Karel Ancerl was born on 11 April 1908 in the small district of Tucapy near Sobeslav into a family that, although very cultured, had no musical background or tradition. He learned the violin nevertheless and thanks to an innate diligence and determination he was already playing in the local orchestra at the age of 11. He later began learning the piano while attending gymnasium in Prague where he actively took part in music-making and exhibited an exceptional ability for organization. Against the will of his parents, he crossed over to the conservatory where he studied composition with Jaroslav Kricka, conducting with Pavel Dedecek, and percussion. What had great importance for the next part of his artistic career were studies in micro-intervalic music with Alois Haba, but particularly his regular participation in rehearsals with the Czech Philharmonic, where he could observe the work of Vaclav Talich and a number of excellent foreign conductors. When he himself came to the conductor's podium of this orchestra on 24 June 1930 so he could perform his own symfonietta as part of his graduation, he displayed a remarkable erudition of which the critics of the time particularly took note.
At a cross-roads in his life, the young artist decided for a career as a conductor. He soon brought attention to himself abroad when he overcame huge interprational and organizational difficulties while rehearsing for Hermann Scherchen Alois Haba's quarter-tone opera Mother, which he himself was to conduct 16 years later as the artistic director of the Opera of the Fifth of May in Prague. It was Jaroslav Jezek who helped him from his early existential uncertainty in 1931 when he engaged him as the conductor of the Liberated Theater, and Ancerl quickly proved himself by immediately lifting the artistic standards of the ensemble. His early success was not limited to his native country, however: he received exceptional reviews for his concerts for the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) festival in Vienna (1932) and Amsterdam (1933); his concerts in Strasbourg received critical acclaim as well. But when he was finally engaged by the Radiojournal (the one-time name of Czech Radio), he was entrusted at first with production work only and substitute conducting in times of need. On one of these occasions, when he could be asked on any day to take over rehearsals of the unusually difficult third symphony by Sergei Prokofiev, he gained so much admiration that he was invited to conduct the Czech Philharmonic; it was at this time that he was also invited to Barcelona for another festival of the ISCM. Ancerl stood at the threshold of a great artistic career at the time the war fatefully affected his life. Following the occupation of the republic, he was immediately released from his position, and, on 16 November 1942, he was transported to Terezin where he took part in the well-known music making there which took place in unbelievable circumstances; after two years he was transported to Auschwitz where he lost his family but miraculously survived.
Following the end of the war, he was named the artistic director of the new Opera of the Fifth of May, and over the course of one-half year he studied six lengthy operas, but from 1 September 1947 he was back once again as an employee of the national radio, this time as the chief conductor of the symphony orchestra. From 1948 he taught conducting for a short period at AMU (Academy of Musical Arts), and two of his students, Zdenek Kosler and Martin Turnovsky, were awarded prizes at the prestigious competitions in Besancon.
The greatest period of Karel Ancerl's artistic activity began on 20 October 1950, when he was named the artistic director of the Czech Philharmonic. At first the orchestra received him with some hesitation, but the members gradually adjusted to Ancerl's intensive work schedule and high artistic demands; when the orchestra began to receive success abroad, he was accepted into its ranks for eighteen years and led the ensemble to international fame. Ancerl expanded the repertory with the works of the twentieth-century classics (Schonberg, Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Britten, and others), and he dedicated himself to the works of Bohuslav Martinu at a time there was little inclination at home towards this Czech composer living in exile. He led the Czech Philharmonic on an extensive tour including New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China, India, and the Soviet Union (1959), and later to the U.S. and Canada; he led concerts with the ensemble to a number of European countries and was himself ever more frequently invited to conduct with the most important international orchestras. If we take a look at the programs of these engagements, we will not miss how frequently he performed the works of Czech composers and how he consciously served the promotion of Czech music.
The revolutionary invention of the long-playing record during the 1950s and the perfections in recording technology at this time brought an incredible expansion to the orchestra's recording activities. Ancerl's recordings, inspired with musicianship, were to soon gain recognition with prestigious international gramophone awards; their re-editions on CD still dazzle listeners today with their technical perfection and exquisite sound quality.
There is no doubt that, thanks to Karel Ancerl, the Czech Philharmonic came to the elite pinnacle of the finest international orchestras and became a first-rate article of export. Thus all the more painful for the orchestra was the chief conductor's decision to emigrate after the events of 1968. In the following years, nevertheless, he conducted two concerts of the Prague Spring (with the total number of his concerts with the Czech Philharmonic reaching 766), but he was to never return thereafter. He was to become the chief conductor of the Toronto Symphony, and he also traveled as a sought-out and universally honored artist to other North American orchestras where he programmed the music of the Czech classics and the modern repertory. Following a delay the afflictions he had suffered during the war began to take a toll on his health, and with the accumulation of family concerns, he was unable to enjoy life very much in free society. He died on 3 July 1973.
Without underestimating the enormous artistic debt of Vaclav Talich and Rafael Kubelik towards the creation of the basic aesthetic character of the Czech Philharmonic, we can say that Karel Ancerl was its first conductor of international reputation and that he led the orchestra to masterful virtuosity and world-wide fame. His artistic performances were a synthesis of a perfectly calculated conception and minuscule work with details; they were founded on a perfect knowledge of the score, an ability to grasp a work's construction, a sophisticated characteristic feeling, a great concept for sound, and a perfectly understandable conducting gesture. Ancerl brought the finest artists to the orchestra, he worked with them systematically, and he was able to convince the orchestra of the correctness of his conception - perhaps the most important condition for artistic success in this field.