Vilém Tausky 1910 – 2004 : an obituary

Although remembered now principally as a conductor of light music on Friday Night is Music Night, Vilém Tausky was, in fact, one of the last of the great Middle-European conductors and composers who so shaped the story of music in the Twentieth Century.

Born in Přerov, Moravia, the son of a doctor, he was exposed to music from the start.  His Viennese mother sang in the Vienna Court Opera during its Golden Age under the directorship of Gustav Mahler and his uncle was the famous operetta composer, Leo Fall. Having learned the piano from an early age, the young Vilém would often find himself playing for family and friends, accompanying, amongst others, the violinist, Magda Dvořák, daughter of the composer.  He was encouraged by his family to study Law but, whilst a student in Brno, he enrolled at the Janá¹ek Conservatory where he came under the influence of the old composer, acting as vocal coach for the first performance of his final opera, From the House of the Dead.  Having been engaged as repetiteur at the Brno Opera, where he prepared works for conductors such as Richard Strauss, he had his own chance to conduct when he was required to jump in for a performance of Puccini’s new opera, Turandot.  He then went on to conduct regularly with singers such as Chaliapin, with whom he performed Boris Godunov.

In 1939, as Czechoslovakia was being invaded by the Nazis, he escaped to Paris on the truck carrying a production of Janá¹ek’s opera Jenufa, which he was scheduled to conduct.  From there he moved on to England, where, as Sergeant Tausky, he became well known as the conductor of the Czech Army Choir and Band.  Engagements with the Liverpool Philharmonic and London Philharmonic and many concerts for ENSA and CEMA led, after the war, to the Musical Directorship of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and British citizenship.  Thereafter, he was a fixture in the British musical scene, whether conducting Salomé at Covent Garden, Ivor Novello with the BBC Concert Orchestra or accompanying Gracie Fields and Morecambe and Wise in Variety Shows.  He introduced his audience to works by Czech composers including Martinu and Suk, both personal friends, and gave first performances of works by many British composers.  Throughout, he continued to compose, his most successful work being the Harmonica Concerto that he wrote for Tommy Reilly.  From 1966 to 1992 he was Director of Opera at the Guildhall School of Music.

For such an artist, and such a man, to agree to become President of the WLS was a delight and a surprise.  I, personally, had known of Vilém since my Guildhall days when, along with my orchestral colleagues, I had been inspired and terrified by turns.  Thereafter, as I began conducting, he had acted as mentor and guide and I came to know what a truly extraordinary person he was.  For the members of the orchestra, however, it was a revelation to have available to them someone with his experiences and wisdom.  When I told him, timidly, that I was thinking of programming Josef Suk’s monumental Asrael Symphony he responded with great enthusiasm, offering all his knowledge of the work and the composer.  When he agreed to conduct WLS in Vltava from Smetana’s Ma Vlast it was sobering to know that when he first came to Britain this work was banned in his own country.  Until very recently he attended the Orchestra’s concerts regularly and, whilst complimenting the orchestra on its playing, never passed up the chance to remind me of some aspect of my work that I could improve upon.  I shall miss him sorely, as will we all.