Hermann Suter, Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 23

Hermann Suter, Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 23 (1924)

By Dr. Peter Laki, Visiting Associate Professor, Bard College

Written for the concert Against the Avant-Garde: Romanticisms of the 1920s, performed on Dec 7, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Verachtet mir die Meister nicht, und ehrt mir ihre Kunst! (“Do not disdain the masters, and honor their art!”)—sings Hans Sachs in the final scene of Wagner’s Meistersinger. He might as well have been thinking of Hermann Suter, a master whose relatively small but distinguished oeuvre upheld some of the most cherished and most fundamental values of an entire generation. As composer, organist and conductor in Zurich and Basel who also served as director of the latter city’s music conservatory, Suter worked diligently in a variety of capacities and was one of Switzerland’s most highly respected musicians. Although his compositional style was on the conservative side, he was always open to the most recent musical developments of the day, and led performances of works by both Schoenberg and Stravinsky with his Basel orchestra.

His magnum opus, the oratorio Le laudi, based on St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle to the Sun, is still performed in Switzerland, as is his violin concerto, written for Adolf Busch (1891-1952) who gave the highly acclaimed world premiere in Basel on January 28, 1922. (Busch, the longtime first violinist of the celebrated Busch Quartet, later became one of the founders of the Marlboro Festival, together with his son-in-law Rudolf Serkin.)

The three movements of Suter’s concerto are played without pause. The work begins with a long and expansive statement whose tempo marking amabile underscores its predominantly gentle and lyrical mood, although there are some fiery and passionate moments as well. The second movement is marked Tempestoso and bears the following inscription: “The composer was thinking of the image of a wanderer making his way through the rain.” With great dramatic energy, the melody shoots up to the violin’s highest register, constantly emphasizing the harsh interval of the minor ninth. Suter’s biographer, Wilhelm Merian, noted that this turbulent music was written shortly after the death of the composer’s father.

Following a quasi fantasia opening in the manner of a free cadenza, the finale introduces a grazioso idea in a lilting 6/8 time that repeatedly surprises us by switching to an irregular 7/8. The central episode of this rondo, for orchestra alone, has a hymn-like theme that grows and then decreases in intensity. The full recapitulation is followed by a brilliant coda.