The Czech conductor, best known for his recordings of Janáček, Smetana, Dvořák, Suk and Martinů, has passed away aged 71.

Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek has died aged 71 after a long illness. The chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra was best known for his advocacy of Czech music, particularly his recordings of Janáček, Smetana, Dvořák, Suk, Martinů, Fibich, and Ostrčil.

“It is with deep sorrow that the Czech Philharmonic announces that last night, May 31st, the principal conductor and music director of the Czech Philharmonic, Jiří Bělohlávek, died after a courageous struggle with a serious illness,” the Czech Philharmonic said in a statement.

Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek has died aged 71

Born in Prague in 1946, Bělohlávek studied with Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts before being appointed assistant conductor to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

He won the Czech National Conducting Competition in 1970 and was a finalist in the International Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition in 1971, before going on to conduct the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra from 1972 to 1978. He was appointed Chief Conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra in 1978, a position he held for over a decade. Bělohlávek became principal conductor and artistic director of the Czech Philharmonic in 1990, but resigned shortly after as the result of a controversial restructuring. He founded the Prague Philharmonia in 1993, conducting the orchestra from then until 2005. He was appointed principal conductor and music director of Czech Philharmonic for the 2012-13 season. In January this year, before his health declined, Bělohlávek’s contract with the orchestra was extended to the 2021-22 season.

Having made his British debut in 1987, Bělohlávek was principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1995 to 2000, became the first non-native English speaker to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in 2007 and was chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2012. He was named an honorary Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2012 for his services to music.

He appeared regularly with orchestras and opera companies across Europe and the USA, and was a renowned opera conductor, conducting at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Glyndebourne. He was also a guest conductor with orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Gewandhaus Orchestra and had a close association with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. He has recorded more than 500 records for labels including Supraphon, Chandos, Harmonia Mundi, Warner Classics, and Deutsche Grammophon.

Bělohlávek was active as a conductor until very recently, conducting Dvořák’s Requiem with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in April this year.

“Jiří Bělohlávek’s last concert with his beloved BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was Dvořák’s mighty Requiem Mass and a more fitting tribute to the music-making of this extraordinary man it would be hard to imagine,” said BBC Symphony Orchestra General Manager Paul Hughes in a statement. “His relationship with the BBC SO spanned 20 years and there are so many memories, but I would single out the pride with which he brought the BBC Symphony Orchestra to the Prague Spring Festival when the Orchestra gave him everything, and the award-winning performances and recordings of Czech operas and Martinů symphonies. There was always a sense of family with Jiří, we were his musical family and his family were our family, and today we are thinking of his loved ones.”

“Not only for the Czech Philharmonic, but for the entire Czech nation, the passing of Jiří Bělohlávek means the loss of both a great artist and an extraordinary human being,” the Czech Philharmonic said.