Husa: An Overlooked Musical Great

Karel Husa

Composer Karel Husa at home on a peaceful Wenceslas Square, in contrast to conditions during Prague spring in 1968 — for which Mr Husa wrote a chilling, memorable composition.

Karel Husa, at 95, is internationally known but, despite his devotion, still overlooked here at home. The Czech composer sent a personal letter to a recent concert so that you can get to know him better.

It was for the Prague Philharmonia-PKF’s May 3 ‘Czech 20th Century’ in the ‘Beauty of Today’ series that Mr Husa sent a warm greeting and written notes on his childhood memories.

Mr Husa jumped into the breach when the concert’s planned speaker, Jitka Bajgarová, had become ill.

Engineer Turns Composer
Karel Husa´s life is linked with Prague 7 and with war. He was born in a house where mainly war invalids lived. “The neighbours had prostheses; I was meeting them every day and was asking myself – ‘Why there is a war?’” he wrote.

His father bribed him with a violin so he’d help in his shop. But “Once you are an engineer you will happily play some music for your own enjoyment in the evenings,” his mother told him when he was accepted at a technical university in 1939. His studies lasted about 2 months; then the universities were closed.

Husa in Paris and America He continued his studies (1946) in Paris with A Honegger, N Boulanger, and others. After 1948 he refused to return to Czechoslovakia. But in 1954 Mr Husa took an offer as a music theory and composition professor at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. He received American citizenship in 1959.

He guest conducted many orchestras worldwide, always popularizing Czech music. Mr Husa earned the Pulitzer Prize and is a member of the Royal Belgian Academy of Art and Sciences.

When he was 18 his teacher gave him a ticket to a Czech Philharmonic concert. He was fascinated by the sound of the orchestra and by the musicians’ abilities. He was accepted at Prague Conservatory, in the composition department — but they did not recognise him as very talented.

A Challenge for Today’s Musicians
The concert’s first Husa piece, Two Preludes for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon, is a dramatic 12-note impression that Husa wrote for his students at Cornell University, NY. It’s his search for identity in America, and it resembles Janáček’s impressions.

Husa art

Mr Husa also creates fine art (behind Hana Dohnálková, dramaturgist)

The truly challenging Sonata a Tre for Violin, B flat Clarinet and Piano. premiered in Hong-Kong in 1982. PKF dramaturgist Hana Dohnálková revealed that the Prague Philharmonic musicians were stunned when they saw the scores. Miloš Vrba (violin), Jindřich Pavliš (clarinet), and Martin Fila (piano) then got in touch with Karel Husa to clarify certain parts.

According to Mr Husa it refers to the Baroque sonata, and is from the Latin to sound. The work is full of glissandos and quarter sounds and finishes in a rapid finale.

The musicians’ role involved not only sitting on their chairs. The pianist had to pull the strings under the piano lid and the clarinetist from time to time left his chair to blow the music into the back of the piano’s core (where the score was pasted).

Second Ensemble Performs for Second Half
The FAMA Quartet – David Danel (violin), Roman Hranička (violin), Ondřej Martinovský (viola), and Balász Adorján (cello) closed the evening with the six-part poem, String Quartet No. 3 (Pulitzer Prize, 1969). Here Mr Husa fully exploits the ability of current musicians to play harmonics.

Harmonics are notes played by preventing vibration of certain overtones. According to Mr Husa, they can ‘divinely draw the ray of light.’

Dramaturgist Dohnálková remarks on the D major chord in the last movement, which she explained recalls Janáček´s string quartet Intimate Letters.

Karel Husa has created, in addition to opera, all sorts of compositions, from songs to string quartets, concerts, symphonies, cantatas, and ballets. His finest works are Concerto for Orchestra (1986) and Music for Prague 1968 (premiered in Prague in 1990), which he had written after the Soviet Union crushed the opposition in 1968′s “Prague spring.”

Read more on Music for Prague 1968 (scroll down to second half of the article). You can listen to many recordings of the piece on YouTube, for example at:

The next evening in the series “The Beauty of Today,” 14 June in Theatre NoD, presents leading composer Jan Klusák.

–Hana Blažková, Opus Osm writer

Photo Credits: Top: Prague Philharmonia-PKF; center: Hana Blazková

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