Suk, Josef (1874-1935)

Josef Suk, the son of a village schoolmaster and choir director, was born in Krecovice, on January 4, 1874. He received his first instruction in violin at the age of eight, and at the age of eleven he was already a pupil at the Prague Conservatory, where he was trained in composition by Antonín Dvorák beginning in 1891. He soon became his famous teacher's favorite pupil and a welcome guest in his home, which he frequented for reasons other than just tips and pointers in musical matters. Although Otilie (Otylka), Dvorák's eldest daughter, was only fourteen years old, the first bonds of affection proved to be so strong that they even survived the separation occasioned while the Dvoráks were residing in the United States during 1892–95.

While he was waiting, Josef Suk took an important career step. He formed the "Céske kvartet" together with Karl Hoffmann, Oskar Nedbal, and Otto Berger, serving as its second violinist. During the following four decades this ensemble exerted a considerable influence on the international chamber-music landscape. Meanwhile Suk's love for Otylka had only grown all the more, and his in-laws-to-be arranged for their daughter to be married in November 1898, on the same day that the two "old folks" would be celebrating their silver wedding anniversary. Suk was twenty-four years old and had just earned his first spurs as a composer. He had unwittingly created an all-time great with his String Serenade in E flat major op. 6, was busy playing the violin in the quartet, and was diligently working away on new works of youthful ambition such as the Symphony in E major op. 14. His life seemed to form part of a harmonious whole which indeed could be termed very close to perfect. At the age of thirty, however, Suk lost his honored father-in-law, and on July 6, 1905, a mere fourteen months later, he became a widower. His beloved Otylka suffered from a chronic heart condition, and on that day her heart stopped beating.

Suk was left alone. And he remained so until the end of his life. In 1933, two years before his own death, the second violinist retired from the quartet. At the same time he for the second time assumed the post of director at the Prague Conservatory, where he had held the title of Professor of Composition for quite some time. Josef Suk died on May 29, 1935. And today, almost seventy years after this composer's death, we encounter what is an extremely remarkable situation. On the one hand, almost everything that Suk composed during the course of his life is documented in recorded form. On the other hand, the great majority of the important writings about him continue to be limited to a foreign language endowed with hooks und eyes that only a few Europeans learn as their mother tongue. As a result, there is much room for rumors, and in introductory texts examples of the art of clever copying keep popping up. Nobody has even begun to try to see what would happen if Suk were removed from the customary frame of reference provided by his famous contemporaries; to see what would happen if one were to suspend the compulsory exercise of measuring him by Sibelius, Strauss, Mahler, Schönberg, Schreker, Janácek, or Bartók; to see what would happen, in a sort of historical dimensional shift, if he were for once to be assigned the role of an individual whose existence is defined by himself and itself.

(Eckardt van den Hoogen, translated by Susan Marie Praeder, from the booklet to "Josef Suk - Asrael Symphony", CD cpo, 2004)


Suk, Josef: Scherzo fantastique Op. 25
Collegium Musicum Köln, cond. Michael Ostrzyga
Cologne, University (Germany)
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