the strings; in America, in Karel’s evaluation, without compare:

The beautiful sound of the strings with their warmth reminded me strongly of our Czech strings, then I toured with the New York Philharmonic around NY and finally to Ottawa, Canada and back to Detroit, a total of ten concertos. We started in Central Park, NY, I was told I broke the record there because there were 55,000 people listening… I think a lot about you and all the friends in the Czech Philharmonic and I hope to see you in February. In January and early February, I will be in Vienna and Amsterdam in Concertgebouw.

Further plans were thwarted by the intensifying political situation. After the Soviet occupation, Karel Ančerl decided not to return to Czechoslovakia. From the 1969/70 season, he became the head of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, to which he devoted all the strength left of his war-torn health. Shortly before this decision, in one of his letters to a friend home, Karel wrote:

I consider my destiny to be intrinsically connected with the whole nation, and its Philharmonic in particular. The only thing that will probably never stop bothering me are worries about the fates of my friends and people I loved – and there are many of them. Maybe I paint everything too black, but I don’t trust “them”, and I can’t love on command.

In Toronto, far from his homeland, Karel Ančerl, the great Czech conductor, died on July 3, 1973. Twenty years later, after regaining her freedom during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the country called him back. He is buried at the Vyšehrad cemetery, laid to rest near the great Czech musical giants whose music Karel loved so much. If he were still alive, he would be the one standing with `Má Vlast’ in front of his orchestra in the Prague Old Town Square, and as ever before, people would not look with silent amazement at this humble and kind conductor, but only at his orchestra.

Sources used and links:

About the Author
Ivan Zahrádka is a citizen of the Czech Republic. He was born and lives in central Bohemia. He graduated as a mathematician from the Charles University of Prague and soon devoted himself to teaching and scientific activities. However, he spent the greater part of his career as an investment management specialist working for a few domestic and foreign private financial institutions at home and abroad. He currently works in Prague as a civil servant in the area of the financial market regulation.
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