Karel Husa, an internationally renowned composer who left an indelible legacy at Ithaca College, Cornell University, and the music world at large, passed away December 14, 2016, at his home in Apex, North Carolina. He was 95 years old.
An internationally renowned composer, Karel was born in Czechoslovakia and trained at the Prague Conservatory during World War II and earned his doctorate from the Prague Academy of Music in 1947. After several years in Paris, where he saw his compositions performed throughout Europe, he received an offer to join the Cornell University faculty. He moved with his wife and two daughters in 1954 to Ithaca, and became a U.S. citizen five years later.
In 1967, Karel was appointed lecturer in composition at the Ithaca College School of Music, where he taught until 1986. His affiliation with IC led to the commission of a work that would become one of his hallmarks: Music for Prague 1968, inspired by the Soviet invasion of his home country.
The work came about after he listened to radio reports of the Soviet invasion of his beloved home country of Czechoslovakia. As he told Cary Magazine in 2011, "I couldn't believe these two friends, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, would attack each other. I remember the 1939 occupation by Hitler when I was 18. I knew what freedom was and why people fight for that." Since it was premiered by the IC Concert Band in 1969, the symphonic work has been performed over 7,000 times around the world.
In all, he composed more than 90 musical works — several of which are now considered part of the standard modern repertoire — and in 1999 donated five of his manuscripts to IC. Other notable compositions included "Eight Czech Duets" for four-hand piano (1955); "Apotheosis of This Earth" (1970); Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and legendary conductor Zubin Mehta (1986); and the Trumpet Concerto (1987).
Karel also became an integral part of the music community in Ithaca — at both Cornell University and at IC, as well as in the broader community. He was the first musical director of the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra, serving from 1977 through 1984. As the Ithaca Times wrote in a 2012 article, "Those who performed under his leadership came away with memories of meticulous musicianship, great tact and kindness, as well as a special courtly modesty."
"He was a wonderful colleague and — already a fine and well-established composer — a terrific mentor and friend," said Dana Wilson, retired Charles A. Dana professor of music. "He was always incredibly supportive of me and virtually every member of the faculty," he added.
Karel was also recognized around the world for his talents and achievements. In 1969, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for another work, his String Quartet No. 3. In 1993 he received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for music composition from the University of Louisville, and in 1995 was awarded the Czech Republic's highest civilian honor, the State Medal of Merit, First Class. And at Ithaca College, the position of visiting professor of composition — awarded each year to a major figure in music composition — bears his name.
An accomplished conductor, he led the major orchestras of Europe, Asia, and the United States, and his music was frequently recorded for leading classical music labels. It was said that he had conducted ensembles in all 50 U.S. states.
Professor Wilson noted that many Ithaca College ensembles benefitted from Karel's insights and experiences, which he often shared during rehearsals he attended. "His music is, and his personality was, like fine chocolate: delicious because it stimulates most of our tongues' receptors — sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and umami — all at once," Professor Wilson said.
Karel Husa is survived by his wife of 64 years, Simone; his daughters Catherine Husseini, Anne-Marie Katerji, Elizabeth Evola, and Caroline Husa Bell; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.