Suk – (Czech Music Series)

JOSEF SUK (1874 – 1935)

 Josef Suk (to rhyme with “book”) is perhaps the least known of the five featured composers in Matthew Taylor’s coverage of five Czech composers. However he justifies his ranking as third in line following Smetana and Dvorak.

 For us in Matthew’s class, there is an added interest. Josef Suk spent much of his professional career as the second violinist of The Bohemian Quartet which became known as the Czech Quartet after 1918. They were a quartet of international repute founded in 1891 and disbanded in 1934. Suk was a founding member and amongst the venues in which the Bohemians played in those pre-first world war days was Blackheath Halls where indeed we meet. Another well known name to Blackheath Halls is Hanus Wihan who became the cellist of the quartet replacing the original cellist, and taking over leadership of the Bohemian Quartet until 1913. That to-day’s Wihan Quartet is in residence is thus a potent link to the heyday of the Bohemians, to Josef Suk, composer, and to the man to whose name the Wihans pay tribute.


 Suk was born in1874 in Krecovice, Bohemia, where his father was a school teacher and choral director. It was he who taught Josef to play the piano, violin, and organ. In 1885, at the age of 11, Suk entered the Prague Conservatory. By 1888, he had composed a mass, the Krecovicka mase. In 1891 he received his degree after writing what became the Op. 1 piano quartet. When Dvorak became a professor at the Conservatory, Suk stayed an extra year to study with him. Dvorak considered Suk his best student, and the two became personally close. In 1898, Suk married Dvorak’s daughter Otilie. Josef Suk was a well contented family man after his and Otilie’s son was born and sharing his life also with a father in law who was his mentor.

Suk’s compositional life is very clearly divided into two periods, not so much early Suk and late Suk as pre-Asrael and post-Asrael. His early works are characterized by a late romantic style that created a general perception of Suk as Dvorak’s heir. Considering his position in the Bohemian String Quartet, Suk was to write comparatively little chamber music, wrote few songs and never approached opera, concentrating mainly on orchestral music. As a student in 1892, he wrote the Serenade for Strings which boosted his career when Brahms promoted it, doing for Suk what he had done for Dvorak years before. This is a delightful work in which Dvorak would have seen a kinship with his own serenade. The Suk has much the same charm and has some interesting shifts of tonality. In 1897 and 1898, he composed incidental music for the play Raduz a Mahulena, which has resonances with Suk’s own happy marriage. Another popular piece from the period is the Scherzo Fantastique, a dark scherzo written against the background of a haunting waltz. I would describe it as a Lisztian Faust coupled with a Sibelian Valse Triste. The most extended composition of the pre-Asrael period is the first symphony, rarely played and a pity for that. It has all the delights of the romantic output of this happy period in Suk’s earlier days. Anyone coming to Asrael afterwards is due for a shock. However it comes with easy going pleasure for those acquainted with Asrael.

Matthew’s lecture is devoted to Asrael, Suk’s second symphony. In 1904, Dvorák died from a sudden heart attack.   This came as a shock to Suk which inspired him to compose a full length symphony to the memory of his father-in-law and mentor. Death was the theme. Asrael is the name of the Angel of Death who takes away the souls of the dead in Muslim mythology. He began work in January 2005 in Hamburg whilst on tour with the Bohemians and got to completing three movements with the fourth sketched and with plans for the finale. At this stage however, 14 months after Dvorak’s death, an even worse blow was to befall Suk. His wife Otilie who herself suffered from a week heart, died at the age of 27. This was to have a more devastating impact. Suk was absolutely inconsolable.   He wrote:-

 “After the terrible moment when the star of my life went out in my arms, today is the first day that I have taken up a pen. I can’t talk with anyone, my immense pain drives me from place to place – but the longer it lasts the more my heart aches – my suffering is more than any mortal can bear”.

 Despite his distracted state, Suk was somehow able to channel his emotions into the symphony. The fourth movement he had sketched was withdrawn and completely redrafted as were his ideas for the finale. The symphony now became not just a tribute to Dvorak with its references to the Dvorak Requiem, particularly in its second movement, but also a memorial to Otilie depicting Suk’s earlier happy memories with her, and associated by references to his incidental music for Raduz and Mahulena. I do not propose to give a guided tour through the symphony. You will get that better than I can do from Matthew but a few remarks will, I hope, indicate the general idea. The symphony was completed in May 1906 and first performed in 1907. It is cast in five long movements and is over an hour long. The original three movements form Part 1. Part 2 consists of the two new fourth and fifth movements. The idea of dividing the symphony into distinctive parts which contain the separate movements was similarly shared by Mahler in his fifth symphony completed in 1902 and in many ways Asrael could be said to have a Mahlerian structure, a Mahler like grotesquerie in its scherzo and a Mahlerian obsession with death although in no way does Asrael sound like Mahler. However the structure of dividing the symphony into parts was not a Mahler invention. It came much earlier in 1840 by that greatest of innovators, Hector Berlioz, in his dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet.   Berlioz will no doubt one day be the subject of a separate series of lectures. Part 1 of Asrael can be attributed as a memorial tribute to Dvorak; Part 2 as a personal memorial to Otilie. The first movement of Asrael contains the fate motive hammered out at the end of the movement. The fourth movement contains painful but sweet memories of Otilie. Fate returns in the final movement as do other themes and the work ends quietly with all passion and energy spent. Suk described the symphony to a friend as not a work of pain but a work of superhuman energy. Its completion got the terror out of his system but he would never be the same man and he would never write the same music again. Suk never really recovered from the emotional trauma and never remarried but remained a widower for thirty years.

 Asrael was also a musical turning point. Previously Suk had been a charming petit maitre with a melodic ear and a sweet harmonic tooth who could turn out also attractive salonesque pieces. Asrael in contrast was heading into the twentieth century. Suk’s compositions became more introspective, complex, and infused with emotion. He followed this with a Summer’s Tale which is impressionist and owes something to Debussy. Suk began to experiment with polytonality, notably in his symphonic poem Ripening written between 1912 and 1917. I have only recently heard this work and I have to confess that I find the orchestration heavy handed, a bit like Bax, and somewhat unlovely. Still, as Matthew would say, the penny has yet to drop. It contains a wordless female chorus and there does appear at times to be a pre-echo of Gustav Holst of all people. Other connections could be made with Richard Strauss or Korngold. Suk appears to have composed in these latter years with less facility, taking five years on Ripening, and nine years from 1920 to 1929 in writing Epilog, his third symphony with soloists and chorus. On the other hand Suk did make his living largely as a performer and teacher, scheduling composing time around his daily responsibilities. Had he not suffered outrageous fortune and had he taken the plunge of being a full time composer, who knows what he would have produced? Alas it is something we never will know.

 This year, in case you didn’t know it, is Olympic year. Not everybody amongst our number welcomes the arrival of the equestrian events led by Lord Coe and his Coehorts in Greenwich Park. Now what on earth has that got to do with Josef Suk I hear you ask? Well, I have discovered that Suk was a silver medallist in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932. Not the hundred metres nor the steeple chase but for Music Composition. The gold medal was withheld that year and so Suk was actually top dog for composition, not that this pole vaulted him into fame. Art competitions formed part of the modern Olympic Games from 1912 to 1952. They were part of the original intention of the Olympic Movement’s founder, Le Baron de Coubertin. Medals were awarded for works of art inspired by sport, divided into five categories; architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. These competitions were abandoned in 1954 because artists were considered to be professionals, while Olympic athletes in those times were required to be amateurs. Since 1956, the Olympic cultural programme has taken their place. Now I do not know what Lord Coe’s tastes in the arts may be, and it may well be that he is a connoisseur of the Pre-Raphaelites or an avid listener of Gotterdamerung. What I do say is that the “cultural” Olympics are run by Philistines. In 2012 they have taken the form of a sprint down the corridors of Tate Britain with Lord Coe, bless his cotton running pants, leading the first dash. Now I ask you, how naff can you get? Still, it gives me an idea. Maybe I should not be so unkind to Lord Coe. Perhaps instead we should approach LOCOG and ask them, in view of the disturbance that we in Blackheath and Greenwich will suffer, to promote a special Olympic Legacy Matthew Taylor Lecture entitled Variations On An Equine Theme, a celebration to take place on the day of the cross country event. It would include (inter alia)

 Wagner – Ride of the Valkyries,

Sibelius – Night Ride and Sun Rise

Rossini – Overture to William Tell

Schubert – The Erlking

Sibelius – The Return of Lemminkainen

Copland – The Red Pony Suite

Berlioz – The “Ride to Pandemonium” from the Damnation of Faust


And a special tribute to Lord Coe:

Debussy – The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian