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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Karel Husa

Karel Husa

Karel Husa is a gentle, mild-mannered, sometimes self-deprecating man who inspires people to give of themselves. He smiles readily and often expresses his appreciation of others, especially of those with whom he makes music. Little does one realize, seeing and hearing this soft and loving human being, that he harbors visions and sonic images of terror and protest, of spectral, other-wordly shapes and motions, of pain and of power.

His boyhood was spent in Prague, where he was born on August 7, 1921. His father was in the shoe business and the family, which was of modest means, expected Karel to become a civil engineer. But his mother had so great a love of music that she somehow found the money to permit the boy to study violin and piano, telling him that "one day, when you are older, you will have great pleasure from music." Her intuition has been vindicated and her selflessness rewarded.

Young Husa was enrolled in an engineering program when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia and the school was closed, leading the boy to find alternative studies. He went first to art school, where he became a proficient painter. When the worsening political circumstances made it impossible for him to continue at the art school, he was able to transfer to the Prague Conservatory and to set out on the path of professional music. In 1946, with the aid of a French government grant, he left Prague to continue his studies in Paris. He became a student of Honegger, whom he describes as "a wonderful person, but too gentle a teacher."

He learned most from attending rehearsals and meeting a wide variety of the musicians who were clustered in post-war Paris. One day, he was startled to receive an invitation from Nadia Boulanger, who had found a copy of his first published work, the Sonatina for Piano, liked it, and heard that its composer was living in Paris. It was the beginning of a long and close friendship. "She was an incredibly human person. I would come with a movement of a composition, and in her own way, which was very delicate, she would get right to its essence. Every year, when one of my four daughters had her birthday, she would always get a little note from Mademoiselle." (In 1962, when Boulanger conducted the New York Philharmonic, she also did a concert at Cornell University at the invitation of Husa, who had been teaching there since 1954.) Concurrent with his compositional activities, Husa was asked to do more and more conducting during his later years in Paris, becoming one of the principal conductors of a series of record club recordings of both traditional and contemporary music. During that time, he met at the Conservatoire a young American who was soon to leave to take up a position teaching musicology at Cornell. His name was Elliott Galkin, now Director of the Peabody Conservatory and one of the nation's leading writers on musical subjects. It was Galkin who suggested Husa for an interim conducting post at Cornell which would, at the same time, afford him sufficient time to devote himself also to composition. In September, 1954, the Husa family changed hemispheres.

His early compositions, including the orchestral works Mosaiques, Fantasies, and the Symphony, were serially constructed and reflected the esthetics of the Darmstadt Festival of Contemporary Music, which Husa attended in the early fifties. Fifteen years after his arrival in the United States, something occurred which was to change Husa's musical outlook considerably. The Ithaca College Concert Band had been invited to perform at the Music Educators National Conference in Washington, D.C. on January 31, 1969. Its director, Kenneth Snapp, wished to mark the event by performing a new work, and quite logically chose Husa, an Ithaca resident, to write it. What resulted was the first of Husa's compositions containing highly dramatic extramusical connotations. Music for Prague 1968 has been performed nearly 6,000 times as this issue goes to press, making its composer world-famous and one of the most frequently performed composers of our time. It is much freer that his earlier works in its organization and contains the most poignant associations of the past and the present: an old Hussite war song from the 15th century, a symbol of resistance and hope whenever fate lay heavy on the Czech nation; bells, used in Prague ("the City of a Hundred Towers") for centuries in times of distress as well as victory; a bird call, symbol of the liberty which Prague has seen only for moments during its thousand years of existence. The fact that the Russians had invaded Prague merely months before the Washington performance escaped no one. Although Husa has been back to Czechoslovakia briefly a few times since 1968, he has never conducted in public there. Ever so gently and without any signs of bitterness, he tells of the European tour by the St. Olaf College Concert Band which had scheduled a performance of Music for Prague 1968 in the Prague of 1970. Just before the performance, they were told to remove the piece from the program. It has not been heard in Prague to date.

Husa points out that he has always been fascinated by winds; that he is a great Berlioz enthusiast; and that he would have written a piece for winds sooner, had he been asked to do so. Prague was the first but by no means the last work he chose to write for wind ensemble. Following it came the concertos for alto saxophone, trumpet, and percussion, as well as the two powerful works for chorus and wind ensemble, Apotheosis of This Earth and An American Te Deum. As the titles suggest, some works are fundamentally abstract while others are imbued with political or broad human questions. "I felt and still feel that, after having written a work in which the form is the propelling thought, I like to do a work which has to do with society or with mankind. Think of Guernica or, for that matter, any requiem. These are surely more than mere musical abstractions." Husa readily admits that his more recent works are less formalistic and more coloristic, explaining that purely scientific and intellectual principles, widely evidenced in all the arts and humanities for twenty-five years after the war, had reached some kind of impasse, and that the time had come once again to inquire what both performers and publics wish to obtain from composers. "We are embarking once again on some kind of romantic impressionism, and I'm happy about it, because there's something human in that. Moreover, I've always been interested in the coloristic aspects of music, perhaps because I studied painting and am very attuned to that kind of perception." Just how vividly Husa's sonic colors are perceived by audiences may be inferred from a Musical America review of Apotheosis of This Earth in which Richard Freed wrote: "The chorus is used as a wordless vocal complement to the orchestra — sometimes cooing, hissing, howling, clapping hands, stamping feet. Among the instrumentalists are six very busy percussionists, and the marvelous din depicting the `Tragedy of Destruction' is real gut excitement . . . Apotheosis of This Earth has everything — power, passion, mysticism, even peace and ecology."

Husa believes that his music, and especially the music in the larger media such as orchestra, band, and chorus, is accessible to large lay audiences and not limited to in-groups of sophisticated initiates. "I think that one can today write music that will be accepted by the public, and if I succeed at that, I don't think that I've done something degrading." On the other hand, Husa has produced music for more concentrated media which attracts a more demanding but less populous following. It was for such a work, the String Quartet No. 3, that Husa was. awarded the 1969 Pulitzer Prize. His first stage encounter came only recently, with the ballet The Trojan Women, premiered by the Louisville Ballet and Orchestra. He has been on the lookout for years for an opera libretto which would suit his temperament and taste.

During his long tenure as an educator, Husa has had a love affair with youth. Young people who have come in contact with him as conductor and clinician immediately sense his humanity and empathy. In him they find a person who can listen as well as lecture, and who can help them make vivid connections between the past and the present, between questions of art and questions of life. In seeking to encourage active musical participation by young people, Husa does not restrict himself to the college campus. He has conducted all-state orchestras throughout the country and recalls with astonishment and lasting affection the depth of communication he has enjoyed with such groups as the Wisconsin All-State Orchestra, with whom he performed Music for Prague in its orchestral version last fall. "They were high school students. I had such an incredible rapport with them. I will always remember it. It was close to perfection." In the best sense a missionary of the music of our time, Husa has traveled far and wide, and there are only a few states in which he has not conducted. His appeal is not restricted to the United States. He has performed and been performed all over the world. In fact, the material for this article was gathered during a brief stop-over in New York on the way home from conducting five concerts with the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

We asked Karel Husa about the composers of the early 20th century who most affected his musical outlook. "The first who influenced me very much in Czechoslovakia was Janacek. Then Bartok, and of course there's a similarity there. And in later years, I greatly admired Schoenberg and Berg, but would then immediately have to add Stravinsky." He seemed less clear on which of today's composers would have so indelible an imprint on the music of tomorrow. He was more concerned with what tomorrow's composers were going to do than with what they would write. "I think we are creating too many composers today and there won't be enough need for them. It's very frustrating. For a young person to go into music today, be it composition or performance, he must believe 100% that he'll make it. If he thinks that he might go into music but that he could do something else if it didn't work out, then his drive isn't strong enough. Then he should be going into something else. He must be idealistic and realistic at the same time, be able to take criticism and work very hard, and be strong enough to withstand all the incredible pressures one always faces. Teachers must be very supportive of young people, almost like psychiatrists, asking themselves whether they would serve their students best by encouraging them to go into a profession which is so highly competetive, or if the students would be better off with music as an avocation. It takes about fifteen years to become an artist. If by then you don't have total conviction and commitment, you're better off elsewhere. And that conviction must be corroborated by others if it's to have any meaning. Inner strength, that's what young people must have it they are to succeed as musicians."

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