Saturday, 9 September 2017


“I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.” - Charles Baudelaire 

Josef Suk (4 January 1874 – 29 May 1935) was a Czech composer and violinist born in Křečovice, Bohemia. He studied under Antonín Dvořák, whose daughter he married. From a young age, Josef Suk was deeply involved and well-trained in music. He learned organ, violin, and piano from his father, Josef Suk senior, and was trained further in violin by the Czech violinist Antonín Bennewitz. His theory studies were conducted with several other composers including Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Karel Knittl, and Karel Stecker. He later focused his writing on chamber works under the teachings of Hanuš Wihan.

Despite extensive musical training, Suk’s musical skill was often said to be largely inherited. Though he continued his lessons with Wihan another year after the completion of his schooling, Suk’s greatest inspiration came from another of his teachers, Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. Known as one of Dvořák’s favorite pupils, Suk also became personally close to his mentor. Underlying this was Dvořák’s respect for Suk, reflected in Suk’s 1898 marriage to Dvořák’s daughter, Otilie, marking some of the happiest times in the composer’s life and music.

However, the last portion of Suk’s life was punctuated with tragedy. Over the span of 14 months around 1905, not only did Suk’s mentor Dvořák die, but so did Otilie. These events inspired Suk’s “Asrael Symphony”. Because of a shared heritage (and the coincidence of their dying within a few months of one another) Suk has been closely compared, in works and style, to fellow Czech composer Otakar Ostrčil. Suk, alongside Vitezslav Novak and Ostrčil, is considered one of the leading composers in Czech Modernism, with much shared influence among the three coming in turn from Dvořák.

Eminent German figures such as composer Johannes Brahms and critic Eduard Hanslick recognized Suk’s work during his time with the Czech Quartet. Over time, well known Austrian composers such as Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg also began to take notice of Suk and his work. Although he wrote mostly instrumental music, Suk occasionally branched out into other genres. Orchestral music was his strong suit, notably the “Serenade for Strings”, Op. 6 (1892).

His time with the Czech Quartet, though performing successful concerts until his retirement, was not always met with public approval. Several anti-Dvořák campaigns came into prominence; criticism not only being directed at the quartet, but towards Suk specifically. The leftist critic Zdeněk Nejedlý accused the Czech Quartet of inappropriately playing concerts in the Czech lands during World War I. While these attacks diminished Suk’s spirits, they did not hinder his work. Suk retired in 1933, although he continued to be a valuable and inspirational public figure to the Czechs. Josef Suk died on May 29, 1935, in Benešov, Czechoslovakia. He is the grandfather of famed Czech violinist Josef Suk.

Suk’s musical style started off with a heavy influence from his mentor, Dvořák. The biggest change of Suk’s style came after he reached a dead end in his early musical style, just before he began a stylistic shift during 1897–1905, perhaps realising that the strong influence of Dvořák would limit his work. Melancholy was always a large factor in Suk’s music. For instance, he wrote his own funeral march in 1889 and it appears significantly also in a major work, the “Funeral Symphony, Asrael”, Op. 27. “Ripening”, a symphonic poem, was also a story of pain and questioning the value of life.

Other works, however, such as the music he set to Julius Zeyer’s drama “Radúz a Mahulena”, display his happiness, which he credited to his marriage with Otilie. Another of Suk’s works, “Pohádka” (Fairy Tale), was drawn from his work with “Radúz a Mahulena”. The closest Suk came to opera is in his incidental music to the play “Pod jabloní” (Beneath the Apple Tree).

Here is Suk’s “Serenade for Strings in E flat major”, Op. 6 (1892), performed by The Young Danish Chamber Orchestra:
1. Andante con moto (0:00)
2. Allegro ma non troppo e grazioso (4:57)
3. Adagio (10:38)
4. Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo presto (19:29)

While Suk was studying under Antonín Dvořák at the Prague Conservatory, Dvořák noticed a melancholy strain in much of Suk’s music, and recommended he write some lighter and more cheerful music. Based on Dvořák’s suggestion, Suk produced this serenade for strings. Two movements were publicly conducted by Suk in late 1893 in Tábor. The first complete performance was on 25 February 1895, at the Prague Conservatory, conducted by Antonín Bennewitz, Suk’s violin teacher at the Conservatory. The Serenade soon brought Suk considerable fame and Dvořák’s longtime supporter, Johannes Brahms, endorsed its publication.

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