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8.550419 - SUK / DVORAK: Serenades for Strings
Josef Suk (1874 - 1935)
Antonin Dvorák (1841 - 1940)
The Czech composer and violinist Josef Suk, Dvorák's favourite pupil and later his son-in-law, was the son of a village organist and schoolmaster at Krecovice. He was born in 1874 and at the age of eleven entered the Prague Conservatory, where he studied the violin with the director Antonin Bennewitz and theory with Josef Foerster. His chamber music teacher was the cellist Hanus Wihan, for whom Dvorák wrote his famous Cello Concerto and who trained the distinguished Czech Quartet, in which Suk played second violin until his retirement in 1933 and the consequent disbandment of the quartet. In addition to his activities as a performer Suk distinguished himself as a composer and as a teacher of composition at the Prague Conservatory, exercising a strong influence over a whole generation of Czech composers.
Suk's Serenade in E Flat Major, Op. 6, was written in 1892, a year after his graduation from the Conservatory, and on the recommendation of Brahms was published by Simrock in 1896, immediately establishing him as a composer of importance. In four movements the Serenade opens with a movement of charm and lyrical appeal, tinged with occasional sadness and very much in the classical tradition. This is followed by a more overtly cheerful Allegro and a slow movement of greater intensity of feeling. The mood changes at once with the energy of the final movement that brings to an end a work of remarkable achievement, composed as it was by an eighteen-year-old, then embarking on an additional year of instruction at the Conservatory.
Dvorák's own background offered less opportunity, though his achievement must seem the greater. He was born in a village in Bohemia, where his father owned an inn and worked as a butcher. The village band provided early musical interest and training of a kind, before, through the help of relatives, Dvorák could be sent away to school, and finally to the Prague Organ School, at that time a poor relation of the Conservatory. He spent the first part of his professional life as an orchestral player, principal violinist in the orchestra of the Czech Provisional Theatre, where he worked for a time under Smetana. He was eventually able to devote himself more fully to composition and was greatly assisted by the encouragement of Brahms, both by the award of scholarships and the necessary recommendation to publishers.
Dvorák's career won him an international reputation. His visits to England and the resulting choral compositions won him friends in that country and in 1892 he was invited to New York to establish a National Conservatory, in pursuance of the sponsor's aim to cultivate a national American school of composition. At home he had, after Smetana, been largely instrumental in creating a form of Czech music that transcended national boundaries, music that was thoroughly Bohemian in its melodic inspiration and yet firmly within the German classical tradition exemplified by Brahms.
The E major Serenade for string orchestra was written in the first two weeks of May in the year 1873 and performed in Prague on 10th December 1876. It is scored only for strings and has for many years formed a major item in the string orchestra repertoire. The first movement opens with music of delicate charm, breathing something of the spirit of a Schubert quartet, particularly in the middle section of this ternary movement. This is followed by a waltz, with a more restless trio. The scherzo starts with a melody of great liveliness, followed by a second theme of more romantic pretensions and a further melody of considerable beauty, before an extended passage leads back again to the opening melodies. A Larghetto of great tenderness and yearning, recalling in outline the trio of the second movement leads to the finale in which there are references both to the Larghetto and to the first movement. This brings, in conclusion, still more of the spirit of Bohemia, with which the whole Serenade is instilled.
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