North Carolinians busy with holidays and overwhelmed by the political events of 2016 may have missed news of the Dec. 14 passing of the prominent composer Karel Husa. He was 95.
A United States citizen since 1959, Czech-born Karel Husa spent his last years in Apex. He was one of North Carolina’s — and one of the United States’— most recognized composers. Motivating his 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 -1992, often serving as a guest composer and conductor at universities across the U.S., including several visits to Duke University.
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 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 7,000 times, according to his publisher. Husa won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
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 awarded Husa the Czech Medal of Honor.
In the United States, Husa became 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. Among his remarkable output for winds,The Apotheosis of This Earth, written in 1970 for band, with optional chorus, sounded a clarion call against destruction of the environment.
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.” 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 Mr. Husa was so gentle and well-mannered that I couldn’t tell you the details of 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 in his works the most essential and enduring essences. 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. 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.
Stephen Jaffe is a composer and the Mary and James H. Semans professor of composition at Duke University.