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Composed: 1902-1903
Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle), strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Josef Suk studied violin, piano, and organ with his father, also Josef Suk, the choir and school master in their Bohemian village. (The younger Josef’s grandson was yet another Josef Suk, and a widely praised violinist himself, famous for – among other things – his recordings of his grandfather’s Fantasie and of the Violin Concerto by Dvořák, who was his great-grandfather.) Nature and nurture combined to send our Josef to the Prague Conservatory at age 11, though he did not begin studying composition seriously until age 14. He graduated in 1891 with his Op. 1, a Piano Quartet, but remained in the school another year to study composition with the newly arrived Dvořák and continue his chamber music work with the great cellist Hanusˇ Wihan, a close friend and associate of Dvořák.

Wihan formed the Bohemian String Quartet in 1891 with Conservatory students, including Suk as second violin. They later became the Czech String Quartet, and a touring mainstay of European concert life; Suk played with the ensemble until 1933.

Suk’s work with Dvořák was also productive, and the two composers became very close. In 1898 Suk married Dvořák’s daughter Otilie, and the ensuing years were the happiest of his life, recalled with a deeply grieving sense of loss in much of his music written after Dvořák died in 1904, followed by Otilie in 1905.

The Fantasie in G minor is one of the highpoints from those halcyon years, despite its dark coloring. How much Suk owed to Dvořák is immediately evident, or perhaps it is how much both composers owed to local Bohemian and Czech musical inspirations, even when not quoting folk music and forms directly. The opening motif provides a seed which blossoms throughout the piece, recognizable for its rhythm and shape even when Suk varies the intervals. The brief orchestral introduction is firmly in G minor and marked Allegro impetuoso. When the soloist echoes the motif just five bars later, it is marked Andante energico and a half-step lower, giving fair warning of the slippery shifts and transformations to come.

In form Suk’s Fantasie is heir to a line of Romantic fantasies that condense and sum up a more conventional multiple movement work in a single continuous movement, while simultaneously suggesting the outline of a sonata form, with contrasting elements stated, developed, and recapitulated. Thus the initial section – itself an A-B-A form – offers the dynamic energy of a concerto first movement and/or the first thematic statement of a sonata form. Ostinato Gs in the horns link the section to the following song and dance, a repeated A-B-A-B pairing of a ruminative but lyrical Andante con moto (which the soloist has taken to G major) with a blithe, leaping Allegretto scherzando.

These clearly defined sections give way to an expansive, mercurial development with its own repeated passages. Suk’s strikingly chromatic but very logical harmonic scheme takes us to alternations of six flats and four sharps, the sharp side of the force usually a driving folk-like riff, with another lovely instrumental song among the flats for the very fully employed soloist.

Suk does round his Fantasie off with a reprise of opening material, back in G (minor and major). The seams in this very solidly and imaginatively constructed work show only where Suk wants them to, and the effect is a narrative at once rhapsodic and firmly directed. That the solo violin part is both idiomatic and highly challenging testifies to Suk’s own intimate performing knowledge of the instrument.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.