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Josef Suk was a renowned violinist and one of the most important Czech composers of the generation to follow Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904). He grew up in the Bohemian city of Křečovice where his father, also named Josef Suk (1827–1913), was choirmaster and with whom the younger Suk studied violin, piano and organ. Entering the Prague Conservatory at the age of 11, Suk studied violin with Antonín Bennewitz (1833–1926) and composition with Dvořák. Suk was Dvořák’s favorite student and eventually ended up marrying the latter’s daughter Otylka (1878–1905). In 1891 Suk, along with Karel Hoffman (1872–1936), Oskar Nedbal (1874–1930), and Otto Berger (1873–1897), founded the Czech String Quartet, which remained in existence with relatively few personnel changes until 1933. During his 40 years with the ensemble Suk performed in over 4000 concerts internationally. The composer’s travels had a profound impact on his evolving compositional style due to exposure to a wide variety of new music. The Czech Quartet also performed much new music and was the ensemble that gave the premiere performances of Leos Janáčeks (1854–1928) Quartets No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata) and No. 2 (Intimate Letters).
Given Suk’s prominence as a chamber performer, it is surprising that he was almost exclusively a composer of symphonic music. In addition, unlike his fellow contemporary Czech composers, Suk was relatively little interested in folk music. Suk’s compositional style was highly eclectic and unique, demonstrating influences from as far afield as Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884), Claude Debussy (1862–1918) and Richard Strauss (1864–1949). In his later works, Suk’s harmonies become so complex that they even approach Stravinskyan bi-tonality. Suk’s compositional oeuvre includes two symphonies and several overtures, piano miniatures, several string quartets, piano trios and related works, and a number of choruses and solo songs. Although he composed no operas, Suk’s incidental music to Julius Zeyer’s (1841–1901) play Radúz and Mahulena was highly regarded for its pathos and introspective nature.
Although Suk left behind a healthy corpus of musical compositions, his death at the relatively young age of 61 and his time-consuming performance schedule undoubtedly prevented the completion of many compositional projects. Added to the restraints on Suk’s time was his appointment as professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory in 1922 and his later serving as rector at the same institution. Among Suk’s composition students were Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959) and Karel Reiner (1910–1979). Suk’s grandson, also named Josef Suk (b. 1929), has been one of the most renowned violinists of the past century.
Literature: Zdeněk Nouza/Miroslav Nový, Josef Suk, Thematic Catalogue of the Works. Editio Bärenreiter Praha, 2005.
(Contribution by Jacques de Coo <firstname.lastname@example.org>.)