The best of Czech classical music, part six: Josef Suk’s Towards a New Life

Josef Suk, photo: archive of Czech Radio

In the latest edition of our series about some of the greatest works of Czech classical music we explore the most famous of Czech marches – Towards a New Life – composed by Josef Suk in the first years of the newly born Czechoslovak Republic.

Josef Suk, photo: archive of Czech Radio
Battle of Hradec Králové

„God, how beautiful it is, to see the soldiers marching so nicely in their columns “… Loosely translated, those are the words of Around Hradec (Okolo Hradce), the most famous Czech folk song. It is said to have originated sometime after the Battle of Hradec Králové in 1866 when over half a million Austrian, Czech and Prussian soldiers marched around the town of Hradec.

Every army needs a march to get it moving. The Preobrazhensky Regiment March, which originated at the turn of the 18th century, is still played at military parades on Moscow’s Red Square to this day. The Scottish regiments of the British and other Commonwealth armies, which were historically followed into battle by bagpipe players, have their own marches as well. And all military parades in Germany used to be accompanied by Piefke’s Prussia’s Glory. It wasn’t just the soldiers either, different clubs and athletes loved a good march as well. The Vienna Philharmonic ends its annual New Year’s concert with the crisp Radetzky March.

Understandably, marches were also often played in the Czech lands. Let us leave aside the socialist ones that were played during the First of May celebrations. No composer has matched the number of marches written by the patriotic composer and bandmaster from Kolín, František Kmoch. But the most famous and renowned out of all the Czech marches is Josef Suk’s Towards a New Life. It even achieved overseas fame, when it placed first in the contest held to choose music for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

František Kmoch, photo: Public Domain

Josef Suk originally started writing this composition many years earlier. And at first, he intended it to be a military march. His music was supposed to accompany soldiers defending the young Republic from Hungary, during the brief war in 1919. Czechs were at the time full of fervent talk about the obligation to defend the homeland. And it was in this atmosphere that Suk started writing his new march. Written “so that his son would be able to march in tune to his father’s music”, as Suk’s son was said to have been among the army volunteers. But after a certain amount of time, Suk put off working on his composition.

The piece appeared in the public only later, and from the start, it was very popular. So, it isn’t a surprise that it was also a success at the Los Angeles Olympics. Those games weren’t just a sports competition either. There was also a contest for sport themed music taking place. And Towards a New Life placed first. But for many years after, one could not hear the composition in Suk’s homeland, as it was, like its author, connected to the Sokol movement and banned by the communist regime. During the First Republic, lyrics were added to the march and this choir version of the piece was very popular in the years before the outbreak of World War II. It is one with a somewhat revolutionary air to it, as it was recorded shortly after November of 1989 and the heady excitement of the Velvet Revolution is apparent in the recording. The conductor is Vladimír Válek.

The music is optimistic, with a text containing optimistic verses about the: “falcon clearly seen from Blaník” and a fierce proclamation: “Hear, the trumpet sounds” (Slyš, polnice zní). During the days of communism, this lovely march was forbidden. That is paradoxical because, in the 1950s, its text served as the inspiration for all the socialist marches that took place under the red flag.

As for the music itself, the most important part of this piece is at the beginning with its imposing sounds of fanfare, which almost literally slice through the air.

In the 1920s, Sokol had a contest that would choose an official march for the Sokol organization. Josef Suk submitted his revised and extended Towards a New Life under a pseudonym. It won, albeit the decision wasn’t unanimous. Some of the older Sokol members considered it to be too progressive sounding. But it was supported within the organisation by composers Karel Kovařovic and Otakar Ostrčil. Despite this, Suk remained somewhat bitter about the affair.

He only finished composing the opening fanfare and the final part after officially winning the contest. It was also hard to establish the new piece among the compositions that the Sokols had for years been assembling and exercising to. Older Sokols preferred Kmoch and his crisp marches. And, even though he won the contest, Suk’s Towards a New Life wasn’t played at the Sokol slet in 1920. The Sokols only accepted the piece as their official ceremonial march and anthem after Suk’s death in 1935.

The Sokol representatives first heard the march in its simplest form – as a piano duet. The wider Sokol public then heard this musical monument introduced by the famous fanfare. The sheet music for this famous piece was prepared by the composer himself. The original was, unfortunately, not preserved. A military brass band version, which was played at the Sokol slet, was adapted by the Czechoslovak Amy music inspector and bandmaster, Lieutenant- Colonel Prokop Oberthor.

During World War II, Suk’s composition was regularly played on the Czechoslovak government-in-exile’s radio broadcast to people in the occupied homeland. The introductory fanfare part of the piece became the theme for the regular programs produced by Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec that were broadcast to occupied Czechoslovakia by the BBC.

The Best of Czech classical music series was created on the basis of Lukáš Hurník's and Bohuslav Vítek's project "Millenium hits" which was broadcast on Czech Radio Vltava.