August 7, 1921 -
born in Prague, Czech Republic, composed during the Contemporary period
Karel Husa is an important composer, the bulk of whose career took place in the last half of the twentieth century. While he is generally ranked in the second tier among his contemporaries, his standing may change for the better in the coming decades. His expressive language, although sometimes employing serial techniques and other advanced methods, is far from difficult: Husa's rhythms and use of ostinatos impart sinew and drive to his music, and his orchestration is always assured and colorful. Among his important compositions are his Fantasies for Orchestra (1956), Third String Quartet (1968), Music for Prague 1968, and the ballet The Trojan Women (1980-1981).
Karel Husa showed talent early in his childhood, learning to play both the violin and piano. He enrolled at the Prague Conservatory in 1939, in part to avoid being drafted into the occupying German Army. There he studied composition with Jaroslav Ridky, and conducting with Metod Dolezil and Pavel Dedecek. His Op. 1 Sonatina, for piano, dates from his student years, as well as his first big work, Overture for Large Orchestra, Op. 3.
After taking further courses with Ridky following the war, Husa traveled to Paris in 1947 to study with Arthur Honegger. He also studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and conducting with Jean Fournet. In the coming years, his career would be split equally between composing and conducting duties. His First String Quartet (1948) received the 1950 Lili Boulanger Prize and helped to establish his name internationally.
Cut off from his homeland by the Communist takeover in 1948, Husa accepted a faculty position with Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1954 to teach composition and to lead the student orchestra. He also took on many guest conducting appearances with orchestras in the United States, Europe, and Asia, and accepted a post as conductor of the Ithaca Chamber Orchestra. He might have stayed in Europe a while longer, but by now he had a wife and two daughters to support. Besides, as it turned out, he found the the Cornell post was much to his liking, remaining in it until his retirement in 1992.
In 1959, Husa became an American citizen, and by that time many of his works were appearing on concert programs in his adopted country and abroad. Then-recent compositions include his Divertimento for Brass Ensemble and Percussion (1958), actually a transcription of four pieces from his 1955 Eight Czech Duos, for piano four-hands. The 1960s might have been Husa's most successful decade: in 1964 he received a Guggenheim fellowship, and five years later his Third String Quartet was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In addition, his Music for Prague 1968 has become his most often-performed work.
Husa remained quite active in the field of composition over the next several decades, writing most of his music at a cottage he had purchased along Cayuga lake. Among his compositions from the 1970s are Two Sonnets from Michelangelo (1971) and Fresco for Wind Ensemble (1975). Some impressive commissions came in the 1980s: Concerto for Orchestra (1986) was written for Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra; and the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra (1987-1988) met the commission of Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Husa's 1993 Violin Concerto was written for another New York Philharmonic commission. In 1995, the composer received what was perhaps his most cherished honor, Czech Republic's State Medal Award of Merit, First Class, given by President Vaclav Havel. ~ Robert Cummings, Rovi