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Karel Husa

By Stephen Jaffe

It is my honor to have been asked to speak about my colleague Karel Husa, who was one of the United States’ most recognized composers, and who was a member of the Academy from 1994 until his death in December. Motivating Husa’s life and music are concerns that resonate especially today: the creation of meaningful art in a public sphere, the use of art to challenge injustice, and environmental devastation.

Born in Prague in 1921, Husa studied at the Prague Conservatory and Music Academy, and in Paris at the École Normale de Musique and the National Conservatory. He later came to the United States to teach at Cornell University, where he taught from 1954 to 1992, often serving as a guest composer and conductor at universities across the U.S. (he conducted ensembles in all 50 states). Husa’s most famous work is Music for Prague, 1968, written in 1969 in the wake of the Soviet Union’s crushing military takeover of Czechoslovakia’s reformist government, led by Alexander Dubçek. Vividly filled with the clanging of bells, strains of a Hussite war song, and the sounds of birds, the music evokes resistance and hope. Music for Prague, 1968 was immediately recognized as important, and has since been performed over 12,000 times, according to his publisher. Husa wrote that the birdsongs were a “symbol of liberty which the city of Prague has seen only for moments during its thousands of years of existence.” His music—banned in Czechoslovakia for many years, as was its composer—did in fact keep the beacon of hope, freedom, and witness alive for a generation, and even today, helps remind us that liberty, including the right of assembly sufficient to present a concert or mount a demonstration, is so precious. Mr. Husa conducted the Czech premiere of Music for Prague, 1968, on February 13, 1990—a palpably intense return. Subsequently, Czech President and former dissident playwright Vaclav Havel—also a member of this Academy—awarded Husa the Czech Medal of Honor.

While he wrote powerful scores for the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and the Louisville Orchestra, and eloquent chamber music for which he received the Pulitzer Prize, Husa became particularly interested in the compositional possibilities of the wind ensemble, a formation which, even more than the symphony orchestra, has a special need for the creation of serious and interesting new repertory. Many ensembles welcomed Husa’s interest; over a long and visible career, he contributed pieces that have been widely heard and played by professionals and amateurs alike. Among his remarkable output for winds are Les Couleurs Fauves (Vivid Colors) and several solo concertos and the Concerto for Wind Ensemble. Apotheosis of This Earth, written in 1970 for band, with optional chorus, sounded a clarion call against destruction of the environment, and I want to say a few words about it.

According to Husa, Apotheosis of This Earth was “motivated by the present desperate stage of mankind and its immense problems with everyday killings, war, hunger, extermination of fauna, huge forest fires, and critical contamination of the whole environment.” Sonically it explores the image of earth as a “point of light in the universe”—as it appeared to the astronauts returning from mankind’s first walks on the moon; the destruction of the planet by nuclear devastation; and post-apocalyptic voices of dust crystallizing to ask, “Why have we let this happen?” Sadly, the themes of Apotheosis of This Earth are as relevant today as in 1970.

Of course, nobody likes or programs your concert music because of its politics—(and Karel was so gentle and polite that I couldn’t tell you everything about his political views). While we were of different generations, what I admired about his career as a composer—besides his vivid music—was that rather than despairing about the disinterest of general audiences for contemporary composing, Husa found ways of engaging broadly, enchanting performers and audiences by seeking to capture the most essential and enduring essences in his works. He found places for new music where it was welcomed and encouraged, and in the process helped to create venues for a serious composer to write with intelligence, power, and musical imagination. Besides the Pulitzer Prize, Husa’s music was recognized by honors including the Grawemeyer Award, UNESCO, Royal Belgian Academy of Arts & Sciences, and honorary degrees from a half-dozen American universities. An immigrant, Karel Husa was an American treasure whose artistic contributions enriched our culture; his musical aspirations and concern for the human condition remain vital.

I’ve mentioned Vaclav Havel; among Husa’s students who have been elected members of the Academy are the late Steven Stucky, and Christopher Rouse. I did not have the chance to study music with Husa, but did frequently have occasions to encounter his warm smile, which I will miss.

On behalf of the members of the Department of Music, I extend my heartfelt condolences to Mrs. Simone Husa, and to their four daughters, Anne-Marie Katerji, Elizabeth Evola, Caroline Husa Bell, and Catherine Husseini, who is here together with her son Rami Husseini, representing the ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren of the Husa-Perrault family.

Thank you.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 4, 2017.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters