‘In art there is no such thing as a goal definitively achieved. Artistic growth is a series of errors, and a search that lasts as long as the artist’s life.’
(Václav Talich, 1938)
Václav Talich (28 May 1883 – 16 March 1961) began his career as a talented violinist–first in a student orchestra in Klatovy, then from 1897 to 1903 at the conservatory in Prague where he studied with the celebrated Otakar Ševčík. Finally he served as concert master of the Berlin Philharmonic, where a fateful turning point occurred. That orchestra’s chief conductor, Arthur Nikisch, so fascinated the twenty-one-year-old Talich that he decided to become a conductor himself. Then came fifteen years of wandering and gathering experience. In 1905 he worked in Odessa for a little less than a year, before moving to Tbilisi where he conducted for the very first time. For two years he tried to establish himself as a choirmaster and conductor in Prague, but then from 1908 to 1912 he served in Ljubljana as chief conductor of the Slovenian Philharmonic. Before the First World War broke out he was able to study in Leipzig with Max Reger and Arthur Nikisch, to spend several months studying in Milan, and to lead the opera company in Plzeň starting in 1912. From 1915 to 1918 he occasionally taught violin, performed as a violist with the famous Czech Quartet, studied scores, and in his free moments educated himself–for example by reading classical literature in Greek and Latin.
The door to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra was opened for Talich by Suk’s symphonic poem Zrání (Maturation), whose premiere he conducted on 30 October 1918–two days after the establishment of Czechoslovakia as an independent state. Less than a year later he became the orchestra’s chief conductor, and he remained in that position, with a short break in the early 1930s, until 1941. Talich’s vision of the future Czech Philharmonic rested on three fundamental pillars: improving its artistic quality, bettering its financial situation, and building a firm basic repertoire. Over the course of several years he indeed succeeded in shaping this provincial ensemble into an outstanding orchestra admired by critics both at home and abroad. They wrote in accord about the beautiful, full sound and extraordinary verve of its strings, the timbral elegance, gentleness, and sheen of its winds, and the disciplined expressivity of its percussion. They described Talich as a conductor who ‘comes to the first rehearsal with a conception of the work, approaches the orchestra with unfettered energy and elan, and through persistent, systematic rehearsals brings the ensemble into accord with that conception.’ During the 1920s and 1930s Talich’s work with the Czech Philharmonic was complemented by intensive collaboration with orchestras in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, and the Soviet Union; offers came also from the USA and Australia.
In the autumn of 1935 Talich was named administrator of the opera of Prague’s National Theatre. One of his main goals there was to incorporate the works of Leoš Janáček into the core repertoire. During the time of the Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945 he uncompromisingly and bravely defended Czech musical culture, not only at the National Theatre. Nevertheless, after the liberation of Czechoslovakia in May 1945 he was accused of having collaborated with the enemy and was arrested and imprisoned for several weeks. Soon the senseless accusations were refuted, but even so Talich was not allowed to conduct in public until the autumn of 1946. So during that time he and students at the conservatory in Prague founded the outstanding Czech Chamber Orchestra. After the Communist take-over in February 1948 the young players chose to voluntarily terminate this ensemble’s activities rather than give up Talich’s artistic leadership under political pressure. Talich wrote at the time:
The dissolution of the Czech Chamber Orchestra shook my faith that honest and selfless work is an indestructible value–a faith that had been the backbone of my life up to that time and to which I had tried to convert all my colleagues. A sense of futility grew and strengthened in me.
The ensuing six years were to prove that his fears were not unwarranted. He was forbidden to conduct in public in the Czech lands, so he worked in Bratislava with the Slovak Philharmonic from 1949 to 1952, then briefly in 1953 with ensembles of Prague Radio. Occasionally he made recordings with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and it was with that ensemble that, in March 1954, he was finally allowed to conduct several extraordinary concerts before Prague audiences. But the years of uncertainty and Communist persecution had left their mark. In November 1954 Talich conducted the Czech Philharmonic for the last time in a public concert, and in 1955 he made a television recording of the Slavonic Dances with the orchestra. He spent the last few years of his life in his family villa in Beroun not far from Prague, and the great story of his life came to a close shortly before spring in 1961.