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Karel Husa: "like raindrops we have dispersed all over the immense world ...".

The Czech composer, conductor and teacher Karel Husa celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday on the 7th of August this year. Born in Prague and trained at the Prague conservatory, he went into exile abroad after the communist putsch of February 1948 (since 1959 he has been a US citizen), and as a result his work was practically excluded from Czech musical culture at home for the next forty years. What is still the most-detailed post-war Czech (Czechoslovak) music encyclopaedia, published in 1963, includes a 35-line entry on "Karel Husa", in which no data are given after 1948. Practically the same data, and no more, are given in the Small Encyclopaedia of Music of 1983 (!). Since November 1989 just a few occasional articles and one analytical study on the composer have appeared in Czech ... Even though Husa's achievements as composer and conductor have won him a Pulitzer Prize for his 3rd string quartet (1969) for example, the Friedheim Prize awarded by the Kennedy Centre (1983), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize (1989), the Grawemeyer Prize (1993), and full membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997). In the nineties he was at last honoured in his native land as well, with a Medal "For Merit of the 1st Degree for important artistic activity contributing to the renewal of democracy" (1995), and an honorary doctorate from the Music Faculty of the Prague Academy of Performing Arts AMU (2000). Husa's output now consists of almost 90 compositions, many of which have been performed in this country since the beginning of the nineties but many of which (including important works) still await their Czech premieres. In this respect our debt to Karel Husa (and to ourselves) still remains to be paid in full.

Tell us about your path to music and especially to a career as a composer. We know that originally you wanted to study engineering at technical school.

When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a violin a Christmas gift. My mother said: "When you are an engineer, you will enjoy playing music with your friends after a day's work." So I simply assumed I would study engineering one day. In 1939 I entered the civil engineering school in Prague, but after several weeks of classes, in November when we, students protested against killing of Jan Opletal (also a student), the occupation authorities closed all universities and technical schools. The Conservatory of Music though remained open, as the closure concerned only the schools of "highest teaching". In 1941 I passed the examination and was accepted into the Conservatory's second year of composition class, after about a year and a half of private studies with professor Jaroslav Ridky. (I can say that I am a better composer than I would have been engineer; my mathematics was not as good as my music theory, therefore I think my bridges in the Czech Republic would not have lasted for long!)

What did the Jaroslav Ridky School give you? It is well-known that Prof. Ridky was a very conservative artist with a great respect for tradition, whereas from the start you gravitated towards modern forms of expression.

Prof. Ridky made me a composer, for which I am deeply grateful. He gave us student-composers a very solid technique in theory, form, orchestration, which I definitely needed. I would compare music composing to learning of an instrument: you have to be technically best prepared so that you can be comfortable in "whatever comes your way". Since 1937 I was interested in art, I saw most of the theatre productions of the Czech E. F. Burian (see CM 4/2004), I also studied painting and went to exhibitions of modern Czech art in Prague, and I also had a wonderful teacher in my high school, Jan Skoula, singer and manager of the magnificent male choir Smetana, who taught us about poetry (including living poets), so I definitely was interested in new, living art. When in conservatory, it was difficult to learn scores of Stravinsky, Bartok or any new French, Russian or American art, all was forbidden during the Second World War (and called "decadent art" by Goebbels). So mostly it was the new Czech art, that was available and then, naturally, the classics.

I once heard from your friend Jan Hanus that under the Protectorate you were co-opted into the Pritomnost (Presence) Musical Society and helped to get it through the tough years of the war and occupation. How and why did the then chairman of Pritomnost, Alois Haba, turned to you and Jan Hanus?

I was not a functionary of Pritomnost during the Protectorate years. Only after the war; I was assisting the secretary Ing. K. Hanf, who suddenly died at the end of 1945 and I was asked to continue his work until the summer of 1946, when I left for Paris. I of course knew Jan Hanus, who was already a known young composer during 1939-45, and also, as member of the publishing house Fr. A. Urbanek. It was at the concert of the students of Jaroslav Ridky that he heard my Sonatina for piano and recommended that it be published. I also knew Prof. Alois Haba (see CM 3/2005) from the Conservatory and concerts in Prague. His Quarter-tone theory intrigued me and I also bought the German publication of it. After the war, when he became the director of the Theatre of 5th May and resumed his function in Pritomnost, he allocated a room to Pritomnost in the Theatre in 1945.

Several of your early pieces were received with lively interest and the critics praised you highly as a promising composing talent. Which of your pieces from this early period do you still rate most highly?

The already mentioned Sonatina for piano, published in 1947 by Fr. A. Urbanek; unfortunately, it was suppressed after I did not return in 1949 from Paris. AMP/G. Schirmer published it later in New York; also the Sonatina for Violin and Piano (1959), which is published by the same company (AMP/GS). Perhaps also the Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra, premiered in Prague by the Symphony Orchestra of the Czechoslovak Radio, conducted by Karel Ancerl, in Prague in 1947, and which I have not heard live yet. For sentimental point of view I remember my Overture for grand orchestra, which I had the privilege to conduct myself twice in the spring of 1945. It was the first time I conducted a work of my own with a first rate professional orchestra; this was an unforgettable moment.

After the war you transferred to the newly opened Academy of Perfoming Arts (AMU). How long did you actually study there? If I'm not mistaken you soon won the French scholarship and went off to Paris to study.

When the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague was opened in the fall of 1945 I immediately enrolled, and again Prof. Ridky was my teacher and chair of my committee. I spoke with him about my desire to study in Paris for a few years, a project he entirely approved. In the spring of 1946, Charles Munch conducted twice in Prague and his artistry fascinated me. Among other works he conducted works by Messiaen, Martinu and Ravel. What amazed me then and also later, was that this famous conductor had a habit of performing at least one new work in every concert! (A habit he kept practically all his life.) That same spring (1946) I applied for three fellowships: French, Russian an American (to study with Arthur Honegger or Sergei Prokofiev or Bohuslav Martinu). I received the French first. The Russian was not--at the end--offered and the American was already reserved. When the French letter arrived, my mother, who loved French culture and dreamed of Paris, said: "Why don't you go to France for one or two years, then visit my sisters in the U.S. and in about three years return home?" So, in September 1946 I left for Paris. Practically I studied at the AMU for only two years. Prof. Ridky arranged my diploma of graduation someway "ahead of term" in 1947.


What did you gain as a composer in Paris with Honegger and other teachers? What and how did you study in Paris compared to your previous training as a composer in Prague? Paris was most probably more open to modern and the most modern currents in music. How did you react to that?

Paris was musically rich: we heard not only the French musicians but, constantly, artists from all over the world (few weeks after my arrival the Czech Philharmonic with Rafael Kubelik and Pierre Fournier gave a great performance of Dvorak's Cello concerto), Furtwangler, Kleiber, Koussevitzky, many orchestras (Vaclav Talich was on the program of the Societe des Concerts but did not come). Among composers Stravinsky, Martinu, Petrassi, Malipiero, Hindemith, Copland and the French masters Honegger, Milhaud, Messiaen, Poulenc, Fl. Schmitt an others.



Honegger was open to all possible ideas, Nadia Boulanger insisted on most solid construction and Milhaud (whose seminar I also attended) was an incredibly warm and sophisticated man of the world. There were important people in all the arts: Eluard, Aragon, Sartre, Malraux in writing, the painters Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall--my reaction to the new was enthusiastic! After my arrival in 1946 I heard the premiere of Honegger's Symphonie liturgique, than Messiaen's Turangalila, Boulez's First sonata for piano, Leibowitz, concerts of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, read French poetry (let me say so that I do not forget: the Czech poetry is magnificent, but unfortunately it cannot be--or hasn't been--translated well), and visited not only the Orangerie but many smaller galleries (Kupka's and Sima's paintings). I always wanted to learn the great works of Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Roussel as a conductor before I returned to Prague. I attended rehearsals of Charles Munch, took private lessons from Andre Cluytens, entered the Ecole normale de musique and the Conservatory, and obtained diplomas in this field.

How did you react when the communists took power in February 1948 and what happened then?

My passport was due to expire at the end of August 1949. A few months before, I received a fellowship from UNESCO to continue studying in Paris. The consent of the Czechoslovak government was needed. The response I received from the Czechoslovak embassy in Paris was for me to return before the expiration of the passport to Prague or lose my citizenship. I felt I still wanted to learn and see more "of the world". I was also getting invitations to attend performance of my music and guest-conduct in other European countries, but could not accept, as my original passport was valid only for France and prolonged every year. I decided for exile (and read at the same time--buy chance--the magnificent poetry by St. John de Porse, the French, then living poet, called "Exile".) Nadia Boulanger recommended me for an assistantship with Serge Koussevitzki to Tanglewood in summer 1950 (which I wasn't able--in last minute--to attend, due to a serious blood illness). I became a refugee, received legal papers from the French government, including a passport valid for any country. Also, the French ministry continued to support me with a monthly bourse for the following few years.

What were the compositions with which you first "broke through" in France? Which had the greatest impact?

In 1947 the director of the Triptyque, Pierre d'Arquennes programmed the Piano sonatina, followed by violin-piano work, First string quartet, Sonata for piano and other compositions followed. Also, the French radio in broadcasts and public concerts performed all the above compositions, as well as the Divertimento for string orchestra in a concert for the ISCM in 1949. And in 1950 I attended a performance of my First string quartet by Haydn Quartet in Brussels, as part of the ISCM festival. This was probably my most important success until then, as it opened up many possibilities in numerous countries. Several compositions were performed soon in Belgium (among them the premiere of the Concertino for piano), German, Sweden, Switzerland, Holland and USA.

The Second string quartet was premiered at the UNESCO Tribune by the Parrenin Quartet, who also put it on the programme of their American tour. Dr. Heinrich Strobel commissioned the Portrait for string orchestra for the Donaueschingener Musiktage in 1953. The same year the French radio-television broadcasted the Evocations of Slovakia (for clarinet, viola and cello).

After February 1948 your music was no longer performed in Czechoslovakia. What effect did that have on you as an artist and as an individual, a Czech, who had been forced into exile by the circumstance? Did you have information about what was going on in your native country? Were you able to keep up correspondence with friends at home (as far as I know, you corresponded a great deal especially with Jan Hanus)?

I understood that by not returning home in 1949 I ensured that my music would not be performed in Czechoslovakia. We have been a nation of exiled musicians for hundreds of years: Benda, Stamic, Vanhal, Myslivecek, Rejcha, even Smetana and Martinu to name composers only. The Czech poet Karel Toman said in a poem: "Like raindrops we have dispersed all over the immense world ..." I received regular letters only from my sister after 1949 were coming regularly only from my sister, but they spoke less and less about the political situation and mostly about the family and sometimes the musical life. By 1952 no friends dared to write--I understood perfectly, it wasn't easy. Only Jan Hanus, a dear friend, important composer, pacifist and religious man, continued to write for over fifty years. His spirit was always encouraging, understanding, positive, human. The Czech musicians should look into his oeuvre; it is all there.

In 1949 I wrote to the Ministry of Education in Prague saying that I needed a few more years to complete what I was trying to achieve before returning (no answer). However, events make decisions too: in 1952 I married a French person, and nearly became a French citizen, but the invitation to teach for three years at Cornell University changed our plans, and my wife Simone, I and our children became American citizens. It was this country that gave me an enormous chance and help in my profession. When leaving France in 1954, I said to Nadia Boulanger: "We will return in the years ..." She answered: "You know, life makes its own decisions." And she was right.

I personally consider your 1st symphony to be an important work of the mid-1950s. It is very dramatic, even tragic. Were the tragic events of postwar Czechoslovakia reflected in it?

Although I didn't intend to include the war years (1939-45), nor post-February 1948 events (the year of communist putsch in Czechoslovakia; ed. note) in my first symphony (as I did openly in the Music for Prague 1968), it definitely mirrors those times. I slowly assimilate events around me, so when after three years of happiness and freedom, I once again found myself in a difficult situation (and my native country too), there are reflections of the past war (2nd movement) but also, I think, a symbol of freedom--at that time I especially admired Chagall's colors and birds--so I see the flute solo before the start of the 3rd movement, and the whole movement, as the "romantic ideal" of hope. I also wanted to explore some new colors in orchestration.


Why did you move to the USA?

In 1953, numerous possibilities of guest-conducting came up, especially after the release of Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin and Brahms' First symphony recordings in Paris, such as principal guest-conductor of the Monte Carlo Symphony Orchestra, as well as invitations from several European countries. At the same time a letter came from Cornell University inviting me to apply for the position of a theory and composition teacher. I have always felt that my first interest was composing, and so I applied and in September 1954 my family and I left for France for the USA for three years. I enjoyed teaching (and later also conducting the University Orchestra) and although busy, the position allowed me to write music and guest-conduct in parts of the world, also performing my own works. I retired after 38 years at Cornell in 1992 and never regretted teaching young people; in fact, I learned so much too! I also taught a seminar in composition at Ithaca College (1967-86).

Did the American (and specifically university) environment have any substantial effect on your composing style? As far as I know, you had already had experience with twelve-tone music and used microtones (quarter-tones), as well as other elements of material and techniques of contemporary music in the course of the 1950s. What new elements did being in the US bring to your thinking as a composer?

My interest in trying new possibilities started already in Paris. I realized I could not continue composing by only repeating what I knew; I needed to expand, explore and find some new paths. Beethoven, after his two symphonies, wrote the third, considerably different, Debussy changed his style completely after meeting Mallarme and painters-impressionists, Stravinsky after Petrushka and Firebird, and so did others. Hearing Messiaen's works, Stravinsky's concerts (including Oedipus Rex), conducted by Stravinsky and narrated by Jean Cocteau, visiting Darmstadt and Donaueschingen, and hearing Sandor Vegh's interpretation of all Bartok's quartets (some with the quartertones), and as well as the same composer's Solo violin sonata by Menuhin and many of Schoenberg's and Webern's works, made me try to experiment: in the Poem for viola and orchestra and Mosaiques for large orchestra. By the way, Mosaiques (1961) is all about Prague: Bells--Tragedy Spring--Charles Bridge--Snow. An aspect that I thought about a lot in America was to write music for young people who have learned instruments, but chosen another profession in university. There are millions of them, and mostly, they play old (Baroque, Classical and some Romantic) music. Hindemith and others have tried too. One is surprised by their interest in new music, and they are interested--here, in American schools--in playing music of today. And I admired Bartok for writing easy music for piano.

Which of your works of the American period do you yourself regard as key? In this country we generally think of your Music for Prague 1968 and the 3rd String Quartet, for which you won a prestigious Pulitzer Prize. What other important works would you identify yourself?

I think the Concerto for orchestra, Apotheosis of this Earth (in both versions, i.e. for wind ensemble, and Orchestra and choir), Concerto for violin, Concerto for violoncello, Concerto for wind ensemble, and among chamber compositions the Landscapes for brass ensemble, Piano sonata no. 2 and Sonata a tre or Violin sonata.

After 1990 after long decades your music finally returned to the Czech concert hall. Are you satisfied with performance of your work in the Czech Republic to date? Which of your works has not yet been performed here?

To return in 1990 in Prague and conduct the Music for Prague 1968 were unbelievable moments. There are naturally works of mine--over 40--that have not yet been performed. On the other hand, about the same amount have already been played and some of them repeatedly, so I am pleased about it, especially because there are so many composers in the Czech Republic at present, who need their chance to be performed. Also, we currently have a crisis, as attendance at concerts is diminishing. We are unable to capture the young people, many of them prefer "fun" music. And also, today's trend is to put mostly "old" music on programmes. Among my works not yet performed would be the ballet Monodrama (about the conflict of artist versus the society), the Concerto for violin (written for the 150 years celebration of the New York Philharmonic), Scenes from the Trojan Women for orchestra, or Cayuga Lake for three quartets (string, wind and brass), piano and percussion, Three Moravian songs for mixed choir, and eventually An American Te Deum for choir, baritone solo and orchestra, but I am sure that is a very difficult project.

Have you been following the Czech music scene since November 1989? How do you rate its current standard? Which contemporary Czech composers have caught your attention?

I do follow with great interest what is happening in my native country. I always felt that although the country is small, its composers are a "power-house". The world may not know that Bendas and Stamic, Reicha or Dusek were Czechs (emigres), but they certainly know Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek and Martinu are. In addition, masters such as Novak, Ostrcil, Vycpalek, Fibich ought to be known--especially Fibich's melodramas, Ostrcil's Stations of the Cross, V. Novak's In Tatras, Vycpalek's Of the last matters of a man. And there are first-class composers of my teacher's generation and my own. Music has been a very important part of Czechs for centuries, in creating, as well as performing music. The amazing number of professional orchestras, choirs, opera houses, quartets, chamber ensembles, soloists and singers, as well as the large number of composers, is impressive. It is a paradox of "our time", that audiences want to read new novels, watch new films and visit galleries of new arts, but want to hear old music!




The young and youngest generations are very active in organizing their own concerts, opera productions and recordings of their works. They realize that in today's strong competitions it is the only way to be heard and recognized. They also have many excellent ideas to "make things happen". Being a composer today doesn't mean only "composing". Many more young people are trying to write music in many more countries so that the competition is much greater than sixty years ago. Reaching recognition is becoming harder and harder; therefore I admire their determination, and wish them all the best! They are, after all, working for the future of Czech music.



Karel Husa

Pulitzer Prize winner in Music, is an internationally known composer and conductor who was Kappa Alpha professor at Cornell University from 1954 until his retirement and also Lecturer in Composition at Ithaca College. An American citizen since 1959, Husa was born in Prague on August 7, 1921, studying at the Prague Conservatory and Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and later at the National Conservatory and Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. Among his teachers were Arthur Honegger, Nadia Boulanger, Jaroslav Ridky, and conductor Andre Cluytens.

Husa was elected Associate Member of the Royal Belgian Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974, and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994. He has received honorary doctorates from Coe College, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Ithaca College, Baldwin-Wallace College, St. Vincent College, Hartwick College, New England Conservatory, University of Arkansas, Capital University and the Masaryk University (Czech Republic). Husa has been the recipient of many awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, UNESCO, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Czech Academy for the Arts and Sciences, the Lili Boulanger Award, Bilthoven (Holland) Contemporary Music Prize, a Kennedy Center-Friedheim Award, and his Concerto for wind ensemble received the first Sudler International Award. His Concerto for cello and orchestra earned him the 1993 Grawemeyer Award. In 1995, Husa was awarded the Czech Republic's highest civilian recognition, the State Medal of Merit, First Class, and in 1998 the Medal of the City of Prague.

His String Quartet No. 3 earned him the 1969 Pulitzer Prize and, with over 7,000 performances, his Music for Prague 1968 has become part of the modern repertory. Another well-known work, Apotheosis of this Earth is called by Husa a "manifesto" against pollution and destruction. His works have been performed by major orchestras all over the world. Two works were commissioned by the New York Philharmonic: the Concerto for orchestra premiered by Zubin Mehta, and the Concerto for violin and orchestra written for concert-master Glenn Dicterow and conducted by Kurt Masur. The Concerto for trumpet was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Sir Georg Solti for performance in Chicago and on tour in Australia with principal trumpeter Adolph Herseth. Among his recent compositions are the String quartet no. 4 (an NEA commission for the Colorado Quartet), Cayuga Lake (for Ithaca College's centennial celebration), and Les couleurs fauves for wind ensemble (commissioned by the Northwestern University).

Karel Husa has conducted many major orchestras including those in Paris, London, Hamburg, Brussels, Prague, Stockholm, Oslo, Zurich, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, Boston, Washington, Cincinnati, Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Louisville, and others. Every year he visits the campuses of music schools and universities to guest conduct and lecture on his music.

Much of Husa's music is available on recordings issued by CBS Masterworks, Vox, Louisville, Panton, Phoenix, Crystal, CRI, Everest, Grenadilla, Sheffield, and other labels.
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Title Annotation:interview with Czech composer
Author:Havlik, Jaromir
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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