Karel Ančerl was born in the village of Tučapy in southern Bohemia, a region of forests and lakes. He started to learn the violin while at elementary school and acquired his own first violin at the age of six. Although neither of his parents was a musician, both of them loved music: his father played the violin and piano by ear and his mother sang. His sister was an accomplished pianist and together she and Karel played sonatas and chamber music. At High School in Prague Ančerl continued with his music and violin studies. In 1925 he entered the Prague Conservatory, changing from the violin to composition, which he studied with Alois Hába and J. Křička. He graduated in this subject in 1929, without either doing very much conducting or formal study of it, although he did conduct a student orchestra that played for local dances. His formative conducting experience came when he was asked at short notice to direct the off-stage bands in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 conducted in Prague by Bruno Walter. After a successful rehearsal Walter said simply to Ančerl, ‘It was very good. You should be a conductor.’
Ančerl attended conducting master-classes with Václav Talich, but, unable to find a position in Czechoslovakia, he left for Germany where he became a pupil of Hermann Scherchen at Strasbourg and acted as his assistant, notably in the preparation of the first performance of Hába’s opera The Mother which took place at Munich in 1931. From 1930 to 1933 he conducted at the Free Theatre in Prague, where he enjoyed the vitality of the company and conducted a wide range of music, including much ‘jazz music’, composed by his close friend Yaroslav Ježec. In 1933 he left the Free Theatre to seek work as a symphonic or opera conductor. Once again unsuccessful, he went to work for Prague Radio; although employed as a sound engineer, he also had the opportunity to conduct occasional concerts. Throughout this period Ančerl pursued a strong interest in contemporary music, and conducted often for the International Society for Contemporary Music at different European centres, including Amsterdam, Barcelona and Paris.
In 1939 following the occupation of his home country by Germany, Ančerl was dismissed from Prague Radio and took what work he could get, even taking employment as a miner and woodcutter. He was then imprisoned with his family in the concentration camp at Terezín for two years: a short film survives of him conducting a camp orchestra in a work by Pavel Haas. The family was subsequently transported to Auschwitz where his parents, wife and son were put to death. Upon liberation Ančerl returned to Prague, where what had been the German Opera House became the Prague Opera. Ančerl conducted at the opera for three seasons from 1945 and then became the chief conductor of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1948. He remarried, to a close friend from pre-war days, and had two more sons.
Ančerl was appointed chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1950: this was to be the major artistic appointment of his life. He stayed with the orchestra until 1968, and described his time with it as ‘one of the happiest of my life’. Rafael Kubelík had taken over the direction of the orchestra in 1945 and had replaced approximately half of the players; but following the ascendance of the Communist party to government in 1948 he had left for England, and by 1950 the orchestra was not in the best of musical health. Ančerl worked hard to restore its high standards. He recruited new players and instituted an intensive programme of both full and sectional rehearsals. As he recalled, ‘I was rehearsing a full repertoire of Classical, Romantic and modern music to get a real style for every composition that is needed.’ The results of this hard work gradually became more widely known outside Czechoslovakia through the many recordings that Ančerl and the orchestra made for Supraphon, the Czech state recording company, and through the extensive international tours which they undertook. These included a three-month marathon in 1959 that took in Australasia, the Far East, China, India and the Soviet Union.
In 1966 following successful concerts with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the Exposition in Montreal, Ančerl was invited to become the guest conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and in 1967 he was offered the position of chief conductor with the orchestra. Although he had intended to combine this with his work with the Czech Philharmonic, he decided while conducting in America in 1968 not to return to Czechoslovakia following the Russian occupation of his homeland. Ančerl took over as chief conductor in Toronto in 1969, and settled in Canada with his family. He conducted extensively as a guest in America and Europe, with ensembles of the calibre of the Cleveland and New York Philharmonic Orchestras.
Ančerl’s conducting was always informed by a strong sense of stylistic appropriateness and by the very highest executive standards, following deep study and extensive rehearsal. His discography is large, and is firmly based on the recordings that he made as chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Outstanding among these are his interpretations of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Les Noces, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Martinů’s Symphony No. 6, and the Glagolitic Mass, Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba of Janáček, to name just a few. Although Karel Ančerl did not achieve the fame of his predecessor with the Czech Philharmonic, Rafael Kubelík, he was an equally outstanding conductor of deep musical sensitivity who played a significant role in the development of orchestral music in Central Europe after World War II.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).