Asrael symphony - Josef Suk’s emotional tribute to Antonín Dvořák and his wife Otílie

Josef Suk, photo: archive of Czech Radio

Born in 1874 this week, Josef Suk was a highly accomplished composer and violinist who was one of the chief representatives of Czech Modernism. He was also one of the favorite pupils of Antonín Dvořák. Suk began writing the Asrael Symphony in 1904, in dedication to Dvořák who had died that year. It was originally supposed to have an optimistic ending. However, one year later, Suk’s wife, who was also Dvořák’s daughter died of heart failure and the final two movements of the symphony got a more melancholy tone.

Asrael is carrier of souls and the fourth Archangel in Islam. In some Jewish traditions he is seen as the angel of death. The being had already inspired authors in Western literature, when Suk was writing his symphony. For example, several English poets used the name. Alexander Leigh, depicted Asrael as wearing a black-hooded cloak in a portrayal that is reminiscent of the grim reaper.

Suk wrote the first two movements of the Symphony while traveling and finished the third in Prague. It was then that his wife, Otílie died at the tender age of 27. This came as a heavy second blow to Suk, who the wrote the following words about the episode:

"The fearsome Angel of Death struck with his scythe a second time. Such a misfortune either destroys a man or brings to the surface all the powers dormant in him. Music saved me and after a year I began the second part of the symphony, beginning with an adagio, a tender portrait of Otílka."

The symphony would end up being a very emotional composition. It includes several quotations from Dvořák’s work. However, there is also a noticeable retreat from the stylistic features of his teacher when compared to Suk’s previous work.