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ARTICLE Plain text for smartphones & printers

The Symphonies of Stjepan Šulek
by Andrew Hartman

Although we are well into the second decade of the 21st century, a historical consensus surrounding the classical music of the 20th century is still far from clear. The Cold War that followed the tumultuous cataclysms of two World Wars, and which lasted till the century’s final decade, created a political litmus test for classical music which colors evaluations of it to this day. While we now view the 19th century battle between the adherents of Brahms and his “absolute music” and the adherents of Wagner and his “music of the future”, as a tempest in a teapot, acknowledging that both camps produced masterpieces of lasting value, we are not yet ready to apply the same even handedness to the musical battles of more recent times. Perhaps this is not surprising considering that the Cold War ended only a quarter century ago, and many of the historians and musicologists who are writing today lived through those times. Yet things are beginning to change.

Claude Debussy once said that Wagner’s music was a glorious sunset, mistaken for a dawn. This comment proved prescient as the Romantic era excesses of Wagner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and others left younger composers nowhere to go. In the West, the young guard turned to alternative musical genres such as jazz, or new academic formulas such as serialism, rejecting what they considered the decadence of late Romanticism. As the century progressed, ever more avant-garde means of expression began to dominate, with composers such as Stockhausen, Nono, Boulez and their followers rejecting all past means of expression as bankrupt. Composers still writing in an accessible style were pilloried as old fashioned hacks or, even worse, musical sell-outs to the masses. Even the greatest established composers, who had the strength of reputation and independence to write what they wanted, felt the pull of this peer pressure and experimented with avant-garde techniques, though many soon abandoned them again.

Behind the Iron Curtain, it was a different story. Here, the pressure to conform to an artistic style came not from ivory tower academicians, but from governments. Both the Fascists and the Communists considered the new music of the West decadent, and their governments used the power of musical appointments, the ability to prevent ones music from being performed, and in some cases outright intimidation and threats, to enforce conformity among composers to the ideals of what came to be known as Socialist Realism. In this over-heated debate, music became a proxy for political battles, and a composer’s worth was viewed through the lens of the ideological struggle. To the West, composers behind the Iron Curtain who worked within the system were talentless hacks who churned out music to please their leaders. Any composer of value would either emigrate to the West for “artistic freedom”, or would bravely carry on protests against the system in their music. If you weren’t denounced by Stalin, or in trouble with the authorities, your music could not possibly be of value.

This sad state of affairs completely ignored a third group of composers, one who neither followed the avant-garde and/or emigrated to the West, nor churned out banal works of socialist realism. This group of composers, many operating in satellite republics within the Soviet Union or in Eastern Europe, wrote music in a style that spoke to them personally. It was accessible yet modern. It had an individual voice and frequently included subtle musical protests against the totalitarian regimes under which they operated. It is this third group of composers that is slowly being discovered in the West today, as the dust settles from the storms of the prior century. We now see that it was possible, even under such adverse political conditions, to write music of genius. In this group falls the Croatian composer Stjepan Šulek.

Stjepan Šulek was born in Zagreb in 1914. He studied violin and composition at the Zagreb Academy of Music, graduating in 1936. Upon graduating he joined the Zagreb String Quartet (Croatia’s oldest chamber ensemble, formed in 1919) as a violinist, and three years later formed the Macek-Šulek-Janigro Trio which he played with till 1945. However, Šulek’s dynamic personality could not be contained within the limits of performing in a chamber ensemble. Soon after graduation he began composing his own works, and teaching at the Zagreb Conservatorium. Initially he taught violin, but soon added composition and orchestration. As a teacher he was to have a profound effect on Croatian music, counting most of that country’s leading composers of the second half of the 20th century as his students. One of these students, Pavle Despalj, became one of Šulek’s most devoted advocates, conducting and recording his works for decades. With his performing, teaching, and composing, Šulek exerted a dominant force on Croatian music. That he is little known or played in the West is no judgment on the quality of his compositions. Šulek was one of the most individual, creative talents in classical music during the mid-20th century, and any history of that period of music that neglects him is incomplete.

Stjepan Šulek wrote music in most genres. His oeuvre includes two operas, concertos, songs, chamber music (including a series of string quartets called “From My Childhood”), and eight symphonies. These symphonies, spanning his entire career, take pride of place in his work. Here, Šulek most completely expressed his world view and made his most personal and profound statements. It is this masterful symphonic cycle with which we will concern ourselves here.

Šulek wrote his First Symphony during World War II, completing it in 1944. The composer instantly declares his artistic independence by starting this symphony not with a weighty Allegro movement, but with a portentous Grave movement. A lengthy introduction begins with ominous rumblings in the bass accompanied by smoldering timpani beats, growing to a climax of anguished tragedy. It is hard not to see the wartime horrors of the period reflected here. The climax subsides into a melancholy mood with plaintive brass and woodwind snatches of abortive melodies. This episodic movement then progresses to a second section with searing downward runs in the strings punctuated by sobbing interjections from the rest of the orchestra. A third section commences with a descending two note motif which reaches a shuddering climax with dark brass fanfares, before ending on a tragic note.

The scherzo second movement opens with a fairy like motif that quickly becomes more emphatic with driving rhythms that almost remind one of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. The trio section brings the first light to this heretofore tragic piece with a vaguely heroic theme, as if to say “all is not yet lost”. The “A” section of the scherzo returns but it is now interspersed with cheerier interludes and some brass and wind accents over a pizzicato accompaniment.

The finale begins with emphatic chords and quickly progresses to a mock heroic theme which almost reminds one of Shostakovich. A meditative pause launches into a fugue like theme which evolves into a driving march almost reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. This gathers speed to a galloping coda which brings back the heroic theme but transformed from mocking to triumphant, ending this mostly dark symphony on an uplifting note.

Šulek’s First Symphony reflects the composer’s artistic temperament and contains many elements that will become familiar to us as we progress through his symphonies. They are neither “absolute music”, nor “program music” depicting stories or scenarios. Rather they are subjective expressions of the composer’s view of and reaction to the life around him. They are his expressions of two major themes that will dominate his music throughout his career. The struggle between good and evil, and the mystery and meaning of life and death. As these are universal concerns of the human race, Šulek’s musical journeys addressing these themes make his music extremely compelling and thought-provoking.

Šulek’s Second Symphony, subtitled “Eroica”, is in D Major. It is a major step forward for the composer in every way. It was started soon after the First Symphony was completed and was finished in 1946. The composer’s ambitions are broader, his handling of his material more assured, his orchestration more imaginative. Šulek showed his confidence by using a sobriquet that would immediately bring Beethoven’s path breaking masterpiece to mind, and indeed there are several allusions to Beethoven in this work. The symphony consists of four movements this time played attacca, with only pauses, not stoppages between the movements. In most of Šulek’s symphonies, including the “Eroica”, the subjective ideals being expressed drive the structure of the work, rather than any inherited symphonic forms such as sonata, rondo, or theme and variations.

The symphony begins with a headlong rush of strings punctuated by fanfares. Clearly heroism is being expressed here, but what kind of heroism? The heroism of the composer’s country, Croatia, fighting a guerilla war against the fascists in World War II? Possibly? However it is far more likely that Šulek was thinking in more personal terms here, depicting the heroism of the individual facing a world gone mad with evil. Šulek’s world view, informed by Schopenhauer, was basically pessimistic in terms of his view of the human race. Yet his music clearly shows he believes that individuals can rise above evil, and lead us from darkness to light.

After this heroic material, the first movement unexpectedly peters out with a whimper, as if the hero suddenly realizes the futility of it all in the face of overwhelming evil. This makes for a very effective segway into the adagio movement which is the emotional heart of the symphony. Meditative, halting bits of melody from the winds, especially the flute (an instrument Šulek always composed effectively for), build to an obsessive, heartrending climax. Then the music dwindles away in pain and darkness, as if all hope is lost.

Out of this pathos, a fleet scherzo begins, bringing to mind the transition in mood in Beethoven’s “Eroica” from the Funeral March to the scherzo. A brief trio slows things down before the scherzo proper returns, this time with snatches of a victorious march which are immediately squelched. The finale begins with a grim funeral march which after a silence, is interrupted by ominous brass chords. The funeral march then begins again but this time with a difference. A triumphant march begins to swell under the funeral march, evolving into a clash of the two marches which is handled most thrillingly, until a sudden crash brings the music to a halt. A poignant reminiscence of the adagio theme is heard, transfigured to a growing lightness and lyricism, as if the hero has finally found the answer to his search. Goodness of the individual soul can triumph over collective evil despite the pain of tragedy. A glowing, fully triumphant climax, reminiscent of Beethoven’s Egmont overture brings the Second Symphony to an exhilarating close.

Šulek’s Third Symphony which is in E minor and was completed in 1948, is dedicated to his wife. As with his First Symphony, the third upends all expectations, as its structure is wholly determined by its subjective emotional journey. It starts with a broadly laid out Allegro which lasts almost as long as the other two movements of the symphony combined. This is a new voice for Šulek, as we hear a relaxed, lyrical melody of a kind absent from his first two symphonies. This theme leads to a jovial melody at a quicker tempo, with percussive effects, then transitions to a chamber music section with concertante contributions from the winds and strings. A slightly darker reworking of the original theme is then restarted by the full orchestra, and the two themes are developed at some length. Eventually the movement builds speed and excitement, culminating in a stuttering halt with brass fanfares. A wistfully lyrical moment returns, alternating with snatches of the quicker second theme, before the lyrical theme prevails with the movement ending quietly and tenderly.

The scherzo second movement starts with a bustling theme led by the winds. This is eventually halted by a hesitating trio theme which then blossoms into a lyrical melody led by the winds. This grows in poignancy and tenderness until the return of the “A” section of the scherzo concludes the movement.

The third, and final movement of Symphony No. 3 comes as a complete surprise, and must reflect some personal emotional program of Šulek’s. The Larghetto begins with a disquieting, meditative theme, totally at odds with the tender, lyrical themes of the earlier movements. The music comes to a halt, then a second theme begins with a hopping rhythm and a yearning melody that grows more strident as it progresses. The first melody returns and haltingly makes its way before gathering strength and building to a crashing climax with strings spiraling ever downward. The music gets slower and slower, the strings lower and lower, until exhausted, they die out in a whisper of resignation. One can think of nothing comparable emotionally and structurally in a symphonic finale except Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique.” However, in the Tchaikovsky, we spiral down to the utmost depths of resignation, depression, despair, and surrender. In the Šulek, there seems to be a glimmer of hope in the way the symphony peters out but doesn’t quite reach rock-bottom emotionally. Perhaps Šulek is saying that today we have lost, we have been defeated, crushed by tragedy, overwhelmed by grief, but tomorrow is another day and tomorrow perhaps we will rise again. Thus ends this enigmatic symphony. What does it depict? Perhaps the dedication gives us a clue. Perhaps Šulek and his wife suffered some personal tragedy that hit them like a thunderbolt after sunny skies. We may never know for certain, but like all of Šulek, there are layers to uncover and ambiguities to ponder.

Šulek’s Fourth Symphony written in 1954, bears the sobriquet “Desperans Pacem, Spero” which depending on the interpretation of the comma could either mean despairing of peace and hope, or despairing of peace, then hope. The musical argument of the piece points to the former interpretation but as always with Šulek, the listener’s reaction to the music might bring a different conclusion. The symphony starts with a movement marked Prologo, and immediately brings to mind the opening of Brahms’ first symphony with its driving andante accompanied by driving timpani, underlining the despair of the composer. Eventually the timpani quiets and fragments of the theme fade away. A rhapsodic solo violin enters followed by the flute which leads to the allegro section of the movement. A questing theme over running strings leads into a fugato episode punctuated by whoops in the brass and winds before rushing to a boisterous conclusion. It’s as if the despair of the opening measures of the Prologo have been turned, at least temporarily, into hope for peace.

The adagio begins with a lyrical, yet disquieting melody which blends with some ominous fanfares before building to a climax of obsessive despair. A sudden fairy scherzo led by the flute (as so often in Šulek) dispels the mood as in some fantastic reverie or dream, but is brought back to earth by the return of the “A” section.

The allegro con brio finale commences with a busy theme with wind and brass fanfares. A melody in the strings is then obsessively repeated and handed around the entire orchestra for discussion. The tension builds as the winds race around in circles, the timpani pounds away, and the brass bellow fanfares over both. After a momentary calm, a long drum-roll launches the final section of grim despair. The music is finally interrupted as the solo flute combines with two sets of two timpani strokes. Thus the symphony ends with despair cutting off hope. Will we ever realize true peace in this world? Apparently not, according to Šulek, but as with the Third Symphony I did not find the despair absolute. The flute melody, which was struck down by the timpani to end the symphony, makes one believe that hope springs eternal even in the face of never ending violence.

The relevance of Šulek’s message has only grown with time, and the same questions that concerned him in the mid-20th century are still with us today. Perhaps that is what makes Šulek’s music so modern, in the best sense of the word.

Šulek’s first four symphonies were written in relatively quick succession, with the composer commencing the next one soon after the previous one was completed. Ten years separate the Fifth Symphony from the Fourth Symphony however, and it reveals a more personal voice and intimate emotional range. The Fifth Symphony opens with low string tremolos over an ominous bass line that struggles to rise up. Eventually it reaches an anguished climax in the upper strings before dying down again. After a pause, the allegretto section is launched which quickly builds to a driving climax and just as quickly subsides. Then we hear it. A mournful bird call on the flute. As I’ve mentioned before, Šulek has a particular affinity for the flute and it plays a major role in every symphony. He apparently loved birds and was fascinated by their calls and singing, and they seemed to have a metaphysical message for him that represented everything from loneliness and death, to love and the life force of nature. We will see this relationship between the flute, birds, and Šulek’s philosophy of life reach its greatest conclusion in the composer’s Seventh Symphony.

Here in the Fifth Symphony’s opening movement, the flute call seems to represent loneliness seeking solace and love. It builds to a romantic climax that almost reminds one of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet before subsiding. A slow, sad melody begins in the winds, apparently the composer’s ardent longings for love have been rebuffed. A drum-roll interrupts the sad musings and we are off and running on a bitter march theme that seems to mock the innocent yearning of the bird call theme, as if the composer found his idealistic, romantic image of love spoiled by a cynical, self-interested lover. Yet he is not completely disillusioned. The bird call returns and the orchestra once again builds to another romantic climax but it doesn’t last. The slow, sad melody returns and eventually the flute is heard, lonely, floating above the strings in desolation and despair.

The andantino second movement inhabits a desolate landscape. A meditative, slow episode played pianissimo evolves with chimes and celesta giving an eerie, creepy feeling, almost hypnotic in its effect. A more passionate but equally melancholy episode is led by the strings but the hushed atmosphere of the beginning returns to close the movement. This is music of profound loneliness, as the composer broadens his musical palette to express more personal emotions.

The third movement begins in the same meditative vein but soon we hear chirps from the flute followed by an accelerating pace into a scherzo section with the winds punctuating the strings with dancing snatches of melody. The slower “A” section returns and so do the chirps in the flute. The finale picks up the flute melody and quickly accelerates to a fortissimo section with brass fanfares, swirling strings, and pounding timpani. This is followed by a halting, fugue-like episode that tries to reach a climax and finally does with crashing chords and stabbing brass. Suddenly a hush falls over the orchestra and the eerie quiet of the opening movement returns, including the flute calls. After a pause, the symphony’s peroration commences with a return of the fortissimo section which evolves into a mocking march. It looks like cynicism, loneliness, and disillusionment will have the last word but surprisingly Šulek is not done. The march is interrupted by chimes pealing over a chorale like melody and the entire orchestra joins in the apotheosis. Has the composer found the answer to his despair? Has a glorious sunrise dispelled the darkness? Is it love? Is it nature? Is it a spiritual revelation? We are not sure, but just when we anticipate a triumphant conclusion, the composer interrupts the joyous climax with a drum-roll and a crashing climax that is neither heroic nor mocking, but a little of both. It is as if Šulek is saying, yes I have found the answer to loneliness and despair in nature, but that does not lessen the tragedy of human relations. Thus ends Šulek’s most profound symphony to date. However, the best was yet to come.

The Sixth Symphony, from 1966, sees Šulek return to the more existential philosophical questions of his earlier works, after the more personally emotional Fifth Symphony. Here we are back to the struggle between war and peace, between nature and man, but this time with a greatly extended orchestral palette. In many ways, the Sixth is Šulek’s most “modern” symphony. The piece starts with an ominous crescendo that builds from low bass tremolos to a climax, subsides briefly, then returns to another climax. It is as if man has once again let slip the dogs of war and hate. Low strings are punctuated by harsh brass interjections and stabbing percussive strokes. Šulek’s orchestration here is quite startling and very effective. After a pause, what sounds like a flock of birds arrives, including a woodpecker depicted by the wood blocks. They sing over a string melody which grows more impassioned, then quiets down. Nature has asserted itself against the destructive force of man, registering its protest. A second string theme emerges, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, with descending horn-calls and flute calls which builds to a romantic climax. A soft but driving timpani ushers in a quicker section complete with whoops in the orchestra, snarling brass and violent percussion before exhausting itself. War has once again laid waste to nature and peace has flown. A melancholy theme begins which gets slower and slower as the movement draws to an end with a deathlike drum-beat.

Out of this gloom the second movement commences with a grotesque, fantastical march, reminiscent in its effect of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Šulek experiments with new instrumental combinations to achieve novel effects. A moment of repose arrives with a soft, airy section with chattering strings and interjections from the winds, which eventually builds up to a return of the grotesque march. Laughing brass and stabbing percussion heighten the effect of a satanic dance celebrating the nihilism of violence and war. Suddenly, a chamber like episode arrives with flute trills, horn calls, and quiet percussion before the movement dies out. Despite the devilish dance, nature still survives, albeit in a mournful state.

The adagio third movement is the emotional heart of the symphony. It begins with a weighty, sad theme that seems to spiral ever downwards emotionally like the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. After the despair is spent, the flute leads a melancholy melody over an obsessively repeated four note motif. Slowly a chorale-like hymn emerges, offering balm to the soul and the spirit. Heavenly consolation seems at hand. Suddenly the tragic melody from earlier in the movement returns, and battles the chorale theme. After a violent clash, the chorale theme appears to emerge victorious, only to be interrupted by an ominous chord from the full orchestra. Will evil prevail? Not this time. The chorale theme re-emerges in a transfigured state for celestial strings. The grotesqueries of the first two movements seem far away.

The short finale, lasting only about two minutes, is really more a coda to the symphony than a full-scale movement. An adagio begins with swirling strings which leads to a drum roll and pounding timpani over which the trumpets play a two note motif. Suddenly the chimes emerge with a repeated four note motif, as if God and man struggle for mastery. The symphony ends with a crashing chord. Who has won? As is typical with Šulek, the answer is ambiguous. God and nature may triumph temporarily, but against the evil of man and war there is no final victory.

After the Sixth Symphony, Šulek stayed away from the symphonic form for more than a decade. When a beloved cousin died, his wife wrote a consoling letter to relatives which included the following passage. “It should be like our little blackbird – sing when it is time for singing, die when it is time for dying.” Šulek was so taken with the sentiment, it sparked a return to symphonic form. In the magnificent Seventh Symphony from 1979, Šulek takes on the momentous theme of life and death. “What is life?” “What is death?” “How are they related and intertwined?” “Does all life contain the seeds of death at birth?” “Is death the beginning of new life, the end of it, or both?” These are the questions Šulek asks as he attempts to work out these thoughts in musical form.

The symphony opens with a theme that represents the life force, a beautiful, innocent melody with Šulek’s favorite device, bird calls. It is quickly contrasted by the death motif, a downward chordal melody. Then the sequence is repeated. After stating the two themes twice, Šulek gives us a jaunty, carefree dance of youth. Eventually, the theme loses some of its innocence and grows meditative. Life can be serious business after all. The strings then lovingly take up the life motif and sing out joyously. A love theme is then caressingly developed by the full orchestra, for life is love. Eventually the jaunty dance returns and is developed by the orchestra. A plaintive version of the life motif in the winds interrupts the dance, accompanied by bird calls as the movement ends in tranquility.

The adagio second movement opens with a gently melody which according to the composer depicts a “great sunny field full of daisies.” After a short development, a slow funeral march begins underneath this melody. The two melodies intertwine and contrast with each other in a magical way. For even in the sunny meadow, death is lurking all around but the feeling is not sad. It is part of life. At the movement’s midpoint, the funeral march begins to dominate and we reach a powerful climax with soaring strings. As it ebbs away, the life motif struggles to reassert itself. After a pause, the daisy theme picks up again but this time it is mournful, with the feeling that even amidst teeming life there is also always death and sadness. The melody haltingly comes to a close as the movement ends and we are transported peacefully to rest.

The third movement functions as a scherzo. It starts with a lively allegro dancing theme full of puckish high spirits which reaches a joyous climax with whoops in the orchestra. Suddenly we are in the trio section with a more meditative theme played adagio, punctuated by the bird calls from the first movement, the symbol of nature and life. Just as suddenly, we are back to the “A” section and more jaunty high spirits led by the horns and percussion. The little blackbird sings ever more fervently, full of life, and the movement ends with a joyous, almost Korngoldian conclusion.

The finale leaps ahead with a scampering theme which bursts into a dancing rhythm. Life and high spirits are at flood tide. The excitement builds with repeated crescendo/decrescendo episodes, then launches into a more feverish version of the frantic dancing theme. We feel however that it is a dance on the edge. It is as if life knows that death lurks around the corner, and it is trying to get as much living in as it can. The scampering opening theme and the joyous dance combine, but fragments of ominous chords interject. Soon we are stuck in a feverish round that explodes in a horrific crash. Death has raised its hand and life, while not totally extinguished, is ebbing fast. The orchestra sadly bids farewell with brief reminiscences of the crescendo/decrescendo theme. Then a brief silence is broken by eerie chimes and the low chords of the death theme. A ghostly coda begins with dying snatches of the life motif against frightening string tremolos. Death has triumphed as it always does eventually. But is death the end, or the beginning of new life? No one knows. But Šulek ponders the mystery. So ends Šulek’s seventh symphony, in my opinion his most profound and magnificent work. Along with the Eighth Symphony it is also his most beautiful piece, and certainly one of the greatest symphonies of the past fifty years.

Šulek’s Eighth - and final - Symphony is dedicated “to all people of good will.” It dates from 1981. The symphony begins with a static, meditative motif which gradually increases in tempo and is punctuated by a galloping motif. After some soft chords, a beautiful melody begins with horns and harp arpeggios. It is quickly superseded by a gentle, Brahmsian melody in the full orchestra which is taken up and developed at length. A second theme emerges with rhythmic strings overlaid with chimes and percussion which suddenly turns into a chorale like hymn. The parade of luscious tunes continues with a striding andante developed by the orchestra which after a brief climax dies down. A lonely call from the winds over a soft drumbeat progresses to another lovely melody in the strings which also reaches a brief climax and dies down again, before building back up to another full blown romantic outburst for full orchestra. All of the previous themes are paraded before us again as they return for further development, before the movement, clocking in at nearly twenty minutes, comes to an end. This Brahmsian, discursive, episodic and very beautiful movement is completely lacking in evil, war, anger, angst or sadness. It is as if Šulek has come to terms with the world as it is, and has finally found inner peace, which he wants to share with “all people of good will.” In this melodious, moderato movement, Šulek is at peace.

This being Šulek, we couldn’t go through an entire symphony like this. The second movement, which functions as a scherzo, starts with a driving percussive theme played “feroce”. This is far from peaceful music but neither is it a depiction of war and evil familiar from previous symphonies. Full of restless energy and driving power, it seems to portray more of the soulless heartlessness of modern mechanized, unnatural, society; no bird calls here. The trio is a delicate episode with some light percussion that finds a moment of repose, briefly returning us to the Brahmsian twilight mood of the opening movement, before galloping back to the driving rhythms of the “A” section.

The adagio third movement opens with a wistful melody with Šulek’s favorite instrument, the flute, playing a prominent role. The lovely melody spins itself out in ever changing guises, with horn calls punctuating the strings. After a pause, a few timpani taps and string tremolos bring us to an almost Straussian episode with horns pealing over hyper-romantic strings. Eventually the emotion subsides and the upper strings bring us gradually down and back to the opening motif. Shimmering strings, a solo violin, harp, and horn-calls bring us to a tranquil conclusion.

The finale opens with an energetic, weighty allegro, calling Brahms’ symphonic finales to mind. A slower second episode commences with elements of the first theme mingling with a chorale theme. This turns into a fugato section which builds steam and power, reaching an impressive climax, including some Baroque-like concerto grosso touches in the strings. After a pause, a gentle melody in the winds begins, then the strings join in. A joyous climax develops from this material and we are back to the Brahmsian striding melody. The chorale theme interrupts, and with chimes and horns builds to a heroic, joyous climax that almost recalls Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Great Gate at Kiev from Pictures at an Exhibition. A final drum roll and single chord ends the symphony.

In many ways, this most beautiful symphony is a departure for Šulek. Gone are the themes of darkness and evil, war and death, anguish, sadness and despair of the composer’s younger days. Šulek has come to terms with life and has finally found peace. This is music only an older composer could write, someone who realizes the beauty and joy of life may soon be beyond his reach. Someone who understands and appreciates all the wonderful things life holds, such as love and the beauty of nature. It is a summation of Šulek’s life journey, a farewell, and a loving benediction to “all people of good will.” He would write no more symphonies and would pass away in 1988.

What a magnificent way for Šulek to end this momentous symphonic journey we’ve been on with him for thirty-six years. What a beautiful way to end one of the most significant symphonic cycles of the 20th century. The criminal neglect of the music of Stjepan Šulek can only be explained by the accidents of time and place that he found himself in but surely his time will arrive. This is life-affirming, indeed life altering music that belongs on the shelves of every classical music lover.

In honor of the composer’s centennial, the Cantus label issued in 2014 a 5CD box set of the complete Šulek symphonies. It includes mono recordings (in good sound) from 1963 and 1964 of the first and fifth symphonies, a 1991 recording of the second, a 1971 recording of the sixth, a 1983 recording of the eighth, and 2012 and 2013 recordings of the third, fourth, and seventh. These last three recordings are with the Croatian Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra. The rest are played by the Zagreb Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra. The fifth and sixth symphonies are conducted by the composer, while the rest are conducted by Šulek’s protégé and champion, Pavle Despalj. There are also Jugoton LP recordings, often available on used LP sites, of the Sixth Symphony conducted by the composer (presumably the same one as in the Cantus boxed set), and an earlier recording by Despalj of the Seventh Symphony from 1980 but by all means acquire the boxed set if you can. It is one of the most treasured sets in my collection.

Stjepan Šulek’s music is eminently modern, yet completely accessible to any lover of the romantic era. It is of his time, yet timeless. Its concerns are topical yet universal. It is profoundly beautiful and beautifully profound. He knew and reverenced the old masters such as Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, but he speaks with an individual and unmistakable voice. This is music that speaks to us in many ways and reveals more upon each hearing. Do yourself a favor and get to know it.

Mike Herman's Šulek discography



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Recordings of the Month


Conner Riddle Songs

Rodzinski Sibelius

Of Innocence and Experience


Symphonies 1, 2, 3



Aho Symphony 5

Dowland - A Fancy


Rachmaninov_ Babayan