Hope Has the Last Word
Works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Josef Suk
Blissful moments, reverence for Mozart: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3
Ludwig van Beethoven had a special affection for Mozart’s two piano concertos in minor tonalities. While his own Opus 37 is the only solo concerto he composed in minor, the kinship between its main theme and Mozart’s piano works in the same key suggests a deliberate reference. The sharply profiled first theme outlines the triad in a manner similar to Mozart’s C minor Sonata K. 457, but – intensified by dotted rhythm – it makes a more decisive impression: that of a declaration, almost like the beginning of a manifesto. A third motivic element (along with the broken triad and dotted rhythm) appears subcutaneously at first and grows in presence as the concert progresses: the semitone interval. The two highest notes of the main theme lie a semitone apart; the end of the second theme actually contains two semitone steps; and at the end of the development this provocative interval is almost omnipresent. In the recapitulation, the first and second themes follow in quicker succession, bringing the contrasts closer together. But following the virtuosic, wide-reaching cadenza, the gaze at first turns inward: the tutti does not immediately reclaim its customary dominance, instead emerging from an interplay between solo piano and timpani over quiescent string chords. The softer the music gets, the greater the tension; then, with increasing concentration and continuing offbeat accents, the proceedings move towards the decisive final bars.
The second movement (Largo) is in the unusually distant key of E major – almost as far removed as imaginable in Classical music from the work’s main tonality. The cadential gesture in C sharp minor – the relative minor – in the second bar further accentuates the semitone relationship. In this harmonically remote, dreamy world – a different reality – are manifestations of those “blissful moments” to which the composer refers in a letter of 16 November 1801. The semitone step is also an integral component of the finale’s rondo theme; in the very first two notes, it recreates the harmonic contrast between the first and second movements. Although Beethoven follows rondo form, he expands the middle episodes such that the return of the refrain has almost the effect of a sonata-form recapitulation. The theme of the preceding episode, which strikingly recalls the second movement, is followed by a development-like orchestra fugato, which in turn leads – by way of a semitone-based transition – to a dreamlike variant of the rondo theme, now on the piano alone. This is the second reference to the Largo in the “false” key of E major: yet another cross-reference between movements, extraordinary even for Beethoven’s works of this period. In the coda, the refrain theme – following the model of Mozart’s D minor Concerto K. 466 – turns to the major, shortened and compressed in several steps; the breath quickens, the emotions overflow, and hope has the last word.
Josef Suk: One of a kind
Josef Suk, as the musicologist Wolfgang Dömling deemed him, was “the last of the great Czech composers before the modern period began with Bohuslav Martinů. … His symphonic cycle, amassed gradually over decades, is unique in the entire musical literature.” The first piece in the series, initially conceived as a stand-alone work, is the symphony being performed today, Asrael (Azrael): it turned into Suk’s attempt to transcend his grieving for the two people in his life he loved most.
Born into a music-loving family of schoolmasters on 4 January 1874, Suk was only eleven when he entered the Prague Conservatory. There he studied the violin with Antonín Bennewitz, theory with Josef Bohuslav Foerster and chamber music with the cellist Hanuš Wihan, joining the composition master class of Antonín Dvořák at the age of 17 and becoming his favourite pupil. In 1898, he married Dvořák’s daughter Otilie: the pupil became the son-in-law, the teacher’s daughter the wife. Suk was on a concert tour when Dvořák, whom he revered, passed away on 1 May 1904. Otilie was profoundly affected by the loss of her father; her health suffered and Suk was unable to care for her to the extent he would have wished. It was at this time that he began contemplating a “symphony of tragic character” with which to pay homage to his teacher (a work for which all his preceding efforts would be no more than “preparation”). The piece progressed as far as the drafts of a fourth movement when, on 5 July 1905, Otilie herself died, just 27 years old. After that, the finale that Suk had planned “as an apotheosis, as an image of reconciliation with fate above Dvořák’s grave”, remained unwritten. For an entire year Suk’s grief left him utterly incapable of composing. After he recovered, he set aside his sketches for the conclusion and instead added to the work two new movements dedicated to the memory of his wife.
“The work’s motivic axis”, as Jiří Berkovec refers to its principal idea, “is the fate theme that constantly aspires to the fourth degree of the scale only to fall back again to the tonic note.” Closely related to this sequence of tones is the so-called death motif, a double tritone. The ongoing musical metamorphosis has little to do with classical sonata form. Through all the wealth of motifs and lyrical secondary ideas, the main theme – stretched or compressed, expanded or splintered – always returns as a cautionary reminder: thoughts of death become a familiar preoccupation.
The Andante, which follows directly, calls up the memory of Dvořák by quoting a motif from his Requiem. The middle section is a hollow, trumpet-led funeral march, which subsides into a little fugato. Just as unexpectedly, the eerie third movement brings in the “ghostly scherzo sounds of a feverish dream, interrupted in the middle by a sudden ray of light” (Berkovec). The fourth movement is the only one without direct quotes from other parts of the symphony: “Headed ‘To Otylka’, the Adagio is a musical portrait of Otilie as preserved in Suk’s memory: delicate, with solo violin cantilenas, veiled by the diffident sounds of the orchestra. But the image blurs, and the dream ends with a hard recognition of the reality with which the fifth movement now engages in fierce combat, rising up against it and resisting – a reality to which it refuses to resign itself though knowing it to be inescapable. The most important thing, however, is that it is not resigned. It seeks only peace. Peace and time” (Berkovec).
Suk specified that the dedication should be printed next to the title in programme leaflets “so that the audience will understand the reference in the name Asrael”, but the symphony’s title remains puzzling. The angel of death in Islamic and Jewish mythology – figuring only in folklore, not in the Quran – was a strange choice of patron for such a personal homage. Azrael, who keeps a record of births and deaths, was entrusted by Allah with separating the souls from the bodies of the dead, something he manages without difficulty only for the faithful and the righteous. What significance did this Azrael have for Suk in connection with the death of his father-in-law and his wife? Was he suffering from feelings of guilt? Did he even see himself as an angel of death? In fact, Otylka’s condition had worsened rapidly after the birth of their son. The answer is concealed rather than manifested in Suk’s music.