America’s foremost Czech composer has died, aged 95

America’s foremost Czech composer has died, aged 95


norman lebrecht

December 15, 2016

The death has been confirmed of Karel Husa, a composer who fled his home country in 1954 and became an influential composer in the United States. He died at his home in Apex, North Carolina, on December 14.

Husa won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 and the Grawemeyer in 1993.

He was one of few successful composers to persist with microtonality.

He even sent thank-you notes for birthday cards.

From an interview with Bruce Duffie:

When I was 17 or 18, I went for the first time to a concert.  I went to art exhibitions because I was interested in it.  I had been reading poetry because I loved it.  That first concert was a violin and piano recital of the Kubeliks – Jan accompanied by his son Raphael.  At the time, Jan was over 60 years old, and it was an amazing experience for me to go to a concert and hear music.  A week later, I bought a ticket to an orchestra.  Before that, I had the impression one couldn’t go to a concert without being properly dressed, which meant having a tuxedo.  I felt it was only for the highest society.  But I went, and the impression I got from the music – which I didn’t understand – was overwhelming.  So the purpose, I guess, is the communication.  The sounds poured on me and soaked in.  Then to see the players perform, that is something I have always admired.  It’s something that can lift me, even at my age.  I am sometimes moved to tears when I hear passages, and that is amazing.


  • MacroV says:

    You can’t be too sad when a man dies after living 95 years – and these 95 years, but sad nonetheless. Music for Prague is probably one of the most frequently played works of the second half of the 20th century (20+ years ago I heard it had been played over 7,000 times, probably double that by now), primarily in its original wind ensemble version (may rank with the Holst Suites and Lincolnshire Posy among the greatest of all works in the genre), less in its orchestral arrangement. The trumpet concerto he wrote for the great Bud Herseth, premiered in 1987 or 1988, is a terrific piece, and surprisingly neglected considering how few great modern trumpet concertos there are.

  • Robert Levin says:

    Husa’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, recorded by Elmar Oliveira and David Oei in the early seventies, is also a terrific piece.

    • Mark Cavanaugh says:

      Wonderful to see your tribute here, Robert Levin. By pure chance, today I listened to your recording of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier.

      RIP to Mr. Husa, a beacon of hope, creativity, and a life well-lived.

  • Becka Rhee says:

    Very fortunate to be a violinist in the USC Symphony in the late 80s when we premiered his beautiful cello concerto with Lynn Harrell at the Kennedy Center. It was the piece which won the 1993 Grawemeyer award. A gracious, elegant, and gifted man.

  • John M. Laverty says:

    A kind, talented, and generous man, no doubt about it. The comment above about Music for Prague 1968 is spot on. I had the pleasure of recording all of his trumpet music including the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra. This is indeed sad news.

  • Matthew B. Tepper says:

    Great sorrow! And I haven’t yet had the chance to listen to TWO different LP sets that I bought this year of the Berlioz Requiem conducted by him! Apparently, it was one of his specialties in the 1960s.

  • Wes Ramsay says:

    One of the great creative voices of his age. Here’s to his life serving as an inspiration to those of us left behind.

  • John R. Locke says:

    I am deeply saddened by the loss of this musical giant and friend, Dr. Karel Husa. I’ve known him for 32 years and found him to be among the most inspirational musicians and people I’ve ever known. He was not only a musical genius, but a true gentleman and humanitarian. I conducted his Music for Prague 1968 on a number of occasions and know it is among the very finest works ever composed for band. The UNC Greensboro Wind Ensemble performed Music for Prague 1968 in May of this year in Dvorak Hall in Prague, Czech Republic to a a tremendous ovation. It was a musical thrill of a lifetime for me and for my players. I sent Karel a video of the performance which he enjoyed seeing and some of his Prague friends contacted him with news of our performance. In addition to being a composer of world-wide acclaim, he was also a superb conductor (rare among composers!) and a painter. May he rest in peace.

  • Mark Overton says:

    Let’s all take a moment to celebrate the life of Karel Husa!! One of the most imaginative composers to ever write a note on the staff, a modern composer who understood that even 20th century music listeners still love a good melody and a real friend to orchestral saxophone players everywhere.

  • Robert Thompson (President, G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers) says:

    We learned the news at G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers early today, via Karel’s daughter Elizabeth Evola, who emailed to tell us that Karel passed away yesterday, December 14, 2016 at his home in Apex, NC. I got to know him personally in my conservatory days at Eastman…a gentle, humble and accessible man who will be dearly missed dearly by his publisher.

  • George Vosburgh says:

    I played Music for Prague with Husa when I was in High School, I studied with him for one semester at the Eastman School, my High School trumpet teacher Raymond Crisara performed his first Trumpet Concerto, my mentor and friend Bud Herseth performed his second Trumpet Concerto with me playing in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Karel was a kind and gentle man who raised people’s hopes and dreams. He was truly one of the finest people I have ever known.

  • Donald Campfield says:

    The news of Karel Husa’s passing saddens me greatly, as he was my music composition teacher at both Ithaca College (1974; 1980–81) and at Cornell (1981–84), a mentor to me, and a longtime personal friend. It was also my personal privilege as a student to perform his music with him conducting on various occasions and, like composers of old used to do, to learn directly from his scores by serving as one of his copyists for a number of years as well. You simply could not encounter a more well-informed and old school-courteous gentleman than Karel anywhere, ever—e.g., he would even send thank-you notes for birthday cards(!) I once asked him about his experiences with one of his own mentors—Nadia Boulanger—and the word “integrity” crowned his remarks about her, a word I can only repeat here in my description of him. This past August—mere months ago—I wrote and sent him a name-fugue (the letters of his name converted to the opening subject notes) in honor of his 95th birthday (August 7); it comprises 95 bars, like birthday cake candles, and I set the basic duration/tempo at 54 bpm, because he emigrated to America in 1954 to begin his teaching career at Cornell (and later at Ithaca College too). I was born less than a hundred miles from Ithaca two years later, in 1956, and from there found my life intersecting with his eighteen years later, in 1974, when I began college as a freshman. Karel had an incredibly busy career—he was not only an acclaimed composer and a renowned and world-traveled conductor (and, like that game children play on family vacation where they compete to spot license plates from every state in the union on passing cars, he aspired to conduct concerts in all fifty states as well—and indeed achieved that goal), but he also taught a double semester load of students on two campuses simultaneously—all day every Monday at Ithaca College from 8 a.m.–5 p.m. (or later)—and then at Cornell all day on Tuesdays and on Wednesdays until noontime—to fulfill all his required instructor contact hours at both schools. He would typically compose and/or travel for conducting engagements anytime from Wednesday afternoon through Monday morning on his ‘in between’ days. For a period of time he also conducted the regular season of rehearsals/concerts of the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra, sometimes in conjunction with, or in addition to, conducting student ensemble rehearsals/concerts at both IC and Cornell. When his four daughters were growing up, I found out later, he enlisted their help assembling instrument parts photocopied from the scores of his new works. Photocopies were made, cut apart with scissors, and scotch-tape assembled into place, then photocopied from there for the players. For some years his schedule was so hectic he had a large-size commercial quality photocopier installed in his home (rare for the 1970s-1980s) because he couldn’t afford the extra time to drive to a local copy shop to have someone else do the copying for him instead. I fondly remember hand-copying parts for him until after 1 a.m. late one night at my Cornell office (until my eyes would no longer focus…), barely in time to have them finished for him before they were needed the next day. He wrote a wonderful Concerto For Orchestra, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered by them in September 1986, for which I proof-read the entire score several times and hand-copied the string parts for Karel. It was honestly like working with Mozart or Beethoven or Ravel and getting to look over their shoulders—as well as rub shoulders with them as well—while they worked. Along with his wonderful and often ironic sense of humor amid stressful times, Karel was always a gentlemen through all of it. And he somehow always found—I won’t say ‘had,’ but found—time for me, along with many others who also benefitted by knowing and working with him. There are many former students and colleagues of Karel’s who will likewise be greatly saddened by our shared loss of one of Prague’s greatest sons, and my heart and deep condolence goes out to them, of course, but especially so to Simone Husa, Karel’s wife, their four daughters and sons-in-law, their grandchildren, and all of their family.

  • Kristen Stucky says:

    My late husband adored his teacher….I hope they are enjoying beautiful music together once again…

    • David Finn says:

      I’m very sorry for your loss, Kristen. I was lucky enough to be an undergrad in the Cornell Music department in the late 70s when both Steven and Mr Husa were there. I hope that all who feel the loss of these two great musicians will consider a donation to Cornell’s endowment in new music established to honor Steven’s memory.

    • Donald Campfield says:

      Kristen, I don’t know as we’ve ever met(?), but, like Karel, Steven served on my special committee at Cornell, where I studied orchestration, notation, and twentieth century music with him during 1981–84. Steven once sent the then-teenage Ishmael Wallace to me for a short but comprehensive demonstration of how I hand copied music using pencils, an electric eraser gun, my electric pencil sharpener, and assorted straightedges and templates on a draftsman’s table purchased from the Cornell Campus Store. After graduation I remained in Ithaca for some years and ran into Steven periodically, including advising him once on the most suitable paper size for his First Concerto For Orchestra score and giving him a short demonstration of Finale music notation software the year it first came out (1988, I think…he later used Sibelius and there are no hard feelings!). 🙂 One year in the late 1990s I returned to campus while on vacation back east during Cornell’s spring semester and happened to find Steven free during his Friday morning office hour to chat (this was when Lincoln Hall was being renovated, so he was in one of the other arts quad buildings temporarily), whereupon I posed my toughest postgraduate question to him: “How best to network with other musicians?” He replied with characteristic modesty: “Well, as you know, that’s something I’m not too good at myself!” (But of course, he was very good at it.) Like Karel, Steven was endlessly knowledgeable about his art/craft, always ready to learn more, and I was repeatedly struck by both his drive—’study/learn a score a day’—and by his personal humility, plus I was repeatedly touched by his respect and generous encouragement toward me and others. He seemed to grow into his (incredibly successful) career with natural ease and grace as well, and when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 I wrote him email congratulations and his understated reply was along the lines of ‘Well, I guess my number just came up this year.’ The only time I ever saw Steven flustered was when the Lutoslawskis visited Cornell at Steven’s invitation and the Hotel School had made some mix-up about their room accommodations, which Steven had prearranged…and his discomfiture was only because he cared so much about being a good host to the great Polish composer and his wife. If memory serves, Steven LEARNED Polish in order to be able to write more knowledgeably about WL and his music(?)—so he was an incredibly dedicated scholar as well, which of course you already know.

      Having no address for you last January, I could not relate to you at that time what I greatly wish to say here: I’m so very sorry for your loss, and I extend my deepest condolence to you and to all of Steven’s family and friends as well. I’m privileged to have known and worked with him; in his (recent) retirement there was still a great deal he had to offer to his students and to the world of musicians; and we lost him way too soon.

      Mishawaka, IN

  • Ilio says:

    RIP. I had the pleasure of playing his Music for Prague back in 1977 under his baton. Also, heard him talk about his youth in Prague between the wars. A true Czech patriot and gentleman.

  • Neva Pilgrim says:

    My introduction to Husa and his music was via Paul Fromm. In the decades Husa lived in Ithaca and taught at Cornell & Ithaca College, he championed the music of his gifted students, some of whom went on to win Pulitzer Prizes. Because of Husa, the Society for New Music performed music by those very composers before they became famous, which led Husa to become a long-time Honorary Board member & friend. From experience I know that Husa conducted Bach & Mozart with as much love as he conducted his own music. He was a giant among 20th C. composers and a shining example of the best of humanity.

  • Ann Summers Dossena says:

    Gunther Schuler, artistic director of the Twentieth Century Innovations Series, introduced Karel Husa’s music on that series in the 1960’s which I produced at Carnegie Hall when it was saved. I’m sorry to hear of his passing. Ann Summers Dossena

  • Patrick McGraw says:

    RIP. I unfortunately missed the chance to meet him when I was in North Carolina, but I have played a number of his wind ensemble compositions. Although I first was aware of Husa as a giant of the wind ensemble literature (who also shared my mother’s Czech heritage), I am now in the process of writing about his four string quartets as part of my composition degree at the University of Toronto, and those (including the Pulitzer-Prize-winning third) are not to be neglected.

  • John Borstlap says:

    That Prague Music sounds like a musical Schoenberg, balancing at hte edge of tonality.

  • ezriel kornel says:

    I am so saddened to hear of the passing of Karel Husa. He had a profound impact on my life and holds a very special place in my heart. I had the great good fortune to get to know Karel as a student at Cornell from 1970 to 1974, playing violin in the orchestra. We had the honor of performing his Apotheosis at Carnegie Hall and at the Kennedy Center, one of the highlights of my life. When I briefly consider music and conducting as a career, Karel was kind and generous in mentoring me. Years later, after I had changed course and became a neurosurgeon, we had dinner together in New York City and Karel told me he regretted not having encouraged me more to pursue music professionally. However, music has always remained an important part of my life and I am delighted to be on the board of Copland House (I had the privilege of meeting Aaron Copland while he was composer in residence at Risley Hall.) Karel was kind, warm, generous, gentle and brilliant and his spirit will always remain with me, one of my eternal guides. I send my sincere condolences to his family.

  • James Gibson says:

    Karel was probably the nicest man I have ever known. His beautiful music and his beautiful recognition of the good in every person seemed to be one and the same. I was so privileged to enjoy wonderful laughs and stories of Europe with him, a memorable evening at his house with him and his lovely family, and an abundance of his great advice and support which inspired me so much as a composer. A few years ago I sent him a new piece for his birthday; his response was so genuine and profuse and heartfelt as to be almost startling. Before he passed on, I had already decided to finally learn his piano sonatas and perform them next year. That plan is now being expanded into a series of memorial and tributary concerts and recordings of some of his music with AcquaWOW ensemble and World Oceans Arts. I hope that plan will bring my colleagues and me back in touch with many of you who loved Karel Husa. God rest his soul and bless his family.

  • David Carp says:

    The world has lost a great man — a fine teacher, a devoted husband and father, a wonderful human being and a great composer/conductor whose work will live forever in his music and in the lives of the people he touched. As his first student, I feel honored to have known him.