The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (= CPO) gave its very first concert on 4 January 1896 in the Rudolfinum, conducted by no less than Antonín Dvořák. In 1901 Ludvík Čelanský became chief conductor of the now-independent orchestra, and from 1903 to 1918 it was led by Dr. Vilém Zemánek who despite considerable financial difficulties managed to maintain the orchestra and stabilize its position on the Prague musical scene.
In 1919, the first year after the war, the post of chief conductor was taken by the legendary Václav Talich who led the orchestra until 1941, apart from an interruption between 1931 and 1933. Talich conducted a total of 924 concerts with the Philharmonic and is rightly considered the founder of its interpretational tradition. After the short but artistically-fruitful term of Rafael Kubelík at the head of the CPO from 1942 to 1948 the role of chief conductor was taken over for eighteen years by Karel Ančerl, under whose leadership from 1950 to 1968 the orchestra gained a reputation as a first-class ensemble on the world musical scene. In his programming focus on Czech music - classical and especially contemporary - Ančerl continued in the tradition of his predecessors, but he also enriched the repertoire to include works by foreign composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Strauss, Béla Bartók, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. The years of Ančerl's leadership are considered the orchestra's greatest period of artistic development. After his emigration to Canada the chief-conductor's position was assumed by Václav Neumann, who presided over a long period of stable high quality and successful maintenance of tradition until 1990.
After the change in the political situation in the country, in the 1990s several distinguished musicians took turns as chief conductor in relatively rapid succession: Jiří Bělohlávek (1990-1992), Gerd Albrecht (1993-1996), and Vladimir Ashkenazy (1996-2003), the last of whom enriched the orchestra's programming with several fresh projects and significantly enhanced its international renown. The Philharmonic entered its new 2003-04 season with a new chief conductor, Zdeněk Mácal (born 1936), who at the height of his experience in art and in life is coming to head the orchestra with which he launched his spectacular conducting career from 1966 to 1968.
Since the beginning of the CPO's existence its reputation has been furthered by internationally-esteemed guest conductors including Edvard Grieg, Eugene Ysaye, Sergei Rachmaninov, Artur Nikisch, and Gustav Mahler - the last of whom led the world premiere of his Seventh Symphony with the Philharmonic in Prague in 1908 - and especially by excellent conductors who worked with the orchestra repeatedly such as Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, Alexander Zemlinsky, Georg Széll, Charles Munch, Yevgeny Mravinski, Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokowski, Franz Konwitschny, Sergiu Celibidache, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Kirill Kondrashin, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado, and Riccardo Muti among others.
Another great contribution to the CPO's international renown have been its performances abroad. The orchestra built its reputation within Europe already before the war, making a significant name for itself in Great Britain (starting already in 1902!) where it performs to this day, above all in the prestigious BBC Proms and in the Edinburgh Festival. In 1959 the Philharmonic's first overseas concert tour took it to Australia, Japan, New Zealand, China, India, and the Soviet Union. Whereas the CPO did not return to China until forty-two years later, in 2001, in Japan it has become so much 'at home' that its annual performances in prestigious halls including Suntory Hall v Tokyo have become a regular and expected part of concert seasons there. During its November tour of Japan in 2003 the orchestra was lead by Jean Fournet and Zdeněk Mácal, and in 2004 it will be a principal feature of an autumn festival of Czech music to be held in Tokyo and environs with support from the Japanese government. The CPO's first tour of the USA and Canada was in 1965, on which occasion the triumphal successes of Karel Ančerl assured the orchestra an excellent reputation in the USA which it has maintained to this day in performing Czech music. In March 2004 the ensemble will depart with conductor Andrey Boreyko on its jubilee tenth tour of the USA, performing works by Dvořák and Janáček.
It is now a tradition for important presenters and partners in Europe to express interest in performances by the CPO, and neither this season nor the upcoming one are any exceptions. In association with the jubilee Year of Czech Music in 2004 the requests for guest performances are even more numerous - for example in Vienna, London (the Proms), Linz, Budapest, Bratislava, and Salzburg (in whose famous festival the CPO appeared for the first time in 1963, and where in 2004 it will perform Dvořák's Requiem under the baton of Gerd Albrecht). In 2004 the CPO will also continue in the rich tradition of its performances in Germany, where among other appearances it will serve in August as the orchestra-in-residence at the renowned Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival.
The first gramophone recording by the CPO was made in 1929, when Václav Talich recorded Smetana's Má vlast (My Homeland) for His Master's Voice. After a series of recordings for this world-famous label, following the war the CPO began building its discography with Supraphon. First came unique recordings with Václav Talich and then the golden fund of recordings with Karel Ančerl, whose unique recordings from the 1950s and 1960s documenting the orchestra's interpretational development began coming out on the Supraphon label in June 2002 in digitized form in a unique set of forty-two compact discs titled Karel Ančerl Gold Edition. In 1960 the CPO won the Grand Prix du disque de l'Académie Charles Cros for Ančerl's recording of Martinů's Fantasies symphoniques - the first of ten occasions on which the orchestra has received this prestigious honor. The ensemble has received many other international distinctions for its recordings as well, under its own chief conductors and other famous orchestra leaders, including five times the Grand Prix du disque de l'Académie de disque français and a number of times the Cannes Classical Award, which coveted distinction the CPO received most recently in January 2003 for works of Dvořák under Charles Mackerras on the Supraphon label. Under Václav Neumann the Philharmonic recorded (again for Supraphon) the complete symphonies of Dvořák, Martinů, and G. Mahler. The orchestra's recent chief conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy enriched its discography with thirteen compact discs featuring works by Richard Strauss, G. Mahler, S. Rachmaninov, and others. And now Chandos is releasing orchestral works by Zemlinsky on three compact discs with ABeaumont. The music of Bohuslav Martinů has been a special focus of the CPO ever since the time of Talich: all of the orchestra's Czech chief conductors have placed Martinů's music in its repertoire, and the CPO presented some of his works in their world premieres. Presently a new complete recording of Martinů's symphonies is being made, prepared for Supraphon from newly-edited scores according to the composer's autographs by the internationally-renowned Martinů expert Jiří Bělohlávek.