Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Music for Prague 1968: A Display of Czech Nationalism from America

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Music for Prague 1968: A Display of Czech Nationalism from America

Article excerpt

Karel Husa's Music for Prague 1968 is widely recognized as one of the most significant works composed for concert band. Following its premiere, the piece became an immediate staple of the repertoire. As of 1991, the last date where any somewhat official count appears to have been attempted, the work had been performed over 7,000 times.1 Though he has an extensive catalog, Music for Prague 1968 is unquestionably one of Husa's best-known compositions.2

As an overt response to the Soviet bloc invasion of Czechoslovakia, Husa's Music for Prague 1968 (henceforth, MfP) makes a strong nationalistic statement, even understood by some to be a "personal gesture of outright defiance."3 In his foreword to the published score, Husa describes MfP's use of the 15th century Hussite war song "Ktoz jsú bozí bojovníc" [Ye warriors of god] as its most important unifying motive. He says this song has long been "a symbol of resistance and hope" (Plate 1) .4

While I do not debate the work's nationalistic intent, it is important to remember that in 1968 Husa was an American citizen. He was a faculty member at Cornell University, and was writing music using compositional techniques not frequently associated with Eastern European nationalism. If musical nationalism (expressed by folkloric elements such as the Hussite song that permeates the score of MfP) in Eastern European countries can be used to express primacy over avant-garde music, MfP presents us with the opposite - a traditional war song submersed in an entirely Western European/American musical language.

This paper will examine several portions of MfP to demonstrate the ways in which Husa expresses his support for the Czech people in a manner not traditionally associated with Czech music, including chromatic transformations of the war song; the integral serialism of the third movement, in which unpitched percussion instruments are used to represent the church bells of Prague; and the opening movement's atonal bird calls, intended to represent freedom. Furthermore, I will demonstrate how MfP uses a Western avant-garde language in a way that Husa's other overtly nationalistic post-emigration pieces do not. In this light, it will be seen that Music for Prague 1968 fills a special role in Husa's nationalistic display.

The story behind the conception and composition of MfP is not at all unknown, but bears a brief repetition here. On the evening of 21 August 1968, Husa, who had been born in Prague but was living in Ithaca, New York, heard the news of the in1. vasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact armies. He stayed up for much of the night, listening to the radio for any reports he could find. So disturbed by the news, Husa decided to use a recently accepted commission from Kenneth Snapp and the Ithaca College Concert Band as a means to express his feelings through a new composition. Over the course of six or seven weeks, he completed the four-movement, 22-minute work, and the Ithaca College Band premiered it at the Music Educators' National Conference in Washington, DC in January, 1969.5

MfP uses a wide variety of musical gestures to recall and represent images of Prague. Shown in Plate 1, the score's Foreword, which Husa requests be printed or read aloud at all performances of the work, points specifically to the sounds of unpitched, metallic percussion instruments as representing the sound of church bells ringing throughout the City of a Hundred Spires; to the opening piccolo solo, meant to sound like a bird call used to represent freedom; and, most obviously, to the use of the first 4 measures from a Hussite war song (see Example 1) as a unifying motive throughout, not unlike Smetana's use of the same song throughout the "Tábor" movement of his Ma Vlast.6

Husa also employs two distinct twelve-tone rows as generators of pitch material (Example 2). Additionally, militaristic sounds of snare drums and fanfare trumpets populate the score, and the sounds of battle are frequent throughout the piece, particularly during the first and last movements. …

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