The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra has a particularly strong reputation in the music of its own country and in French and twentieth century works as well. In 1894, the members of the orchestra of the Czech-speaking National Theater re-formed into the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Their first performance was on January 4, 1896, under the baton of Antonin Dvorák. Conductor Vaclav Talich is credited with actually building the CPO into a first-rate ensemble after Czech independence in 1918. Debuting with the orchestra in October 1918, Talich's thrilling premier of Josef Suk's Ripening led to his appointment as principal conductor, a post he held until 1941. During the Second World War and the German occupation, he displayed tremendous perseverance by programming Smetana's symphonic cycle Má Vlast (My Country), and was unjustly persecuted for this even after the liberation. Rafael Kubelik first conducted the Philharmonic at the age of 19 and was engaged as conductor in 1936. From 1937-1939 he led it on its tours of England, Belgium, and Italy. Kubelik was then named principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 1942, establishing himself as a unique musical interpreter. On October 22, 1945, the orchestra lost its independent status when the Soviet-backed government nationalized Czechoslovakia. In 1948 Kubelik fled the country, leading to the brief appointment of Vaclav Neumann as music director, who was then succeeded from 1950-1968 by Karel Ancerl. During Ancerl's tenure the orchestra's repertoire was expanded to include significant works of the twentieth century. At this time the orchestra's numerous recordings gained considerable acclaim, a series of which won prestigious international awards. In 1968 the CPO lost Ancerl, who left for Canada as Russian troops crushed the liberty-minded "Prague Spring" government. Vaclav Neumann was then re-appointed CPO chief conductor, a position he retained until 1990. The backbone of Neumann's repertoire was Czech music, particularly the entire symphonic and oratorio legacy of Antonin Dvorák, and of course Smetana's Má Vlast and the works of Janacek and Martinu, which he approached with special admiration. Neumann's contribution to the interpretation of Mahler's symphonic legacy was also substantial. Fortunately, the majority of his output as conductor has been captured on recordings, which have also won international recognition. In 1989 Neumann spearheaded a protest against the government's continued repression of artists. The orchestra joined the protest, becoming part of a process that brought down the Communist regime. The orchestra played Dvorak's Te Deum on December 29, 1989, in celebration of the election of Vaclav Havel as the Czech Republic's president.
On May 12, 1990, Rafael Kubelik returned from 42 years of exile to lead the orchestra in a thrilling performance of Má Vlast. However, the 1990s were a difficult decade for the orchestra, with numerous disagreements amongst the musicians. In June 1996, Vladimir Valek was finally appointed permanent conductor, but not chief conductor, a post that remained vacant. In January 1997, Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted the orchestra and was soon appointed chief conductor, effective January 1, 1998. He has since devoted himself to a broad range of tours, recordings and special projects with the aim of focusing appropriate attention on this great orchestra with its rich musical tradition. During the 1999-2000 season and coincident with the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, they appeared together in Europe, Japan, the United States, and South America, performing repertoire at the very heart of the orchestra's history and cultural identity, from Mozart and Mahler to Krasa, Janácek, and Martinu.