A Model of Generosity and Wisdom—Remembering Karel Husa (1921-2016)
As a mentor and teacher, Karel Husa was a model of generosity and wisdom. In addition to my composition studies with him enabling me to have a true artistic breakthrough, Husa was also an extraordinary teacher of conducting. The skills I learned in his class inspired me to pursue for a time a career in conducting along with composing.
I first heard Karel Husa’s music in 1973 as a 17 year-old freshman piano major at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The faculty String Quartet played his Pulitzer Prize winning piece, String Quaret No. 3. Though I wasn’t yet a composition major, I had been composing since I was 8 years old. My own stylistic bent was definitely grounded in the more traditional: my first musical loves were Chopin and Gershwin. Husa’s quartet wasn’t like anything I had ever heard before. I was immediately struck by its dramatic thrust, its imaginative colors, but above all by the masterful unfolding of motives building phrases, phrases building sections, and sections building movements; in other words, true rhetorical traction, a complete unity of form and content. I see now that the force of Husa’s musical ideas transcended style and taste.
Several years later, during my studies in Paris with Husa’s former teacher Nadia Boulanger, I turned my attention to graduate school. I somehow got a hold of the University of Michigan Wind Ensemble recording of Music for Prague and Apotheosis of This Earth, conducted by Husa. Again, though the character of this music was markedly different from the direction I was taking, I found myself completely in thrall to the unfolding dramatic line of both pieces. Many years later, as an active composer and teacher now for over three decades, I understand something I only intuitively sensed: Husa was a master of what Boulanger called “the long line”—meaning that a work unfolds in such a way that expresses an absolute concentration of thought and feeling. I had learned that from Boulanger; Husa’s music was confirmation. I decided to apply to Cornell to study with Husa, as so many did during his nearly 40-year teaching career at Cornell and at Ithaca College.
As a mentor and teacher, Husa was a model of generosity and wisdom. After my first year I had a crisis of confidence because I had not composed much music, and was also dealing with important questions of personal identity. I had effectively withdrawn from the program. Husa seemed to intuitively understand all of this. He invited me to visit him at his summer home in Interlaken, New York, to talk through my dilemma. I was considering focusing on theory teaching and conducting in my graduate studies instead of composing. Though a masterful conductor himself, he said to me: “You can compose. If you can compose, why would you want to be anything else?” I realize now that Husa was affirming what Virgil Thomson so insightfully described in his book The State of Music: “Music is an island with four concentric circles, the inner circle and summit being Musical Composition.” His encouragement helped me gain some much-needed perspective on my situation. I recommitted myself to my studies with him, and soon experienced a true artistic “breakthrough”, composing a twenty-five minute string quartet under his guidance.
Husa was also an extraordinary teacher of conducting. The skills I learned in his class inspired me to pursue for a time a career in conducting along with composing. My memories of singing many of the major choral masterworks under his direction, such as Handel’s Messiah and his own Apotheosis of This Earth, are among the most vivid of my student years.
In his later years, Husa’s composing slowed down, but his generosity towards his former students continued, recommending them for grants and teaching positions. I spoke to him just a few weeks before he passed away on December 14th, and he was completely alert, questioning me about my activities with the warmth and attention that marked every interaction I ever had with him.
I particularly remember watching Husa conduct a rehearsal in 1980 of Music for Prague with the Interlochen Wind Ensemble. I was standing in the back of the stage, where I could clearly see his face. At the moment in the first movement when the three trumpets enter on a unison D, the look on his face was a terrifying and thrilling combination of anger and absolute power. He was seeing as if for the first time the Russian tanks rolling into Prague. I have rarely experienced such a fusing of emotion with musical expression.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had contact during my formative years with a man of Husa’s gifts and humanity.