A very modern work today.
Karel Husa (1921-2016) was Czech by birth, being born in Prague. When he was just 33 he emigrated to the United States, where in addition to being a celebrated composer he taught for decades at Cornell University. Husa won the Pulitzer Prize for Composition for his third string quartet, and his piece Music for Prague 1968 is one of the most notable compositions for wind band of the latter 20th Century. Music for Prague 1968, in which the composer pays tribute to his own people in the face of Soviet aggression, was later transcribed for orchestra, whereupon it enjoyed greater success. Husa was a forward-thinking composer who employed wild dissonances and difficult melodic material, in addition to quotes from ancient works. He was also a great experimentalist with different sounds, as you’ll hear in this piece.
Today’s work is Apotheosis of this Earth, a 1971 piece that started for wind band and chorus, but was also later transcribed for orchestra. The work springs from Husa’s deep environmentalism. Here is the text of Husa’s own writing on the piece (credit):
The composition of Apotheosis of this Earth was motivated by the present desperate stage of mankind and its immense problems with everyday killings, war, hunger, extermination of fauna, huge forest fires, and critical contamination of the whole environment.
Man’s brutal possession and misuse of nature’s beauty—if continued at today’s reckless speed—can only lead to catastrophe. The composer hopes that the destruction of this beautiful earth can be stopped, so that the tragedy of destruction—musically portrayed in the second movement—and the desolation of the aftermath (the “postscript” of the third movement) can exist only as fantasy, never to become reality.
In the first movement, Apotheosis, the earth first appears as a point of light in the universe. Our memory and imagination approach it in perhaps the same way as it appeared to the astronauts returning from the moon. The earth grows larger and larger, and we can even remember some of its tragic moments (as struck by the xylophone near the end of the movement).
The second movement, Tragedy of Destruction, deals with the actual brutalities of man against nature, leading to the destruction of our planet, perhaps by radioactive explosion. The earth dies as a savagely, mortally wounded creature.
The last movement is a Postscript, full of the realization that so little is left to be said: the earth has been pulverized into the universe, the voices scattered into space. Toward the end, these voices — at first computer-like and mechanical — unite into the words “this beautiful earth,” simply said, warm and filled with regret…and one of so many questions comes to our minds: ‘Why have we let this happen?’”
Listening to this work several times over the last few days, I am reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s use of modern music (primarily Ligeti) in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The piece speaks of the industrialized destruction of our own habitat, along with the habitats of many others, and of the regret as our light slowly dies. It’s not an optimistic work, to be sure. But optimism is not always well-taken.
Here is Apotheosis of this Earth, by Karel Husa.