Husa’s ‘Music for Prague 1968’

By Don Schabel

The next concert presented by the Central Kentucky Concert Band will be on Sunday, March 5th, at 3 p.m. at Transylvania University’s Haggin Auditorium. This concert commemorates the month of March which is named for the Roman god of war, Mars.

At Christmastime many of us heard or sang the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslaus.”  Few of us knew who Wenceslaus was, though the carol’s words tell us that he was good and caring. Wenceslaus was a king who ruled during the tenth century in Central Europe–the land now known as the Czech Republic. After his assassination in 935, he gained sainthood, and today his helmet and sword are on display in the castle in Prague. Wenceslaus is the Latin form of the Czech male name “Vaclav.” A common name in the Czech Republic, Vaclav was the name of the first president of the modern Czech Republic – Vaclav Havel.

After the First World War, Czechoslovakia was created, and Prague was named the capital city of the country. However, in March 1939, prior to the outbreak of World War II, the German Army occupied Prague. The city was liberated and occupied by the Russians in 1945 at the end of World War II. Prague became a city controlled by the Soviet Union. More than two decades later, in 1968, the people of the city of Prague revolted against the oppressive regime of the Soviet Union. This time became known as the Prague Spring.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia was peacefully dissolved and became the two independent states —  Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The major piece that the Central Kentucky Concert Band will be perform at the March concert is a composition by the contemporary American composer Karel Husa, Music for Prague 1968. Karel Husa, an American citizen who was born in Prague in 1921, listened to his radio during the tumultuous 1968 battle in Prague. Though he was a music teacher at Cornell University, he still had close family living in Prague.

His composition, Music for Prague 1968, was composed for band during the latter half of 1968. In 1969, he arranged the music for orchestra – one of the few pieces that were originally written for band and later arranged for performance by orchestra. (More often it is the other way around.) Husa was the recipient of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. He passed away in 2016.

Music for Prague 1968 is in four movements. The first is named “Introduction and Fanfare”; the second is named “Aria”; the third, performed by the percussion section alone, is entitled “e; and the final movement is named “Toccata and Chorale”.

Husa has written his own foreword to his composition. Part of that foreword says,

Three main ideas bind the composition together. The first and most important is an old Hussite war song from the 15th century, “Ye Warriors of God and His Law,” 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 My Country. The beginning of this religious song is announced very softly in the first movement by the timpani and concludes in a strong unison Chorale. The song is never used 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 flutes, clarinets, and horns. Later it appears at extremely strong dynamic levels, for example in the middle the Aria.

During the March 5th concert, the Central Kentucky Concert Band will also perform music from the TV mini-series “Band of Brothers” and the ever-popular march Colonel Bogey.

There is no admission charge for the concert.