Music for Prague 1968: A Personal Perspective


By Dr. Ben Hawkins, CKCB Conductor

As a high school student away at band camp in August 1968, I awoke one morning and set out for the dining hall for breakfast. Passing the reception desk, I noticed the unusually bold headline on the front page of the Washington Post on top of the stack of newspapers there. I paused to look more closely at the accompanying photo of Soviet tanks in the streets of Prague. Even among the myriad of shocking events that characterized that tumultuous year, the brutal extermination of the blossoming of freedom known as the “Prague Spring” was, and remains, among my foremost memories of that time.

As a native Czech, American composer Karel Husa was much more deeply affected than I. Fortunately for us, Husa channeled his pain and outrage into the creation of the great work of art that constitutes the centerpiece of our March concert, War and Remembrance.

As befits the gravity of its subject, Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968 seeks not to entertain, but rather to provoke our anger at the ruthlessness of the Russian invasion and our empathy for the suffering of the Czech people. It challenges both performers and listeners to enter into and to reflect upon the human cost of such a cataclysm. Drawing its musical inspiration from a 15th-century Huttite war song and from the composer’s memory of the bells resounding from Prague’s hundreds of steeples, Music for Prague 1968  takes us on an emotional journey from the initial idyllic birdsong through the stages of shock, sadness and confusion to a final statement of resolute defiance.

Born in Prague in 1921, Karel Husa died in December, 2016. A recipient of many major awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1969. Husa spent most of his adulthood on the faculty of Cornell University. About 20 years ago, I had the great good fortune to meet him and to watch him rehearse and perform Music for Prague 1968 with the Kentucky Intercollegiate Band. The experience remains indelibly imprinted in my memory, and I remember the man himself as the epitome of kindness, graciousness and humility, whose eyes alternately sparkled and burned with intelligence and passion. For me, sharing music like this with my friends in the band, and in turn with our audience, is just about as good as it gets. I invite you to share it with us.

Want to experience Music for Prague 1968, and such other stirring selections as The Symphonic Suite from Band of Brothers, Colonel Bogey, and Milhaud’s Suite Francaise for Band? Join the band at 3PM on Sunday, March 5th at Transylvania University’s Mitchell Fine Arts Center. There is no charge for admission.