Otilie Suková was the daughter of Antonín Dvořák and the wife of Josef Suk. A gifted musician, she played the piano and wrote several compositions of her own, inspired by her musical surroundings.
Four of her piano pieces have survived; three were published in her lifetime, a fourth ‘To Dear Daddy’ has never previously been published.
Now Bärenreiter have produced a typically gorgeous urtext edition of the four pieces, edited by Eva Prchalová.
I’ve been playing them, and they are lovely. Here’s my review…
Bärenreiter Urtext editions hardly need an introduction, their lush soft covers, luxury cream paper interior, generous extras and precisely edited notation being widely revered.
Here, the volume begins with a useful Preface written by editor Eva Prchalová, and translated to appear in Czech, English and German. Given the neglect of the composer this is particularly welcome, and succeeds in being simultaneously scholarly and engaging.
The music is engraved in Bärenreiter’s usual house style, with ample spacing. Fingering is not included. The pieces are miniatures, ranging from three to five pages in length.
We are treated to two full page facsimiles, which show Josef Suk’s transcription of To Dear Daddy alongside Suková’s own hand written copy, underlining the point that once her husband had reproduced her performances by ear, she wrote out the neat autograph score.
The editor’s Critical Report completes the publication.
We learn in the Preface that Otilie Suková was born on 6th June 1878, the daughter of composer Antonín Dvořák and his wife Anna, who had lost all three of their previous children as infants the previous year; she was the first of six children who survived into adulthood.
Suková’s life revolved around music; not only was she the daughter of one of the most celebrated composers of the later 19th century, but she went on to marry Dvořák’s student Josef Suk (1874-1935) when she was 20 years old in 1898. Suk was a violinist with the Bohemian Quartet, and a celebrated composer.
Domestic life involved plenty of music making; Suková was a talented pianist, having studied with Jindřich Kàan z Albestů, a friend of her father’s and Professor of Piano at the Prague Conservatory. She played to and with family and friends, and her correspondence testify to a rich musical life.
It doesn’t appear that Suková entertained serious ambitions as a composer, her piano pieces seemingly emerging as an enjoyable tangent to her enthusiasm for playing. However, her husband Suk tells the following story in a letter printed in 1909 in the journal Zlatá Praha:
“Once, upon my return from traveling, Otilie confessed to me that even she had composed several “little pieces” for piano. Initially she felt embarrassed to play them for me, but when I finally persuaded her to play, it caused her great joy when, during her second play through, I stood up with a pencil in my hand and wrote down everything just as I had heard her play it.”
This letter accompanied the publication of three of the pieces, while the fourth surviving piece remained unpublished until now.
Sadly, Suková’s composing didn’t have a chance to further blossom; she suffered with a heart condition which led to her early death in 1905, just a year after her father’s death. She was aged just 27.
The first piece in the collection is Humoresque, a jaunty piece in 6/8 time which includes some unexpectedly quirky harmonies from the start, while toying between E major and minor throughout.
This is followed by the beautiful Lullaby, whose simple and insouciant melody is particularly memorable. The central development includes groups of five semiquavers in the RH against two quavers in the LH which may challenge those not used to such irregular cross-rhythms; overall I would suggest establishing a very steady tempo in this piece in order to realise its full charms at an unhurried pace.
Joey on the Horsie again reveals that Suková had a keen sense for melody. At five pages long, and with an extended contrasting middle section, this is the most ambitious composition of the four, even though the mood is light, even homers; the piece includes echoes of Schumann.
Lastly, To Dear Daddy is thought to be a later composition, and is wistful in character, with a fairly static tonality over a recurring pedal bass low D, the simple warmth of the main melodic motif embellished by richly harmonic quasi-improvisatory flourishes.
All four pieces reveal Suková to have had a keen musical intelligence, and we can only wonder how her talent might have developed in different circumstances, and had she lived much longer.
In terms of difficulty, all four pieces would be suitable for players at early advanced level, around UK Grade 6-7. However, Suková presumably had very large hands, and it’s worth mentioning that stretches of up to a tenth appear throughout.
It’s always a delight to encounter previously overlooked piano music, and especially so in this instance. These pieces are more than a mere curiosity: they are deliciously engaging works which will delight today’s players.
Bärenreiter are truly to be commended for their commitment in bringing this music to a wider, piano-playing audience.
These are certainly pieces to which I will personally be returning, and I hope to play them to my adult piano workshop group soon. It will be interested to see whether some of my students are similarly entranced, and learn them too!
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