Karel Husa: Music for Prague 1968

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"
George Santayana

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."
Ecclesiastes 1:9

In January of 1968, Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and began a sweeping reform, introducing the concept of freedom of the press, speech, and travel to the Communistic country.  He also proposed a decentralized Czechoslovakia, one where different regions would have the ability to govern themselves as they saw fit. 

In January of 1969, Jan Palach, a college-age, history student was dead from self-immolation, protesting what he perceived to be the acquiescence of his countrymen to their old, restrictive way of life.

What happened in between was nothing really out of the ordinary for the Soviet Union and its dysfunctional family of neighbor-states.  Since Dubček had decided that Czechoslovakia deserved the opportunity to decide more of its destiny than had previously been determined as adequate by the Eastern Bloc, the Warsaw Pact nations (led by the USSR) attempted to leverage (initially through heavy political posturing) the suddenly self-aware state to remain stoic, powerful, and reserved as far as Communist nations go.  

Eventually, seeing that talking was not going to deter Dubček and his liberalization agenda, the USSR took action and invaded Czechoslovakia.  

In one night in August, some 200,000 troops moved into the Eastern Bloc country and began systematically disabling and corralling the Czechoslovakian military forces.  There was little resistance and even if they would resist, both sides knew that it would only have ended in massive bloodshed.  

What did occur though was a strong passive resistance.  Many villages painted over all their directional signs, except those indicating the direction of Moscow.  They obscured the names of their villages and frequently gave wrong directions to the invading soldiers.  

This was pre-Tom Tom.
Dubček encouraged his country to accept the inevitable and to not risk their lives by picking fights, but a few did and about 72 people were killed during the invasion. As part of their propaganda campaign, the Soviet press ran an anonymous letter, purportedly from Czech and Slovak leadership that implied a request for military aid, that the Soviets and the other Eastern Bloc countries were being summoned by a contingent within the CSR that were holding out against Dubček and his filthy capitalism.  

A year later, Jan Palach did not burn himself to death in protest of the invasion. One of the first burn specialists to work on him had this to say about his actions:
"It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises."
Karel Husa (1921-2016) watched the events of the Prague Spring unfold from the safety of the United States.   He was moved to see his homeland suffering a fate that seemed all too familiar and thus was moved to compose "Music for Prague 1968".  

It is set into four movements and is written as program music, meaning that it is designed to provoke mental imagery by how the music is crafted.  I could sit and paraphrase, but Husa's own program notes do a far better job:
Music for Prague 1968 was commissioned by the Ithaca College Concert Band. It was premiered by the commissioning ensemble in Washington, D.C., on 31 January 1969, Dr. Kenneth Snapp, conductor, at a concert for the Music Educators National Conference. 
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 reappears at extremely song dynamic levels, for example, in the middle of the Aria. 
Different techniques of composing as well as orchestrating have been used in Music for Prague 1968 and some new sounds explored, such as the percussion section in the Interlude, the ending of the work, etc. Much symbolism also appears: in addition to the distress calls in the first movement (Fanfares), the unbroken hope of the Hussite song, sound of bells, or the tragedy (Aria), there is also the bird call at the beginning (piccolo solo), symbol of liberty which the City of Prague has seen only for a few moments during its thousand years of existence. * 
-Program Notes by Karel Husa

This is not an easy piece to listen to.  It's about 20 minutes long and if you do this correctly, you will feel a great deal of emotion while it is performed.  Husa captures the sounds of the invasion through the use of low brass imitating planes flying overhead.  There's a general sense of confusion and depression, but in the end you hear the solidarity of the Czech and Slovak people become overwhelming. You get a sense that despite their inability to repel those that wish to keep them as they are, there will one day be another opportunity, another chance to fight. 

Husa wrote the following footnote with the program notes, and again I'm having trouble saying it any better than he did:
* It is the composer's wish that the preceding note be printed in its entirety in all concert programs or read to the audience before each performance of the work. 
"It is not as beautiful a music as one always would like to hear. But we cannot always paint flowers, we cannot always speak in poetry about beautiful clouds, there are sometimes we would like to express the fight for freedom." -Karel Husa
See you next Friday.


As a post-note, this particular example is the FSU Symphonic Band performing this work at which time, I was fortunate enough to be a member of this ensemble.  It is one of the finest and most cherished musical experiences of my life.