Vilém Tauský


Vilém Tauský was a composer and conductor. He fled Czechoslovakia following the German annexation in 1938. Tauský enlisted in the Czech Army based in Britain and worked as musical director, band and choir leader. After the war he remained in Britain and worked for the Carl Rosa Opera Company, BBC Concert Orchestra, Sadler’s Wells Opera and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, often promoting Czech music through his concerts. He was awarded a CBE in 1981. Amongst his compositional output is a concerto for oboe, a string quartet and a concertino for harmonica.

Tauský was born in Přerov, Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the Empire collapsed in 1918, the Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed and Tauský became a Czech citizen. He was born into a musical family; his mother had sung in the Vienna State Opera and his uncle was the composer Leo Fall. The Tauskýs held musical soirees in the family home, socialising with the families of Gustav Mahler, Antonin Dvořák, Josef Suk, Franz Lehar and Oskar Straus. Vilém learned to play the piano from a young age and showed an early interest in composing. He attended music school in the nearby town of Olomouc.

On the advice of his parents, Tauský enrolled in Brno University to read law at the age of seventeen. He also secretly enrolled at the Janáček Conservatoire in Brno, and worked towards the two degrees simultaneously. Though Janáček died a few months after Tauský began at the Conservatoire, he made a big impact on the young composer. Tauský entered the Meistershule in Prague to study with Josef Suk, before spending ten years at the Brno Theatre as a repetiteur and conductor on ballets and operas. He worked with composers Bohuslav Martinů and Nikolai Tcherepnin, and conducted celebrated performers such as opera singer Feodor Chaliapan and dancer Vánia Psota.

After the Munich Agreement and the subsequent annexation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany, Tauský began to feel unsafe as his ancestry was Jewish. It took a month for Tauský to acquire the necessary paperwork to leave the country, and he was helped by Jewish and non-Jewish friends. It was decided that the composer would travel to Paris under the guise of transporting costumes from the Brno Theatre to the Paris Opera. Nikolai Tcherepnin, who was principal of the Russian Paris Conservatoire, helped Tauský to obtain a French visa and Tauský orchestrated an operetta based on music by Bizet in exchange for the money for an exit visa, which he collected from the Gestapo in person.

When Tauský arrived in Paris he spent a short time accompanying singers and dancers before travelling south to work with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Shortly thereafter, he joined other Czech refugees in the hope of forming an army in exile. Czech artists, musicians and writers met in Augerville de la Rivière in summer 1939 before gathering in Agde at the outbreak of war. Tauský was in charge of the military band, though there were limited resources; Martinů provided the instruments and sheet music for Tauský to arrange and rehearse. After the Fall of France in June 1940 the Czech Army were ordered to retreat. Tauský’s troop headed for the Spanish border via Bordeaux, before persuading the captain of a Yugoslav coaler headed for Newport, South Wales to carry them to safety. The troop hid in the ship’s hold wearing civilian clothing as it was forbidden to carry soldiers.

Tauský and the Czech Army were taken to Cholmondeley Park in Cheshire where they were welcomed by a message from the Czech President-in-exile Edvard Beneš. Tasked with organising concerts at the Czech Institute in London and other towns across Britain during the war, Tauský promoted Czech music through his arrangements of folk and national Czech music for the Army band and choir as well as for chamber concerts in aid of wartime charities. His eight Czech carols, arranged for Christmas 1941, were performed in British schools for decades thereafter. Tauský was invited to London to rehearse and conduct Czech operas including Smetana’a The Kiss, Dalibor, Libuše and The Two Widows, and British premieres of Dvořák’s Rusalka and Jacobin. Tauský was also invited to conduct the London Philharmonic with Benno Moiseiwitsch as a soloist. He conducted more than two hundred concerts for war workers with ENSA (Entertainments National Service Organisation) and CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts) in factories, town halls and army camps across the UK. His performance of Smetana’s Má Vlast (My country) in Liverpool during the war was particularly poignant as the symphonic suite was banned in Czechoslovakia by the Nazis. Tauský met his future wife, Peggy, whilst stationed in Leamington Spa and composed his ‘Coventry’ String Quartet after bombing raids in the city.

After the war Tauský decided to remain in Britain and was invited to become the musical director of the touring Carl Rosa Opera Company. His first performance was Tosca at the Wimbledon Theatre in November 1945; he worked with the company until 1949. He conducted the Welsh National Opera from 1951-1956, and began working with the English Opera Group (set up by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears) in 1954. On Boxing Day 1953 Tauský become possibly the first person to conduct two different operas in different locations on the same day: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at Sadler’s Wells and Verdi’s Il Trovatore at Covent Garden. He became Principal Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra from 1956-66 and also conducted Friday Night is Music Night. From 1966-92 he was director of the opera and head of the conducting course at Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Tauský was twice invited to return to Czechoslovakia in 1974 to conduct a series of concerts. His visit to Přerov, his hometown was the ‘saddest moment’ of the trip because it had changed beyond recognition. Nevertheless, Tauský enjoyed a series of concert engagements across Czechoslovakia, and included some contemporary British music in his programmes. He later commented that his trips to Czechoslovakia ‘[did] much to heal the wounds of the war.’

Tauský published his memoirs, Vilém Tauský Tells His Story, in 1979. He was awarded a CBE in 1981 and died in 2004.

by Abaigh McKee


Tauský, V. (1979) Vilém Tauský Tells His Story: A Two-part Setting (UK: Stainer & Bell Ltd)

Bowen, M. (2004) ‘Vilem Tausky: Conductor at home in all musical genres’ The Guardian [Online] [Accessed 1/7/2017]