Suk (1874-1935) - Asrael Symphony
the Prague Conservatory as a precocious 11-year old, Josef Suk quickly
fell under the spell of Dvorak, starting a long and fruitful relationship.
By the age of 18, he had co-founded the Bohemian Quartet, a staunch promoter
of both Dvorak and his inspiration, Smetana. Love for Dvorak, the model
for Suk's evolving compositional style, led to falling in love with Dvorak's
daughter, Otilka. Their marriage (1898) happily coincided with Suk's emergence
as a significant composer. Suk's life was, it seems, enviably idyllic,
but this idyll was brutally shattered in 1904 when Suk was touring Spain
with his Quartet. This is Suk's own moving account:
was suddenly handed a telegram: 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
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
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.”
in the extreme”. That's an interesting phrase. Suk was maybe too polite,
or perhaps, considering how painfully close to his heart it was, too upset
to oppose the corrosive implication. Well, I'm not: the implication is
that “your symphony's an over-long, overheated mish-mash”. The blistering
emotional charge of the music is incontestable, so this complaint must
concern the work's structure. Started as a cathartic reaction to one personal
disaster, you might reasonably expect another to have wrecked any cohesiveness
the part-formed symphony might have had. But it didn't. Why? Well, the
music written in the aftermath of Dvorak's death all evolves from a single
seed, which grows into a garden of genetic mutations.
second movement seems to quote a “tonal device” from, appropriately, Dvorak's
But, as this is also a variation of the symphony's “seed”, working back
we obtain the heart-warming conclusion that Suk probably derived his “seed”
motive from, and hence based his entire symphony on, an idea “bequeathed”
to him by his dear, departed mentor.
the music could survive that second, even greater emotional conflagration:
his compositional principle was, fortuitously and fatefully, completely
shatter-proof. But, it necessarily excluded that sine qua non of
complex structures - sonata form. Consequently, this huge symphony oozes
integrity, but lacks those vital, familiar landmarks. Hence, I guess, audience
confusion - and condemnation.
difficulties remain: how do we traverse this hyper-emotional and, for newcomers
especially, bewildering landscape? Lack of familiar landmarks does not
imply lack of any landmarks: we just need a few signposts and some
sort of map. Below, I've provided both “philosophical” and “structural”
guides, the former of course implicitly qualified by “it seems to me .
Andante sostenuto concerns the struggle between Life and Death.
Asrael, a threatening shadow, observes the rich vitality of Life. Unfurling
his leathery wings, he swoops in search of prey. His cold hand touches
his chosen victim, and Life fights back. Realising (once more) that the
conclusion is foregone, Life commits all its energies to a desperate struggle.
But the strength that Life expends is the soul that Asrael gains, relentlessly
sucked out of this world into the next.
movement is “progressive”, not in Nielsen's harmonic sense, but purely
dramatically. Hang onto the sombre opening 'cello line, at first “limping”
over a halting bass pulse then trending strongly upward: this is the pervasive
“seed”. It soon climaxes into a jagged, martial allegro. Oppressive gloom
yields to lilting tenderness, then a jubilant “Straussian” climax. A chill
wind and hobgoblin dancing generate a climax, releasing torrents of brass
and agitated percussion. An entwining texture fuels another furious climax,
capped by massive brass, and running through into vicious stomping. From
stillness, a veiled “Straussian” variant brings acceleration into a “final
conflict” of bright trumpets, massive brass, pounding drums, and a nightmarish
impression of sinking into quicksand. The 'cellos briefly recall the opening
as darkness falls.
Andante reflects Loss. Among tombstones and dew-drenched foliage,
the bereft gather. A comforting arm is forgotten as out of the mist emerges
a dreadful cortège, adding to shock the pain of immediacy. Witnessed
dimly through tear-blurred eyes, ceremony becomes interminable purgatory.
In turning away, the heart protests at what it was born to bear, then shrinks
fearfully back into the relative comfort of numbness.
truncated return of the opening, bracketing what amounts to a funeral march,
lends a “ternary” feel. Among held wind notes creep aching violins. Consolatory
'cellos are interrupted by hollow brass and pulsing drum, their dirge dragging
back the ache, now pecked by stalking pizzicato shades. Lamenting woodwind
are joined by high strings, developing an eerie march (Mahler had no monopoly
on these!). Trumpets darken the dirge, which fades only to reappear as
a grim pizzicato fugato, while clarinet and flute intone fragments. A moment's
agitation brings back the pain of the opening, the movement dying with
an icy shudder.
Vivace presents two dances. Asrael's is a protracted, savage and aggressive
dance of victory, of which he never tires. Life celebrates its infinitely
sweeter joys in a dance recalling Dvorak's miniature masterpieces. This
is more muted, its participants constantly aware of the transience of earthly
pleasures. Slipping unseen amongst his future victims, the Grim Reaper
pricks their souls to keep them aware. Scornful of their weakness, he exults
in his fateful supremacy.
amazing maze for the first-timer, the layout is (roughly) scherzo - trio
- scherzo - andante - scherzo/coda. The scherzo, by turns quickly prickly
and lyrical, culminates in a huge descent into the bass. The trio starts
with icy tremolandos, with a prominent piccolo at its end. The scherzo's
almost literal repeat brings a climactic coda plunging onto a long, deep
“groan”. After a pause, the miraculous andante passage, virtually a separate
movement, develops into an expansive “Slavonic Dance”, towards the end
of which the second movement's “aching” resurges. The returning scherzo,
intensified into a furious fugato, is halted by looming unison heavy brass.
Adagio is Suk”s professed “portrait of Otilka”. It is not a “photographic”
representation of what she was, but a remembrance, a vision that must penetrate
the dark glass of desolation. Initially almost imperceptible, this light
grows in the mind, consuming the enveloping darkness, until memories of
this “purest, sweetest soul” supplant reality. But the mind cannot be fooled
for long, and reality bursts the bubble. Seen against grim actuality, the
vision becomes by contrast still more vivid. Inevitably, in burning brighter
it burns itself out, and the dreadful darkness returns.
“seed” theme grows, expands, strives upwards against its own weight. Through
oboe solo then strings it swells, softens and descends. Thus the movement
starts, and likewise it closes. In between, a contrasting episode is twice
elaborated (giving an overall A-B-B1-A layout): a rocking theme appears,
descendant of the first movement's “lilting tenderness”. A solo violin
lovingly cradles its development. Gradually, the music winds down. Answered
by shivering basses, a miry bassoon intones the opening bars to launch
the second elaboration. The rocking theme is troubled. Pained outbursts
are quelled by the violin, which is overwhelmed by the welling orchestral
response. “Rocking” resumes, expanding in vibrancy before it fades into
the original gloom.
Adagio e maestoso. “What is the point of living?” cries the bereaved,
when numbness recedes to leave the mind in unbearable pain. Here is the
crisis: the anguished mortal soul, beset by overwhelming emotions - loss,
guilt, rage, impotence - turns on itself and tears itself apart. Torment
and torpor alternate, while on the sidelines the arrogant Asrael licks
his lips in anticipation of a bonus. But the mind's torment is purgative
- one fine day the sun rises, and the mind is healed - not restored,
but miraculously reconciled with its loss. Asrael's supremacy is
an illusion, his victory hollow: he may claim lives, but Life itself survives.
finale is “progressive”, closing an architecture comprising two open-ended
forms embracing three variants of ternary form. A storm of pounding tympani,
blaring brass, and rushing strings rips into a vast cry of anguish. A pause,
then agitated violins initiate another crushing, anguished climax. Another
pause, an irregular chorale, and devilish dancing commences, with a more
fluid counter-theme derived from the second movement's “dirge”. The opening
storm (minus tympani) is repeated(!), the fading cry this time dropping
onto nervy woodwind, from where the tempo picks up again. Basses, punctuated
by bass-drum bumps, set off a brutal fugato, brewing a tempest through
which the opening brass figure boils up. A fearful crescendo is cut off
by a last cry of anguish. Out of brooding basses, a clarinet and other
woodwind creep, bone weary. But then a harp (it would have to be!) is heard,
and an ethereal shimmering spreads through the orchestra! The key ideas
of the symphony take part in an ecstatic round-dance, gradually receding
into profound peace.
to grips with this symphony, I went from confusion via perplexity, intrigue,
and astonishment to admiration, respect and love. It is a great masterpiece,
but one that suffers from its very originality: the combination of extremely
emotive content and radical structure makes it hard, even painful to penetrate.
I hope that these notes help to lead you into this wonderful work, because
I firmly believe that Asrael is one symphony that we all should
come to know and love before we feel that cold hand on our own shoulders.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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