Josef Suk’s “Asrael” Symphony in a critical new edition
“It is the most modern music that we have, and will probably come to rank amongst the most enduring.” In these words in Politik, the Prague German language daily paper, the music critic Emanuel Chvála confirmed the enthusiastic reception given to Josef Suk’s Symphony Asrael op. 27 on its first performance on 3 February 1907. The performance in the Prague National Theatre was conducted by Karel Kovařovic. Josef Suk (1874–1935) had purposefully refrained from providing a programme note on his symphony, since the public’s ideas about the content were prompted both by the angel of death referred to in the title and by the dedication “Dem teuren Andenken Anton Dvořáks und seiner Tochter, meiner Gattin Otilie”. Antonín Dvořák, the teacher and father-in-law of Josef Suk, died on 1 May 1904, and his daughter Otilie Suk on 6 July 1905. Listeners may also have recognized a quotation from Dvořák’s Requiem or perhaps felt reminded of the “sound of the zurna” from Julius Zeyer’s dramatic fairy tale Radúz and Mahulena, which establishes itself in Suk’s music as the motif of death and plays an important role in Asrael.
In the five-movement memorial symphony Josef Suk’s late Romantic style develops definitively; typical traits are the organic development of the motif, the abandonment of the regular arrangement in favour of “the free verse” and the contrapuntal and harmonic richness. Suk’s fondness for pedal points brought him to the verge of bitonality – at the end of the symphony, and in the slow central section of the third movement. The visionary “Andante sostenuto” precisely at the central point of the work is replaced in the reprise by a fugue which once more leads into an impetuous Scherzo, assimilating the thematic material of the first two movements in different ways. A pedal point on D flat appears throughout the entire second movement, played on trumpet and flute, and sometimes leads into the motif with the seconds from the Dvořák's Requiem. The work, which is Josef Suk’s second symphony, is comparable with another Symphony in C minor – Mahler’s Second. Unlike Mahler, however, Suk did not work with a song text, but always with a subtle method involving musical allusions; he also avoided drawing on popular music. Josef Suk’s works link to each other musically and thereby create their own, unique world.
Josef Suk began work on the sketches for Asrael on 31 January 1905, “at the last concert in Hamburg” as a memorial for Dvořák. He continued work on the first movement in March of that year in Prague and Bern, and composed the second movement “in Prague after returning from Turkey”. These remarks alone show the enormous strain of travelling with the Bohemian String Quartet, in which Suk played second violin. The first part of the symphony, i. e. the first three movements, was ready by 6 June 1905, “at the time when the great distress came over me about the illness of the creature dearest to me”. The death of his beloved wife shook the composer deeply; Suk discarded the fourth movement which he had started, and sketched a new one, entitled “For Otilie”. He completed this by 3 January 1906, and the concluding fifth movement by 30 April 1906 in Prague. In this challenging psychological state, described as neurasthenia, he was only able to orchestrate for two hours a day: the end of the third movement bears the date 21 August 1906 in the score, and the whole work was completed on 4 October 1906 in Prague.
The date of the first performance approached. The archivist of the National Theatre, František Elsnic, prepared the copy of the full score, which served as the printer’s copy together with the manuscript parts. Josef Suk quickly offered the completed symphony to the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, as shown by newly-discovered correspondence in the Sächsisches Staatsarchiv. In a letter dated 9 October 1906 he invited Hermann von Hase from the Leipzig publisher to the first performance in February. But because Hase was unable to attend, Suk instead sent him the review by Chvála mentioned above on 20 February 1907 from Amsterdam. He had loaned the publisher the autograph manuscript on 11 March. After the final decision about publishing the work was made on 16 April 1907, on 19 April the composer pointed out that his manuscript was not “completely ready for print, for I have altered some things in the copy in the dynamic markings and a lot of other small details”. Therefore at the beginning of May he sent the corrected copy of the full score together with the parts to Leipzig (these sources are now missing), but asked for his original to be returned to him; he received the first printed scores in October, and was pleased with their design. Probably on 27 October in Leipzig he gave some information about the score to Paul Klengel, who quickly prepared an advertising brochure. As early as 4 December 1907 Asrael was performed in Bonn with Heinrich Sauer, and on 3 January 1909 Willem Mengelberg presented the symphony to the Amsterdam public.
Although we know that Suk corrected both the printer’s copies and the complete set of proofs, which he had sent to him at Schloss Wiligrad in Mecklenburg on 14 August 1907, the printed score contains many inaccuracies: missing details, which had already been carefully written out in the autograph manuscript, and in some cases, even whole bars in the orchestration. It is not always clear whether these details got lost in copying out the symphony, or in the process of preparing the work for print. Typical problems are the incorrect allocation of dynamic or articulation markings for adjacent instruments, influenced by dense notation above or below the stave – Suk had written everything out very consistently in the autograph manuscript. There are even variants between the printed full score on the one hand and the printed parts and the autograph manuscript on the other. Are we dealing with intentional decisions or merely oversights in these cases?
Whilst details get lost during the textual process of the work, new layers are added through the correction stages. The last of these were alterations with which Josef Suk expanded the orchestra by adding a fifth and sixth horn: these late alterations date from September 1921. The conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Václav Talich, noted these corrections in his copy of the score on 22 February 1922. The final version of Asrael received its successful premiere three days later in Prague. Expanding the orchestration was contemporary practice, which “was not intended to increase the power, but the mellowness of the power” – words which Talich used to justify similar alterations to Smetana’s Má vlast (My fatherland).
Asrael is a major work both in Suk’s oeuvre and in Czech music of its time. During the composition, Suk wrote to the publisher Mojmír Urbánek that all his previous works were preparation for a “Symphony of tragic character” – this character is anticipated by e. g. the Fantasy in G minor for violin and orchestra of 1903. Asrael was followed by further symphonic works – Pohádka léta (A summer’s tale), Zrání (The ripening), Epilog – however such a direct link to Asrael as a tetralogy comes rather from Suk interpreters. His pupil Bohuslav Martinů paid him a tribute of his own kind with echoes of Asrael in his 3rd Symphony – a wonderful demonstration of words from the recollections of Vítězslav Novák, that “with Asrael the genre of the modern Czech symphony was created”.
Over a hundred years after the symphony was composed, Emanuel Chvála’s words once again confirm that Asrael is a work of lasting value beyond the boundaries of its country and the time of its creation.