Monday, September 8, 2014

Suk - Symphony No. 2 In C Minor 'Asrael'

Josef Suk was a student of Antonín Dvořák and their relationship grew into one of mutual respect and friendship. Suk was also a violinist and toured for many years with the Czech String Quartet, a group that came to have international fame and premiered many contemporary string quartets by Dvořák and Janáček.  Suk played second violin with the quartet until he retired in 1933. Suk's relationship and respect for Dvořák deepened when he married Dvořák's daughter Otilie.

Although Suk wrote some chamber music, he is most well known for his works for orchestra. His mentor Dvořák influenced his earlier works, but his style changed after 1905 to a more complex and emotional one that was brought on by the death of two people very close to him.

The first death was of his father-in-law Dvořák in 1904. He began to work on his 2nd Symphony in honor of Dvořák a few months afterwards, and titled the symphony Asrael after the Old Testament Angel of Death. As Suk was working on the symphony the unthinkable happened as his wife, Dvořák's daughter, died in 1905. Suk wrote about the double tragedy:
I was suddenly handed a telegram [when he was on tour with the Czech String Quartet]: Return immediately - Dvorak dead [1/5/1904]. I shall never forget that terrible journey to Prague. Not only was I crushed to the depths of human emotion, I was also consumed with anxiety over whether Otilka's failing heart would take it. This sad turn of events also marked a turning point in my creative work, and thus the symphony, bearing the name of the Angel of Death, Asrael, was conceived. I completed the first part of the composition, dedicated to the memory of Dvorak, but the last movement, which was to have been an apotheosis of the maestro's work, was never written. The fearsome Angel of Death struck with his scythe a second time, and into eternity departed the purest, sweetest soul of my Otilka. 
Such a misfortune either destroys a man or brings to the surface all the powers dormant in him. It looked like I might be of that first kind, but Music saved me and after a year I began the second part of the symphony, beginning with an adagio, a tender portrait of Otilka. In a very short time, and with superhuman energy, I became immersed in the terrors of the last movement which nevertheless ends in the clarity and calm of C major. Blessed be the dead. 
It's been said of this work, and about other works of mine, that they're subjective in the extreme. They do, of course, stem from life experience, but with their musical and human content they address all mankind. When, after the stormy and nerve-wracking last movement of the symphony, the mysterious and soft C major chord is heard, I often notice that it brings tears to people's eyes, and these tears are tears of relief, tears that purify and uplift - they are, therefore, not just my tears.

The 2nd Symphony 'Asrael' is in 5 movements played without a break:

Antonin Dvorak
I. Andante sustenuto -  The symphony begins with deep thumps from pizzicato basses and timpani. The cellos, violas and bass clarinet play a haunting, fragmented theme, the theme that is the kernel of the entire work. The first movement eschews sonata form for a complex form of musical ebb and climax. The first movement is haunted by the emotions Suk felt on the passing of his teacher and friend, but all is not bleak. There are some tender moments that refer to Dvořák in memory if not direct musical quotation. Before the end of the first movement, there is a huge climax after which the cellos bring back the icy, haunting theme that began the movement and closes it in quiet sorrow.

II. Andante -  A different version of the primary theme is played directly after the first movement. After it is developed a funeral march is heard in the winds. There is a fugal section played by pizzicato strings as the woodwinds push the music back to the version of the primary theme that opened the movement, after which the movement quietly expires.

III. Vivace - The scherzo of the symphony that is by turns lyrical and diabolical. The short trio is ushered in by string tremolos and ends with a piccolo. The scherzo repeats after which the music makes a descent into the lower ranges of the orchestra. A very short pause leads to a section marked andante that culminates in a dance that is lead by solo violin.  The dance reaches a climax and gently segues back into a short reference to  the version of the main theme heard in the second movement. The scherzo returns and is transformed into a fugue that is brought to a halt by thundering brass chords.

IV.  Adagio - The final two movements were written after the death of Suk's wife, and by his own admission the fourth movement is a musical portrait of his wife and the grief he felt upon her loss. The primary theme returns in the opening, followed by a gentler theme that harks back to lyrical music heard in the first movement. A solo violin helps develop this gentle theme, perhaps representing Suk the violinist and his feelings for his wife. A short section played by bassoons, oboes and double basses leads to a return of the gentle theme and its continued development.  The despair of the beginning of the movement gradually returns and ends the movement.

V. Adagio e maestoso -  Two strong climaxes begin the final movement. A short chorale followed by a dance-like theme leads to a repeat of the climax that began the movement which leads to chattering by the woodwinds.  Thumping from the basses and bass drum begin a fugue that increases in intensity until another climax is reached. Woodwinds appear from the quiet that proceeds from the climax and lead to the entrance of shimmering violins and a change of mood. The main theme as well as other thematic material is heard as the music maintains a lyrical resignation of what has happened previously and ends in quiet peace.

The 2nd Symphony 'Asrael' has always been more popular in Suk's Czech Republic than in most other concert halls of the world.  It is a work of extreme emotional content and like many other Late Romantic works was lost in the chaos of two world wars and Modern music. It is also full of technical and interpretive difficulties, but is slowly being played and recorded more often.

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