Something cool you might have missed: “Praga” by Josef Suk

Adirondack as fuck.

Reverse Adirondack as fuck.

The idea of a piece of music being “derivative” is something I’ve explored a bit in this space previously. Within the sphere of organized sound the possibilities have been virtually exhausted at this point, and if you are composing firmly in the area of tonality, you can remove the “virtually” from that sentence because Tristan and Mahler 7 pretty much won tonality already (I suspect Schoenberg agreed with this………………..).

That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing interesting to be said, though. There are countless works of art that are universally recognized as significant achievements that are extremely derivative. Take the story of the aforementioned Tristan, which predates the awfully similar yet probably more famous tale of Lancelot and Guinevere. Or how about the much-loved-in-these-parts Sibelius 1, which has an incredible Tchaikovsky imprint running throughout it. How about “Brokeback Mountain,” a movie which somehow garnered a reputation for being a world-shattering film even though it’s basically the same “star-crossed lovers who can’t be together because of their families and society and shit” story that’s been around since the same God damns stories that probably inspired Tristan in the first place. It doesn’t make any of those artistic achievements any less deserving of praise. Being able to absorb the essence of a story and repackage it in a manner consistent with your own artistic ideals and beliefs is not as easy as the dismissive term “derivative” implies. 

Which brings me to Josef Suk. Not that Josef Suk. I’m talking about his dad, the one who married Dvorak’s daughter. Suk’s compositional career is an interesting one. His early works very clearly show the “this shit is definitely Czech” influence of his father-in-law, but as time passed the character of his music became quite a bit more Austro-German, whatever any of cares to think that means (it’s funny, I don’t really associate the Austro-German composers as having a “sound” in the same way I do Czech or Russian or American or French or Spanish or whatever else composers. I guess it’s because they’re essentially the “default” setting, meaning they are to classical music what hetero white males are to society at large, I guess…?).

Suk’s most famous composition is probably his String Serenade, op. 6, written in 1892 and still firmly in Czech mode. His best works, in my opinion, are the works for orchestra, and the best of these came in the ensuing decade, when he seemed to be finishing the process of bridging the gap between the Czech world and the regular ass Austro-German world. From 1903-1908 Suk composed the Scherzo Fantastique, the spectacular Asrael Symphony, A Summer’s Tale, and Praga, each of which are wholly deserving of more recognition than what they currently get. My personal favorite of these is Praga, which you may have guessed considering that’s the title of the fucking post and the point of me writing this in the first place.

Praga was composed in 1904, which for reference was a pretty significant year: Mahler 5 and the Kindertotenlieder, Madame Butterfly, Jenufa, the Glazunov Violin Concerto, Scriabin’s Divine Poem, and the Busoni Piano Concerto (holy shit, to be alive, culturally conscious, and European in 1904). As you might have guessed, it’s about Prague. What makes it such an appealing and interesting piece to me is that it is quite possibly the most impressive collection of derivations in any piece of music I’ve ever encountered, essentially making it the MOST derivative piece I know. And yet it’s tremendously cohesive and the disparate elements that Suk incorporates, whether consciously or unconsciously, all combine to form a truly awesome work.

From the very beginning of the piece we hear echoes of Smetana, not simply in the use of the Hussite hymn “Ye who are warriors of God,” but in the treatment of the hymn (echoes of the 5th tone poem, “Tabor” in Smetana’s magnum opus Ma Vlast). From there the list influences that you can definitely hear reads like a who’s who and what’s what of the late Romantic period. Here’s a bullet point list in random order of composers and/or works that make some sort of pseudo-metaphysical appearance to my ears:

  • Smetana – Ma Vlast
  • Elgar – Enigma Variations
  • Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique
  • Wagner – Das Rheingold
  • Strauss – Don Juan and Tod und Verklarung
  • Dvorak – Symphony no. 7
  • Bruckner – Symphony no. 7

There’s probably some other, subtler ones, and there’s a healthy Mahlerian current to the overall aesthetic that transcends any given work (though Mahler’s 5th symphony, which was written in the same year, is probably the sound world I sense the most, which is a pretty awesome bit of musical synergy).

The structure of the work is pretty episodic and not easy to pin down sans score, a sort of epic rhapsody. It has everything you’d want in it, though, from beautiful chorales to mournful English horn solos to a fucking blazing conclusion that can and should rip the flesh clean off your face if being listened to properly. Take a listen and see if you hear some of the things I mentioned above, but mostly just enjoy it because it’s a blast, man. Crank that shit to 11 y’all:

COMPLETELY UNRELATED ANECDOTE THAT I SIMPLY CAN’T NOT MENTION

So, I had no idea that at the 1932 Summer Olympics, which were held in Los Angeles, there were “Art Competitions.” Medals were given in 5 categories for works that were sports-related in some way. Some examples of things that won Olympic Gold Medals: Design for a Sports and Recreation Centre with Stadium, for the City of Liverpool by John Hughes (Town Planning, architecture), “Leg Scissors” by Joseph Golinkin (Prints, painting), “Shield of the Athletes” by R. Tait McKenzie (Medals and reliefs, sculpture).

The “winner” for music was Josef Suk, for a piece called Into a New Life. I use quotes because the piece was awarded the silver medal, however NO PIECE WAS AWARDED THE GOLD (or the bronze for that matter). What the fuck does that mean? How did this happen? Were there zero other entrants? If so, why did it not win a gold be default? Who was in charge of awarding these? Were there any athletic things required of the artists? Why had I never heard of the 1932 Olympics Art Competitions? I think this is fucking amazing! My life is immeasurably better for knowing this shit. Read more here!

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