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Karel Husa’s (b. 1921) pliant style builds on and extends the traditional classical forms, assimilating elements of serialism, microtonality, and aleatoric techniques. Although the composition dates of these four works for wind quintet span three decades, the pieces bear striking similarities. All purposefully set out to stretch the traditional range of wind sonorities, and often leave rhythms and pitches loosely notated. Yet while all four works explore atonality, at root the tonal structure is easy to identify. All four works are emotional and virtuosic, challenging to play and sophisticated enough to reward repeated listenings.
The composer notes that, as with many of his works, in Deux Preludes (1966) he set out to explore unorthodox sonorities. The Five Poems (1994) are actually musical characterizations of birds, although Husa avoids imitating bird song directly. “I wrote Five Poems to express my admiration for birds, these wonderful creatures that embellish our lives so magically,” he says. “If Messiaen hadn’t already directly imitated bird song, I might have. I have done notation of bird songs in the past, which is difficult because they never exactly repeat themselves. And that was the effect I tried for in Five Poems—subtle varieties among the patterns.”
The six movements of Recollections (1982) (wind quintet and piano) explore unusual sonorities and demand virtuosic technique. A sheet of paper under the pedal dampers of the low strings prepares the piano in some sections. Of the title, Husa notes that “recollections are vivid, but not exactly precise. The way we remember things is a mix of accuracy and fancy … There is so much to memory that it is impossible to describe it all. There are memories that are distant, some that are joyous, tragic, and melancholic. To accomplish all this, I wanted the composition to develop from simple tones and to return to them, all the while researching new combinations and sonorities in the quintet.” Serenade (1963), for wind quintet, xylophone, harp, and strings, is a reworking of his Évocations de Slovaquie. It explores Slavic folk music, adding abrupt and irregular rhythms.
Husa’s determination to explore new sonorities, to upset rhythmic regularity, and to challenge accepted notions of how wind instruments should interact, combine to create a bold and unmistakably identifiable personal signature.