Prague Spring Semicentennial II: Karel Husa: “Music for Prague 1968”

Among many other fiftieth anniversaries, this year marks that of the Prague Spring. Various starting dates have been proposed for this remarkable series of events, this attempt to create, and show the world, a “Socialism With a Human Face“. Some say January of 1968, when Alexander Dubček assumed power in Czechoslovakia; some say the following March, when he managed to lift state censorship. But everyone knows when it all came to an end: a few months later, on the night of August 20-21, when the tanks rolled in .

Czech-born American composer Karel Husa followed the unfolding of these brutal events on the BBC from his home in (I believe) Ithaca New York, where he was a professor at Cornell University.  His subsequent anger and dismay inspired him to  compose his masterful Music for Prague, 1968, performed here by the Wheaton College Symphonic Band, conducted by Dr. Timothy Yontz (Director of Music Education):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLqdUkeSZYc

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I chose this version to post, out of the several currently available on YouTube, for a number of reasons:

For one thing, Karel Husa wrote a statement about this piece, a kind of “liner notes”, which he directed be read before each performance.  This is the only performance I could find that managed to follow this direction.

Further, these young students are – for the most part, possibly all – Evangelical Christians, so have at least some idea of the Sacred (Wheaton College being “The Harvard of the Evangelicals”, as noted by Michael Gerson in the Atlantic article posted below).  They therefor approach Music for Prague 1968 with all the reverence it deserves, rather than merely as good music – however good it is in a purely musical sense (and I, for one, think it is very good…).  Music for Prague 1968 is, after all, something of a sacred piece, however well it also functions as a political statement and/or as music in the abstract.

Also, although Husa originally wrote this piece for a somewhat larger ensemble, with much fatter bass line that includes a contrabassoon and a bass saxophone, the smaller ensemble here sounds great – very clear and bright, all the myriad and various parts very well-defined.  Plus, the actual recorded sound hovers somewhere between very good and excellent.

Beyond all that, and certainly most important, the playing here is technically outstanding – with everybody playing in tune, making their entrances at all the right moments, the ensemble sections melding  perfectly, solos limpid and distinct.  Which is really quite an accomplishment; anyone who thinks this kind of music is easy to play should think again – and more than once!

Finally, this is one of the best directed and shot music videos I’ve ever seen.  The musicians are on risers, so are all clearly visible.  The camerawork, from multiple viewpoints, shifts constantly, but scrupulously avoids drawing attention to itself, always cutting to just the right close-up on just the right musician as he or she solos, then cutting back out to show a view of the whole band.  And the musicians themselves are a joy to watch: dedicated, focused, beautiful.

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Music for Prague 1968 is structured as a  piece in four movements (approximate starting points in parentheses):

  1. Introduction and Fanfare (2:03)
  2. Aria (8:52)
  3. Interlude (13:38)
  4. Toccata and Chorale (17:10)

(Note that, although there are pauses following the first and second movements, the third and fourth movements are played continuously.)

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Full text of Karel Husa’s statement, which he asked be read before each performance of this piece:

“Three main ideas bind the composition together:

“The first and most important is an old Hussite war song from the 15th century, named ‘Ye Warriors of God and His Law’.  It is a symbol of resistance and hope for hundreds of years, whenever fate lay heavy on the Czech nation. It has been utilized by many Czech composers, including Smetana in his piece, My Country [Ma Vlast – usually translated as My Homeland]. The beginning of this religious song is announced very softly in the first movement by the timpani and concludes in a strong unison in the Chorale. The song is never heard in its entirety.

“The second idea is the sound of bells throughout.  Prague, named also the City of Hundreds of Towers, has used its magnificently sounding church bells as calls of distress as well as of victory.

“The last idea is a motif of three chords, first appearing very softly under the piccolo solo at the beginning of the piece, in the flutes, the clarinets, and the horns. Later it reappears at extremely strong dynamic levels, for example in the middle of the Aria.

“Different techniques of composing as well as orchestrating have been used in Music for Prague [1968], and some new sounds explored, such as the percussion section in the ‘Interlude’ and the ending of the work.

“Much symbolism also appears: in addition to the distress calls in the first movement, the unbroken hope of the Hussite song, sound of bells, or the tragedy that you hear in the Aria, there is also the bird call at the beginning sounded in the piccolo, symbol of the liberty which the city of Prague has seen only for moments during its thousand years of existence.”

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Some further notes on the life of Karel Husa (and on Music for Prague 1968), by Steven Stucky, Consulting Composer (2000-2009) for New Music for the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

“[By the early Fifties,] Karel Husa was … suffering actual physical exile, unable to return home from his studies in France because he was deemed insufficiently supportive of the new Communist regime in Prague [the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948 via coup d’état, ending a brief period of multi-party democracy, which had begun in 1945, just after the end of the Second World War]. The year … 1951, saw Husa also involved with national materials, in his Evocations of Slovakia. Yet his most important and most celebrated work, in its own way as devotedly Czech, was to come almost two decades later, with the composer still in exile but now living in the United States: Music for Prague 1968, which received its premiere in Washington, DC, by the Ithaca College Concert Band in January 1969. The orchestral version followed just a year later, first performed under Husa’s own baton by the Munich Philharmonic in January 1970. Having endured the Communist takeover in the 1940s, Husa watched again in dismay as the Prague Spring of 1968, led by the forward-thinking Dubc?ek [sic] government, was crushed by Soviet tanks, the country occupied, the tantalizing glimpses of freedom snuffed out. Spurred by anger and frustration, Husa produced a powerful four-movement work that became a kind of instant classic, enjoying more than 7,000 performances to date.”

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A little more on the hymn, or war song, from which Husa quotes so extensively in Music for Prague 1968:

The subject of the Hussites is far too long and complex to get into here, in a post that I’m trying to keep as brief as possible.  Suffice to say that they were early Christian reformers, predating the actual Protestant Reformation by close to a century.  The name derives from that of the founder/inspiration of the movement, Jan Hus.  The hymn or war song quoted in Music for Prague 1968, “Ye Warriors of God and His Law”, was sung by soldiers of the Hussite armies during the Hussite Wars, and was said to strike terror into the hearts of all opposing forces.

In Music for Prague 1968, Husa quotes mostly from the first few phrases, the lyrics of which go (in English): “Ye warriors of God and his law, / Pray to God and have faith in Him; / That always with him you will be victorious,” – particularly at the conclusion of the piece, very loudly and forcefully – sending, to those who had just crushed the Prague Spring, a message of defiance that all Czechs, and anyone who does just a little historical digging, will understand.

For more information on “Ye warriors of God and His law”, including complete lyrics in English, click here.  For a performance by men’s chorus, click here.

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And did this music, especially the fortissimo iteration of the first part of “Ye Warriors of God and His Law”, strike actual terror into the hearts of the forces who had just terminated, with such extreme prejudice, all the dreams and hopes of the Prague Spring?  It should have, and would have – if they’d understood exactly with whom they were messing…

One thought on “Prague Spring Semicentennial II: Karel Husa: “Music for Prague 1968””

  1. Beautiful article, Mr. King! And yes, Mr. Husa did follow the unfolding events in 1968 via radio from his home in Ithaca, New York.

    i was his first graduate assistant at Cornell: a part-time job was converted into an assistantship in 1960 so that I could study composition with Professor Husa. I held that post for four years, until ready to write my doctoral disssertation.

    Thank you again for writing such a great article about Music for Prague 1968. –Donald M. Wilson

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