Music for Prague 1968: Karel Husa

I actually wrote an entire paper on this for my class. My writing skills are in no way great, so excuse the disorganization of ideas. I would love to conduct this piece or play it in wind ensemble

“Karel Husa’s Music for Prague was written in response to the second seizure of Czechoslovakia by communist power. The Soviet Troops specifically invaded his hometown of Prague, where many of his family members were still living. This piece was finished shortly after the organization and The Prague Spring Reform Movement was taken over and demolished by Soviet Russia in 1968. The political state of Czechoslovakia effected Husa directly when he was cut off from his homeland by a Communist takeover in 1948 after he had traveled to Paris to study with Arthur Honegger and Nadia Boulanger in 1947. He then came to the United States and began to teach composition and lead the orchestra at Ithaca College at Cornell University in New York [1]. The commissioning and first performance was by the Ithaca College Concert Band in Washington DC on January 31st 1969 at the MENC National Convention, conducted by Kenneth Snap.  This contemporary work, listed on the Masterworks selection of the South Carolina Band Director’s Concert Festival List, is based on three main ideas; the old Hussite War Song from the 15th Century, “Ye Warriors of God and His Law,” the sound of church bells as calls of distress and victory in the city of Prague, and a three chord chorale motive[2].  Husa’s first memories of music were the sounds of the bell towers and hearing an instrument like a tuba or euphonium at funerals (Nelson).

The four movement symphony of Music for Prague includes sections titled Introduction and Fanfare with a slow introduction followed by an allegro, a slow Aria, the Interlude that is played entirely by percussion, and the Toccata and Chorale that is somewhat similar to a theme and variation form. The bells that are often heard, relate to Prague being known as the “City of One Hundred Towers.[3]”  Music from the first movement returns in the Aria and the Toccata. Husa’s first compositions were Czechoslovakian folk songs, but then as he studied more music, composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Messiaen inspired him (Nelson). This is how some passages in Music for Prague were developed, more specifically the 12 tone motives derived from the Hussite War Song. The main element of the work [taken from the first four bars of “Ye Warriors of God and His Law”] is often used by Czech-Slovakian composers when writing about their native home.

The first four bars of the “Introduction and Fanfare” contain all the musical ideas. The motive, being first stated in the piccolo, is then added to by the three chord motive in the flutes, clarinets and horns underneath, and the War Song is also stated by muted timpani (Adams). The second movement is completely opposite from the first. The sustained notes form a slow introduction before rhythmic motives in upper woodwinds overlap. These build over an arch form with the overlaying melody [in the trumpets and woodwinds] to create the movement. [4] To me, this movement sounds the most absurd and terrifying. The trombones occasionally sound like sirens and the held notes of the trumpet pierce the air. The sustained notes of the bells and vibraphones give a haunting melody over the brass. The third movement, Interlude, is scored only for percussion. Starting off with a single snare drum roll, it soon is interrupted by the other instruments. Husa seemed to give instruments “personalities” and uses pitched percussion instruments to evoke bell sonorities (Adams). The final movement includes the Hussite War Song, this time played loudly in the unmuted timpani.  At rehearsal letter V, the snare drum roll from the Interlude is stated again over an aleatoric section by the winds and mallet percussion. Many of the passages being played are constructed from the 12 note series of the War Song.  The random and sporadic sounds of this section resemble the “wildness of a fearful crowd” (Adams). The last fragment of the song is left unfinished at the end of the piece; only the first phrase of the song is played, overpowering the snare drum roll out of the aleatoric section. This [symbolizes] that “the search for freedom is unfinished (Adams)” Some of the other elements in the work include; the piccolo, representing freedom, the oboe playing short rhythmic passages like Morse code; the trombones sounding like “air raid sirens,” the bells, and the theme of the Hussite Song, “representing resistance and hope (Adams).”

Music For Prague ties in to history because of the social reform movements it was inspired by. Throughout the weeks a band would be rehearsing this, you could give small lessons or lectures on the city of Prague and the communist military control.  You could collaborate with the history teacher at your school to discuss the role of the Czech Republic in the Cold War. There are also numerous chamber pieces by Karel Husa that you could incorporate, study and listen to that are representative of his compositions. For example, he uses other melodies of traditional Czech folk songs in his Evocations of Slovakia and in the piano piece, Eight Czech Duets. This piece is part of an extensive list of very standard concert band repertoire.  While many collegiate bands have played this, a few high schools such as Warren Township, Lafayette and John Hersey High have used Music For Prague for national festivals such as CDBNA and Superstate Festival in Illinois. While very appropriate for festivals of a serious matter, I wouldn’t necessarily program the entire piece onto a high school concert. Being nearly 22 minutes in length, there would not be much room in the concert for other works. I would use the finale to open a concert, because of the loud, bombastic and attention grabbing style; and then contrast it with the rest of the concert with more lighthearted pieces of different composers and styles.  If I have a high school ensemble advanced enough to play this piece, I would take them to concert festival with this in the grade of “masterworks”. In South Carolina, the ensemble would only have to play this one piece.  I really do enjoy listening to this piece, and that you can hear the story behind the composition, thus bringing the music to life.

[1] Robert Cummings;  Co 2013 AllMusic. Artist Biography

[2] Karel Husa: Program Notes from the LA Philharmonic: Steven Stucky: Forewords from Husa: Co. 2007

[3] Hubert Culot; MusicWeb International;

[4] Bryon Adams: Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, An Interpretive Analysis, 1987



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