Josef Suk’s Scherzo fantastique
Notes by TŌN clarinetist Olivia Hamilton
A name like Josef Suk is not one that a concert goer would see on an orchestra program very often. However, his music is surprisingly uplifting given the tragic deaths that were constantly surrounding him. Suk, a Czech composer, was one of Antonín Dvořák’s favorite students, so much so that Suk married Dvořák’s daughter, Otilie Suková. By the time the Scherzo fantastique was premiered in 1905 by the Prague Conservatory, Dvořák had passed away and Suková was nearing her death due to heart failure at age 27. In 1933, at age 59, Suk retired from composing and died two years later.
The Scherzo fantastique is characterized by the prominent woodwind features and flourishes throughout. This relatively short work plays many jokes on the listener by misleading the expectations of the form. The title of the work heavily implies this playfulness, with “scherz” meaning “joke” in German; one could argue that this means a fantasy of jokes. The opening line between oboe and bassoon takes the ear to an unexpected place; once the flute and clarinet join, the listener is put at ease with a semi-resolution. There are many instances of lush string sounds juxtaposed by staccato winds and bright percussion. As a clarinetist, my favorite section is near the middle, where a melody plays with dividing the beat into four and six, starting in the flute and moving back and forth between them and the clarinet. This melody is passed to the strings, then the bassoon and oboe. We get to hear a very light, but present version of this solo played, then a more ethereal version of it. Eventually, it will sound quite anxious in the oboe due to the harmonic placement until it becomes heroic with the brass joining on chords emphasizing the rhythmic placement and harmonic timing. This piece, especially for the woodwinds, is a joy to perform, with the intricate chamber music amongst the principal winds orchestrated in a way that the performers can play with ease.