Josef Suk, Elegie, Op. 23

March 10, 2018

Josef Suk (1874-1935)

Elegie for Piano Trio, Op. 23, Under the Impression of Zeyer's Vysehrad (1902)

Josef Suk When Josef Suk was born, Dvořák was in his early thirties and would become an important father figure to Suk in many ways. Suk grew up in a Bohemian village where his father, a choirmaster, taught him piano, violin and organ. Entering the Prague Conservatory when he was only eleven, Suk studied violin, theory and chamber music graduating in 1891 with an impressive piano quartet as his first official opus. Still merely eighteen, he remained at the conservatory for another year to study with Dvořák who had just joined the teaching staff. Thus began a multi-dimensional relationship that lasted until the end of Dvořák’s life. Dvořák considered Suk his favorite pupil and in 1898 became his father-in-law when Suk married his daughter Otilka. With recommendations from Dvořák and Brahms, Suk began publishing his well-received compositions and in time became regarded as among the next generation of promising Czech composers with a potential to become Dvořák’s musical heir. A man of many talents, Suk became a professor of composition influencing yet another generation. He also played second fiddle in the celebrated Czech Quartet playing more than 4,000 concerts until his retirement in 1933. Suk’s enduring reputation rests primarily on his orchestral scores (e.g. the Serenade for Strings, Pohádka Suite and his ambitious, late Romantic Asrael symphony), but he also wrote some very effective chamber music including the inaugural piano quartet, piano trios, a piano quintet and several string quartets. Although his earlier works strongly reflect the influence of Dvořák, Suk’s style developed well into the late Romantic idiom, particularly after his tragic loss of both father-in-law and wife within a short period early in the 20th century.

Julius Zeyer Suk was particularly influenced by the Czech writer Julius Zeyer whose plays and epic poems drew on Bohemian legends and evoked nationalistic themes. Suk composed incidental music for the Zeyer’s play Radúz a Mahulena yielding the celebrated Pohádka Suite. A second collaboration, now between friends, was planned but Zeyer died before the project was finished. Instead, Suk turned to composing an elegy for Zeyer producing the single movement Elegie for piano trio subtitled “Under the Impression of Zeyer’s Vyšehrad” after Zeyer’s epic poem of the same name. Zeyer’s poem references Vyšehrad, an ancient fortress high on a rock overlooking the river in Prague, a national icon that previously inspired the first of Smetana’s six tone poems collected as Má vlast. Suk’s Elegie seems to express a noble, graceful nostalgia for the past (the ancient fortress, the life of Julius Zeyer) while, as with most classic elegies, its supple lyricism is repeatedly haunted by painful intrusions of tragedy and loss. The second rupture brings about a new theme, an ultimate moment of acceptance and transcendence allowing the noble theme to resume and conclude unthwarted.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.