Composer and conductor Karel Husa dies at 95

Karel Husa

Influential and internationally acclaimed composer and conductor Karel Jaroslav Husa, who taught at Cornell for 38 years and conducted major orchestras as well as campus ensembles, died Dec. 14 at his home in Apex, North Carolina. He was 95.

The Kappa Alpha Professor of Music Emeritus at Cornell, Husa served on the faculty from 1954 until his retirement in 1992.

Husa was “one of the most distinguished and admired composers of the second half of the 20th century,” said composer Roberto Sierra, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities. “At Cornell he taught generations of composers who became important figures in the American musical landscape. He will be remembered for his great music and unique compositional voice.”

His students included composers Steven Stucky, MFA ’73, DMA ’78; Christopher Rouse, DMA ’77; John S. Hilliard, DMA ’83; David Conte, DMA ’83; Byron Adams, DMA ’84; and Christopher Kaufman, DMA ’91. Husa also taught at Ithaca College from 1967-86, and was the first director of the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra from 1977-84.

“His personal passion and the really highly dramatic nature of his music made it approachable even though it was unfamiliar,” Stucky, the late Given Foundation Professor of Music Emeritus, said in 2012. “I think that was a big step in the reception of modern American music in this country.”

Husa was born in Prague on Aug. 7, 1921. He played piano and violin at an early age, and was forced to abandon his engineering studies when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 and closed the technical schools. He enrolled at the Prague Conservatory and earned a doctorate from the Prague Academy of Music in 1947. He moved to Paris, married and studied conducting with Arthur Honegger and Nadia Boulanger at the Paris Conservatory and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris.

A devotee of Janáček, Bartók, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Husa saw his early compositions performed throughout Europe in the early 1950s before emigrating with his wife, Simone, and two young daughters in 1954 to conduct the Cornell orchestra and teach theory – on the recommendation of Elliott Galkin, who was leaving the Paris Conservatory to study musicology at Cornell. Husa became an American citizen in 1959.

He conducted major orchestras throughout Europe, Asia and the U.S., and composed more than 90 works for orchestra, concert band, chamber ensemble, winds, chorale and keyboard, and three ballets. He composed “Festive Ode (for an Academic Occasion)” in 1964 for Cornell’s Centennial Celebration.

Many of Husa's compositions entered the modern repertoire, including “Divertimento” for various ensembles (1948-1995); “Eight Czech Duets” for four-hand piano (1955); and “Apotheosis of This Earth” (1970), which he said was “motivated by the present desperate stage of mankind and its immense problems with everyday killings, war, hunger, extermination of fauna, huge forest fires and critical contamination of the whole environment.”

Husa won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1969 for his String Quartet No. 3, and the 1993 Grawemeyer Award for his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, and many other composition prizes over his career.

His best known work is the four-movement “Music for Prague 1968,” written after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and featuring such symbols of resistance and hope as a 15th century Hussite war song and the sound of bells. The Ithaca College Concert Band commissioned the piece, which premiered in January 1969 and has been performed more than 7,000 times since.

In 1995, Husa was awarded the Czech Republic’s highest civilian recognition, the State Medal of Merit, First Class.

He received numerous commissions from major orchestras and arts organizations including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony and the Koussevitzky Music Foundation; nine honorary doctoral degrees, and prizes and fellowships from UNESCO, the Kennedy Center, the Guggenheim Foundation and other institutions.

Survivors include Husa’s wife of 64 years, Simone; four daughters, Annette, Catherine, Elizabeth and Caroline; grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are with Brown-Wynne Funeral Home, Cary, North Carolina.

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Rebecca Valli