Remembering Jiří Bělohlávek

Jiří Bělohlávek remembered by his family, friends, students and colleagues.

FamilyJakub HrůšaDavid MarečekTomáš HanusJiří Vodička, Stanislav Boguniy and Jaroslav Šaroun


Memories of Jiří Bělohlávek’s wife Anna Fejérová, daughters Zuzana and Marie, and sister Růžena

“He loved swimming and water. In 2015 he had the opportunity to stand at the helm of a small sailboat rented by his nephew. He asked to have everything shown and explained and then he really steered the boat. The wide water area and the open space all around made him feel immeasurably happy.”

“Since his childhood he’s had dreams about flying. He dreamt about flying through empty space freely like a bird.”

 “He loved working in the garden whenever he had the time for it. He worked with the soil, with plants.”

“He loved beauty, flowers. Whenever he stayed somewhere even only for a couple of days, he had a bunch of freshly cut flowers in his room.”

“He loved Japan and the Japanese, he appreciated their discipline, their sense of beauty, their attention to detail. He taught them how to play Czech music, he learned to sign his name in Japanese – after one concert, he gave his autograph to each of the ninety-two members of the choir performing at the concert.”

“He was a keen and excellent cook when he had the time. His specialties included potato pancakes (bramborák), potato gnocchi (škubánky), various decorated toasts or, at his cottage, grilled cutlets.”

“When he came to Košice to our family, he immediately started to learn Hungarian, which was the language we spoke there.”

“He always stood up for those who were weaker, wronged or humiliated.”

“He was moved often and in many situations: When, while working, he encountered beauty and emotion, when watching films, seeing animals, observing his grandchildren, encountering poverty, sorrow, or while reminiscing.”

“He loved change and improvisation – he often initiated a sudden change of plan while on holiday, such as returning home one day earlier.”

“As a ten-year-old boy he helped at a farm – and remembered his experiences with horses ever after.”

“He invited his parents to all of his concerts.”

“Daddy was a true foodie, gourmet and enjoyed life to the fullest. When we visited him abroad, he always took us to a tried-and-tested restaurant to taste some specialty.”

“At 30, he had heart failure triggered by a problem with tonsils – he needed to rest, the noise at the place where we lived irritated him and he gave our Mum the task of finding a tranquil cottage not further than thirty kilometres from Prague. Mum succeeded about two years later when she found a cottage in Petrov - Chlomek near Davle. This cottage became our summer dwelling place with visitors and family holidays. That is also where we organised our summer cutlet grilling (Dad always causing a great stir at the butcher’s in Davle when ordering 100 cutlets). We used to go mushroom hunting (Dad taught me and my sister to recognize all kinds of mushrooms growing there), we tended the garden, burned old leaves, cut wood and went on trips. Dad had his favourite place, four kilometres distant – the Třeštibok viewpoint overlooking meanders of the Sázava river and the Medníky hills.”

“We had a dog named Amor, a Dalmatian. Dad always wanted a dog, and we girls did too, but Mum was against it for a long time. When Zuzka was almost seventeen and I was thirteen, we got a puppy from friends. Dad loved our little Amor, he pampered him, fed him secretly at the table and at different stalls. And Amor loved him more than anyone else. There was no end to their welcome after Dad’s longer absences. The dog was leaving behind small puddles of pee out of excitement and dad was glowing with happiness. Once, in such a situation, he said something that we often liked to repeat: ‘Of course I’m your doggie.’”

“He was extremely introverted. He did not share his feelings, not even with his wife. In the world of opera and concert stars, however, he behaved like the biggest extrovert and man of the world.”

“He divided his professional career in two stages – “Before Tristan” and “After Tristan”.” (He performed the opera Tristan und Isolde at Glyndenbourne in England for the first time in 2003.)

“He expected even his closest family to express themselves clearly (he was an educator and conductor at home as well).”

“He loved the mountains (especially the Krkonoše, where he often went with his father). In the summer of 2016, he was with his family in Yosemite National Park in the USA. We were able to climb one mountain that had a beautiful view – he was enchanted and excited that he was still able to experience something like that.”

“He loved to play all sorts of games. On holiday, we would always play cards, scrabble, dice and various board games. Even a few weeks before he breathed for the last time, he played scrabble with Mum and my sister in hospital.”

“He had a very strict and exquisite taste. Because of that it was almost impossible to give him presents as he judged everything so severely.”

“We used to play and sing carols together every Christmas (Dad played the piano, I the violin and everyone sang). Dad never tried to talk me round to become a professional musician. Maybe he knew why. He knew the price I’d have to pay.”

“He loved fire – we used to have campfires at our cottage and in his last years he liked to make a fire in the fireplace on every possible occasion (both at home and at our cottage).”

“After a dress rehearsal of the Czech Philharmonic in September 2015, after Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, Jiří and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma came backstage and were glowing with tremendous enthusiasm springing from their performance. Jiří told us: ‘That was so beautiful – and no one would believe that we played it together for the first time in our lives. Total harmony of souls.’”

“In the summer of 2015 we climbed the Sněžka mountain together with Standa, Anička and Jiří, starting at Růžohorky. Jiří was full of vitality and was touched by the beauty and views.”

Jakub Hrůša

Chief Conductor of the Bamberger Symphoniker, Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek’s student

Jiří Bělohlávek passed away last night

Last night, Jiří Bělohlávek passed away; we heard the news this morning. I am not able to write in full what it means. But the loss – for us as individuals and society – is so fresh and painful that writing about it is perhaps the best way to overcome this unwanted and hopeless surprise, to use a good thought to gain something positive and high-spirited out of the memory of Jiří, this irreplaceable personality of Czech music and humanity.

Suddenly I realised that whenever I think of music, orchestras or conducting, from any angle or perspective, whenever I tackle a conducting task or listen to any piece of music, immediately I become connected in my thoughts to Jiří. In my case, it is absolutely inevitable.  This morning, symbolic things kept happening. Right after I learned the saddest news, I went to rehearse with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and – behold! - I am standing in the hall of the Konzerthaus where I had my possibly first visit abroad – and the very same orchestra was conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek. I also remember the following evening and night spent in excited discussions with him and the late Heinrich Schiff in Heinrich’s flat in Vienna, a student invited and thrown into the world where art and thinking about art was at home. Franck’s Symphony in D minor is lying on my music stand this week, one of the first compositions I studied with a professional orchestra while studying at the Academy under Jiří’s supervision – how many car journeys full of endless discussions, like this one from Prague to Hradec Králové and back, and how many lessons learnt there; even such a “superfluous” detail comes to my mind now that Jiří was just recording Dvořák’s Stubborn Lovers with the PKF – Prague Philharmonia … we are talking about 2003!

The very first page of Franck’s Symphony already contains comments and notes uttered by Jiří and scribbled hastily by me. When going to the afternoon rehearsal, I accidentally bump into Danni de Niese, the soprano and “the lady of the house” from Glyndebourne in England where, while still a student, clutching the score under my arm, I was invited by Jiří to listen to his Tristan, the work that was absolutely central for him and unsurpassable in his life. What an unforgivable experience it was! And how typical of Jiří – pure as crystal. Emotions oozed from the performance, they could not have been stronger – and still, everything was so healthy, unpretentious, not weepy, but statuesque and dignified…

It is not easy to pin down the essence of Jiří’s type, to characterise him concisely. Above all, he was his own, personal, direct and true. People said (or he may have expressed it himself this way) that he was introverted by nature, but having a totally extroverted profession. I believe that, most of all, he was uncommonly sensitive. Sensitive to the sound of each individual tone or chord (even too fragile in his sensitivity regarding the balance and tone culture of an orchestra), sensitive to people’s behaviour, among others and towards himself (he was greatly touched by crude, tactless or tasteless behaviour), sensitive to idle talking (I think that his specific, often wonderfully liberating and disarming laconic sense of the right thing to say and of humour sprung also from his distaste for superheavy meaningless comments and sayings – as if searching for the right measure of things in everything). He was immensely hard-working, but never rigidly pedantic; strict and generous at the same time; direct (and earlier on perhaps too direct) and considerate; reserved and at the same time warm-hearted inside, at least to people he let come a little closer.

I think he rejoiced in remarkable details of life, of nature (!) and music without any need to be overwhelmed by anything monstrous. And in contrast: where he believed that greatness and pomp were genuine and true (let Tristan und Isolde be our example again, unlike some other Wagner operas), he searched and worked with gentle and attentive care so that each minute crease of the colossus, of the huge stone, would gain the quality of a precisely polished gem. And his passion for hosting! He was the best guide through a well-deserved relaxing feast. He loved when people around him felt good. His widely open arms, wanting to embrace all possible joy and beauty, radiated also on the stage, especially recently. Apparently, he hated doing nothing and only standing by – that was simply destroying him. I believe that his ceaseless activity until his last days was rooted in one simple fact – he loved music, and creating it, bringing it to life and sharing it was the sap of his life, and he could not leave this life mission, not until the very last days of his life.

He said many times that he was saddened and disturbed when seeing great performing artists, including conductors, who have lost their physical strength and are fighting in front of the audiences for the spiritual richness of art while physically handicapped. He mentioned many times how important it was to stop at the right time… I must admit that, in my mind, I never agreed with him on this point. The spiritual dimension is always potentially able to “conquer” the decaying physical dimension – you can feel the strength in the eyes of many old and ill people, how the will of the soul of such personalities can work miracles and create deep and great things on the fields of art and life. And yet: Jiří Bělohlávek is leaving us in full conducting strength, he lived on the stage almost until his last breath. His Mahler, Suk, Dvořák of the last months are to many of us the highlights of his art. Now we must continue alone. We – and I personally - are going to miss painfully Jiří’s extraordinarily sensitive hearing (and view) and behaviour, his gentleness and genteelness, his sincerity and kindness. However, he has sown among us so much beauty of different kind that we have something to build on: in our memories, in our feelings and actions.

It is true that in music what is often more precious than all the tones and sounds, is the silence between and especially beyond them, after them. The moment that arises when the glow of the sound has died away and one is overwhelmed by what has just been heard, what has been felt and one is sad that it is over; the almost palpable accumulation of beauty and emotion that remains in the listener’s heart as long as the listener is able to hold it inside. This moment after Jiří’s departure has just come. For me, it is exactly this charged, radiating, unlimited and infinite crown which is silent but is not hollow and I am trying not to lose from my mind and soul the beautiful, subsided sound of all the lines of his life, of all the harmony; the silence present pulsates with all the beauty of the life before. If only these vibrations never ceased in us and inspired more and more manifestations of beauty in our lives and art that we can continue to feel, also for Jiří’s sake.

In Vienna on 1 June 2017

David Mareček

CEO of the Czech Philharmonic

There are so many personal memories coming to my mind of Jiří Bělohlávek … Already his “how are you” on our very first meeting before we started to work for the Czech Philharmonic. He showed genuine interest in his brief welcome of “how are you”, it was no empty phrase. And this is how I experienced Jiří during the following seven years, no idle talking, let’s not waste time, let’s not do anything half-way or pointlessly. During our first spree one night in Cracow, he stayed fresh longer than Robert Hanč and I, and in the morning he was well-rested, professional and ready to work. In Abu Dhabi, he persuaded us to go on the fastest roller-coaster in the world and he was the only one of us who wasn’t sick, and quite relentlessly, dragged us onto more rides. He loved life in all its forms from music to food and drink, beautiful nature, art in any form, fast cars and a thousand other things. No one could rejoice from trivialities like he could. Jiří knew how to live his life to the fullest and he followed this knowledge. He never let up in anything he did. Less than a hundred per cent was not enough. He never dodged, never took the easy way out. He was extremely stubborn and if anyone wanted to oppose him, they had to have very good arguments ready. “No” was not an answer for him. Only an alternative solution backed by thorough reasoning be accepted as an answer.

Before I joined the Czech Philharmonic, Petr Altrichter, “my” chief conductor of the Brno Philharmonic and my first guide to the orchestral world, told me: “Jiří is a man of the world, he will open the world to you and will teach you more about it than anyone else.” How often Robert and I would remember this sentence! We owe everything to Jiří. He demanded absolute professionality, but was able to be kind, attentive and always loyal at the same time. He was like a rock that the whole team could stand on, and at the same time he had open arms and a kind word for everybody. He did not tolerate negligence. We did not wear a tie at the Last Night of the PROMS and Jiří commented it: “Oh, gentlemen from Prague are dressed casually.” Gentlemen from Prague were Jakub Hrůša, Robert Hanč and David Mareček. Jakub translated Jiří’s sentence in the following way: “Sirs, we are in deep trouble for daring to come without a tie.” I wanted to dig down a kilometre into the ground then. A month later I had to learn to tie a bow tie so that I would not have to feel ashamed to come before Jiří during the opening concert of his first season…

Throughout the seven years we knew each other, Jiří thought of himself only after thinking of everyone else before. He was diagnosed with a serious illness in the summer of 2012, still before he joined the Czech Philharmonic. He told us immediately, openly and without evasions, risking potentially his entire career with the orchestra. We knew from the very first day what was going on with Jiří and that it was serious. Not for a moment did it occur to him to keep it to himself and to protect himself from the doubts of those closest to him. When exceptionally he had to cancel a concert, he always decided it very quickly so that he would not leave us in uncertainty as to whether or not he would conduct. And he met his obligations with an almost insane consistency. He would come straight from the hospital to the Rudolfinum, rehearsing and conducting to the full at all times. The fact that he conducted the Czech Philharmonic during five full seasons, in which he kept and performed perfectly the vast majority of his commitments is partly a miracle and a manifestation of Jiří’s invincible will. A will springing not from obstinacy but from his love of music and life and the joy he obtained from it. “But I like conducting so much” was a phrase he used to say often. When I saw him for the last time, he was very tired, but there was such calmness and glow radiating from him that it did not occur to me at all that he was leaving us. Jiří’s five years with the Czech Philharmonic was a royal journey. Without any curves, hesitations, without fear. He started with hope and doubts, walked firmly and humbly and left us as a king would, we are missing him more than is possible to say…

Tomáš Hanus

Music Director of the Welsh National Opera, a student of Jiří Bělohlávek

I first met Jiří in 1988 in the Hromovka chalet, popular with musicians, in the Krkonoše mountains, where our families coincidentally were spending their holidays at the same time. I was 18 years old at the time, already eager to follow the conducting path. Jiří Bělohlávek was already an icon for me and I did not dare to approach him, especially at a time when I would be interrupting his holidays with his small children. So I walked past him, feeling awe and reverence until the last evening when I gathered all courage and approached him while roasting sausages on campfire. This evening at the campfire turned out to be one of the most important evenings in my life. 

Maestro Bělohlávek listened to me with interest and openness, and I could confide in him all my troubles that I encountered on my way to becoming a conductor. After a while he said: “I can see that here is someone who means it really seriously – let’s go for a walk; and we went into the forest. Already at 18, I’d had the adverse experience of someone trying to hammer my talent into the ground. Jiří aroused in me great confidence, not only in matters of art (he’d had that already), but as a human being, he did not feed my nothingness with his greatness, on the contrary, I felt really respected. This was one of his main features as a teacher later, he respected the student’s personality fully and he strove to help him find his own self rather than just copy the maestro. And so, during our walk, I asked him if he could give me a conducting lesson.

The following day, before departure, by the trunk of a spruce in a forest above Hromovka, our first lesson took place, and it amazed me. Unfortunately, I cannot find the trunk anymore, the hillside has been partly reforested and has changed. But it has not disappeared, it is still there, a part of the hillside. Unpretentious, always in the right place, serving. What a parable of Jiří’s life!

Jiří Vodička, Stanislav Bogunia and Jaroslav Šaroun

Interview plus: What was Jiří Bělohlávek like

Taken from the Opera Plus YouTube channel. Jiří Bělohlávek is remembered by Jiří Vodička, the concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic, a soloist and chamber musician; Stanislav Bogunia, a Czech pianist, conductor, choirmaster and music teacher; and Jaroslav Šaroun, a pianist, composer, teacher and long-time member of the Czech Philharmonic.