THE ASRAEL SYMPHONY IN AD 2007

Fred O´Callaghan /Dublin, Irish Republic/

-A Plea for Fresh Thinking-

On the 10th of February of this year, within one week of the centenary of its premiere, Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony was given a special commemorative performance in Dublin.
At a pre-concert talk, which I had been invited to give, I discovered that in the group of keen music-lovers I was addressing, less than one in ten had ever heard this great symphony before.

The concert itself was very well attended. The symphony was most impressively played by our National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the young Dutch conductor, Antony Hermus, and given an enthusiastic reception by the audience...

Though these things may seem positive, I –being a devotee –am nevertheless left with some saddening questions. Firstly and obviously: Why is such a significant work as this comparatively rarely performed? And secondly: Is public demand ever likely to increase if performances always come singly and are so widely separated that they can have no cumulative effect?

It is true that programme notes, analytic commentaries and so on, tend to surround the symphony with such an impenetrable cloud of gloom and confusion that the feelings aroused in the reader are more of sympathy for poor Suk and his sorrows than of informed interest in his powerful music. What newcomer to Asrael would not be prejudiced by such introductions? Who, under such depressing influence, could possibly imagine that this is in actual fact an amazingly courageous, positive and uplifting composition, and that Suk, far from seeking a shoulder to weep on, is –as it were –extending a supportive hand to other sufferers?

Nevertheless, the frequency of performances seems to be increasing, as is the number of recordings. And the recording orchestras and conductors are not exclusively Czech. So there are now opportunities, on a scale unimaginable in Suk’s lifetime, for people world-wide to hear this music for themselves. And, in the case of recordings, to repeat the listening at will. One result of this must inevitably be the realisation that whereas Suk’s symphony in the new millennium sounds as fresh and relevant as ever, the style of analysis and commentary that became traditional in the earlier days now appears dated and inappropriate. It is high time to revise it…..

At the time of the symphony’s first performance on February 3rd 1907, the facts of its tragic background would still have been fresh in people’s minds: Suk, within a short space of time had lost both his father-in-law, Dvorak, and his wife, Otylka. However, as the composer himself recalls1, no printed explanatory notes of the kind that later became usual for the work were provided at its premiere. Moreover, when it had been proposed that “a sort of poetic contents”2 should be printed for the repeat performance three weeks later. Suk announced his personal opinion with remarkable clarity and firmness. In a letter to the conductor of these concerts, Karel Kovarovic, written from Amsterdam and dated February 17th, he explains-

I’ve been thinking about this, and I think it will be better if we do without it this time as well. The public knows what it’s about –enough has been written about it after all, and if I can’t myself speak with the writer of such an article, it could happen that all would not be in accordance with my wishes -as I myself had imagined it; and in this way some parts of the work would for all time be given a foundation that might be well-intended, but is wrong. Let’s leave it to make its effect without such a programme. Your fabulous grasp and interpretation of the work speaks more than all the poetic introductions, -and in such an ideal performance my work will surely say to receptive souls and “people of good will” what it intended to say. 2

I have quoted this letter at length because it is significant in more respects than one. It is possible that Suk had reasons other than those he states for opposing the notion of a “poetic introduction” but those he expresses in the letter are definite and reasonable.. How very surprising then, to find an analysis (by Karel Hoffmeister) appearing in Prague just five years later3 which begins as follows-

This first of Suk’s greatest symphonic works is at the same time his most painful one. It is dedicated to “The sublime memory of Dvorak and Otylka”. It is a glorious monument to the two beings most dear to the composer. It is hallowed by the blood of his own heart, with which it is written, gushing in hot streams from the wounds, which Fate inflicted in sundering him from them.

This reads as if Suk’s worst fears, as expressed in the letter quoted, are now being realised. Embarking on the analysis proper, the author tells us-

Suk beholds two of the greatest, most powerful forces reach with iron fists into his life and walk with crushing strides about the gardens of his happiness: Fate and Death. -and he proceeds to identify the all-important central theme as the Fate Motif.

Pavel Stepan, however, seems hesitant about this Fate designation- In all movements of Asrael, an important, sometimes a leading function is allocated to the theme, which opens the first movement. It is the axis, the central idea of the whole work. An authentic analysis names it as the theme of fate. Suk, it is true, in the further course of the composition places no great stress on having the listener aware that it is actually fate that is speaking in this theme. He outlines no concrete programme, and so it is enough for him if the idea works all the time purely through its own direct utterance, without associative additions and leitmotific purpose. 4

On the other hand, Jan Miroslav Kvet’s analysis, in his painstakingly detailed biography of Suk5, adopts the Fate idea without apparent qualms-

While contemplating Dvorak’s death, the conviction enters the composer’s mind that two forces, against which it is difficult to struggle, have intervened in the family life of Dvorak and thus also of Suk. They are Fate and Death, to whom are dedicated the substance of the main idea in the exposition.

Now Kvet has already told us in his Foreword, that Suk had co-operated generously with him in the preparation of this biography, even to the extent of going through all his works with him “bar by bar”. Does this mean that Suk gave his imprimatur to the Fate Motif? -or was this idea so general by then that Kvet assumed Suk’s approval without specifically referring it to him? If Suk actually approved, this would seem to be inconsistent. After all, he had more than once mentioned his conviction that an audience could understand what the symphony “is about” without the aid of programme notes. If, however, this predominant theme is meant to represent Fate, then that is an important matter; and listeners would need to be informed about it. It is not something that one could be expected to work out from the music itself.

Kvet’s analysis is quite extensive. But it is directly followed by a paragraph which for me has an authentic ring to it and sheds an important light-

In Asrael Suk had come from his own interior suffering, and –having got over it through wrestling and defiance –reached an objective conclusion that can apply to all people: “Let us look on our sorrows and suffering sub specie aeternitatis! From that point of view, Fate and Death are not something terrible, and when in time ‘we walk through the valley of the shadow of death’, we need have no fear.” 6

These sentences surely have their origin in one of Kvet’s personal exchanges with the composer himself, and the second and third sentences appear to be direct quotations. In my opinion, they say in a few lines “more than all the poetic introductions” - (to borrow Suk’s words to Kovarovic earlier). They tell us that the symphony has been for Suk a journey, a progress, to a stage where eventually he is able to view life and death “within the framework of eternity”; not without pain, but without fear. This sense of not only going somewhere, but actually getting somewhere, is in marked contrast to the impression given by some commentators, who hear the music as an almost unbearably vivid account of Suk’s personal sufferings. –And this over the space of practically an hour!

But here again, a few lines from Suk himself are enough to put matters in perspective. In an uniquely long and rarely revealing letter to Otakar Sourek, written almost fifteen years after the completion of Asrael, the composer systematically surveys the stages of his development and the significance of Asrael as a turning point in his life and work. And, in that regard he interjects-

...do you understand what I had to go through before I got to the closing C major? No, that isn’t just a work of pain; it is a work of superhuman energy. 7

And many years after Suk’s death, these words were be supplemented by the ardent opinion of his intimate and devoted friend, the great conductor, Vaclav Talich, who wrote-

A symphony of death?-of ending? A song of hopelessness? Never! He [Suk] composes a hymn about the constant interchange of life and death, in which a basic sombre seriousness, now more strongly, now more weakly, grows luminous with rays of optimism…..[At the end] light and darkness conjoin. Life and death find settlement and are reconciled. 8

It is clear, then, that however a listener (or critic) may choose to hear the work, it was not intended to be all about Suk’s sufferings, though they were obviously its starting point.

As early as 1907, one week after the first performance, Suk shows awareness of these aspects. In a letter to the music critic, Emanuel Chvala, thanking him for his appreciation of the new symphony, he writes-

…I was happy to read from your beautiful article, that to you in particular, my composition speaks just as was intended. May it also, in the future, say that same thing to all sensitive souls! Out of my pain, I wrote this work for my own consolation, may it be destined to comfort other sufferers too! 9

This could hardly be clearer. Suk realises that he, as a bereaved person, has gained great comfort from composing his symphony, and he wishes that others may share the benefits. It must follow that he considered that his spiritual journey was mirrored in the unfolding of the music. And indeed, once we set aside the whole idea of the “Fate motif”, it is striking how everything falls into place: The symphony reveals itself as a contemplation of the perceived conflict between life and love, on the one hand, and death and loss on the other; a reflection of the long journey of a brave and determined soul out of the dark night of shock and grief into the dawn of a new maturity, a new solidarity with his fellow beings.

This is not the place for details of analysis, but one last question remains within the scope of this paper. It is a question which arises merely because I have disputed the idea that the central musical theme should be described as the Fate motif. This after all is the motif which holds the whole work together, conveys every change of mood and state of mind, and achieves apotheosis in the final section. And so the question can be put: If Fate is not the main protagonist of the symphony, who or what is?

We can expect from what Suk himself has said about an audience knowing without the aid of notes what the symphony is about, that the answer will be self-evident, not an inventive or far-fetched one. The answer in fact has to be that this theme, which lives and evolves organically over the course of the whole symphony, must be that of Suk himself. He after all is the narrator, the first person singular; and he it is who experiences the final reconciliation so eloquently described by Talich, when the dissonant augmented fourths of the Death theme resolve into consonant perfect fourths and become one with the central theme; become an accepted part of Suk’s new wisdom and of his future life. Lastly, it is this theme which enables listeners “for all time” to accompany Suk on his journey and, as he himself wished, to share the benefits he had gained in the course of the symphony’s composition.

Fred O´Callaghan
music critic / Dublin, Irish Republic /

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