Czechs in History

In this edition of Czechs in History, Nick Carey takes a look at the life of composer Josef Suk.

There are few people outside the Czech Republic, other than avid lovers of classical music, who will have heard the name Josef Suk. Few people would believe that during his lifetime he was considered to be one of the leading, if not the foremost, composer of his generation, and still is today by musicologists. A child prodigy, his international career began early and came to an end before the First World War. After the death of his wife, who was incidentally the daughter of his friend and teacher, composer Antonin Dvorak, he led a very private life. This tragic incident would remain with him and in his music for the rest of his days, as he pondered the philosophy of life and death.

Josef Suk was born in the village of Krecovice in Eastern Bohemia, on January 4th 1874, the son a local teacher and musician. Suk himself began to play musical instruments whilst a child, and from early on, says Jarmila Gabrielova, associate professor of musicology at Charles University, it was clear that he had an exceptional talent for music: In his last few years at the conservatory, Josef Suk began to compose his first works. When he graduated in 1892 at the age of 18, however, he joined a musical group, the Bohemian Quartet, which launched his international career as a musician: The Bohemian Quartet kept Josef Suk busy right up until the beginning of the First World War, when travelling possibilities naturally became restricted.

While in the Bohemian Quartet, Josef Suk did not have a great deal of time for composition, but his early pieces showed a romantic quality that was very popular. Jarmila Gabrielova: This romantic style may well have reflected that this part of Josef Suk's life was a happy one, and his works were very well received. He was considered by many to be one of the leading composers of his generation. It was during this time that Josef Suk fell in love with the daughter of his former teacher, composer Antonin Dvorak, and he married her in 1898, at the age of twenty four: The tragic impact of the deaths of his wife and father-in-law would remain with him for the rest of his life. Josef Suk took over the education and upbringing of his young son and such was his love for his wife, that he wrote a piece for his son describing her life, their love and her death: Josef Suk's mourning was not restricted to his private life. In honour of Antonin Dovrak and his wife, he composed a great symphony in their memory, which contained two themes that were to appear consistently in his works from this point on. Jarmila Gabrielova: The loss that Josef Suk felt at the loss of his wife was such that he withdrew from public life, and although aged only 31 when his wife died, he spent the next 30 years alone, bar a few friends and his son. He spent much of his time reflecting on the meaning of life, love and death, and this was reflected in his music: Josef Suk faced a further setback following the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918. He was Czech through and through, and was pleased that his people now had an independent nation, but was not heavily involved in the various Czechoslovak movements of the day. Shortly after the birth of the Czechoslovak nation, Suk fell victim to a campaign launched by Professor Zdenek Nejedly, who believed that composers such as Dvorak and Suk were not true Czechs. The campaign centred around Josef Suk's part in the Bohemian Quartet and his performances in Vienna: Josef Suk eventually cleared his name in court in 1922. In the same year, he became professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory. He continued to remain a recluse, and spent less time on composition. It was at this time that he began work on his last symphony, Epilogue, which took him 11 years to complete.

Josef Suk spent his last years in even greater isolation, spending time in his home town of Krecovice, and teaching at the conservatory. His death, on May 29th 1935, of a suspected heart attack, at the age of 61, came as a surprise to his friends and admirers.

Josef Suk is little known nowadays, other than to musical experts and those with a great interest in classical music. According to Jarmila Gabrielova, however, Josef Suk's reputation during his lifetime may well once again be on the rise, despite the complexity of some of his music: