Jirí Belohlávek was born in Prague on February 24, 1946. He studied cello early on and enrolled at the Prague Conservatory and at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague for studies in both cello and conducting. His most important conducting teacher was Sergiu Celibidache, whom he assisted for two years in Stockholm, where Celibidache was conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Belohlávek served as an assistant conductor for the Czech Philharmonic (1970-1972). From 1972-1978 he conducted the Brno State Philharmonic, and from 1978-1989 he served as chief conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Belohlávek succeeded Vaclav Neumann as conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, serving from 1990-1992. In 1994 Belohlávek founded the Prague Philharmonia and the following year was appointed principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, serving until 2000. Belohlávek debuted at the Met in 2004 with Janácek's Káta Kabanová. In 2005 Belohlávek was appointed chief conductor of BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The busy final decade of Belohlávek's life saw him building on the international recognition he had attained and gaining a reputation as one of the most profound interpreters of Central European music. Composers he championed during this period included Mahler, whom he considered a Czech (Mahler was born in the Bohemian town of Kaliště). His cycle of Mahler symphonies with the BBC Symphony, performed and recorded at the rate of one per year, won critical acclaim, as did his readings of the very different work of Bohuslav Martinu. Equally at home in the opera pit, in front of a choir, and in symphonic repertory, Belohlávek conducted Dvorák's Rusalka at Britain's Glyndebourne Festival in 2009. After an 18-year interval, he was reappointed conductor of the Czech Philharmonic in 2012, continuing to appear with the Prague Philharmonia as well. In 2017 the Czech Philharmonic, despite the fact the Belohlávek was under treatment for cancer, extended his contract through 2021. He made his last appearances in London (conducting Dvorák's Requiem in B flat minor, Op. 89) and Prague just a month before his death on June 1, 2017, in Prague. His shattering recording of Dvorák's Stabat Mater, Op. 58, had reached the top levels of classical sales charts just days earlier.