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Josef Suk (1874-1935)
Six Piano Pieces, Op. 7 About Mother, Op. 28 Moods, Op. 10
Josef Suk belongs to the second generation of Czech nationalist composers, after Smetana and Dvořák. He was born in 1874 in Křečovice, the son of a village schoolmaster. He began to play the violin at the age of eight and later the piano, writing his first composition, a Polka, in 1882. At the age of eleven he entered the Prague Conservatory, studying the violin with the director Antonín Bennewitz and theory with Josef Foerster, Karel Knittl and Karel Stecker. His chamber-music teacher, during an extra year of study in 1891, after his graduation with his Piano Quartet No.1, was Hanus Wihan, for whom Dvořák wrote his famous Cello Concerto and who trained the distinguished Czech Quartet. Wihan himself played in the quartet for twenty years, from 1894 until 1914, and Suk played second violin from the foundation of the ensemble in 1892 until his retirement in 1933, two years before his death. It proved impossible to replace him and the quartet consequently disbanded, after giving a final concert in honour of their colleagues sixtieth birthday. During its existence the Czech Quartet gave over four thousand concerts at home and abroad. Suk studied composition first with Karel Stecker and after his graduation in 1891 with Dvořák, whose favourite pupil he became. In 1898 he married the latters daughter Otilie, whose death in 1905 brought him great sadness. He taught composition at the Prague Conservatory, of which he later became director, and as a teacher exercised a strong influence over a whole generation of Czech composers.
In spite of his long professional association with chamber music, Josef Suk also wrote a quantity of vocal and orchestral music, as well as music for piano, an instrument that he himself played, finding in this last a means of heartfelt self-expression. His Six Piano Pieces, Opus 7, were written between 1891 and 1893. The first of these, the relatively well-known Song of Love, marked Adagio, non troppo lento, opens in a gently romantic mood, moving forward from D flat major to a more intense and grandiose F major, before returning to the mood of the opening and eventually to the home key. The charming B flat major Humoresque, marked Allegretto grazioso, is in a lively waltz rhythm and is followed by Recollections, with the direction Andante con moto quasi improvisando and in C minor, inspired by memories at times sad, then mounting to a passionate climax, before subsiding once more. The first of the two Idylls, marked Moderato and in F major, has the mood of a nostalgic waltz, and the second, marked Tempo comodo and in F minor, suggests the same feeling, at a more relaxed pace. The D minor Dumka follows the example of Dvořák, who had made use of this form of Slavonic lament in his writing for the piano and in chamber music. The melancholy of the opening section follows precedent in the introduction of a rapid major section, a contrasting dance of lively character, before the return of the initial mood. The set of pieces ends with Capriccietto, marked Allegro scherzando, a lilting A minor triple metre conclusion.
About Mother, Opus 28, was written in 1907 and consists of five pieces, described as simple pieces for his son, presumably to be heard rather than played, since they make increasing demands on a performer. The first of these has the title When mother was a little girl and has much of the gently nostalgic mood of the first of the Opus 7 pieces. The second of the series, Once in spring, in F sharp major, offers changes of mood and has a central F sharp minor section that suggests sadder memories. How mother sang at night to her sick child maintains a throbbing accompanying B flat in an insistent rhythm in the lower part throughout the piece, while ambiguous harmonies weave their way above. This is followed by From mothers heart, with its own constant rhythmic octave repetitions, at first in the upper part, giving a feeling of urgency that gives way, in a middle section, to a brighter mood. The set of pieces ends with Souvenirs, again set against a repeated accompanying rhythm, gently tender memories of his wife, who had died two years before and whom his son would never know, as he grew up.
Moods, Opus 10, was written in 1895. The first of the pieces, all of which are relatively simple in structure, is Legend, its opening section marked by arpeggiated accompanying chords and suggesting a dumka. There is a shift from the opening key of D flat major to C sharp minor, giving a darker hue to the central section, before the varied return of the earlier thematic material. Capriccio offers a whimsical E flat minor framework for a central Allegro scherzando in the tonic major key. This leads to the contrasted B major Romance, in a tenderly wistful mood. The fourth piece of the set, the A major Bagatelle, is delicately subdued in character, and the series ends with the E flat major Spring Idyll, with a more delicate central section in C major. The more elaborate material of the opening returns, bringing further reminiscences of what has gone before.
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SUK: Six Piano Pieces / De Maman / Moods