The 125 year-old Czech Philharmonic gave its first concert – an all Dvořák programme which included the world première of his Biblical Songs, Nos. 1-5 conducted by the composer himself – in the famed Rudolfinum Hall on 4 January 1896. Acknowledged for its definitive interpretations of Czech composers, whose music the Czech Philharmonic has championed since its formation, the Orchestra is also recognised for the special relationship it has to the music of Brahms and Tchaikovsky – friends of Dvořák – and to Mahler, who gave the world première of his Symphony No. 7 with the Orchestra in 1908.
The Czech Philharmonic’s extraordinary and proud history reflects both its location at the very heart of Europe and the Czech Republic’s turbulent political history, for which Smetana’s Má vlast (My Homeland) has become a potent symbol. The Orchestra gave its first full rendition of Má vlast in a brewery in Smíchov in 1901; in 1925 under Chief Conductor Václav Talich, Má vlast was the Orchestra’s first live broadcast and, five years later, the first work that the Orchestra committed to disc. During the Nazi occupation, when Goebbels demanded that the Orchestra perform in Berlin and Dresden, Talich programmed Má vlast as an act of defiance; while in 1945 Rafael Kubelík conducted the work as a ‘concert of thanks’ for the newly liberated Czechoslovakia. 45 years later, Má vlast was Kubelík’s choice to mark Czechoslovakia’s first free elections and in January 2018, Decca Classics released Jiří Bělohlávek’s recording of Má vlast made at the time of the 2014 Prague Spring Festival to mark the 100th anniversary of Czechoslovak independence.
Má vlast featured in the opening subscription concert of the Czech Philharmonic’s 2019/20 season in Prague conducted by Chief Conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov. A few weeks later, Bychkov and the Orchestra performed the cycle twice in Tokyo as part of their Far East tour which will also include a Tchaikovsky residency. Celebrating the release of The Tchaikovsky Project boxset on Decca Classics at the end of August, Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic also brought the Tchaikovsky to the BBC Proms followed by further residencies in Prague, Vienna and Paris. Elsewhere in the season, they travel to Taiwan and Russia, as well as give concerts at home including the Czech première of Glanert’s Requiem für Hieronymus Bosch, at the Prague Spring International Music Festival and Smetana’s Litomyšl Festival, alongside performances of works by Berio, Dutilleux, Martinů, Brahms, Shostakovich, Beethoven and Mahler.
Throughout the Czech Philharmonic’s history, two features have remained at its core: its championing of Czech composers and its belief in music’s power to change lives. Defined from its inauguration as ‘an organisation for the enhancement of musical art in Prague, and a pension organisation for the members of the National Theatre Orchestra in Prague, its widows and orphans’, the proceeds from the four concerts that it performed each year helped to support members of the orchestra who could no longer play and the immediate family of deceased musicians.
As early as the 1920’s, Václav Talich (Chief Conductor 1919-1941) pioneered concerts for workers, young people and other voluntary organisations including the Red Cross, the Czechoslovak Sokol and the Union of Slavic Women and, in 1923 gave three benefit concerts for Russian, Austrian and German players including members of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras. The philosophy continues today, and is equally vibrant. In addition to the Czech Philharmonic’s Orchestral Academy and newly launched Jiří Bělohlávek Prize for young musicians, a comprehensive education strategy engages with more than 400 schools bringing all ages to the Rudolfinum – some travelling as many as four hours – to hear concerts and participate in masterclasses. An inspirational music and song programme led by singer Ida Kelarová for the extensive Romany communities within the Czech Republic and Slovakia has helped many socially excluded families to find a voice. From 2020, the Orchestra will embark on a series of ongoing education exchanges in the UK with the Royal Academy of Music and in China with the Jiangsu Centre for the Performing Arts, Nanking.
An early champion of Martinů’s music, the Orchestra premièred his Czech Rhapsody in 1919 and, its detailed inventory of Czech music, undertaken by Václav Talich included the world premières of Martinů’s Half Time (1924), Janáček’s Sinfonietta (1926) and the Prague première of Janáček’s Taras Bulba (1924). Rafael Kubelík was also an advocate of Martinů’s music and premièred Field Mass (1946) and Symphony No. 5 (1947), while Karel Ančerl conducted the première of Martinů’s Symphony No. 6 Fantaisies symphoniques (1956). Fantaisies symphoniques has also featured twice in the Orchestra’s programmes at the BBC Proms, first in 1969 under Chief Conductor Václav Neumann and then in 2010 under Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
Prague has long been favoured by composers, not least Mozart who, following performances of Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, travelled the 250km journey from Vienna to première La Clemenza di Tito in 1791. Five years later, Beethoven made two trips to Prague returning again in 1798 to give the première of his Piano Concerto No. 1. His Seventh Symphony was composed in the spa town of Teplitz (now Teplice). Mahler’s ties ran even deeper. Born in the Bohemian village of Kaliště, now part of the Czech Republic, he was 23 when he conducted the Royal Municipal Theatre in Moravia and first came to Prague to conduct the Neues Deutsches Theatre before giving the world première of his Symphony No. 7 with the Czech Philharmonic.
Mahler, however, was not the first non-Czech composer to conduct the Czech Philharmonic. Edward Grieg conducted the Orchestra in 1906; Stravinsky performed his Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra under Václav Talich in 1930; Leonard Bernstein conducted the European première of Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 at the Prague Spring in 1947; Arthur Honegger conducted a concert of his own music in 1949; Darius Milhaud gave the première of his Music for Prague at the Prague Spring Festival in 1966; and, in 1996, Krzysztof Penderecki conducted the première of his Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra.
Their names are joined by the many luminaries who have collaborated with the Orchestra over the years: Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, Evgeny Kissin, Erich Kleiber, Leonid Kogan, Erich Leinsdorf, Lovro von Matačić, Ivan Moravec, Yevgeny Mravinsky, David Oistrakh, Antonio Pedrotti, Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, Gennady Roszhdestvensky, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Georg Szell, Henryk Szeryng, Bruno Walter and Alexander Zemlinsky.