Jiří Bělohlávek was born in Prague in 1946, and his love of music became apparent at an early age. Bělohlávek studied the cello with Professor Karel Pravoslav Sádlo, before continuing his studies at the Prague Conservatory and at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. It was during these years that Jiří Bělohlávek began conducting in earnest, receiving instruction from Robert Brock, Alois Klíma, Bohumír Liška and Josef Veselka.
In 1968, the legendary Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache invited Jiří Bělohlávek to become his assistant. Bělohlávek won the Czech Young Conductors’ Competition in 1970, and reached the final of the Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition in 1971. It was in 1973 that Bělohlávek began conducting the Czech Philharmonic to great acclaim; the start of his long relationship with the orchestra.
Jiří Bělohlávek was appointed Conductor of the Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra in 1972, a position he held until 1978. He then became Chief Conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, a partnership which lasted until 1989, and Permanent Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. Václav Neumann, the latter orchestra’s Chief Conductor (between 1968 and 1990) brought him to Berlin’s Komische Oper in 1979, where he debuted with Smetana’s The Secret. Bělohlávek went on to conduct Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress there in 1980.
Jiří Bělohlávek was appointed Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 1990. He built upon the orchestra’s already excellent reputation, particularly in its interpretations of Czech music, and became part of a long line of esteemed Czech conductors to direct the orchestra: Václav Talich, Rafael Kubelík, Karel Ančerl and Václav Neumann. In 1994, Jiří Bělohlávek founded the Prague Philharmonia, whom he directed until 2005, when he became its Conductor Laureate.
Jiří Bělohlávek collaborated with a number of leading world orchestras including Berliner Philharmoniker, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Wiener Philharmoniker.
Among the opera houses in which Jiří Bělohlávek conducted were: Royal Opera House Covent Garden (Eugene Onegin), Metropolitan Opera (Rusalka, Eugene Onegin), San Francisco Opera (The Makropulos Case), Opéra National de Paris (The Bartered Bride), Teatro Real Madrid (Káťa Kabanová), Glyndebourne Festival Opera (Tristan and Isolde, Rusalka, Jenůfa), Grand Theatre du Geneve (From the House of the Dead) and the National Theatre in Prague (his last engagement was conducting Bohuslav Martinů the Miracles of Mary).
In 1994, Jiří Bělohlávek was named Principal Guest Conductor of the Prague National Theatre; then in 1995 he became the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Guest Conductor, later becoming its Chief Conductor in 2006. He remained in this position until 2012, when he accepted the post of Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic. In the spring 2012 Jiří Bělohlávek became Principal Guest Conductor with the Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest, starting from the 2013–2014 season.
Apart from his work with orchestras, Jiří Bělohlávek was also involved in educational work: in 1997 he was appointed Professor at the Academy of Music in Prague, and from 2009 he held the post of Head of Conducting. Among his students were three highly talented conductors: Tomáš Hanus, Jakub Hrůša and Tomáš Netopil.
As President of the International Prague Spring Festival, Jiří Bělohlávek pursued a long term goal to spread the awareness of music by Czech composers among international audiences. His warm affection for the music of Bohuslav Martinů in particular contributed significantly to the growth of world renown of this great composer, which happened mainly after 1989. Bělohlávek is considered by critics to be the best interpreter ever of Martinů’s music. And he also introduced audiences to the hitherto less known works by Dvořák, Janáček, Smetana and Suk.
In May 2012, Bělohlávek was awarded the title Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) 'for services to music' by the Queen Elizabeth II. In 2001 he received the Czech Medal of Merit Grade I.
On 1 June 2017 this brilliant artist passed away after a long illness. He conducted his last concert with the PKF – Prague Philharmonia in Polička, Bohuslav Martinů’s native town. His beloved Martinů sounded for the last time under his baton conducting an orchestra that he had founded and that will forever carry on his legacy for future generations.