Sir Charles Mackerras on his love of Czech music


The 58th International Prague Spring Music Festival ended this week, featuring many distinguished musicians from all over the world and also the Czech Republic. As part of the festival, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra performed a concert featuring the works of Leos Janacek, Bohuslav Martinu and Josef Suk, under the baton of the world-renowned conductor Sir Charles Mackerras. The concert was dedicated to the 120th anniversary of the birth of Czech conductor Vaclav Talich, who used to be Sir Charles' mentor back in 1947 when the young musician first came to Czechoslovakia to study music.

During his private studies with Vaclav Talich in 1947 and 1948, Sir Charles developed his profound affection for Czech music, and later became an internationally acclaimed authority in its interpretation - in particular of the works of Leos Janacek and Bohuslav Martinu. He attracted the world's attention with numerous performances and recordings of Leos Janacek's operas. As guest conductor he has travelled the world, including the most significant European musical centres.

Sir Charles Mackerras has had a profound influence on Czech musical life, having conducted all prominent orchestras in Prague and Brno. He also staged Mozart's "Don Giovanni" for the re-opening of Prague's Theatre of the Estates - the venue of the opera's premiere. Sir Charles has also been honoured with a series of accolades during his career, including the state Medal of Distinction for services to culture, conferred upon him by Czech President Vaclav Havel in 1996.

In today's Arts programme, Sir Charles Mackerras recalls an almost unbelievable coincidence, which brought him to Czechoslovakia in 1947.

"Well, even before I met anybody particularly to do with Czech music, I had always adored the music of Dvorak. Not just the New World Symphony and the Eighth Symphony but very many of his great tone poems. And I came to come to Prague by a most extraordinary coincidence. I was sitting in London opposite a man - I was having a cup of coffee, you know - and I had just bought a score of Dvorak's Seventh Symphony, a miniature score, and I was just reading it. This man said: "I see you are reading the music of my country." We got into a conversation, and he was a Czech Jewish person who had been in London during the war - it was just at the end of the war, you see. He told me about the six scholarships that were being given by the British Council to six students to go to Czechoslovakia. There were also six Czech students going to England. And, of course, most of them were Slavonic history or even Russian language students. Because, at that time, the Iron Curtain was so iron that Prague was the only university which had not been communised at that time - in 1947. And so everybody who was interested in Slavonic languages or history used to study at the Karlova univerzita here because they could not go anywhere else anyhow, even if they were Russian experts.

I was the only musician among the six, all the rest were Slavonic scholars. And I wanted to study with Vaclav Talich. He didn't have time to study with me and said, just come to all my rehearsals. So I learnt a very great deal from that and about certain Czech music, and I also got to know the first opera that I had heard of Leos Janacek, which was "Katya Kabanova". My wife and I really fell in love with this opera, which was so different from anything else we had ever heard. I then did a lot of study during that year that I spent in Prague on the other operas of Janacek. In fact, I was very lucky because the Theatre of the Fifth of May did several Janacek operas including "The Adventures of Mr Broucek" which I think is a work of great genius.

So I studied in Prague. I was not able to study with Talich for a while because he was too busy, but I went to all his rehearsals. I learnt a great deal from his rehearsals with the Philharmonic and especially with the Chamber Orchestra, which he founded. Then, of course, came the so-called "Unorove udalosti", the February enents in 1948, and Talich was not able to conduct because his great enemy Minister Zdenek Nejedly managed to have him dismissed from his position in the National Theatre.

And Talich's misfortune was in a way my good fortune - and other people's, other students' - because I used to go down to his villa in Beroun. I used to take the bus or the train, go out there and talk to him all day. I regard those as being some of the most valuable months of my life. I feel in a way ashamed that because of his misfortune I was able to gain so much. Others also went to see him and I remember there was a conductor, an expert in Baroque music, called Milan Munzlinger. He was a great friend of mine, he was about my age, you see. And he invited me to go and play with two other musicians, two string players, to play incidental music to "Noc na Karlstejne" ("The Night in Karlstejn") in Karlstejn Castle, you see. This play was done every night with Son et Lumiere, it was the early days of Son et Lumiere. We did occasionally actually spend the night in Karlstejn and then walk from there to Talich's villa, along the Berounka River, till eventually we arrived at Talich's house, which was rather nice.

So that's really how I came into contact with Czechoslovakia, particularly with Prague and maybe with Brno, too, really because of that chance of meeting that cellist in a Kensington restaurant where I was reading Dvorak."