Josef Suk

Category: Musician

Learn more about Josef Suk

Josef Suk (1874 – 1935) was a Bohemian composer and violinist. He studied under Antonin Dvorak, whose daughter he married.

Biography

Josef Suk, early 1900s

From a young age, Josef Suk (born in Krecovice, Bohemia) was deeply involved and well-trained in music. He learned organ, violin, and piano from his father, Josef Suk Sr., and was trained further in violin by the Czech violinist Antonin 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 Hanus Wihan. Despite extensive musical training, his 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 Antonin Dvorak.

Known as one of Dvorak’s favorite pupils, Suk also became personally close to his mentor. Underlying this was Dvorak’s respect for Suk, reflected in Suk’s 1898 marriage to Dvorak’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 Dvorak die, but so did Otilie. These events inspired Suk’s Asrael Symphony.

Owing to 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 Ostrcil. Suk, alongside Vitezslav Novak and Ostrcil, is considered one of the leading composers in Czech Modernism, with much shared influence among the three coming in turn from Dvorak. 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 sthe Czech Quartet, though performing successful concerts until his retirement, was not always met with public approval. Several anti-Dvorak campaigns came into prominence; criticism not only being directed at the quartet, but towards Suk specifically. The leftist critic Zdenek Nejedly 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.

Private life

Suk married Dvorak’s daughter Otylie (‘Otylka’) in 1898. They had one child, a son, also named Josef, in 1898. Otylie died of heart failure aged 27 in 1905, a year after her father. Josef Suk Jr. in turn was father of the acclaimed violinist Josef Suk, who died in 2011. Suk retired in 1933, although he continued to be a valuable and inspirational public figure to the Czechs. Suk died on 29 May 1935, in Benesov, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic); he was buried in the Vysehrad cemetery, Prague.

Musical style

Suk’s musical style started off with a heavy influence from his mentor, Dvorak. The biggest change of Suk’s style came after he reached a “dead end” in his early musical style (music played less of a role in Suk’s life outside of his schooling, just before he began a stylistic shift during 1897–1905, perhaps realizing that the strong influence of Dvorak would limit his work.  Morbidity 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 Raduz a Mahulena – display his happiness, which he credited to his marriage with Otilie. Another of Suk’s works, Pohadka (Fairy Tale), was drawn from his work with Raduz a Mahulena. The closest Suk came to opera is in his incidental music to the play Pod jabloni (Beneath the Apple Tree).

The majority of Suk’s papers are kept in Prague. There is also a new catalogue of Suk’s works that contains more manuscripts than any before it, some of them also containing sketches by Suk.

Suk said of himself: “I do not bow to anyone, except to my own conscience and to our noble Lady Music… and yet at the same time I know that thereby I serve my country, and praise the great people from the period of our wakening who taught us to love our country.”

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