Maestro’s coffin is displayed on concert stage

Maestro’s coffin is displayed on concert stage


norman lebrecht

June 09, 2017

In a slightly macabre Czech ritual, the coffin containing the body of  Jiří Bělohlávek, who died last week of cancer, was displayed yesterday on the stage of the Rudolfinum concert hall, where thousands filed past to pay homage.



The funeral will be private.

photos (c) Petra Hajska


  • MacroV says:

    I was one of the many who waited in line to pay respects. I don’t know how many people came, but I waited in line for 30 minutes to get to the stage, so it was a good number. It was a lovely tribute, quiet, sombre and dignified. The floral displays came from organizations around the world with whom he had worked (I saw one from the Japan Philharmonic), along with the Czech parliament and other government entities. The area near where the man in the picture is bowing filled up with flowers brought by well-wishers. And concertmaster Josef Spacek, principal cellist Vaclav Petr, and harpist Jana Bouskova played as people passed by. Then people had a chance to sign condolence books. Very well done.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    To me it all sounds very moving and appropriate. What I don’t understand is the floral displays. Why not spend the money on charitable contributions?

  • Ungeheuer says:

    Well done

  • JBBaldwin says:

    How is this macabre? Bodies of the well-known often lie in state for mourners to pay their respects.

  • Alexander Davidson says:

    This ritual is not macabre, nor, to the best of my knowledge, specifically Czech. What is, perhaps, unique, and perhaps also specifically Czech, is that this signal honour is conferred upon a musician and that the location is a concert hall. There is, however, nothing unusual in displaying a coffin, open or closed, for members of the public to view. If you find the Czech ritual peculiar you should read up on the various lying in state rituals that take place between the death and the funeral of a pope (only one part of which is technically considered to be the actual lying in state). In the United Kingdom there is a ritual known as the vigil of the princes which is so rare that it has only ever been enacted twice. This was a fitting tribute to a man who was clearly hugely admired in his homeland. Had I been in Prague, one of my favourite cities, I would have queued myself to pay my respects to a man whose live and recorded performances have brought me so much pleasure.

  • Czech Mate says:

    I believe Norman called this macabre because it is unusual to see a coffin placed on the stage of the symphony hall directly where musicians have to sit. Wouldn’t another location be more appropriate, or is there some tradition of using symphony halls for funerals that is known from other instances? It also seems odd that those wishing to pay their respects had to bow before the managers of the orchestra (yes, that is the executive director of the orchestra and orchestra manager standing in front of the coffin).

    • James says:

      Surely people also sit in churches. All the time.
      Wherever there is life there is also death.
      Wherever there is death there is also life.
      If one chooses to bow, one bows.
      If not, not. Macabre, odd…silly words here.

    • Alexander Davidson says:

      The choice of location presumably reflected the fact that it was the place with which Jiří Bělohlávek was most closely associated. Interestingly, the Nobel literature laureate Jaroslav Seifert also lay in state at the Rudolfinum. I am not sure where else would be particularly suitable for the lying in state of a conductor. Lying in state at Prague Castle is presumably reserved for heads of state: it is where T.G. Masaryk and Václav Havel lay in state (Gottwald also lay in state there, and the Nazi occupation accorded the same honour to Heydrich). Edvard Beneš lay in state at the National Monument on Vítkov Hill, again, clearly inappropriate. Jan Masaryk, as foreign minister, lay in state at the Černín Palace, again, clearly not appropriate for a conductor. Jan Palach lay in state at the Charles University, which was appropriate, as he was a student there at the time of his death. That only leaves the Pantheon at the National Museum, where writers Alois Jirásek and Karel Hynek Mácha lay in state, as did the Czechoslovak Unknown Warrior. Of course, they could have chosen an entirely different location, such as the Municipal House (itself a concert hall, among other things) or one of the town halls. The Czech Republic is the most secular country in Europe, so a church would probably have been considered more surprising than a concert hall. Given that lying in state at the Rudolfinum is not unprecedented, and given Bělohlávek’s close association with the Czech Philharmonic, it surely was the most suitable choice.

      I am also not sure what objection there can be to placing a body on a stage “directly where musicians have to sit”. It makes it sound as though placing his coffin there would somehow contaminate the stage and make it unpleasant for musicians to perform there in the future! Here in Britain it used not to be unusual for people to bring home the bodies of deceased family members to rest in the family home until the funeral. I knew a man whose body lay in a coffin on his own dining table, laid out with a Bible, crucifix, flowers, and candles, from the time of his death until the night before his funeral when the body was received at the church, where he lay overnight before his Requiem Mass. I have happily dined at that very table countless times since.

      As for the bowing, they are clearly bowing to Bělohlávek himself, a virtually universal mark of respect for the dead in western culture. The orchestra administrators are not being bowed to themselves, but, rather, seem to be keeping vigil. Again, keeping vigil at the four corners of a coffin is a virtually universal feature of any lying in state.

  • Morleymor Fisher says:

    Not slightly macabre at all. Good idea.

  • MacroV says:

    I should point out that Jiri Belohlavek was a presence on Prague’s musical scene for close to 50 years – first as an assistant to Vaclav Neumann at the Philharmonic, then director in Brno, then the Prague Symphony, before reaching the Philharmonic in 1990. The the well-known player-led coup didn’t estrange him from Prague; he founded the Prague Philharmonia, which he led for 12 years (and still guest-conducted, including in his last-ever concert), and served for a time as principal guest conductor at the National Theatre and a conducting professor at the Academy of Musical Art. And then finally back to the Philharmonic five years ago – finishing where he belonged, and where every concert seemed to be a lovefest between conductor, orchestra, and audience, especially this past year, when at each concert he was cheered as though it might be the last time we would see him. So every Prague musical institution had a connection with him at some point. Small wonder his death is treated almost as a state event. In fact his memorial concert on June 18 will be shown on Czech Television.

  • John de Jong says:

    It is wonderful how the Czech pay tribute to this beloved conductor. Well done.

    I cannot imagine this to happen at the Concertgebouw (e.g. at the death of Bernard Haitink).