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Josef Suk – Serenade for strings

Last updated Jul 5, 2021 | Published on Aug 12, 2021

Winner of a fellowship at the Bayreuther Festspiele, Mr. Griglio’s conducting has been praised for his “energy” and “fine details”. Mr. Griglio took part in the first world recording of music by composer Irwin Bazelon and conducted several world premieres like "The song of Eddie", by Harold Farberman, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. Principal Conductor of International Opera Theater Philadelphia for four years, Mr.Griglio is also active as a composer. His first opera, Camille Claudel, debuted in 2013 to a great success of audience and critics. Mr. Griglio is presently working on an opera on Caravaggio and Music Director of Opera Odyssey.
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Table of contents

Introduction

A prominent figure in the Czech musical world, Josef Suk’s star has been unjustly declining over the years, something we’ve already seen happening to quite a few composers like Franz Schreker.

Suk grew up with music: his father taught him organ, piano and violin; he later perfected violin with another teacher on top of taking up composing.

Perhaps this is the most known aspect of his life. His composition mentor was none other than Antonin Dvořák. Moreover, Suk ended up marrying Dvořák’s daughter, Otilie, in 1898.

Josef Suk in a picture taken before 1930

Happiness did not last long as first Dvořák and then Otilie died. These events inspired Suk’s Asrael Symphony.

During his lifetime, already in the early years, Suk was admired for his abilities as a composer by many. Dvořák first and foremost but also the famous critic Eduard Hanslick and another composer who had a close relationship with Dvořák himself, Johannes Brahms.

Josef Suk – Serenade for strings op.6

Should you need a score you can find one here.

The Serenade for Strings was written in 1892. After a partial premiere in 1893 and a full premiere in 1895, the work quickly became popular, and got the nice endorsement of Brahms.

It’s in 4 movements: Andante con moto, Allegro ma non troppo e grazioso, Adagio, Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo presto.

Andante con moto

A lovely nocturnal opening, very similar and not unexpectedly so, to Dvořák’s Serenade.

Second violins and violas are the motor pulsing underneath a delicate melody sung by the first violins. Cellos and basses punctuate with pizzicatos, like little drops of water in a pond.


The cellos join the first violins in the second part of the phrase and initiate the second phrase, taking up the role of the violins.

Suk Serenade for strings analysis mov 1 ex 1

As you may have noticed, there is a typical romantic inclination to chromaticism, shifting the harmonic layers to change perspective.

One element is used to create a bridge which lands on the first theme again, in forte this time, played by the first violins an octave higher. The cellos imitate 2 quarter notes after the violins

Suk Serenade for strings analysis mov 1 ex 2

Again, the harmony shifts, and from Eb major we move to G major where a lovely 2nd theme awaits. As new as it may sound, it is actually derived from something we’ve already heard at letter A.

Suk Serenade for strings analysis mov 1 ex 3

This theme sees now some development, passing between violins and cellos, and reused in a more melancholic take by the second violins. The element that created the transition between the first and second theme is developed as well landing on the second theme once more and then used to bridge back to the first theme.

Suk Serenade for strings analysis mov 1 ex 6

The arpeggio is disrupted and from the low register climbs all the way up. The head of the first theme is played by the violas, in their high register, in an ethereal atmosphere 

Back to earth and its sorrows, and then to the first theme in B major. Shortly, we head for the coda which sees the return of harmonic games played on an Eb pedal of the basses.

The structure of this movement is not quite a complete sonata form: the development is nested into the second theme and everything is kept very compact, carefree.

Technical tip

Much like in the first movement of Dvořák’s serenade, this movement is about long legato strokes with inner pulses.

Registration is one of your best friends in this kind of music: try to follow the pitch contour with your hand. It’s an invaluable and very elegant way to break the pattern.

For a technical analysis take a look at this other video

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Adagio

The third movement of this serenade keeps the nocturnal atmosphere we’ve seen in its first part. This slow movement begins with a cello solo, singing the melody, accompanied only by the other cellos of the section, playing divisi in thirds.

Suk Serenade for strings analysis mov 3 ex 1

The end of the phrase is bounced to the violas and the pattern repeats, with the first violins and violas as protagonists. The head of the theme returns to the cello solo while the beginning of the second bar is turned into an accompaniment

Suk Serenade for strings analysis mov 3 ex 2

The first violins take the lead again and move up the phrase in the high register to calm down immediately, using the theme to close the section. Notice the 16th notes cells both appearing as a unifying factor

The phrase stretches its ending, closing in G major. But the very last resolution opens on a E major in the Più’ andante part. A new musical idea is presented by the violins and then taken by the violas. The accompaniment gradually intensifies, turned into triplets by the cellos. Again, almost every section at some point plays divisi, enriching the texture

Suk Serenade for strings analysis mov 3 ex 3

The theme is passed to a solo violin and further on to the violas. Look how rich this page is: from letter F the triplets played by the violas and cellos add certain anxiety; but at letter G the feeling is different. While the violas sing the melody the cellos and violins exchange counterpoint lines of rare beauty.

We enter a new development part at letter H: the head of the theme is there but is used to build a model repeated throughout the next few bars. The triplets are also present, propelling the phrase forward

Suk Serenade for strings analysis mov 3 ex 4
Suk Serenade for strings analysis mov 3 ex 5

The roles are switched, with the cellos and violas taking over the melody while the violins accompany with triplets. The crescendo adds to the accelerando and canonically we would expect a big passionate explosion. Instead, the music folds back presenting the first theme’s elements in the first and second violins in an ethereal pianissimo bridging to the full reprise of the theme serving, in turn, to bridge to the coda

Suk Serenade for strings analysis mov 3 ex 6

Technical tip

The biggest difficulty of this third movement is the spacing of the strokes. Feel the resistance of the sound on your hands or at the tip of the baton. Like going through water.

This will help you keep your strokes homogeneous, pulling the sound from one pulse to the other. Focus on the accompaniment rather than the solo.

For a technical analysis take a look at this other video

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Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.

Harold Farberman

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