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Serenade for strings

composer

 
In 1892 Antonín Dvořák suggested to a melancholy yet talented student at the Prague Conservatory that he could perhaps try writing something a little bit more cheerful for a change. This was his star pupil, Josef Suk, who responded by creating a Serenade for strings, modelled to some extent on Dvořák’s own (which had been written when Suk was barely a toddler). The work launched his career, not least because Johannes Brahms championed it, just as years earlier he had helped Dvořák as well.

Suk seemed born for success; it’s not clear why his artistic nature was quite so melancholy. He came from a highly musical family. His father was also named Josef Suk and the name continued down the generations (the late great violinist Josef Suk was the composer’s grandson). Suk the composer, born in Křečovice, Bohemia, in 1874, enjoyed a strong grounding in both violin and organ as well as composing. He formed the Czech String Quartet with three fellow students at the Prague Conservatory and remained its second violinist for much of his life. Later he taught at Conservatory—his pupils included Bohuslav Martinů and Rudolf Firkušný—and ultimately became the institution’s head twice, 1924-26 and 1933-35.

Tragedy had struck him in earnest, however, when his wife Otylka, who was Dvořák’s daughter, died in 1905, the year after her father. Suk translated the effects of this double devastation into his ‘Asrael’ Symphony, arguably his greatest work. Yet, true to his dark side, he had started work on it before this appalling series of events took place.

Even the Serenade is not wholly sunny, however much the youthful Suk tried to follow his mentor’s advice. The shadows seep up through its extended, inspired, songlike melodies—a vivid characteristic of Czech folk music, often poised on the fine line between laughter and tears. Unlike Dvořák’s Serenade, the work only has four movements, but its similarities to its predecessor are clear at once in the relaxed yet wistful nature of the first movement. This is followed by a lively yet gentle dance movement full of strongly Czech rhythms, an achingly lyrical adagio and a finale that is probably as optimistic as the composer ever let himself become.

from notes by Jessica Duchen © 2020

Recordings

Vaughan Williams, Suk & Dvořák: Tallis Fantasia & String Serenades
Studio Master: SIGCD638Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 1: Andante con moto
Movement 2: Allegro ma non troppo e grazioso
Movement 3: Adagio
Movement 4: Allegro giocoso, ma no troppo presto

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