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Suk (1874-1935) - Asrael Symphony

Entering 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: 

“I 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 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.”

“Subjective 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. 

The second movement seems to quote a “tonal device” from, appropriately, Dvorak's Requiem. 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. 

Plant-like, 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. 

These 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 . . .” 


1. 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. 

The 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. 

2. 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. 

A 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. 

3. 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. 

An 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. 


4. 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. 

The “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. 

5. 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. 

The 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. 

In coming 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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