Serenade in E-flat, Op. 6
Length: 28 minutes
The tradition on which Giannini's and Flagello's string orchestra music draws is exemplified in Josef Suk's Serenade, albeit in much sunnier form. The outlines of Suk's life will also seem familiar: a gifted child born into a musical family, and trained at a conservatory where he later taught for many years. Suk was also a violinist who specialized in chamber music, performing with the Czech Quartet for 40 years.
Suk entered the Prague Conservatory when he was eleven years old. He stayed on an extra year to study with Dvor?ák, who joined the faculty at the beginning of 1891. He became Dvorák's favorite pupil and later married Dvorák's daughter Otilie.
The Dvorák/Suk relationship, familial as well as tutorial, was a happy one. "It's summertime now, so go and make something lively for a change, to compensate for all those pomposities in minor," Dvorák instructed Suk at the summer break in 1892. Suk obliged him, and returned with this Serenade in E-flat major, a substantial but gentle - and generally cheerful - piece. After further work and partial performances, the Serenade had its premiere in 1895, and was published by Simrock the following year on Brahms' recommendation.
The tone is set immediately in the first movement, no dramatic Allegro but rather a genially poised Andante con moto, with a Brahmsian main theme launched from a falling triad. Suk was always most at home in instrumental ensemble music, and the string writing glows with warm assurance.
Suk did not much share Dvorák's interest in folk materials, but it is hard not to hear the dance intimations in the second movement, again sprung from a falling triad. Suk's tempo qualifications are instructive: the first movement was an Andante "with motion" and this is an Allegro "but not too much and graceful." No madcap scherzo, this is a gentrified country dance marked with characteristic hemiola passages (two groups of three beats changed into three groups of two beats).
The unqualifiedly slow movement is the emotional heart of the work, reflective and even pensive. Though not labeled such, this movement is much like Dvor?ák's instrumental dumkas (Slavonic laments), in its slow, duple-meter ruminations and sectional contrasts. It is quite capable of passionate agitation, but makes stronger points through heart-breaking tenderness, such as bringing back the main theme high and soft in muted violins immediately after the most violent climax.
The jocular finale - again qualified, "but not too quick" - returns the piece to easygoing charm. The bustling accompaniment makes much use of two-against-three patterns and punchy figuration. Suk feints a soft fade-out, then a quick crescendo brings the volume back up to fortissimo for an emphatic ending.
John Henken is the Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.