The Czech composer, conductor and teacher Karel Husa celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday on the 7th of August this year. Born in Prague and trained at the Prague conservatory, he went into exile abroad after the communist putsch of February 1948 (since 1959 he has been a US citizen), and as a result his work was practically excluded from Czech musical culture at home for the next forty years. What is still the most-detailed post-war Czech (Czechoslovak) music encyclopaedia, published in 1963, includes a 35-line entry on "Karel Husa", in which no data are given after 1948. Practically the same data, and no more, are given in the Small Encyclopaedia of Music of 1983 (!). Since November 1989 just a few occasional articles and one analytical study on the composer have appeared in Czech ... Even though Husa's achievements as composer and conductor have won him a Pulitzer Prize for his 3rd string quartet (1969) for example, the Friedheim Prize awarded by the Kennedy Centre (1983), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize (1989), the Grawemeyer Prize (1993), and full membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997). In the nineties he was at last honoured in his native land as well, with a Medal "For Merit of the 1st Degree for important artistic activity contributing to the renewal of democracy" (1995), and an honorary doctorate from the Music Faculty of the Prague Academy of Performing Arts AMU (2000). Husa's output now consists of almost 90 compositions, many of which have been performed in this country since the beginning of the nineties but many of which (including important works) still await their Czech premieres. In this respect our debt to Karel Husa (and to ourselves) still remains to be paid in full.
Tell us about your path to music and especially to a career as a composer. We know that originally you wanted to study engineering at technical school.
When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a violin a Christmas gift. My mother said: "When you are an engineer, you will enjoy playing music with your friends after a day's work." So I simply assumed I would study engineering one day. In 1939 I entered the civil engineering school in Prague, but after several weeks of classes, in November when we, students protested against killing of Jan Opletal (also a student), the occupation authorities closed all universities and technical schools. The Conservatory of Music though remained open, as the closure concerned only the schools of "highest teaching". In 1941 I passed the examination and was accepted into the Conservatory's second year of composition class, after about a year and a half of private studies with professor Jaroslav Ridky. (I can say that I am a better composer than I would have been engineer; my mathematics was not as good as my music theory, therefore I think my bridges in the Czech Republic would not have lasted for long!)
What did the Jaroslav Ridky School give you? It is well-known that Prof. Ridky was a very conservative artist with a great respect for tradition, whereas from the start you gravitated towards modern forms of expression.
Prof. Ridky made me a composer, for which I am deeply grateful. He gave us student-composers a very solid technique in theory, form, orchestration, which I definitely needed. I would compare music composing to learning of an instrument: you have to be technically best prepared so that you can be comfortable in "whatever comes your way". Since 1937 I was interested in art, I saw most of the theatre productions of the Czech E. F. Burian (see CM 4/2004), I also studied painting and went to exhibitions of modern Czech art in Prague, and I also had a wonderful teacher in my high school, Jan Skoula, singer and manager of the magnificent male choir Smetana, who taught us about poetry (including living poets), so I definitely was interested in new, living art. When in conservatory, it was difficult to learn scores of Stravinsky, Bartok or any new French, Russian or American art, all was forbidden during the Second World War (and called "decadent art" by Goebbels). …