Karel Husa (b. 1921)
Reflections. Symphony No.2
Music for Prague 1968
Born in Prague on 7th August 1921, Karel Husa embarked on a musical career by chance. His plans to become a civil engineer were thwarted by the German National Socialist occupation of Czechoslovakia from 1939 until 1945, when the forced closure of all engineering schools prompted him to seek an alternative career. Having decided to make use of his bent towards music, he began taking private lessons in preparation for entry to the Prague Conservatory and in June 1941 was accepted as a composition student of Jaroslav Rfdky. He was later to study conducting with Pavel Dedecek and Vaclav Talich. After completing his studies at the Conservatory, he began work on his doctorate at the Prague Academy of Musical Arts. From 1946 until 1951 he studied on a French government scholarship in Paris, where his teachers included Arthur Honegger and Nadia Boulanger in composition, and Eugene Bigot, Jean Fournet and Andre Cluytens in conducting.
On the completion of his studies, Husa pursued an active career that combined conducting and composition, although he soon found the latter increasingly difficult, in view of his heavy commitments in the former capacity. In 1954 a chance for respite from his hectic life presented itself with the otter of a three-year position at Cornell University in the United States. He was later offered a permanent position and in 1959 became an American citizen, remaining at Cornell until his retirement in 1992. During this time he served as Director of the University Orchestra and, from 1973, as Kappa Alpha Professor.
Karel Husa won the 1993 Grawenmeyer Award for his Cello Concerto, having won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1969 for his String Quartet No.3. His recent works include a Violin Concerto, completed in 1993 and commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for their 150th anniversary. String Quartet No.4 in 1991 and, in 1986. a Concerto for Orchestra.
Husa?s musical rhetoric represents an amalgamation of past and present, successfully combining contemporary harmonic idiom with an almost neo- classical attention to balance, clarity and form. Dramatic crescendos, dynamic contrasts, the use of percussion and of quarter tones are hall-marks of his style, and his synthesis of old and new elements has made his music enjoyable and accessible to the general listening public.
Fresque, part of a larger work. Three Fresques for Orchestra, is the most tonal of the works included in the present recording and is a product of Husa"s studies with Arthur Honegger. It was first performed by the Society for Contemporary Music Radio Orchestra in Prague on 27th Apri11949, under the direction of Vaclav Smetacek. Honegger"s influence is apparent, with formal, harmonic and rhy1hmic reminiscences of that composer"s Pacific 231. In Fresque Husa has created a work that corresponds to a large-scale fresco, his harmonic language, rhythms and orchestration depicting different pigments in the painting. Darker hues are represented by the piano, low, muted brass and woodwind, while lighter colours are suggested by the brighter timbres of piccolo, flute and strings. The middle of the piece blends the different hues, while strong chords, heard most emphatically towards the end, bind this piece together. Repeated syncopated rhy1hmic motifs are prevalent throughout the composition and serve to add cohesion to all the diverse elements.
Reflections, written in 1982 and 1983, is dedicated to the memory of Edward B. Benjamin and was commissioned by the North Carolina Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and Mrs. Edward B. Benjamin Sr. It was composed for Sheldon Morgenstern and the Eastern Music Festival and perhaps best symbolizes Husa?s synthesis of the old and new. Neither classical nor romantic in style, Symphony No.2 is a reflection of multi- movement symphonic form, with all three movements closely related by modes, scales and rhythmic elements. The ensemble used is the size of that for late Mozart and early Beethoven symphonies, with the addition of harp and percussion. This is contrasted with a more contemporary harmonic idiom. In Reflections Husa frequently establishes a screen of quarter tones from which melodic lines weave in and out. As with many of his works, he employs a number of contemporary improvisational techniques, non-co-ordinated bowings, non-synchronized melodic figures, frequent glissandi, snap pizzicatos, left-hand pizzicato and nail pizzicato. Each of the three movements, through different combinations of instruments and special technical effects, explores new sonorities and orchestral timbres. It marks a departure from Fresque and Music for Prague in its greater reliance on contemporary techniques, coupled with fresh and unusual harmonic language.
The opening movement, marked Moderate, begins with an eerie but striking sound of shifting quarter-tone harmonics in the strings. From this texture a virtuoso solo oboe emerges, accompanied by non-traditional woodwind timbres. New sonorities are explored with the harp, vibraphone and bass drum. This movement, which began high in pitch and soft in dynamics, grows slowly louder to a broad and expansive melody in the strings. The movement ends soft and low in the double bassoon and double basses. The second movement, marked Very fast, begins with the percussion performing a rhythmic motif which forms the basis of the movement. From this point Husa explores new sounds created by percussion and brass. Unusual improvisatory techniques are executed by the strings with the sound of snap and left-hand pizzicatos. The harp features prominently in this movement, with an extended solo in the second half. The perpetual motion of the music hurries forward, a constant technical challenge to the entire string section. The final movement, marked Slow, is the most free, with the non-synchronized repetition of melodic and rhythmic figures and quarter tones. The movement ends with an alto flute weaving in and out of sustained sounds produced by the double bassoon and double basses. The movement slowly diminishes in volume and ends soft and low, much like the reflection of the high-pitched, pianissimo beginning.
Karel Husa"s Music for Prague 1968 was first performed in its orchestral version on 31st January 1970, with the composer conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. The first performance of the original version for wind band took place in Washington D.C. on 31st January 1969, with Kenneth Snapp conducting the Ithaca College Concert Band in a concert for the Music Educators" National Conference. The work was written in response to the communist seizure of power once more in Czechoslovakia in 1968. In this powerful and moving composition Husa uses elements of serialism, but, unlike many of his contemporaries, he does this in atonal context. It is not serialism itself that interests him, but the compositional procedures and manipulations that can be derived from its use. Music for Prague has those quarter-tone harmonies and dramatic crescendos that have become a characteristic of his work. Contemporary improvisational sections can be found side by side with intricate passages for percussion ensemble.
The opening Introduction and Fanfare introduces elements of musical symbolism. A peaceful bird-like call sung by the piccolo introduces the movement. This call represents the liberty that Prague had rarely seen in its history. Peace and tranquillity is soon threatened and eventually scattered by an approaching army, represented by horns and percussion. Husa"s frequent use of rapid I y repeated percussion sounds and brass glissandi represent the bombs and rockets of war, while free sections characterize the turmoil of conflict. The low drumming of the timpani, marimba and vibraphones create a feeling of tense foreboding and a mood of apprehension. The first movement introduces three important melodic motifs that recur throughout the whole work. The first is the sound of bells. Since Prague is known as the City of a Hundred Towers, these bells symbolize the city itself. They represent at the same time sounds of distress and calls of victory. The second element is a Hussite War Song, Ye Warriors of God and His Law, which is introduced and eventually repeated throughout the entire work, serving to represent Czech resistance and hope. The last motif is a three-chord progression that appears under the piccolo solo in the flutes, horns and clarinets, at the beginning of the first movement. This progression is later repeated at contrasting dynamic levels.
The Aria allows further use of the percussion in setting the mood. Marimba and xylophone are used in a sombre, dirge-like march, while sustained notes represent the sustained tragedy of the Czech people. In this movement Husa pays close attention to form and orchestral balance. The long-drawn-out notes of the beginning disappear into a section of rapid notes and later return, towards the end of the movement. Although no literal repetition exists, the over-all contrast in character between the parts creates a three-part, ternary form. The chordal motif presented in the opening Introduction and Fanfare is repeated in this movement at a strong and powerful dynamic level. The Interlude is written entirely for percussion ensemble. This movement relies on special effects to depict the mood of anxiety, giving way to rebellion, a parallel to the transition of the subjugated Czech people into a people of spirited defiance. The Toccata and Chorale begin with an emphatic and pounding eighth-note (quaver) motif. This gives way to a wild, angular clarinet melody, which is further developed through the movement. Eventually the brass fanfare of the first movement is heard once again, this time in 6/8 time. A spirit of initial despair is transformed into a renewed spirit of nationalism. After an improvised section, the Hussite song emerges con tutta forza, played by the entire orchestra in unison.
Leland Jonathan Yee