Champion of Czech classical music Sir Charles Mackerras dies aged 84

The world lost one of its leading conductors and a great patron of Czech classical music on Wednesday with the passing of Sir Charles Mackerras, who has died of cancer at the age of 84. In a long career of many highlights, Sir Charles became a notable specialist on the Czech composer Leoš Janáček and played a major role in championing the work of other Czech classical masters, like Bohuslav Martinů and Antonín Dvořák. Christian Falvey looks back at his life.

Charles Mackerras, photo: CTKCharles Mackerras, photo: CTK Sir Charles Mackerras leading the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the epilogue to Leoš Janáček’s Amarus. Sir Charles passion for Czech classical music began 63 years ago when, as a 22-year-old oboist he learned of an opportunity to study at the Prague Academy of Music from a Czechoslovak he met on a train ride. He received a scholarship from the British Council and stayed in Prague during the two years between the war and the communist coup, learning about Czech music from some of its greatest scholars, such as the legendary conductor Václav Talich, and getting a surprisingly good handle on the Czech language.

Sir Charles said that hearing Talich conduct Leoš Janáček had changed his life. He was fascinated with the First Republic composer, becoming, as he said, “a great studier of Janáček and everything about him”. And so it was that in 1951 he became the first to perform some of the Moravian composer’s pieces in England, and along the way gained a reputation for his very dramatic style of conducting and for the delicate clarity that he could get an orchestra to achieve.

Earlier this year, Sir Charles told Radio Prague about his introduction to Leoš Janáček.

Leoš JanáčekLeoš Janáček “I was extremely surprised when I first came here at the greatness of Janáček’s music, the extraordinary variety of it. It had so many different aspects and expressions and everything that I really decided that I was going to study his music very closely and become a sort of specialist in his music.”

Václav Talich was a great mentor to Charles Mackerras, thanks in part to the fact that the communists had forced him out of work and he could devote more time to his students, and the young Australian learned lessons that guided his work for the rest of his life. Talich, he said, had shown him what was behind the notes – that music was not only technique, but something connected to the soul – and also imparted some practical wisdom to him.

“You mustn’t be conceited, but you mustn’t be too modest either. Because if you’re too conceited, you are not sharing respect to the greatness of the music you are working for. But if you’re too modest, the orchestra will not respect you. I think that was what he said.”

Charles Mackerras, photo: CTKCharles Mackerras, photo: CTK Charles Mackerras’ love for Czech music and its homeland brought him to this country again and again, in fact he said that he would have remained longer in Prague had the Communist takeover not forced him to leave. Prague, he said, was like a second home, and he returned in the ‘60s and throughout the 20 years following the Velvet Revolution. Earlier this year he was awarded the Artis Bohemiae Amicis award for his promotion of Czech art abroad, and he was due to return to Prague in the autumn for a farewell concert marking 50 years of cooperation with the Czech Philharmonic, one special part of the classical music world by which he will doubtless be sorely missed.