Alfred Holý was born on August 5, 1866 in Oporto, where his father, Josef, was head of the brass department at the National Conservatory of Portugal. When the family returned to Prague in 1868, Bedrich Smetana asked his father to rejoin the Czech National Theater Orchestra as first horn. Among Josef Holýs colleagues in the orchestra was Antonín Dvorák who played first viola.
Thoroughly exposed to the musical life of Prague, Holýs childhood memories include hearing in concert Anton Rubenstein, Pablo Sarasate, Josef Joachim, Franz Ondricek and the young Ignaz Paderewski, never dreaming that later in life he would have the opportunity to perform with Ondricek and Joachim.
He studied violin, voice, piano, viola and organ until he was 16, at which time he entered the Prague Conservatory. There he decided to study harp because he was too old to complete the violin curriculum before the start of his compulsory military service at 19. Many of Holýs colleagues at the Conservatory later contributed to the musical life of Europe and America. Among these was Franz Lehár, with whom he maintained a friendship for the rest of his life.
Blessed with a natural talent for the harp, a prodigious memory and possessing a strong work ethic he received his diploma as "distinguished harpist" after three years study (a school record) with Vaclav Stanek, an exponent of the Zamara School of Vienna. In his last year at the Prague Conservatory, while substituting for Stanek at the Czech National Theater, Holý had an opportunity to work with Gustav Mahler. The impression he made on Mahler created the basis for a relationship that was to last until Mahlers death in 1911.
Immediately after graduation Holý began military service. Three months into soldiering he was offered the position of principal harpist with the Royal German Theater in Prague by Angelo Neumann. With permission from his regimental commander, Holý, only 19 at the time, accepted the offer. Thus he began his professional career in a highly unusual manner for those times by simultaneously working as both a civilian and a soldier. After military service, Holý stayed on with the Royal German Theater in Prague for another eight years.
In the spring of 1895 one of the three harp chairs became vacant at the Royal Orchestra in Berlin. Felix Weingartner made an outright offer of the position to Holý. Since Holý was still under a contractual obligation to the Royal German Theater in Prague until June of 1896, the chair was held open for him until he could assume it a year later. Here he joined Wilhelm Posse and Franz Poenitz as equal co-principal for the next seven seasons.
Mahler, whose admiration for Holý was legendary, was always looking for opportunities to have him in his orchestras. He tried to recruit Holý in 1889, when he was artistic director of the Budapest Opera House, and made another attempt in 1896, while he was conductor of the Hamburg Opera. For various reasons, neither endeavor proved attractive enough for Holý. Finally, in 1902, as artistic director of the Imperial Opera in Vienna, Mahler made Holý an offer he could not refuse. Working out the details through Bruno Walter, he offered Holý a contract that gave him in sum 4000 Austrian crowns annually, entitlement to retirement benefits after ten years of service and the option of a position at the Vienna Conservatory. For Holý, a citizen of the Austrian Empire, who considered Vienna the musical center of the world, the opportunity to work there with Mahler proved irresistible. At that time he became the highest paid harpist in Europe and one of the highest paid orchestral musicians in the world.
As a member of the Vienna Philharmonic for the next ten years, he worked with all the preeminent conductors of the era. Nonetheless, the Philharmonic was the orchestra of the Imperial Opera, so it functioned primarily as an opera orchestra. After twenty eight years of playing opera in Prague, Berlin, Vienna, Bayreuth and Salzburg and approaching his 47th birthday, Holý was tiring of the monotonous routine and decided to dedicate himself to concertizing for a time.
When, in the spring of 1913, he learned that Heinrich Schuëcker, first harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had died, Holý asked Dr. Karl Muck, the director, about the vacancy. Mucks answer was an immediate offer of the position to Holý. So on December 20, 1913, Holý was performing Mozarts Concerto for Flute and Harp at Symphony Hall. He remained as solo harpist with the BSO until 1928.
During his 43 year career, both in concert and orchestra, Holý performed and worked with some of the brightest luminaries of his era: Beecham, Bonci, Casella, Destinn, Fiedler, Henschel, Joachim, Koussevitzky, Loeffler, Mahler, Melba, Monteaux, Nikisch, Puccini, Ravel, Respighi, Anton Rubinstein, Schumann-Heink, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Toscanini, Walter and Weingartner to name but the most famous.
Holý was married in 1891 and the couple had two sons. He and his wife came to Boston alone for the first season. The boys who were 20 and 18 at the time remained in Vienna while their parents established a home in Boston. At the end of the first season, with a new home ready, Holý returned to Vienna for the purpose of bringing his children to Boston. Unfortunately his arrival coincided with Austrias declaration of war on Serbia. His sons were immediately conscripted. After the War, American immigration laws made it impossible for Holý to bring them and, by then, their families to the United States.
By the end of his fifteenth season with the BSO, Holý, now approaching his 62nd birthday, felt he could no longer fill a fulltime orchestral position to his own satisfaction. His desire to remain in America was thwarted by the absence of his sons and their families. With no foreseeable hope of having them come to America, Holý and his wife returned to Vienna.
Surrounded by his family, he enjoyed a happy retirement until the Second World War. Debilitated by its ravages and the aftermath, ill and impoverished, Alfred Holý died on May 6, 1948 in his 82nd year, in Vienna. His wife followed him 11 weeks later.