Josef Suk

1874 1935

Josef Suk

Composer

Biography

Josef Suk was a Czech composer and violinist. He was also the son of the composer Josef Suk. He was considered one of the leaders of the modern Czech school and focused primarily on orchestral and piano works. Unlike his contemporaries, Suk’s music was not based in folksong.

Suk was born in the Bohemian village of Křečovice where he was immersed in music as a young boy. He learned piano, violin and organ from his father.

In 1885, Suk entered the Prague Conservatory where he studied violin with Bennewitz and theory with Foerster, Knittl and Stecker. He also studied chamber music with Wihan. It was not until his third year at the conservatory that he began to compose seriously. Suk graduated in 1891 with his Piano Quartet Op. 1, but remained another year at the conservatory to continue his chamber music studies with Wihan and to study composition with the newly appointedDvořák, under whom he graduated in 1892 with hisDramatická ouvertura op.4. Suk was Dvořák’s favourite pupil and married his daughter Otilie in 1898.

Under Wihan, Suk played second violin in what would later become the Czech Quartet. They gave their first concert in 1893 in Vienna and performed more than 4000 times, until Suk’s retirement in 1933. The group gained much international acclaim and earned the approval ofBrahms and Hanslick.

In 1922, Suk was appointed professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory for the advanced classes. His Czech students include the composers Bořkovec, Ježek, Hlobil, Martinů, Reiner, Vačkář. Suk also held the position of director of the school for two periods of two years each, during which he worked tirelessly to raise standards. Suk was a member of the Czech Academy of Sciences and awarded an honorary doctorate from Brno University in 1933.

Suk enjoyed early success as a composer and was regarded as the successor to Dvořák. Suk was not heavily influenced by other European musical traditions, despite his frequent tours throughout Europe as a performer. There are, however, signs of his awareness of the French school of Impressionists and of Richard Strauss. In general, he paved his own path and created his own style and sound. His early works tend to be quite lyrical and based in the Romantic tradition while his later works became more complex and evolved to include a polytonal musical language.

Several of his best known works were written before the age of 20, such as his Serenade for Strings andPíseň lásky, ‘Love Song’, from his Op.7 piano pieces (1891–3).

Suk’s music is mostly rooted in instrumental traditions, as that of his teacher. In his early years he wrote his only liturgical work, the Mass (1888-90) and three very effective choral sets Opp. 15, 18 and 19 (1899-900). Though these were successful, he only returned once to this style, in his Op. 32 (1911-12) for a male chorus. Further, Suk did not write any operas. He did, however, supply incidental music to two plays and the suite (1912) fromPod jabloní ‘Beneath the Apple Tree’, Op. 20 (1900–01) has many traits of an oratorio.

Suk also avoided composing much chamber music, though he was an avid chamber music performer. Most of his chamber music compositions are from his student days and include the String Quartet in D minor (1888), Piano Trio Op. 2 (1889, 1891), Piano Quartet Op. 1 (1891) and Piano Quartet Op. 8 (1893). His most successful chamber work from this period was his String Quartet Op. 11 (1896), which was charming and melodic, though it foreshadowed his later dramatic side. After this period, he only wrote one more string quartet (Op. 31, 1911).

Several of Suk’s works for solo violin are extremely well known, such as his Čtyři skladby ‘Four Pieces’ Op.17 (1900) and the Fantasy Op. 24 (1902-3), which is essentially a concerto in one movement. One of Suk’s trademarks as a composer was the prevailing sound of a solo violin in combination with the orchestra.

Having learnt piano as a boy from his father, Suk was also a skilled pianist and would often perform for his friends and sometimes for the public. As such, he wrote a considerable amount of piano music. His earliest works consist of groups of characteristic pieces (Opp. 7, 10 and 12; 1891-6). These works show influences from both Brahms and the salon.

His later piano works are programmatic suites inspired by the birth of his son and includeJaro ‘Spring’ Op.22a (1902) and Letní dojmy ‘Summer Impressions’ Op.22b (1902) These works are very Romantic in nature.

Suk’s greatest piano work foretells the great Préludes from Debussy. The suite of ten short piecesŽivotem a snem ‘Things Lived and Dreamt’ Op. 30 (1909) is a true masterwork.

Above all, Suk’s orchestral music prevails. Some of his early, yet very successful, orchestral works include his Serenade for Strings Op. 6 (1982) and the suitePohádka ‘Fairy Tale’ (1899–1900) from Radúz.

Even more ambitious works were to come, including the Violin Fantasy Op. 24 (1902-3) and the tone poemPrago Op. 26 (1904) which is reminiscent of Strauss.

Most impressive in Suk’s orchestral output is his symphony Asrael Op. 27 (1905-6). The work began as a tribute to his recently deceased teacher and father-in-law Dvořák (d. 1904), but became much more tremendous and dark after the death of his wife in 1905. The shambles of the composer’s soul are bared in this heart-wrenching personal tale of tragedy. In addition to the deep emotional impact, the work features a great structure, on par with that of Mahler’s symphonies.

The orchestral works after Asrael all are symphonic in nature, but are not labelled symphonies. Most notable are two pieces written with a single-movement, Zrání ‘Ripening’ Op.34 (1912–7) and Epilog Op.37 (1920–29).

Radúz was perhaps the turning point in Suk’s development as a composer. This monumental work portrayed a couple which mirrored Suk and his wife at their happiest. This work is often referenced in Suk’s later works.

Suk’s later polytonal and complex writing as exemplified best in Ripening (1912-7) andEpilog (1920-9) was his response to European modern music, though he noticed that his works were premiered less frequently after 1912, most likely due to the complex musical language of the works. He was also quite worn from his duties at the Conservatory and his many tours.

Suk died in 1935 in Benešov.

Images courtesy of Sound Proofed Blog, Philharmonic Society, Classical M Journey and public domain

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