Czech conductor Karel Ančerl is considered one of the more prominent conductors of the twentieth century. Despite Nazi persecution, incarceration, and the loss of his family in the Holocaust, Ančerl forged an international career and helped lift the profile of Czech classical music globally.
Ančerl was born on 11 April 1908 to a prosperous Jewish family in the village of Tučapy in southern Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). His father Leopold was an industrial producer of liquors and spirits. Karel was educated in the Czech capital of Prague in gymnasium (1918-24) and in 1925 enrolled in the Prague Conservatory of Music, where he studied violin, percussion, composition and conducting.
Conducting became Ančerl’s primary focus at university. After graduating, he went on to study under Hermann Scherchen in Strasbourg. During this period, Ančerl assisted with the 1931 Munich premiere of Alois Haba’s quarter-tone opera Mother.
After completing his studies he moved back to Prague, where he gained more experience and success. One prominent engagement was his partnership with Janoslav Kezek’s Osvobozene Divaldo or Prague Free Theatre (also known as the Liberated Theatre), where he served as orchestra conductor. Kezek’s theatre troupe represented an important contributor to the Czech 1st Republic’s cultural scene as a home to avant garde stage productions. Founded in 1926, it was strongly leftist and influenced by Dadaism, Futurism and later, Czech Poeticism. Ančerl’s contributions as leader of the orchestra greatly improved its standing on the theatre scene.
Following this association, Ančerl enrolled to study with renowned Czech conductor Vačlav Talich at the Prague Conservatory’s master school in 1933. He continued to build his successful conducting career throughout the early 1930s. Two highlights from the period include performances at the International Society of Contemporary Music Festivals, first in Vienna in 1932 and then in Amsterdam the following year.
Similar to many German and Austrian émigré conductors and composers of the 1930s, Ančerl worked in the medium of radio. From 1933 to 1939 he was employed as a sound engineer and conductor for Czechoslovak Radio until his dismissal after the Nazi invasion in March 1939.
On 16 November 1942, Ančerl and his family were deported from Prague and imprisoned in the ‘model ghetto’ Theresienstadt. The small fortress town was converted by the Nazi regime in 1941 and quickly became synonymous with overpopulation, frequent outbreaks of disease and brutal working conditions. As an inmate, Ančerl was required to work in the kitchens preparing rations for the imprisoned.
Despite the conditions, the prisoners of Theresienstadt fostered a rich cultural life. The camp had an accomplished circle of visual artists, among them Bedrich Fritta, Norbert Troller, Leo Haas, Otto Ungar and Petr Kien, who depicted the camp’s conditions. The camp was also populated by established professional and semi-professional musicians which led to a well-developed music scene including choirs, jazz ensembles, opera productions and an orchestra comprised of international players from Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Czech territories. Ančerl shortly became the leader of the Theresienstadt String Orchestra, which was comprised of sixteen first violins, twelve second violins, eight violas, six cellos and one double bass.
The ensemble’s programmes included works by established composers such as Handel, Mozart, and Bach as well as contemporary Czech composers such as Josef Suk and Anton Dvořák. There were also several composers in Theresienstadt– notably former Schoenberg student Viktor Ullmann (Der Kaiser von Atlantis), Hans Krása (Brundibár) and Pavel Haas – who composed for the various ensembles and groups within the camp. One of Haas’ works, Study for Strings, was premiered by Ančerl’s orchestra.
The piece was reprised in the summer of 1944 for a humanitarian inspection of the camp by the Red Cross. Theresienstadt had been prepared in anticipation of this visit and was transformed into a seemingly picturesque village, replete with stores, cafés and flower-lined streets. These efforts were exploited for propaganda purposes by the Nazi regime in the film Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer gives the Jews a City). The film, recorded between 16 August and 11 September 1944, features the false, manufactured reality of the camp, complete with scenes of the town, various moments from the stage performances such as Brundibár, as well as concerts. In one scene from the film, Ančerl can be seen conducting the string orchestra. After the film was completed, Ančerl along with his wife Valy and son Jan were sent on a large transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 15 October 1944. Ančerl managed to survive until the camp was liberated in the spring of 1945. Sadly, his wife and son perished in the gas chambers.
After the Second World War, Ančerl returned to Prague where he resumed conducting for the Radio Symphony Orchestra and conducted regularly at the Grand Opera in the city. In 1950, he assumed the position of Artistic Director of the Czech Philharmonic. His work with the orchestra led to international fame. Ančerl embarked on an expansion of the orchestra’s repertoire to include works by Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten, among others. He also championed Czech composers including Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček, Miloslav Kabeláč, and particularly Bohuslav Martinů. The orchestra toured around the world during his tenure, from New Zealand and Australia to China, Japan, the Soviet Union as well as the U.S. and Canada.
Ančerl served in the position until 1968 when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. He emigrated to Toronto, Canada where he assumed the position of Music Director of Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1969. He remained in Canada until his death on 3 July 1973.
Ančerl made a large impact on twentieth-century classical music, in the league of conducting masters like his mentor Vačlav Talich. His distinctive defined sound – crafted through a combination of sharp rhythms and careful attention to dynamics - are the marks of a master. Equally, he utilised his position to elevate the position of Czech composers on the global stage through concerts and a large catalogue of commercial recordings.