Karel Husa, internationally renowned and acclaimed composer and conductor, turned 90 in August, and this week two concerts take place to celebrate this extraordinary musician. On Saturday, February 25, in Bailey Hall, the Cornell University Chorus and Glee Club will be joined by the Eastman Wind Ensemble in a program of music that illustrates well Husa's unique and powerful message to the world. Conducted by Cornell's director of choral music Scott Tucker, the concert is the second performance of the same program, the first being on February 22 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester under the baton of Mark Davis Scatterday, music director of the Eastman Wind Ensemble.
Although Karel Husa lives in North Carolina now, he spent more than 40 years here in Ithaca, where he served on the faculty of Cornell's music department from 1954 until his retirement in 1992 - his title is Kappa Alpha professor of music emeritus - and where he composed his best-known and most-celebrated works. Not only is his music performed all over the world, new and up-dated publications appear every year. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1969, he has also earned the 1993 Grawemeyer Award and holds several honorary degrees from eminent academic institutions. Many of his students have gone on to exceptional careers in conducting and composition, the best known being Cornell professor and 2005 Pulitzer prize winner Steven Stucky. Over the years he gave generously of his time and talent to the university, to Ithaca College where he also taught, and to the wider community. When the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra was formed, he became its first music director in 1977, serving in that post until 1984. Those who performed under his leadership came away with memories of meticulous musicianship, great tact and kindness, as well as a special courtly modesty.
In Prague, where he was born, Husa studied the violin and piano because his parents wanted him to be able to enjoy music while pursuing the practical career of an engineer. He was already enrolled in engineering school when the Nazis took over his country and promptly closed all the technical schools. Having a talent for painting, he applied to art school, but the academy was not allowed to accept students from the technical schools. The Prague Conservatory of Music, free from this regulation, had one opening - in composition. He was accepted and turned to his newest vocation with increasing pleasure and enthusiasm. Several compositions, including his Sonatina for Piano, were performed when he was still a student, and in 1945 he conducted the Prague Symphony in his Overture for Orchestra.
After the war Husa went to Paris on a French government scholarship and studied composition with Arthur Honegger and Nadia Boulanger, as well as conducting with Charles Munch. With conducting degrees from the École normale de musique and the Conservatoire national, plus credits from the Prague Academy, he earned his doctorate of music in 1947.
He married, settled down in Paris, and was about to become a French citizen when an invitation came to join the faculty at Cornell, to take over the orchestra and teach theory. He moved to Ithaca in 1954 with his wife and two daughters. The family grew to four daughters, and university responsibilities expanded to teaching composition and conducting. He became an American citizen in 1959.
In the mid-1970s Husa received a call from Ithaca College asking if he could fill in for a semester. That semester became a once-a-week stint for some 15 years. His ties with IC were already strong, as in 1968 the music school had commissioned him to compose an orchestral piece about his native country. He started on it, and later that summer the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague crushing the country's attempts at reform and change. From those events came Husa's most popular composition, Music for Prague 1968, a work that has had thousands of performances over the years. A memorable event for him was conducting it in Prague in 1990 following the Velvet Revolution.
Always close to nature, Husa found Ithaca a perfect place to live, with so much natural beauty to contemplate. The countryside brought back memories of his native land, from which he had been exiled by the Communist regime. In his home on Hanshaw Road he could work in a study looking out into the woods. Much of his composing, however, was done in a cottage on the western shore of Cayuga Lake. He was fascinated by the changing colors of the water, and the beauty of the lake inspired his music.
Listening to Karel Husa's compositions, almost aggressively modern for the most part, can be challenging for many listeners. One feels compelled to play attention to insistent driving rhythms and considerable dissonance. But as the composer himself has said, "I like the excitement that music produces." The listener is drawn into the mood - sometimes playful, more often deeply serious, mystical, passionate, and with a powerful expressiveness. Especially effective are the works for wind ensemble, such as Music for Prague and Apotheosis of This Earth, included on Saturday's program. Both are considered classics in this genre.
At 90 Husa is still busy composing, arranging, and editing for publication. He told me that when he retired, he thought that now he would have time to relax, "but life goes on, one cannot stop." Both he and wife, Simone, are well, living about 15 minutes from Raleigh. Their daughter Elizabeth lives next door and her daughter, Maria, is the "only person in our family who had the courage to take music as profession." She is first violinist of the North Carolina Symphony and plays chamber concerts with plans to perform two Husa works next month. The Husas' fourth daughter, Caroline, lives close by. Their eldest, Catherine, now a retired physician, resides in Ithaca and plans to sing in Saturday's concert, while the second daughter, Annette, lives in France. Both of them and their families visit often.
The idea for these concerts came from Mark Scatterday, who today directs one of the world's most famous wind bands. He has programmed a Husa piece for each of his concerts this year, as a dedication to "this person who has meant so much to me in my life." He first met Husa when researching Music for Prague 1968 for his doctoral thesis at Eastman. After lunch Husa took him to meet Thomas Sokol, then Cornell's director of choral music and department chair. A week after the encounter came the call to audition, and thus Scatterday joined the faculty at Cornell in 1989 as successor to the eminent Maurice Stith, where he served as music professor, conductor of various ensembles, and department chair during the upheaval during the Lincoln Hall renovation and expansion. After "the greatest 13 years of my life," he told me, he left Cornell in 2004 for his present position at Eastman.
Saturday's program opens two works for wind ensemble. The first is Divertimento, a four-movement arrangement originally for orchestra of the composer's 8 Bohemian Duets for piano four hands. Husa wrote the duets - based mainly on folk music - in 1955 and dedicated them to his young daughters, wanting to share with them his interpretation of their Czech heritage. The wind ensemble arrangement was done by John Boyd, with Husa's permission. The second work, Al Fresco, was the first commission of the Walter Beeler Memorial series for the Ithaca College Concert Band, which played the premiere at the 1975 Music Educators National conference in Philadelphia with the composer as guest conductor. According to Husa, the work has no programmatic content, but "the title indicates my admiration for the art of painting, especially mural painting on wet plaster." According to Scott Tucker, these two instrumental pieces, "lighthearted with jazz and folk influences," provide a perfect balance to the serious and dramatic tone of the evening's major work.
The Eastman Wind Ensemble (56 instrumentalists) will then be joined by the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club (120 singers) to perform Festive Ode, composed for the Centennial Celebration of Cornell University. The first performance took place at the Centennial Convocation in Barton Hall in October 1964, with Thomas Sokol conducting the Cornell choruses and symphony orchestra. He remembers, with some regret, the difficult barn-like acoustics of Barton Hall, and explained that the piece is a test all the upper sound levels, a work of "joy in high tessitura." He added that it is very rhythmic, beginning almost like a concerto for percussion, and that it is very moving. The text is by Eric Blackall, then professor of German at Cornell and a close friend, who, according to Husa, "just wrote the words over my music which was already sketched." The piece has been widely used for celebrations.
Then all forces are joined for the major work of the evening, Apotheosis of This Earth, composed in 1970 and expressing desperation over the destruction of the earth and civilized society. First written for wind ensemble alone with only the words "This beautiful earth" to be spoken by the musicians in the third movement, Husa "was surprised by their shyness to speak." Asked later that year to compose a work for the opening of the Johnson Museum of Art and with insufficient time to write something new, he adapted Apotheosis for the Cornell choruses, putting in sounds and words and other effects, such as stomping and clapping, to the first two movements, to "add to the effect." It is a very powerful work, what Husa calls a manifesto. Scott Tucker admits that it has been a challenge for the choruses to rehearse because there is so little text, and because the voices are used for their particular timbre as part of the ensemble, it will make sense to the singers only when all forces are combined. Mark Scatterday feels that for all the young musicians, their lives will be changed. "It's the right message for today's young people, a message they can share."
After planning and rehearsing this program, Scatterday, because of a scheduling conflict, conducts only the Rochester concert and hands over the baton for Saturday's concert to Tucker, who is "thrilled about the collaboration." Scatterday knows that that Tucker, a former trumpet player, understands wind instruments very well. He knows too that "my kids are going to do a great job. I'm handing them over to someone who will have a great influence on them." It should be a moving evening of strong, expressive, and extraordinary music. The 8 p.m. concert is free and open to the public.