by Robert Rollin
The interview which follows, took place in late August, 1995, at Karel Husa's home in Ithaca, New York. The airy expansive living room with the composer's large desk at a window overlooking the back yard, was a warm and pleasant setting and seemed to draw forth interesting recollections. The author is grateful to Mr. Husa for his friendship, hospitality, and generosity with his time for the interview, not to mention his inestimable contributions to American music as composer, teacher, and conductor.
RR. Tell me Professor Husa, when you first came to the decision that you would be a composer?
KH. That was only in about 1941. 1 was close to 20 years old, and I studied violin as a boy and a little bit of piano. Also, I composed about three little pieces for my sister and myself. She played piano and I played violin. I thought I would be an engineer,, which my parents wanted me to be, and I started engineering school in Prague, but because the Nazis closed the school after some protestations of students, I couldn't continue in that direction, and I tried painting, and I tried other things including working in my father's shoe business, and then I started to be interested in the theory of music just for myself. I started to take lessons, and it was about 1940 or 1941 when I thought that I would like to be a composer. I was encouraged by my teacher.
RR: Can you mention some things about your family background that led you to music?
KH: Neither of my parents were musicians, so to speak, and never went to any concerts, but my mother had always the greatest respect for arts in general; not only music, but also painting, and poetry, and books, and thanks to her, when I was eight and one-half, she and my father bought me a violin for Christmas, and then she decided that I would take lessons. Thanks to that I was interested in music, and if I wouldn't have had those seven years of lessons on violin, I couldn't have been in music.
RR: How old were you when you wrote those little pieces for your sister?
KH: About 13. There were three little pieces, really nothing, just a tonic, dominant, and running over the piano, and some melody in the violin. Really nothing.
RR: Your mother did not have musical training. What was her educational background?
KH: Well, she was in schools and then she got married. My father had to go to war. He was a soldier for about two years in Austria. That was the First World War, and then they met, got married, and he started to work for a society of veterans.
RR: How about grandparents? Were any involved in music?
KH: No. I don't think so. I don't think that anyone in the family was involved in music.
RR: Or the arts in general?
KH: No. Not at all, but Prague is a very cultural city, and I remember I used to go out just to see the architecture. I went to every church in Prague, whether it be Roman, Renaissance, Gothic, whatever the type, and also I liked to go to the theater - opera or just theater. There was a very new theater that did things in a very avant garde fashion. Especially when I was about 16, 17, 18 years old, I loved to go there. They produced Pelléas and Melisande of Maeterlinck on the stairs, not in the theater, just on the stairs. It was something new, and that sort of intrigued me.
RR: Do you recall what your grandparents did?
KH: I really can't recall. They lived in the country. They didn't live in Prague. I never knew any of my grandfathers. They were dead by the time I was bom.
RR: So you were a late child?
KH. No, no, no! They all died young, and the only grandparent I had was a grandmother from my mother's side, who lived until 1993, but I didn't know too much about their backgrounds.
RR: Did they live outside of Prague?
KH: In the country. She lived between Prague and Pilzen. You know at the time people really were not too interested in their background or what went on before.' It was, rather in that sense, a little primitive. -
RR,- How did you manage during the war years, and what was the atmosphere like in Prague at that time?
KH: From 1938 until 1945 we were occupied by the Nazis, and the atmosphere was rather tense, and we were in the middle of the war, although we were not bombarded most of the time, except two or three times.
RR; And I guess there was the invasion of course?
KH: Well, yes, toward the end; that came after the end of the war. Part of Czechoslovakia was occupied by Patton's army, Pilzen, for instance, the city, but the rest had to be occupied by the Soviets. That was the agreement in Yalta. During the whole war, because the schools were closed, I couldn't continue my career. In spite of the tragic times, I somehow felt that life was wonderful. I was young, you see, and when I started to make some progress in the theory exercises, I started to feel that I would do something that I like. So the three, four years had passed, and I was very optimistic, although the whole country was in disarray.
RR.- Was Prague occupied at this time?
KH: Oh yes! There was the German army, yes.
RR- There were people with guns?
KH: Oh yes, we really were occupied. They called it a protectorate, as if they were protecting us; but, of course, most of the men had to go to work in the factories in Germany. Many students went, and I somehow escaped it by being very naive.
RR: And your father?
KH: He was too old. He was already around 50. So he wasn't ... No they didn't put Czechs in the army, but they took the young students to Germany to work in the factories, because the German men had to go to war. So they needed men in the factories.
RR: So you must have felt lucky that you weren't taken out and sent to Germany. I could see where it would be a motivator to work and to escape thinking about all of these things.
KH: Yes, I was lucky. As a matter of fact I had to go to a German doctor, and we were hundreds of students, and they decided who will go to Germany, and, of course, I was a healthy man and so I was, in fact, given a train ticket to go there. I didn't go. I was supposed to go the next day and I was so naive, thinking that if I explain to someone the next day I want to do music, and I want to go into the conservatory, they will let me. So I didn't go.
RR: They didn't catch you?
KH: Well, they tried to catch me somehow. They did, but the department was still in Czech hands, and they telephoned, and they said if I don't come there, then the Gestapo will come to get me. So I went to the office there, and the man said, "You are absolutely out of your mind. How could you do such a thing?" And then I said, I want to go into the conservatory, and I would like to enter, but I have to take entrance examinations," and so they gave me about three months.
RR: Like an extension?
KH: Extension. But then they said I would be called again in six months, and that's it. I would have to go. They never called me after that, so by some miracle, I escaped.
RR: It's amazing that on such tenuous grounds a career could be built, when things were in such chaos during the war. Did you run into any of these composers - Victor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, or Hans Krasa?
KH: No, unfortunately not.
RR: They were not at the Conservatory?
KH: Well, they were at the Conservatory, but I wasn't as yet; but my teacher, for instance, spoke to me about them. Gideon Klein was his student. At the time I knew that they were deported into the concentration camp. We knew it in Prague, you see, and we knew about all the tragedy.
RR: I think Ullmann was already a conductor in the German Opera?
KH: Yes. In the German Opera House in Prague.
RR: Was it in your time? Would you have heard him conduct?
KH: If I went to a concert, I would have heard him, but I never went to a concert.
RR: Until you were 18?
KH: Yes. I went to my first concert when I was 17 or 18. 1 remember the first concert I ever attended was to see Jan Kubelfk, father of Raphael Kubelik, playing violin, and Raphael Kubelik accompanied him. That was one of his last recitals. Jan Kubelfk was a great violinist, a virtuoso. A friend of mine suggested that we go to that concert. Then I started to go, of course, but during the war none of us wanted to go the German opera. And as I said, Ullmann wasn't there, and also An6erl was deported and many others.1
RR:I believe Zemlinsky left?
RR: Schoenberg also moved to the United States, as did many talented composers - often in response to Nazi persecution of so-called decadent music.
KH: Szell conducted at the German Opera. Leinsdorf conducted also. This was during the years when I was not really thinking about going into music. I still remember, around 1935 or 1936, the newspapers showed a picture of Janacek. I thought he looked like an excited man on the picture. I thought this must be a great composer, but I didn't have any idea.
RR: When you were in engineering school, I read that there was an incident where a student was killed, and that's what created a lot of excitement. Do you recall the circumstances?
KH: Oh, very well. In 1939, that was in November and I am not sure if was the 17th, but in any case, the date of 17 November, this is when he was either shot or he died, the student, and we were in class, I remember. There were 120 students - a big class.
RR: Was he shot in a demonstration or anything?
KH: He was shot on the 28th of October, which is like the Fourth of July here, you see, and the Germans said at the time, the Nazis, that if somebody would walk on the main street, the Václavské namestí, and if there would be some protestations, that person would be shot. Jan Opletal, a student, took a special hat that used to be worn by the first president, Thomas Masaryk, when he was on his horse. This student walked around the square, and they shot him there, just for wearing that symbol. He must have died on November 17th. We were in the class, and suddenly there was a piece of paper circulating among the students, that we go to Opletal's funeral. We went, and then we were dispersed, first by the Czech police, and then the Gestapo came, and the SS, and it became an incredible panic. The next day I wanted to go to the university, and I crossed the street, and it was occupied by the Nazis.
RR: I see. So it was not just that they needed workers in Germany, it was a result of this particular incident.
KH: Both. They took all the student intelligencia to work in the factories.
RR: Those of us who have not lived through something like this, find it fascinating to hear about - not that one would want to live through it. What sort of music were you writing during the war, and who were the teachers and the people who most influenced you musically?
KH: You write music that you hear around you, and you write music as your teacher tells you to, to certain degrees. I was influenced, at the time, by the Czech music, because that is the only music I had heard. I had heard operas in the theater, but most of the modern music was Czech. So I was influenced by my teacher, Jaroslav Ridky, and then by Smetana, Dvorak, Novak, and Suk, and I would say that particularly the last two, Suk and Novak - and Janacek, of course a little later. That was about the circle that at the time I could understand. I didn't study at the beginning, especially 1941 to 1943; 1 didn't study the scores of Bartók. I didn't know anything of Bartók. I hadn't seen a score of Bartók, nor Stravinsky. We only spoke about them, but you couldn't get scores. Bartók's, Schoenberg's, and Stravinsky's scores in 1943 were forbidden. You couldn't buy them-
RR: So when did you first encounter them, at the end of the war?
KH. Just about the end of the war, I remember, immediately after the war, 1945-46, 1 heard the Rite of Spring played by the Czech Philharmonic. I thought that was a revelation. I heard Bartók's Foutth OuRdetin 1945 at the end of the war. I thought it was incredible - incredibly difficult, incredibly intellectual, incredibly esoteric. I couldn't understand that.
RR: Was it immediately after the war that you went to Paris?
KH: Yes, a year after the war, in 1946.
RR: And what was that post-war year like in Prague?
KH: That was wonderful! On May 5 - May 9, they erected barricades. Then they put the city back in shape, and all things started to get moving. It was a wonderful year.
RR: You finished your first degree the same year as the war ended?
RR: So you began to work on post graduate studies?
KH: No, that would have been something like starting the doctorate that year. I finished the Conservatory, which would have been like bachelors/m asters. It lasted five years.
RR: This would have been your sixth year?
KH: Yes, the first year in what was called Academy of Musical Arts. The Conservatory was five years, and immediately followed the Academy of Music, in order to get a degree that would be higher, like the DMA here, or what the Germans called "Master," but it was more than what we would call a Masters Degree here. I started to work one year on that, and then I received a French Government fellowship, and I went to Paris.
RR: I remembered reading you had considered possibly studying with Prokofiev, Honegger, and I think there was a third composer?
KH: I wanted to get here to the United States. The first year after the war in the Conservatory and the Academy of Music, which had the same buildings, there was an announcement that one could apply for studies to Russia, to Moscow with Prokofiev, and then, there was also a stipendium to the United States that was to New York, and also the possibility to study in France. I had heard, in 1946, Charles Munch performing Honeggers Second Symphony, and I was so amazed by the piece. By that time I was already decided I would go to Paris. The Soviet stipend was delayed. They said that it cannot be this year, and I was waiting for the answer from the United States. It had not come yet, and my mother, who had great respect for France, because of the arts, said, "Why don't you lean towards France because it is closer?" Since I was offered this fellowship to Paris, she said, "Why don't you go, and you can, later, when you are in France, go to the United States?" My mother had three sisters here at the time around Chicago. My father had a brother in Cleveland who she said I could visit. She thought that about in a year, two, or three years maximum, I would be back to Prague.
RR: During the war you just studiously avoided anything to do with politics?
KH: Well, we couldn't speak; you couldn't say too mulch. If I would have said on the street, we want to be free, my family wouldn't have seen me for the rest of my life.
RR: Was there an underground that you were aware of?
KH: There was. I wasn't aware at the time, but there was - not much in Prague, but outside in the forests.
RR: So, it wasn't the sort of thing where you could be a student and do the other thing part time? You either went to the forest, or you were a student.
KH: I guess so, yes, and in any case, I also worked part-time in my fathers business.
RR: It makes me think of a time in the late '60's, when I was teaching an introductory course under the fellowship at Cornell, and a student stood up and said, "Why should I be in class, when there are all these revolutionary activities around campus?" I replied that it is much more important to be in class, and later he apologized, realizing that a vague hope of social involvement could not replace the rewards of serious study. The times were, of course, very different, but I certainly understand your desire to avoid the chaos of the war in a futile situation.
KH: The situation was such that 4 was so well organized by the Nazis, that people didn't dare say too many things. You didn't know who might hear, although you trusted the Czechs, if you wish, but still, you couldn't speak openly, because there were some Czechs who were probably collaborators, and there also were a lot of Nazis who lived mixed-in with Sudetenlanders and so forth. So you would check very well. It was a very dangerous situation. 2
RR: Your first publication was the Sonatina for Piano. When was that written?
KH: Yes, that was written in 1943. It was my second or third year in the Conservatory, because I had entered at the second year level. It was played at a concert of students, and then repeated in a concert of the Society for New Music, and a publisher came and said that he would like to publish the piece.
RR: So, the Society for New Music continued even though the Germans were...
KH: The music was still done. They didn't suppress music or theater, except in times of curfews. They only closed the universities.
RR: Were there any theatrical pieces that were hidden? They were not watching over all that?
KH: Oh yes, they were watching. These pieces were played once, two times, three times, or four times, and somehow it was reported, and the director was arrested. That was very tight.
RR: And you were aware of all this?
KH: We were aware of that, yes.
RR. How long did you continue the violin study?
KH:.1 stopped the violin studies when I was about fifteen, and I was still in a high-school that was directed toward technical school. The lessons were private. We were not wealthy at all, and yet my mother paid for private lessons twice a week, and twice a week for my sister on piano. She paid for four private lessons a week, which was rather expensive.
RR: Did most students go twice a week, or was this exceptional?
KH: No, he wanted us to come twice a week for half an hour, so he could check our progress.
RR: That's a good approach, I think. From whom did you learn orchestration?
KH: I guess from my teacher, and from going to concerts and reading scores.
RR: Was there a specific class that Ridky taught?
KH: Yes, but I think also that by reading scores, I was intrigued. Going to school I had to take at least a half an hour ride on a street car packed with people, and I had nothing to do, so I always took a pocket score. I remember that I had the Roman Camival of Berlioz, at the beginning all I could buy, and I was so amazed by all the things that he does. Also, Ridky was telling me, "You have to go to concerts and to rehearsals," and from that I have learned the most. I went to the Czech Philharmonic rehearsals. You could go there and nobody said anything. Then, of course, Jand6ek impressed me, when I heard his things or Debussy's. Debussy still was played a little, even during the war, but Ravel and Roussel weren't played. The modern composers were not, but the classics they allowed. I was amazed by that, and intrigued.
RR: It's interesting that from our perspective Ravel and Debussy aren't so different.
KH: That's true, but Debussy was older.
RR: Was there a Quisling government like in Vichy, France?
KH: Yes, there was.
RR: And, of course, there were the Sudeten Germans. Were they a large part of that?
KH: No, that was entirely Czech. I don't think that it was Sudeten German, but there was a regime. It's a curious story, because the President of the Czech protectorate was a very old man. He must have been 75-80 years old. Now, when I say, "a very old man," it doesn't sound so old. He was the President of the Supreme Court, and he was asked to take the Presidency. The Czechs who were there encouraged him. He didn't want to take it at the beginning, and, of course, he sacrificed himself. There is no way out of it; you cannot be a hero in a situation like this, unfortunately.
RR: Was he able to help a little bit, here and there?
KH: Yes, he helped. He was elected President, still under the Czechoslovak Republic, which means that Hitler wasn't in Prague yet. Then, when they decided in March, 1939, that they would occupy the whole of Bohemia and Moravia, as well as Slovakia, he was called to Berlin, and,. from what I read, Hitler, Goebbels, and Goehring let him sit for four hours in the waiting room before they came. They told him, if you don't sign this protectorate, then in five hours our planes will destroy Prague. It was a threat...
RR: There was no real attack. They just marched in?
KH: They marched in on the morning of March 15, 1939. In the previous evening they were not there, but by the morning, all the army and machinery came.
RR: I know that your background is Czech. What was the ethnic make-up of Czechoslovakia?
KH. Well, there were the Czechs and Slovaks. They were the largest groups. The minorities were German and Hungarian; the German language was spoken in Prague often.
RR. I have read that in Eastern Europe in general, as in Hungary, for example, there was much use of the German language.
KH: Sure! It was the Austrian/Hungarian monarchy. For instance, in Prague, my father had a shoe business, so out of twenty people who would come into the store, there would be at least three to four speaking German. I must also say, that mostly the Jewish population in Prague, which was rather large, also spoke more German than Czech.
RR: Which would also be the case, because Yiddish is a language related to the German language.
KH: Exactly, so for instance, in the German theater, there were Ullmann, Szell, and Leinsdorf. Leinsdorf and Szell spoke as good Czech as German. I remember speaking to both of them.
RR: Did Leinsdorf spend a lot of time in Prague?
KH: Oh yes! He also conducted frequently in that theater. This was before the war, when he was very young, and Szell, the same thing - before the war; before Hitler came.
RR: Leinsdorf preceded Szell in Cleveland, and at the Met in New York, I think. 3 It,S interesting that their careers followed one another. Returning to the ethnic make-up of Czechoslovakia, were the Moravians considered a religious group, or political?
KH: Moravia is a country. It's unfortunate. One country is called Bohemia, next to it is Moravia, and then Slovakia; but the name of Moravia didn't get into Czechoslovakia at all, because both Czechs and Moravs are called Czechs. To a certain degree, it's not fair because they are Moravs. In fact I am going to Moravia soon. They will perform the ballet, Trolan Woinen in the Moravian National Theater.
RR: Where I live, it might be worth mentioning, Western Pennsylvania-Eastern Ohio, there is a big Moravian group, of which I'm sure you are aware.
KH: Oh yes, and in Bethlehem, and Winston-Salem. That was a sect, by the way, that had to leave because of persecution, and at the time they were as much Czech as they were German. Many Germans in the sect came here. So, for instance, a lot of documents in Winston-Salem, where I visited, were written in German.
RR: The majority of Czechs were Catholic, which is how you were raised, I think?
KH. Well, yes. My mother was Catholic, and my father too. One would say most were Catholics, but let's say also that there were many Protestants in that country as well; and there were also those who, as Protestants, tried to found a church that would be a Hussite church. So, all the wars that followed made the Moravians leave, and that's why they came here. By the way, the Moravians are credited with founding the orchestra here in the United States. They brought the music and they started these orchestras.
RR: Do you recall where?
KH: Bethlehem and also Winston-Salem. They brought with them the orchestra music of the younger Bachs, the Mannheimers, and so forth.
RR: Now there is a renaissance in musicology, and they are studying this music and we're discovering that there was much happening in the New World earlier than people realize. Perhaps now we will turn to Paris. I have a wonderful recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony by André Cluytens. I wondered what he was like as a teacher and a man?
KH: Well, he was a terrific conductor, and a great talent. He was originally from Belgium, but lived all his life in France, so he was considered French, a little like César Franck. I studied with him for about two years. Mostly, I thought, because I would live in Paris for only one or two years, I wanted to learn the French repertoire. So, through a friend of mine, who was a critic in Prague, and also worked for the office of the President for Cultural Affairs, and knew Cluytens personally, I could take private lessons with him. I must say that he had incredible imagination. To him, notes were only a little indication of the music, and you have to do things with them.
RR: So he was a good interpreter?
KH. Oh yes, very good. When Charles Munch left for Boston, he became the conductor of that orchestra they had in Paris, the so called Societe de Conceits. Later they changed it. Now it's called Orchestre de Paris. There were four major orchestras in Paris, when I was there, that always gave concerts on Sunday afternoons, at 5:45 p.m., and always all four at the same time! They were always at that time, so you couldn't go to the four concerts. You had to belong to one society, or to one of the others. He conducted a lot of French repertoire, and I have learned the French repertoire from him. As a person, he was a wonderful man. He was an excellent teacher. I have learned so much from him.
RR: What was Honegger like?
KH: Honneger was also a wonderful man, of course; but, I must say that all the people I have met in France were really terrific - not only as teachers, but also as people. Honegger, as well as Nadia Boulanger, were both intellectually on the highest order. The intellect, connaissance, the knowledge was just absolutely incredible...
RR: They had broad interests?
KH: Oh yes, and they were really humanists both.
RR: Was Honegger's personality outgoing, or was he very formal?
KH: It's curious. When I got to Paris, I thought, "Will he take me as a student?" I went to his studio one day to have private lessons. His studio was on the twelfth floor in Paris, which was very high. It was on the Boulevard de Clichy, which is the noisiest place in Paris that you could find. I got there, and on the door there were signs in all languages, that he had taken from a hotel, which read, "Do Not Disturb." That doesn't really give you much courage to ring, but then the door opened, and he said, "Oh, Mr. Husa, come in, please." Actually, he was never discouraging. He looked at me as composer of 25, and he thought, well, in ten years he will write differently. He certainly saw whether there was something of my own in the scores. On what level do you consider a composer who is twenty-five? He will yet learn, and he has to learn. When you read some of the scores of some of the younger people, you say, "this; still is too much of Schoenberg, or this is too much of the Minimalists." When does the music become one's own? He probably knew what he saw, but he was always encouraging and always helpful.
RR: And how old was he at that time?
KH: He wasn't too old. He was over 50, maybe 55, but when I met him he already had had a heart attack on a plane coming to the United States. He was still a very solid and very positive man, but within four, five, six years, he changed and got very negative. He was naturally considered a great composer, but he was in the middle of fights in Paris at that time. He was not a Schoenbergian, so he was not far enough, and for others he was much too far. It was a problem...
RR.- Was there much furor about Schoenberg at this time?
KH: Yes, Leibowitz brought it in, and Boulez, of course.
RR: Leibowitz was a very fine conductor, wasn't he?
KH: Well, I don't know, really. I have seen him conduct - probably for Schoenberg's music he was good.
RR: I have a boxed set of the Beethoven Symphonies.
KH: I haven't heard those. He didn't conduct other music much. Although he conducted some other things, but I haven't heard him on those. He was more their ambassador for Schoenberg, which he did tremendously well, I must say. They had a lot of power, the people of Leibowitz, and he created a circle around him.
RR: They were good polemicists; they wrote good journalism.
KH: Yes. Honegger, on the other hand, was just writing music, and that was his word. He knew scores, and didn't reject them. He had respect for Schoenberg as well as Webern. He had great respect for Stravinsky. He was writing the music that he felt he could write, and he was not interested in looking around anymore. He thought, "I am composer, and that's what it is. . ."
RR: I think his music has its own flavor and personality. He is an original composer.
KH: Yes. Perhaps he didn't even want to get influenced by other things any more. You know, you just reach a stage when that's what you are...
RR: Did you run into Milhaud at all?
KH: Yes, a great man also, and also a great composer. You know, I didn't know Milhaud's music yet. I knew his name. That was my first year in Paris, '46-147. They put on a piece by Milhaud in a theater that holds about 3,000 people, and there might have been about 50 people in all - a concert of modern music. There was Milhaud's, Les 07oeplwres. It's for chorus and orchestra. They played also Messiaen, and other French composers; it was French composers' music. The second half was the Milhaud. Milhaud wasn't there; he was in the United States. I sat there, and I thought it was just absolutely fantastic. The piece was finished, and about 25 people were screaming "bravo," like me, and 25 were whistling. It was just incredible - the noise that 50 people can make in a 3,000 person auditorium.
RR: And how was Messiaen's piece received?
KH: Also with some whistles.
RR: I think on the surface, his music is harder to listen to.
KH: He had also a lot of students and followers, so it was about the same. I liked that piece of Messiaen, also, but I can't remember what it was.
RR: Did you meet him?
KH: Oh yes, I met him too, a few months later. But going back to Milhaud, it was amazing how new and terrific that piece was.
RR: He's a very musical composer, I think.
KH: Oh yes, and you know this piece is not known, except that Bernstein, around the '60'70's, when he was conductor of the New York Philharmonic, recorded it. Nobody else plays that piece, but it's a masterpiece. 4
RR.- The percussion section in this piece particularly interested you?
KH.- Very important. That's what was striking in it. There must have been about 7, 8, or 9 percussionists in that orchestra. Maybe even more!
RR.- Perhaps there weren't too many pieces that you had run into like that?
KH.- That's true. Stravinsky uses it. But it's true, percussion wasn't too known. I think it was when I was here at Cornell, that I went to the band room to investigate. I had written a piece for the Friends of Music at Cornell. I had a percussionist, who was a very good player; I had good strings. We didn't have bassoons, and we had three good trumpets that year, who were complaining that they didn't have enough of a challenge. So, I wrote the piece for piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, three trumpets, piano, one percussionist, and strings: Fantasies for Onchestra (1956). 1 was able to use a lot of percussion for one person. When I wrote this piece, the student who was from Ithaca College said to me, "You write for all this percussion, but could you tell me what mallets you would like to have? Should it be soft mallets, and how should I hit the xylophone?" I hadn't used marimba or vibraphone yet, so I said, "I don't know anything about percussion really." Even as a conductor, usually percussion was in the back, and the players took care of it. You rehearsed the strings mostly. So I spent about ten days in the band room here, trying all the mallets and all the percussion instruments, and I got intrigued by that.
RR: I remember when I was at Cornell, having the benefit of your experiments, and talking with you, and how much emphasis you put on percussion, because these were the new sounds. There had been so much written for strings, and so much written for winds and brass. As a result it's always been an interest of mine. So, in the early overture you didn't use a lot of percussion?
KH: Well, I used the regular instruments.
RR: Same in the Sinfonietta?
KH: In the Sinfonietta, about the same.
RR: In some sense, Paris was a revelation?
KH: Yes, definitely. I had learned some things already, but I had been in music only for about 5-6 years, and that's not much. I had to catch up in background, because I didn't have any idea at the age of 19 what tonic and dominant meant- I had to learn all the theory and things. Also, during the war Prague was isolated from new things, because that was considered decadent by the Nazis.
RR., Was there any sense in Prague, just before you left, of the movement towards the Stalinist attitudes, or did that come somewhat later?
KH: That came much sooner. There were worries immediately after the war, but somehow the Czechs thought it would be worked out. The President returned from London, and we thought and hoped that it would work out, but there were worries. In 1948 the regime became completely communist, and that was the end. So, it was not even three years, and by then I was already in Paris.
RR: Immediately the year after the war there were no pressures to write youth cantatas?
KH: There were pressures, yes. They said we have to write marches for workers, and for Saturday workers who clean the streets. That was the case, but it was mostly political.
RR: But was that a motivator to go elsewhere, or was it more that you needed to see new horizons?
KH: I wanted to see new horizons, and I thought that I still have so much to learn. I wanted to be free and experiment for myself, and not have somebody tell me what to do. I was always that way all my life. I would say, if I would have thought that it was a good idea, I would have written a march, but at the time I wasn't interested, and to write a good march is not easy anyway.
RR.- Were you surprised by your rapid success in Prague in composition and conducting? Did you ever consider a career as a full time conductor? Let me amplify that. The scholarship to Paris, it was in composition?
KH: Yes, in composition - but I thought, still, I could conduct in Prague. The possibility was there. It was surprising, but it happened. Nevertheless, I thought I should be better equipped. Conducting and composition interested me both, and I thought I should learn how to conduct French music and later, music of the West. At that time it was mostly Debussy, Ravel, Honegger, Roussel, and Messiaen - these were the names at the time. I thought I would learn how to conduct these pieces, and then I would return, but by that time, the regime changed...
RR: While still in Prague, you had ample exposure to Tchaikovsky and the Russian literature, and Mussorgsky?
KH: Yes. The Russian music is very important. During the war some of it was not played. Even Tchaikovsky couldn't be played during the time when they were at war with Germany. I always admired the Russians and their orchestration.
RR: What was Nadia Boulanger like, as a teacher and a person?
KH: As a teacher she was very good, because she had a very analytical mind, and she could see what the score was, and how the music would sound. She was very practical, also. She was a very good teacher; more to the point than others. She would be very strict, but I already was more Advanced. I was already in Bartókian period, so to speak, so I didn't take lessons. It was more that I showed her music, and she would comment on that.
RR.-This was because you already had studied and had publications. I remember reading in one of the articles about you, that a librarian introduced the Sonatina to her prior to your meeting, so she was already familiar with your music when you met.
KH. That was in the Paris Conservatory in the first year, '46-47, when the Czech Music Fund sent Czech music around and a librarian in the Conservatory, who was secretary of Boulanger, saw the name and one day said, "We have received some music from Prague. Is that by you?" I said, "Yes, that's mine." So she took the piece to Mademoiselle Boulanger, and then one day when I was browsing in the library - I didn't look so much for modem music, because they didn't have the modern scores, but I was looking for Couperin, Rameau, Michel Delalande, and related composers - the librarian told me that Mademoiselle Boulanger would like to meet me. That's how I got to meet her.
RR: So it was a rather informal ...
KH: Well, at that time it was informal, but then she said that she wanted me to come and show her music anytime; just telephone her, she said. She was incredible, and very thoughtful about how one lives, and what one would do. She was the one who inquired what was the situation in Prague and if I was returning there. One day she said to me, "Do you have a score of the Quartet?" I told her, "yes," and I gave it to her. Then I learned that she submitted it to the Lili Boulanger Memorial, that was her sister's foundation in Boston. That's how I got the prize. That helped sustain me. It was four hundred dollars, at the time, a lot of money in Paris. I was practically without money, because, when I didn't return to Prague in 1949, they cut my official fellowship. I received some other support, but it was unofficial; so the prize was welcome.
RR: That was from the French side?
KH: Yes, another, different fellowship.
RR: But you said they cut it in Prague?
KH: The first, they cut in Prague. The French authorities couldn't give it to me, because they had agreements between countries - whatever they are. So they said, "The Czechs also have a say in what the we are giving, because there are also French students who are in Prague." It was an exchange program, so they couldn't support me. After that, when I didn't return, I lost officially the Czechoslovakian citizenship.
RR: Maybe you were only allowed a year or two, and then it had to go to someone else?
KH: No, it could have been longer, but I received support nevertheless. In fact, they were even more opposed when I didn't return. After that I couldn't get a UNESCO Fellowship, which was offered to me. It just needed a signature of the Czech representative at the embassy. After a conversation with him, I left and I didn't take it. That was $5,000 at the time.
RR: They wanted you to come back, is that it?
KH: Oh yes, exactly.
RR: They were afraid they might lose you, and they were right.
KH: Well, that's true; but, one does what one feels is right. They wanted the people who were living in the West to come back.
RR: Well, obviously you were gaining so much for being in Paris at the time, as a cultural and musical center, there was no real choice. What prompted the composition of Evocations of Slovakia (1951)?
KH: That was probably the fact that I decided that I would not return anymore. So, you just think about the country, and you fantasize about it. Although I am Czech, I always liked Slovakia, because it was a more pure country, in a sense. It was not so influenced by other places. The music was really pure music of the people there. That's where Bartók went, and got his melodies too.
RR: Would you say the folk music is more interesting in Slovakia?
KH: That's what I thought.
RR: In this piece did you use some actual melodies?
KH: Yes, definitely I did. I used folk melodies in a way like Stravinsky did in L'Histoire du Soldat and Les Noces.
RR: The Eight Czech Duets (1955) are also folk songs?
KH: Yes. Some of them are pure folk songs. Some of them are "imagined" folk songs; those I wrote here in the United States. The idea was to write something for my children when they play piano. We had two daughters at the time. They would play piano - I imagined - so they would play these Czech duets.
RR: Some of that material reappeared in the Diveltimento for Brass (1959). 1 think I discovered it when I conducted it some years ago at North Central College.
KH: Actually, I was asked here by the Ithaca College conductor to write a piece for brass ensemble. They had a concert in March, and he asked me after Christmas.
RR: The brass piece is very nice. I liked it very much. It's very well written. Did the Evocations appear anywhere else in some of your ideas? I seem to remember, but I can't recall where.
KH: The piece was written originally for clarinet, viola, and cello, and after the performances in Paris, the clarinetist told me that this is such a difficult clarinet part. "I have played it now five times and it still is very difficult," he said. So, sort of in a nice way, he said, "if it happens that I play it five times and it still has problems, there must be something wrong with the piece." I was contacted in 1963 by Hermann Adler, who was then the conductor in Baltimore. Adler indicated that he had a wonderful quintet in the orchestra that he wanted to bring out, saying, "in the program next season, I want to perform the Spohr string quartet and orchestra piece with my first desks, and I would like a piece for woodwind quintet that also would be in front of the orchestra." So I thought, well, these Evocations would make an ideal piece for woodwind quintet with string orchestra. I don't call it Evocations of Slovakia, but rather, Serenade.
RR., When did serialism begin to influence you? When did you begin to experiment with serial techniques, and which composers at that time influenced you?
KH: It was already starting in Paris in 1946-8, when I began to hear the 12 tone music, as well as being fascinated by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. And I have heard a lot of Webern, starting in '48 in Paris, and also in Germany. I went to Darmstadt in 1949-50, and, of course, I was interested. I thought it was a good thing to experiment. I think that a composer, when he or she is young, has to experiment, because there is so much knowledge around, and so much of it can be of help to you. You cannot ignore things. Every composer was the father and grandfather of someone, and so it's also like a family tree.
RR: Who was on the staff at Darmstadt when you went?
KH: Wolfgang Fortner was teaching there, but there were people like Herman Heiss; there was this man, Dr. Strobel, who founded the Southwest German Radio and so forth. The man who founded Darmstadt was Dr. Wolfgang Steinecke. As for the performances in Darmstadt: Hermann Scherchen, the conductor, was there, and various quartets came to play. Professor Wildgans, the bass clarinetist, who worked with Webern, and his wife, Ilona Steing-ruber, who was the female lead in Wczzec1c, came to perform. All these things intrigued me.
RR: Schoenberg was at this time in the United States?
KH: Yes, he was in the U.S., and I remember that they played The Dance Around T17e Golden Calf It was rather amazing to me. That's from Moses and Aaron. He was supposed to come, but he was sick, and very soon after he died, unfortunately.
RR: So, who took his place as the most dynamic figure? Was Boulez already involved?
KH: Boulez was known, and already I had heard his First Piano Sonata. It was mostly the works that I studied; it was not people. Stockhausen I knew also in Paris, and I met -Boulez in Paris, too. In fact, I met him at Gerhard Samuel's place, who is now a conductor in CIncinnati. One time he invited Boulez, Marius Constant, myself, and several others. It was when Copland was in Paris, so Copland came and looked over our music. He was interested in what was happening in Europe.
RR: That must have been an interesting gathering. Are you still in touch-with Samuels periodically?
KH: No, but three - four years ago, I was there in Cincinnati, and I spoke with him .
RR: Did you at any time, particularly in those days, have any interests or consideration to work with electronic music?
KH: No. I knew Pierre Schaeffer, but somehow my time was limited. Maybe if I would have started, I would have been interested - but I thought I had to limit my time as I also was conducting.
RR: With your emphasis on the performance end of things, you were occupied.
KH: But, Pierre Schaeffer was there, and I have the Symphonie pour un homme seul.5 Henry is the composer. That intrigued me too. It would have been nice. I visited the studio in Köln, when I was in Germany.
RR: This would have been in the early 1950's?
RR: Returning to the question of serialism and the new, more chromatic style that you were working on, which would you say, the Poem for Viola and Chamber Orchestra (1959), or the Mosaiques for Orchestra (1961), was the more pivotal piece for you in terms of serialism and the future of your music for later years?
KH: I would say the Mosaiques was more striking in colors, because I experimented with orchestral colors especially. I liked the Poem too, because it's more austere in a way; it's a piece for which I have affection, but it has less colors, because it's only strings, viola, oboe, piano, and horn.
RR: It's within a more narrow coloristic band, but still a very lovely piece.
KH: It's a twelve-tone piece, but it's in a style, if you wish, of Schoenberg's twelve-tone approach. Mosaiques is already more what also Boulez and Stockhausen speak about. It's not only the twelve notes, but the rhythm and the dynamics are serialized too...
RR: I heard you conduct a performance of it at Cornell with the Buffalo Philharmonic when I was a student, and I remember thinking that it had an affinity to Webern, more than to Schoenberg, which makes sense because of the coloristic aspect - perhaps because of klangfarben, the very delicate movement of melodic material from one instrument to the other. So, perhaps in a formal sense, the Poem was the place where you first introduced serialism, then further developed it in Mosaiques. Were there chamber pieces around that time also, or were these the pieces in particular?
KH: That would be the pieces; then later came the Third String Quartet (l968), which also uses some twelve tone techniques, but its much more free already.
RR: How did the composition of Music for Prague 1968 come about?
KH: That came in May, 1968, when Dr. Kenneth Snapp, conductor here at Ithaca College, asked me to write a work for band. They were going to the MENC Convention in Washington, and he said if they go, he would like a piece from me. At that time I was going to teach at Northwestern in the summer, and it was in the summer of 1968 that the events came about. The "Prague Spring" already started to be known here in the West while I was at Northwestern. Afterwards we drove back with the whole family. We had spent one month there. I thought that Prague would probably be the piece I would like to write for the band, because the group had these powerful eight trumpets, and all the brass. On August 21, when it errupted, I said, "That's definitely what I will do," but I didn't write much; I was only thinking and watching the news on television. I didn't start to compose the piece until August 25. Then I met the conductor, and he said that if I didn't have it done by mid-October, he would not play it, because they had to learn it, and they would not go to the MENC Convention without being well-rehearsed. I had to write the piece within about six weeks. That means that I still had the orchestra at Cornell and I taught composition, so I was always writing on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday only.
RR: One needs a long period of time to develop ideas, and not to write for an hour, and then have to run somewhere else.
KH: I finished by mid-October. The parts were made in a hurry, but it worked.
RR: Were you doing a lot of summer residencies at this time? When did you start, or was it just Northwestern?
KH: There was Northwestern. I used to go to festivals like the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, and I went to Grand Tetons. It's a magnificent place. I went to Baylor University, and I was at Sewanee Festival in Tennessee. I used to do these residencies, but not so much anymore, because I like to stay in contact with writing music constantly now.
RR: Obviously the subject matter of Prague and what had happened must have been a very powerful influence on the piece, and it must have created a certain feeling of inevitability about the way the piece would develop.
KH: Yes, I remember that. Well, there was everything: anger, disbelief, remembering also - because I wasn't there when it happened, but I had television, and I listened to the radio, and read the newspapers. It all reminded me of the same situation through which I had lived in Prague when we were occupied by the Nazis; so I understood what had happened in the city and country. I thought, here I am born in Prague, and probably not too many composers would dare to put their name on such a piece. Probably many of them would write music for Prague, but they wouldn't dare to put it on the title. That was exactly the case.
RR: Certainly those in Prague couldn't do it. It was wonderful that the piece was written at that time, and called attention in its own way - in a more effective way than just writing a letter or saying that this was not fair - because everyone knew that it wasn't fair. I don't want to get too political, but the recent events in Czechoslovakia, and the division of the country, from your point of observation, what caused it and why did it happen?
KH: Well , there had always been some people who were against Czechoslovakia as a country after it was founded. During the war with Ger many, there was a Slovakian priest who wanted a separatist division, so Slovakia had a chance to be a country by itself, but, of course, had to collaborate suddenly with the Nazi regime. The country was divided into a separate Slovakia, and into Bohemia and Moravia as protectorate.
RR: So it's almost like going back to that division?
KH: To a certain degree. One cannot say that one people or the other people are wrong or right. Probably there were mistakes on both sides, like sometimes appear in a marriage, and what can you do about it? So, it became inevitable that it would not work, and so they decided; but I would say, from what I hear, that if people would have voted on it, and had a say, that probably it would not have been divided. But it's very hard to say...
RR: It was done by the Legislature?
KH: It was done by the Legislature. There was no plebiscite. That's how it is, and maybe it is better, you see.
RR: Now that they are divided, do they work together as a confederation?
KH: They don't work as a confederation, but I think that relations are pretty friendly. Also, there are so many Czechs married to Slovaks, so it's a difficult situation. In spite of everything, I think that the Czechs like Slovaks, and we are very close to them, and Slovaks are close to Czechs too. The language is just a little different, but it's close to a dialect difference.
RR: And there isn't an appearance difference in the people that you could recognize?
RR: So it's just one of those things in political history - a little bit like how Transalvania went back and forth between Romania and Hungary. Eastern Europe unfortunately has a lot of that history.
KH: It's a pity because it could have been . . . It was a beautiful country. While the West was more industrialized, Slovakia was more natural beauty - the beautiful Carpathian Mountains.
RR: How did the Third String Quartet commission develop?
KH: I received a call from the Fine Arts Quartet, that they would like to commission another quartet, because they had played my Second Quartet (1953) numerous times prior to that. As a matter of fact, there was a French quartet, called Parrenin, that came to this country. They went on tour, and played my Second Quartet They played it in Paris, and it was well-liked. Then they brought it here on the tour. It must have been in about 1958-59, and they played it in Chicago. The cellist of the Fine Arts Quartet, George Sopkin, heard it and wanted to play it. He wrote me about how they couldn't get the music. So, they played it, and I must say that they played it masterfully. They were a terrific quartet at that time. They were strong, very solid. The music is sort of powerful in that sense. They played really magnificently, and they played it all over Europe - every time they went. So they telephoned me, and asked if I could write a piece for their series in Chicago at the Goodman Theater. They said it had to be done by the end of January, and it had to be copied fast. I hadn't heard more. The performance was supposed to be in May,, and then in May, I received a telephone call from the primarius saying, "We aren't playing it, because our viola player is leaving, and we will soon have a new viola player. We will postpone it to the fall." On one side, I was very happy that they would play it more than once, but I was sort of disappointed that I did all this work, and it wasn't performed; but, at the same time, if I wouldn't have been pushed, the piece wouldn't have been written at that time.
RR: That's the typical situation for composers: Hurry up. . and then you wait.
KH: They played it in the fall and then sent it to the Pulitzer Prize.
RR: Do you feel that the Pulitzer Prize was a pivotal moment in your career?
KH: Yes, I think it was. That was one, and the other was the acceptance of another work. It happened at the same time. In the spring of 1969, the Music for Prague was successful with the bands. Prior to that, in the fall of 1968, 1 had the performance of the Third Quartet Then I got the Pulitzer. It was these two pieces, especially in the eyes of the publishers. The Music for Prague was very important to publishers, because they all went to the MENC Convention, and they heard it, and they all wanted to publish it. So somehow the Prague and the Pulitzer together have helped.
RR: At that time you were already with Schirmer Publications?
KH: No I wasn't with anybody at that time, except with Schott, in Germany, and Leduc, in Paris, and of course through their agent, which was Associated Music Publishers (AMP). Schott's music was distributed here, but I wasn't with anybody in America. It was Music for Prague that precipitated the connection with publishers here. At the end I chose AMP, because they had already represented the music of Schott, and, also, they said that they wanted all my music that I had at the time.
RR: Which is a wonderful offer. From my perspective, that was my first year at Cornell, 1968-69. And I remember hearing the announcement for the Pulitzer Prize in Ithaca. To my mind I thought you had always been with Schirmer. So it was a pivotal moment. Why did you feel a need to approach the larger issues outside the realm of music in the Apotheosis of the Earth (1970), and in Monodrama (1976)? 1 think these two works in particular fit that sort of designation.
KH: Well, it happened after having written Music for Prague, which, I would say, was the first piece in which I felt the need to write about events outside of music. In Prague, I dealt with the idea of freedom. A year after that I was commissioned to write a piece for Dr. William Revelli, the well-known concert band conductor, who was to retire from the University of Michigan. I remember traveling that past spring in Europe, and I saw a picture of a baby seal being clubbed. That picture went all over the world. It was revolting. Then I came back here, to Ithaca. All these events, how brutal we are with nature, somehow touched me. I remember going to my summer place on Cayuga Lake. In the morning there were dead fish, because the power station here - and I don't accuse the power station; I know they had to expand - was pouring hot water into the lake. At the same time, the scientists here at Cornell were in disagreement with the city about what to do. The power station wanted to become nuclear and so forth...
RR: That way everybody at Cornell could glow in the dark!
KH: Yes. The lake started to be polluted, and it was necessary to somehow stop it, and clean it. Every morning there were beer cans and things floating out, you see. It sort of made me sick. At the same time a curious thing happened. One of my former students, who played in the orchestra when I conducted, named Roger Payne, started to do research with his wife,on whales. They brought me a tape of the sound of humpback whales. It was later published on a record called Songs of Whales. Alan Hovhannes used it for his piece, and then Pete Seeger wrote a song. Roger and his wife called me and said, 'Would you like to listen to something we find exciting and musical?" I sort of thought, what would I hear? As a boy, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in the summers. I have heard everything - goats, pigs, geese, ducks, dogs, cats - yet, I realized, I had never listened to animals the way I should. I heard this tape of the whales, and I was terribly moved by that.
RR: They are supposed to be quite intelligent.
KH: Yes, exactly. So it was the awareness of the intelligence of these animals, and suddenly I started to think about all animals and these birds. They are intelligent, too. They have their own life. It was that summer that I was supposed to write the piece. I sat by Cayuga Lake, and looked at the stars in the evening and everything, and I thought I would write about the barbaric treatment of nature.
RR: So really, it was things that you were experiencing in your daily life.
KH: I didn't realize at the time that I was doing something that I maybe shouldn't have done, because it was a piece that was supposed to be for the retirement of a conductor. I should have written a piece that would be majestic, or something of that sort. It was only when it was finished, and there was a sort of amazement about the piece, that I realized that. Then, after several rehearsals, the conductor realized that I was sincere in that, and after the premiere, which was successful, he accepted that too, and changed his mind.
RR: But, of course, it makes sense that a composer should also have some say in what happens and it's certainly a worthwhile subject. It also has had quite a few performances since. How about Monodrama?
KH: Monodrama was a subject that was suggested to me by the choreographer. You see, he requested I read James Baldwin's essay, which appeared in the JFK book when they opened the Kennedy Center. It was about the artist in society. I was very much taken with it.
RR: You liked the essay?
KH: Yes, very much. I thought it was very humane as a subject.
RR: Something in particular?
KH: Well, the conflict that an artist has versus a society. The society will reject any new idea. The society is an establishment, and has established ideas, and the artist is here as a disturber. He disturbs, and the society doesn't want that. The society needs tranquility. So this conflict was intriguing to me.
RR., What is your feeling about something like a National Endowment, and perhaps the way it has gone in the last ten-fifteen years.
KH: I think that it is such a small amount of money, really, that is distributed. If one compares it to what is spent in many other departments, and in many other countries, one will see how that other money is wasted, really. I think it's important for the government to realize that, considering its such a small amount, it should not be cut at all. It should be augmented, and it needs to be there, because if we don't support the culture or the arts - I would say that the poet, along with the composer and painter, is probably the purest advocate of new ideas, and he is the researcher in the field of humanity and everything - if we cut that support, it's impossible that these people also can sustain themselves. They didn't in the past, and they will not in the future. Unless one will force, or one will say to the composer, that if you want to live, make television commercials for Coca-Cola or whatever. Let's look into these matters further. It is certainly Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and others, that keep such a high profile for the Arts, for instance, in Germany today. They have something to do with that, and it's also the poet. And at the end of the day, when you are tired after work, and you can read Walt Whitman, or Thoreau, or other great poetry about nature, something remains with you.
RR: On the other side of the coin, we're both composers who have had help from the Endowment on occasion. What is your feeling about some of the more extreme cases, like some performance artists and the Piss-Christ, and the artist who did that particular work? I'm just wondering how you feel about the distinction between being awarded a grant, and artistic freedom? To me, they are distinct things.
KH: Well, I agree with you. I think the artist should have a sense of what he/she can do, or what they shouldn't do. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but one cannot have total freedom, be,,-ise it doesn't really exist. We cannot do everything on the streets. So, there is, of course, that problem.
RR: When you accept the grant, it is as if you're taking a commission, in a sense. You should have independence, but the idea of flaunting your independence in the face of the granting agency or the person, wouldn't work in the unartificial world of a commission. If you thumb your nose at them, they will not take the work. And since there is the old bugaboo, we're using a the people's money to support something, then it has to be something perhaps within the realm of general consensus. These are difficult questions, because it is hard to say what is the general consensus...
KH: I agree with you. But I think it should come from the artist. Unfortunately there is practically no limitation when one gives an award; one doesn't say exactly what one should, could, or cannot write. So it's free. But certainly if a composer would be privately commissioned by an orchestra, the orchestra would not accept something that they don't want.
RR: And it's incumbent upon the composer to live with a sense of responsibility. I imagine that, perhaps, you have to lay some of the responsibility on the deliberative bodies who gave the grants. I would presume that some of this was spelled out. Some of these extreme cases were spelled out in the submissions. In such a case, then, you could, perhaps, hold the group who awarded the grant responsible. So maybe there was some lack of responsibility there.
KH: I served on some of the committees in the past, several years ago, and I cannot remember whether there was a specified guideline. Probably there may have been...
RR: But these are authorities in the field, and then one has the impression that some of the grants awarded were irresponsible.
KH: In music it's a little easier to award grants, because they are no specified works most of the time. So, it's much larger and very difficult to pinpoint. But in other arts . . .
RR: It's certainly an interesting question in the light of current events. Let's move to the American Te Deum (1976).6 It's a piece that is an interesting m6lange of American, Czech, African, and other influences. What prompted you to combine such disparate elements at that point in your career? And could you give us a little background of the commission?
KH. The commission was from Coe College in Iowa. Iowa has a lot of immigrants from many countries. I thought, reading My Antonia by Will Cather, that these people who came around and before 1900, how difficult their life must have been. Some of them lived in holes before they could even build anything, and spent excruciating winters there. How difficult it is to build something, and yet a beautiful country has been built here with so many people helping! I thought I would use some of the elements; I didn't, unfortunately, use everything and all, but rather, what came naturally. I researched a lot about it. I have used only part of the Latin text of the old Te Deum, but I thought that I would start the piece with Afro-American drumming, for instance. I wanted to include an Indian lullaby. I used a Slovak folk song that says "I'm leaving my country and going to the New World. How will it be?" I came across a Swedish ballade that says differently the same thing; "We are leaving and taking some of the birds from Sweden on the boat and bringing them here; we have left something we know and are coming to something unknown." Then I found a magnificent poem by Henry David Thoreau. It tells how, from time to time, there are mornings in which something unbelievable happens, and you feel like being anew. I also have gone through the Amana book from Iowa, which they still use in churches there. I found a very nice chorale, or song, which speaks about how the night is over and how the morning comes up. The last two are particularly related.
I also included a poem by a Czech writer, who died around the turn of the century, named Otakar Brezina. He guided his poetry to the outside, to space. He was probably one of the first poets who left this earth, and started to dream about what is beyond this world. It's a poem about the stars, talking about which one is the earth in the whole space. Another excerpt is taken from Giants in the Earth, a novel by Rolvag, a Swedish writer, who Wrote about the work people did building in the Midwest.
Then, with all this material, I thought I would put it as a sort of Thanksgiving from these particular places. So it's not complete. Not everybody who came here is included, of course, but, rather, what I found at that particular moment. That's why I call it "An American Te Deum" . . . -
The original version, premiered at Coe College, was for chorus, baritone and wind ensemble. Then I made a version with orchestra, because there was a performance here with orchestra.
RR: To move a little closer to the present time, the Concerto for Orchestra (1986) seems a combination of much of the magic of your orchestral music. Would you agree?
KH: Well, if you put it in such a wonderful way, I do.
RR: I think the fact that it's over thirty-five minutes long without overt extra-musical connections, makes the piece especially important. Also the variety of tone color contributes to the sustained audience interest.
KH: Last season I heard two performances from the Louisville Orchestra, and three performances from the St. Louis Symphony, and hearing it live again after some time, gave me satisfaction. That really sounds narcissistic in way. This is a piece that I worked on for a long time - maybe a year and a half. I was pleased with the public acceptance. You know, the public in concert is impatient about modern music- When the piece goes around 16, 17, 18 minutes, it already starts to be long. I was pleased and rather unexpectedly so, that in every performance that I have heard and been at, the public stayed with the piece until the end.
RR. And to my mind, it's because it has such formal strength. In addition to the colors, and the micro-level content, the piece has a very effective shape as a whole.7 What are some of the works since the Concerto for Orchestra that you feel are particularly important? We're looking almost at nine years.
KH: I have written another- quartet, No. 4, which I don't call quartet per se: Poems for String Quartet (l990). They are just imaginary poems, if you will, about different subjects, like sunlight, like darkness, freedom, trees, wild birds; and I have put it together as a different form than usual, because I have already written three quartets. The first was really, in a sense, a modern classical quartet. The second one was a little advanced - more in the later Bartókian style. The third one was, perhaps, serial. In this one I didn't want to use the same forms, but, rather different ones - so that's the piece.
RR: How long is the piece?
KH: It must be about nineteen or twenty minutes long, and it was commissioned for the Colorado Quartet by the National Endowment. Another piece I would mention is the Violin Concerto (1993), which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for their concert master, Glenn Dicterow. It was performed masterfully last year. Then, of course, the Cello Concerto (1988), which I wrote for Lynn Harrell, a wonderful cellist. He played it wonderfully, also. I wrote it at the time when the situation in the Soviet Union, as well as in Czechoslovakia, was such that everybody knew the Berlin Wall will probably will fall down - also with the view of the sort of human problems that we have had. It is partly personal, but it's not so important what it is...
RR: But personal things sometimes have played a role in your music,- because I know from a piece that is very close to me, the Elegy(1957), for piano. I wondered about it for many years, because I had performed it. I read in one of the articles, that it was a memorial for your mother.
KH: I wrote it here, in Ithaca, after I have learned in 1955. 1 received a letter from my sister saying "You will be very surprised what I'm writing to you, and I'm sorry, but your mother was buried last week. Three weeks ago she had a stroke, and never recovered for two weeks in the hospital, and finally died. We didn't let you know, because we were debating with my father, whether you would get permission, and what the consequences would have been, if you would have come; but we have buried her with your thoughts." Their fear was, at the time, that I might have, had I received the telegram, taken a plane and gone to Prague, and tried to see her and bury her. It would have been to no purpose, and, at the time when it happened, the Communist regime was so wild about things in the West.
RR.- This was the Stalinist period?
KH.- Yes. My relatives thought that maybe they wouldn't let me go back. I had the family here, so they thought "His mother was dead in any case, why to risk his life to come?"
RR.- The middle section that has so much intensity: am I correct, to interpret it as a kind of rage or anger at the impotence of not being able to do anything?
RR.- It's always been a piece that I liked a lot.
KH.- Thank you for playing it also.
RR.- I felt that there was some program but I didn't know what it was. So when I read about the family connection in the piece, it was very interesting.
KH.- These things help me too, when I know as a conductor that somebody has written this, or when we learn about pieces by Berg, that when he was traveling via Prague from Vienna to Berlin, and met this person and so forth... I think such things are very helpful to performers. As composers, and I would probably think you would feel the same, there are some things in us, however, that we do not want to reveal, as too touching or too personal. In the Cello Concerto, for instance, the piece starts with the lowest notes with all cellos playing. As the piece progresses, suddenly each cello from the back of the section, and with the soloist, detaches itself, and stops playing. From the thirteen cellos - there are twelve in the orchestra plus the soloist - from the thirteen, progressively, it comes to twelve, eleven, ten, nine, etc., until the soloist plays by himself.
RR.- There was a place in the Concerto for Orchestra where the strings did something quite similar.
KH.- Yes; then the piece finishes on the highest note, so that the cello can play not high G - but highest G with three lines...
RR.- Right where the finger board ends. . .
KH.- Yes, and even further... I tried it out on the cello, I can remember. That is a piece that also I am fond of.
RR.- And also has some personal...
KH.- Well, it does...
RR.-You mentioned you have currently an orchestral project. Are you just about to start?
KH: Well, I have sketches and I have to put them in score. It is for the Chicago Symphony. It's already on the program for April 11.
RR: Which direction is this piece taking?
KH.- That would be also a large work that is sort of a symphony. I'm not sure that "symphony" will be the title, or subtitle, yet.
RR: How will the piece be structured?
KH.-It probably will be one large movement, like the Concerto for Orchestra, in some way. It will be several movements played without interruption.
KH: I have the same thing with the Fourth Strinq Quartet, also attacca.
RR: And in some ways, this kind of thing is one of the biggest compositional challenges because we don't have the pause to rely on, or have small segments. The composer has to create a line through the whole piece, which I think you did so successfully in the Concerto for Orchestra.
1 Karel Ancerl was incarcerated in Teresenstadt in 1942. He survived the camp, and in later years was very successful as conductor of the Toronto Symphony
2 The Sudeten is a mountain range in east central Europe, extending along the northern boundary of Czechoslovakia between the Elbe and Oder rivers. This, and the Erzgebirge, an adjoining range, were annexed by the Nazis in 1938. The indirect cause was British Prime Minister Chamberlain's appeasement policy, but a Sudeten German minority party supported Hitler internally as well.
3 In 1938 Leinsdorf first conducted at the Met in N.Y., and was followed by Szell in 1942. Leinsdorf went to Cleveland in 1943. Later, in 1946, Szell took over there as permanent conductor.
4 The opera, Les Choephores (1916), with libretto by Milhaud's friend and mentor, Paul Claudel, was written as the third part of the composer's Aeschylus trilogy. Sections IV, V, and VII have huge percussion sections of as many as 15 separate parts, supporting as many as five independent, non-pitched vocal parts (one soloist, and chorus SATB).
5 The Symphonie pour un homme seul was a tape piece by Pierre Henry, composed in collaboration with Pierre Schaeffer, and completed in 1949-50. A final version was released in 1966.
6 An American Te Deum (1976), for baritone chorus and wind ensemble was commissioned by Coe College in Iowa. A second version with orchestral accompaniment was completed by the composer and premiered in 1978.
7 See Robert Rollin, "Pitch Structure, Form and Notation in Karel Husa's Concerto for Orchestra " Sonus, 13, No.2, Spring 1993, pp. 45 - 63. At the time of the interview, Professor Husa's Concerto, for Orchestra had been recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony and was due to be released shortly in the Fall of 1996. Professor Rollin also mentions Mr. Slatkin's eminent departure for the National Symphony in Washington and Mr. Husa mentions the inclusion of his Concerto for Orchestra on the St. Louis Symphony's 4-cd tribute to their departing conductor entitled the Leonard Slatkin Years.
created April 2000