"Music from Six Continents" is an indispensable series from Austrian composer Nancy Van Da Vate's long-standing and fiercely independent 'Vienna Modern Masters' label. The label focuses on 20th century and contemporary composers, and the vast catalog contains plenty of extraordinary music by composers that (I assure you) you have never heard of - along with many great composers that will be familiar. This is the "1993 series" of Music from Six Continents, and it is easily my favorite due to the inclusion of Karel Husa's powerful "Music for Prague 1968". This is one of the finest works of the 20th century (yes up there with Bartok's 'Concerto for Orchestra', Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring' and well you get the picture..) and while this is my opinion, I stick with it and believe that getting acquainted with this important musical statement for those of you who have not thus far - will bear this out. Husa's piece I shall focus on alone (for now) in this post.
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Karel Husa was born in Prague on August 7th, 1921. He received his musical education at the Prague Conservatory and later the Academy of Music. From 1946-1951 he studied composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Arthur Honegger, recipient of a French government scholarship. He also studied with Jaroslav Ridky, and the conductor Andre Cluytens. In 1954, Husa was appointed to the faculty of Cornell University where he was Kappa Alpha Professor until his retirement in 1992. Four years after his appointment in 1959 Husa became an American citizen. He was elected Associate Member of the Royal Belgian Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974 and has received honorary degrees of Doctor of Music from several institutions, including Coe College, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Ithaca College, and Baldwin Wallace College.
Among numerous honors, Husa has received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation; awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, UNESCO, and the National Endowment for the Arts; Koussevitzky Foundation commissions; the Czech Academy for the Arts and Sciences Prize; the Czech Medal of Merit, First Class, from President Vaclav Havel; and the Lili Boulanger award. Husa's 'String Quartet No. 3' received the 1969 Pulitzer Prize, and his 'Cello Concerto' won the 1993 Grawemeyer Award. "Music for Prague 1968", with well over 7000 performances worldwide, has become part of the modern repertory.
On February 13th, 1990, Husa realized a long-time dream when he conducted the orchestral version of "Music for Prague 1968" in Prague (the work was immediately banned in Czechoslovakia, and it was 22 years later after the fall of the communist government that Husa returned to Prague and triumphantly conducted a televised performance of the work..) Another well-known work of his, "Apotheosis of This Earth", is called by Husa a "manifest" against pollution and destruction. Among other works, Husa has composed "The Trojan Women", a ballet commissioned by the Louisville Ballet and Orchestra; "Recollections for Wind Quintet and Piano", commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of friendly relations between the United States and Holland and premiered in October 1982 at the Library of Congress in Washington DC; and "Concerto for Wind Ensemble", performed in December 1982 and recipient of the first Sudler prize in 1983.
Some of Husa's more recent works include "Cheetah", premiered in March 2007 by the University of Louisville Wind Symphony in a set of performances that included Carnegie Hall, "Les Couleurs Fauves", premiered in 1996 by the Northwestern University Wind Ensemble, the Violin Concerto (1993), commissioned for the 150th Anniversary of the New York Philharmonic and premiered by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, String Quartet No. 4 (1991), commissioned for the consortium of Colorado, Alard, and Blair Quartets by the National Endowment for the Arts, "Concerto for Orchestra" (1986), commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, and two works premiered during the 1987-1988 season: the "Concerto for Organ", commissioned by the Michelson-Morley Centennial Celebration in Cleveland for Karel Paukert, and the "Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra", commissioned by the Chicago Symphony for Adolph Herseth and Sir Georg Solti. Karel has also been a long-time and important conductor and has conducted many major orchestras including those in Paris, London, Prague, Zurich, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, Boston, and Washington.
The 1968 repression of of Czechoslovakia's "Socialism with a human face" which stunned and horrified the free world, was the inspiration for Husa's monumental and moving work, written in direct response to the communist seizure of power once more in Czechoslovakia. It was composed in the summer and fall of 1968, and the Ithaca College Concert Band was wise enough to commission it.
It was premiered by this ensemble in Washington D.C. on January 31st, 1969. One year later the orchestral version (as recorded here) was completed. It was first performed in its orchestral version on January 31st, 1970, with the composer conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.
|Prague Spring 1968|
|Soviet tank smashes into a building|
In Music for Prague 1968 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 work's originality and exciting muscular drive helps to keep it an accessible work for most audiences, even those who shy away (or run shrieking) from "modern" composition.
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 rapidly 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" begins 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, now 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 gutta forza', played by the entire orchestra in unison.
This dear listeners, is an absolute knock-out and I hope you too are blown away!
I will have to provide info on the rest later. The rest of program is in a more "modern" language, however it is quite enjoyable (especially the Penderecki for me, however I have warmed up to everything here and I have been fond of Van Da Vate's music for a long time).
Karel Husa - "Music for Prague 1968"
1)Introduction and Fanfare (6:10)
4)Toccata and Chorale (7:24)
Ferdinand Weiss - "Relazioni variabili"
Krzysztof Penderecki - Sinfonietta
Alain Perron - "Séquences voilées"
Nancy Van Da Vate - Viola Concerto
8) (16:04) -Grigorij Zhislin, Viola
And this is the last track, #8, (Van Da Vate's Viola Concerto) and the album cover: