Suk’s Asrael as Autobiography and More

By Michael Beckerman

Written for the concert Musical Autobiography, performed on March 14, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The writing of explicitly autobiographical works is an essential part of any putative “Czech tradition.” Though the string quartet has always had a reputation for abstraction, Bedrich Smetana called his first work in the genre “From My Life,” and included many programmatic clues including, most hauntingly, the high-pitched harbinger of his own impending deafness. Dvořák refers to himself (as soloist hero) in the Cello Concerto, and also refers to past (or present) romance, in the famous coda to the final movement, and several years later he writes “A Hero’s Life” with autobiographical strains throughout. Janáček composes his “Intimate Letters” quartet, providing a fairly explicit musical portrait of his love for a younger woman: “Today I have succeeded in the movement ‘where the earth moved.’” It is no wonder that Josef Suk, as self-proclaimed member of this Czech club, would be thinking about music and autobiography at a time of stress, mourning, and personal reevaluation.

Indeed, the origin of the symphony itself may be traced to a moment of trauma, the death of his father-in-law:

“I was suddenly handed a telegram: Return immediately – Dvořák 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 Dvořák, 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.”

Through his pain and attempts to understand the loss of his wife, Suk composed some of his most memorable scores. On an intimate scale he wrote the lovely piano cycle “About Mother,” for his young child. But he also was working on a larger canvas: “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.”

Suk was unusually insistent about the autobiographical bona fides of his work, but he seems to have had some trepidation that the work might be understood in too narrow a context, and took pains to suggest that it had a more universal appeal. This “modest” second violinist also reveals that he, like his father-in-law Dvořák, had a firm sense of his own worth: “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.”