Obituary: Eugen Suchon
WITH THE DEATH of Eugen Suchon, Slovakia has lost the last member of the generation of composers that created an identifiable Slovak art music from the romantic composers of the region in the 19th century and the school of early Czech nationalism, a generation which will be best remembered by the triumvirate of Alexander Moyzes (1906-1984) and Jan Cikker (1911-1989), of which Suchon was the middle and perhaps most influential member.
Eugen Suchon was born at Pezinok, about 20 kilometres north-east of Bratislava, into a musical family, his father being an organist and choirmaster who encouraged his early talent. At the age of 12 he started formal piano studies at the Bratislava Music School, where his teacher was the distinguished pianist and composer Frico Kafenda (1883-1963). His musical progress was such that, seven years later, he entered the new Bratislava Academy of Music where, from 1927 to 1931, he was a composition student of Kafenda, with piano and conducting as his other principal studies. His graduation in 1939 was marked in particular by two works: the Violin Sonata in A flat (Op. 1) and his first String Quartet (Op. 2). The success of these two works guaranteed him a place at the Prague Conservatoire for two years' postgraduate study with the great teacher and composer Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949). These years produced a number of attractive works, of which the Serenade (Op. 5) for wind quintet remains well known in his later arrangement for string orchestra, as does the Fantazia a burleska (Op. 7) for violin and orchestra, later revised in 1948.
From 1933 Suchon held the post of Professor of Theory of the Bratislava Academy, later becoming its Secretary and teacher of composition until after the Second World War. During this period the markedly individual voice of Suchon emerged, not as a symphonist like Moyzes nor as an opera composer like Cikker but in a wide variety of successfully approached forms. He turned to Slovak folk-music origins and extended tonality, rather than the complex chromaticism of his Novak years with its additional experimentation with modes.
Early examples in his new style include the song cycle O horach (Op. 8) written in 1934 and the Balladic Suite (Op. 9) for orchestra, both of which employ Slovak folk sources. The Sonatina (Op. 11) for violin and piano followed, a delightful youthful three- movement miniature resembling a Slovak version of Dvorak in this form. Perhaps his crowning work from the pre-war period was the cantata Psalm of the Carpathians written in 1937-38, voicing strong nationalistic feelings and protesting at the long subjugation of the Slovak peoples.
During the war years and afterwards, up to his appointment in 1948 as a professor and head of the Department of Music Education at the Bratislava Teacher Training College, Suchon worked on his first opera, Krutnava ('The Whirlpool'), a powerfully psychological drama based on Slovak country life and the first truly Slovak opera. From its first performance in Bratislava in 1949, it was soon to be heard in many other European countries. In 1953 came another of his most successful orchestral works, Metamorfozy, in which he depicted Slovakia's role in the war years.
Suchon moved to the post of Professor of Music Theory at Bratislava University in 1959 - a post he was to hold until his retirement in 1974. It was during this period that his new works showed that he had been exploring other areas of European music. In 1959 he completed his second opera, Svatopluk, begun in 1942, which sets the story of King Svatopluk's part in the fall of the Moravian Empire. Now modality returned and Suchon evolved his own brand of 12-note serialism which never became merely cerebral. Following its premiere in Bratisiava in 1960 this opera soon reached the National Theatre in Prague and beyond, being broadcast several times in Britain.
In 1958 Suchon was created a 'National Artist' by the state and received many other national awards culminating in the Herder Prize from the University of Vienna in 1981. Between these years his output was in no way diminished and his style continued to develop. Notably in 1967-68 came his piano cycle Kaleidoscope, which put his own harmonic theories into practice. These he published in 1978 in his Theory of Chords, which he summed up as being 'from diatonic total to the 12-note total'. Although he never enjoyed the best of health, there was never diminution of his strength through composition. In 1971 came his Symphonic Fantasia on Bach for organ, percussion and strings, to be followed two years later by his Elegy and Toccata and in 1977 his Concertino for clarinet and orchestra, three of the more significant works in his large output. Of the works from the 1980s, the Three Songs for bass voice and orchestra is perhaps justly the best known.
For many years Suchon was the father-figure of Slovak music, remaining true to his national heritage and Slovak culture, while seeking his own individual expression through his music. In this he has greatly enriched his country's music while influencing more than one generation of Slovak composers coming after him. His life spanned the period from the end of the Habsburg Empire through the creation of Czechoslovakia and then the establishment of an independent Slovakia. However, Suchon never proclaimed narrow nationalism, being a man of wide cultural interests and gently worn intellect. Ever the courteous, kindly host surrounded by a loving wife and devotedly supporting family, to visit him in his later years was a rewarding experience. Whereas many creative artists may remain ever interested in the promotion of their own works, Suchon's concern was always for the successes and well-being of others, most of all his many students, ever enquiring about their latest achievements. Those students will remember him with love, affection and gratitude for all that he gave them, first as a teacher and then as a constantly supportive friend.
After the Edinburgh Festival performance of Krutnava by Slovak Opera in 1990, Suchon wished to express his thanks for the opportunity for this staging in Scotland. Although already quite frail and seldom leaving his home, he insisted on taking me to lunch at his favourite old Bratislava fish restaurant, having his wife and daughter arrange a special downstairs room, since he could no longer climb the stairs to the main restaurant. It was heart-warming to see the affection with which he was greeted by all who saw him that day, not least the welcome given to him by the restaurant manager. His was ever a generous giving nature whose presence will be missed but whose place in the history of Slovak music is both monumental and assured.
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