The Relationship between Leoš Janáček and Josef Suk

Jan Charypar Studie 2/2021

Janáček, Dvořák, Suk

I love Janáček. I love Josef Suk equally. None of our other creative musicians has penetrated the abysmal depths of the human soul as well as they have,”[1] said Václav Talich, a conductor of significant premieres of these two great personalities of Czech music. Despite the fundamental difference between Janáček’s and Suk’s natures and styles, their contacts with each other reveal an interesting, multi-level relationship that is a lasting example of respect of one artist for another. Both represented the artistic tendencies and ideas of the era in highly individual manners, yet they were similar in some respects – not in style but in the spiritual message of their works. Václav Talich said: “they shared a spiritual basis but used very different musical languages.”[2]
Suk probably first encountered the originality of Janáček’s music in 1897 when Antonín Dvořák, his former teacher and future father-in-law, showed him the cantata Amarus, that Janáček had sent to him that year.[3] The relationship between Janáček and Dvořák is also a very interesting chapter of Czech music. Janáček said: “Do you know the feeling when someone takes the words out of your mouth before you’ve said them? I always felt like that in Dvořák’s company. His person and his works are interchangeable for me. In this way he took his melodies from my heart. Nothing on earth will break that sort of bond.”[4] They were bound by true friendship. They may have first met during Janáček’s studies in Prague in 1874–75. Janáček recalled Dvořák’s organ improvisations in the Prague church of St. Vojtěch, where Dvořák was working as an organist. They met relatively often and took trips together.[5] Dvořák invited Janáček to his summer residence in Vysoká and sometimes let him live in his Prague flat.
Janáček often conducted Dvořák’s compositions at Brno Beseda and took Dvořák’s music as his example in some respects, especially when forming his earlier style. He published his analyses of Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14,[6] the cantata The Spectre’s Bride,[7] and all the four symphonic poems based on Karel Jaromír Erben’s ballads.[8] In 1910, Janáček even planned to publish a “Dvořák theme dictionary” – he wrote to Artuš Rektorys, a member of the editorial staff of Dalibor: “his motivic expression is the richest, a real treasure trove of musical thoughts. Establish its dictionary. Organize it perhaps according to the initial interval.”[9] Unfortunately, Rektorys soon ended his cooperation with the chief editor of Dalibor Mojmír Urbánek, and the planned book wasn’t created.[10] In 1911, Janáček published a memorial article on Dvořák in which he recalled, for example, Dvořák’s disappointment with the rehearsals of his last opera Armida.[11] In his article Glossy ku Dvořákově “neoriginalitě myšlenkové” (“Comments to the ‘Unoriginality of Dvořák’s Ideas’”),[12] he defended Dvořák’s music against the attacks from Josef Bartoš’s infamous book Antonín Dvořák: kritická studie (“Antonín Dvořák: a Critical Study”).[13]
Janáček dedicated his Four Male Choruses to Dvořák in 1885. He wanted Dvořák’s reflection on his works but gained it with difficulty. Dvořák was apparently taken aback by Janáček’s peculiar composition methods, but he highly appreciated, highlighting that the compositions are far above average. He wrote to Janáček about modulations in those choruses: “it could be like that but we could still argue about it.”[14] This is also the way Dvořák commented on Janáček when talking to Suk about him. Suk reminisced:
My earliest memory applies to Amarus. One day I came to Dvořák, who had hung Janáček’s photograph in his room. I saw a manuscript score there. Dvořák opened it, looked at one place in the score and showed it to me. It was very strange to me; as far as I can recall, it consisted of some sort of quasi-recitative passage performed by the cello and at the same time by the flute about two octaves higher. Dvořák looked at me over his glasses and I said: ‘That’s strange, isn’t it!’ And to that Dvořák said emphatically: ‘It’s strange but it was written by someone who thinks with his own brain!’”[15]
About two years before the Prague premiere of Jenůfa, Suk saw the score of Janáček’s piano cycle On an Overgrown Path. He said about it: “I understood with pleasure and immediately the strange charm of these pieces, because I could see his original manner of thinking even in these simple works.”[16]
Suk met Janáček the first time at the Prague premiere of Jenůfa. He told about that: “When the general rehearsal took place, I came to the ground floor and suddenly, somebody knocked on my shoulder from behind. It was Dr. Herben. He said: ‘Janáček is sitting beside you!’ I looked beside and could see a silver head and the outline of a white hand on the armrest of a chair. At the scene when recruits return, I felt as if it had punched me. I didn’t see realism in it, but an absolute penetration the soul of the Moravian people. I was excited and could not help myself – I had to put my hand on his hand and tell him: ‘Master, thank God, a bit of passionate human blood again.’”[17] Janáček was very grateful for these kind words. He expressed his pleasure in a letter, in which he asked Suk for his signed portrait, and promised to send him his own.[18]
Suk wrote in his reply from Prague on June 23, 1916: “Jenůfa has become one of my favourite Czech works; today, the entire audience can feel the strength of your brilliant work – and what especially delights me – as well as our promising, serious young composers (Dr Vycpálek, Dr Štěpán, Křička and others) – we are talking only about you.”[19]

Janáček Gets Max Brod’s Support Thanks to Suk

Janáček’s great supporter was Max Brod, a German-speaking Jewish writer from Prague, who reminisces in his autobiography: “Suk, a selfless Master (selflessness is a very rare thing among artists), was the first who drew my attention to Janáček.”[20] Later in the autobiography, Brod specifies that Suk, whom he hadn’t seen for two years, wrote to him “out of the blue” a recommendation to go listen to Jenůfa to the Czech National Theatre. It was in 1916, the year when Jenůfa was the first time performed in Prague.[21] Suk reminisced it: “I have never hidden my admiration for Janáček, and I think that Vycpálek, Štěpán, and other young people were also a bit infected with my admiration. Although Max Brod still was not well known as an influential person, I wrote a letter to him recommending that he listen to Její pastorkyňa, which was successful as is obvious from his book.”[22] In Brod’s opinion, Jenůfa was the greatest artistic event since the beginning of World War I.
Brod’s activities in support of Janáček began with an article on Jenůfa, the first that was published in Berlin. It appeared in the periodical Schaubühne on November 16, 1916, several months after the Prague premiere of Jenůfa.[23] Brod recalls in the autobiography that Janáček suddenly visited him in 1918 and persuaded him to translate this opera to German. When Janáček said that his international success would depend on it, Brod finally consented.[24] Brod used the new title “Jenůfa” instead of a translation of the original Czech title “Její pastorkyňa”, which means “Her Stepdaughter”. Brod later translated four more of Janáček’s operas and other works, including The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Brod even convinced Emil Hertzka, the director of Viennese Universal Edition, to publish the score of Jenůfa, even though Brod recalls in the autobiography that Hertzka did not like the opera at first, when he attended a performance in Prague.[25] This memory contrasts with the words that Hertzka wrote in his letter to Hans Gregor: “There is no doubt that Janáček’s opera is the most important that the Czech stage has produced since Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.”[26]
In 1926, Brod enforced a new performance of Jenůfa in Berlin, opening the door to Janáček’s worldwide success.[27] He also wrote the first biography of Janáček, which was originally written for the Prague publisher Hudební matice Umělecké besedy; it was published in a Czech translation in 1924.[28] A year later, it was also published in the original German in Vienna.[29] Janáček was truly grateful, stating that Brod came at the right moment like a messenger from Heaven.[30] He also expressed his thanks to Suk. When he received Suk’s congratulations on his 70th birthday he replied from Hukvaldy: “I can remember the general rehearsal of Jenůfa very well. I know that it was you who drew Dr. Max Brod’s attention to me; so, one loop connected to another in a chain. I wish that you will also find your spokesman, a devoted friend who could see as deeply into your soul as Dr. Brod can into mine.”[31]

Janáček and the Czech Quartet

In 1923, Janáček briefly met the famous Czech Quartet and received a commission to compose a piece for them, probably on the initiative of Suk, the second violinist of the Quartet. Janáček wrote the String Quartet No. 1 “after Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata” for this commission.[32] After hearing rehearsals of the new composition, Janáček commented on their playing: “I’ve not yet heard anything so magnificent as the performance by the Czech Quartet of my work.”[33] Suk left a reminiscence that nicely documents Janáček’s enthusiasm: “He came to our rehearsal when we already knew the work. He was very curious what we would make of it. His excitement increased from movement to movement, then he began to embrace us and finally said: ‘We’ll play that end twice as fast – we must defend enslaved womanhood.’ After the rehearsal he was moved, he walked with me around the Kinský Gardens and said: ‘Only now I see how many people and how many composers you’ve made happy.’”[34]
Suk anonymously edited the first edition of this quartet for Hudební matice in Prague, adding detailed expression, dynamic, and metronome markings.[35] According to a letter sent by the publisher to Janáček, Suk’s markings were based on Janáček’s indications.[36] In the second edition, edited by Otakar Šourek, Suk’s additions were placed inside square brackets.[37] In the urtext edition at Bärenreiter, Suk’s version was respected as authorised in general terms, although not all of his additions were adopted.[38] We must remember that Janáček was present at the rehearsals of the Czech Quartet. The editors used Suk’s new metronome markings (inside brackets), even though some of his changes of Janáček’s original tempi were considerable, as Šourek points out in the preface to the second edition.
In 1928, when Janáček composed his second quartet titled “Intimate Letters”, he entrusted the first performance to the Moravian Quartet, but he naturally also wanted the Czech Quartet to play it. He wrote to his wife: “They are the best performers; they travel throughout the world. They also took my first quartet into the world […] They accepted it with joy; they’ll start rehearsing it as early as the holidays.”[39] The Czech Quartet did play “Intimate Letters,” but Janáček unfortunately did not live to hear their performance – he died 12th August of that year. Suk said about the String Quartet No. 2: “In the Intimate Letters, I can see an expression of a meditative soul longing in silence, but incredibly vivacious, with explosions of passion that leave one shaken.”[40]

The Composer Janáček and the Composer Suk

The roots of Janáček’s and Suk’s musicality were quite similar: both came from a small village and had a strong relationship to folk songs. Both were born in a family with the schoolmaster tradition and received their basic musical education from their fathers. Dvořák was a great example to both. Nevertheless, their formative musical experiences and their temperaments led them to find very different ways to express themselves musically.
Suk often expressed his enthusiasm for Janáček’s works. We can say that he was one of the first people who rated Janáček alongside Smetana and Dvořák as one of the “fundamental pillars of Czech creative music.”[41] According to him, Janáček “was and will remain our greatest modernist because his music is new and profoundly touching.”[42] He said: “There is only one of [Janáček’s] works that I could never cope with at all – Brouček’s Excursions.”[43] In addition to the quotes about Jenůfa mentioned above, Suk said for example that it belonged among those works where music helped the text in an incredible way; that perhaps only Verdi could do so that excellently.[44] Suk’s comments on the Glagolitic Mass are very interesting: “I was very moved by this work, especially by his exalted desire to express the Mass text an absolutely original way. After the concert, I saw Janáček leave the loge with glowing eyes. He shook my hand and said: ‘Well, how did you like it?’ I said: ‘As usual, Master, you pretty hit us over the head. But to me, the most impressive part was the Benedictus, I mean that passage at the place of the Benedictus.’ And Janáček said enthusiastically: ‘You see, you grasped the right thing. I say that too.’”[45]
It is a much more difficult question to answer what Janáček thought of Suk’s music. There is no doubt that he was very grateful to Suk for supporting his works, and for the way he performed his first quartet as a member of the Czech Quartet. Janáček must have liked Suk as a person at least for these reasons, as is obvious from his above-mentioned letters to him. However, Janáček apparently did not much express his views on Suk’s works, although he certainly knew them. Unlike Vítězslav Novák in his memoir O sobě a o jiných (“About Me and Others”), Janáček did not share his opinions about a lot of composers, especially when his mature style was developing – only about those who were particularly important or interesting for him personally (such as Smetana, Dvořák, and Wagner). Moreover, it is well known how strong his personal views were, and how few composers suited his taste. It is very doubtful whether Suk would have been among those “chosen”, especially considering the romantic aesthetics and very complex polyphonic structure of his later works (which is masterly in any case!).
That supposition corresponds to a reminiscence from a book of memories by Mirko Novák.[46] It is, however, impossible to verify its authenticity: a certain man reportedly overheard Janáček’s comments as he read the score of Suk’s great symphonic poem Ripening. Janáček allegedly shook his head disapprovingly and said in his usual Moravian dialect: “samá hlúpota, samá hlúpota!” – which means something like: “what idiocy, what idiocy!” It is necessary to add that Suk’s Ripening was one of the most admired Czech orchestral works of the time. And so is it nowadays – the chief conductor of Berliner Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko, said in an interview that he had been absolutely fascinated when listening to this work for the first time.[47]
Mirko Novák’s recollection may be true but is merely hearsay. Moreover, there is a difference between a cursory reading of a score and real listener’s experience. Janáček could hear Suk’s Ripening at least in Brno at rehearsals of the concert on the occasion of his 70th and Suk’s 50th birthday: František Neumann conducted Ripening and Taras Bulba at that event. Janáček himself wasn’t present at the concert by mischance. According to a memory of Václav Štech, the conductor forgot to invite him. Janáček could not buy tickets himself because it was already sold out. He commented it humorously in a letter to Kamila Stösslová: “They called out and kept calling out for me – and I was somewhere beyond Brno in the snow-covered fields.”[48] However, he was present at the rehearsals and could be charmed by Ripening when really listening to it. He did not attend Václav Talich’s first performance of Taras Bulba in Prague, either.[49] He was present only at Talich’s concert honouring his 70th birthday in December of 1924, at which only his music was on the program.[50]
There is a minor mention of Suk’s symphonic poem Praga in Janáček’s surviving manuscript study (or rather personal notes) of naturalism written probably in 1924 or 1925. Janáček first mentions this work in connection with Smetana’s Vyšehrad, and later in the study, he says: “how many nocturnes have already been composed! How many more Pragas can be written! How many Tatras, sunsets and sunrises, pale moons!”[51] The sketchy character and rather poetic language of the entire text obscures its meaning. However, the context may imply that Janáček viewed Praga as an example of mood-evoking naturalism that had lasting potential, unlike the example of an unintelligible musical depiction that he mentions immediately before (the discrepancy between the spatial character of a circle and the durational character of music that tries to depict it). There is still an unanswered question what he thought of Suk’s early works that were influenced by Dvořák.
In any case, whatever the difference between their styles, Suk felt that the content of Janáček’s works was close to the humane message that Suk intended to express in his own works. Let’s quote some excerpts from his warm-hearted speech for Janáček’s honorary doctorate at the Masaryk University in Brno. It is apt what he said there for example about Janáček’s Jenůfa and First Quartet: “We told to ourselves after the first act: ‘Lo, an author who loves all the mankind and feels compassion for it.’ […] I will never forget your explanation to the Czech Quartet during the rehearsal of your quartet: that your inspiration to write this work was compassion for a poor, depressed woman.’”[52] We know very well how significant these moral values were for Suk as a composer, at least since the time of his Radúz and Mahulena (1898). Love and compassion are the main themes of Suk’s last large work – vocal-orchestral Epilogue, the conclusion of the great symphonic tetralogy Asrael A Summer’s Tale RipeningEpilogue. At the end of the speech, Suk said: “You teach us the desire to go ahead with the heart full of love and compassion; not to cling to a single achievement, but continually look for new ways and new truths with pride and self-confidence.”[53] Suk’s music and letters written before he knew Jenůfa already document how significant it was for him to seek new ways. For example, when critics were surprised that A Summer’s Tale (1907–09) brought many new elements to Czech music, Suk responded that it was always greater to fly for something, even if it led through fog, than to go comfortably down a well-trodden path, which leads only where we came from.[54]
According to Suk’s memories, Janáček died just at the time when Suk was orchestrating the last part of Epilogue, a very demanding and philosophical work.[55] Suk said that one passage of it, which was very restless,[56] seemed to have come out of Janáček himself, and that Janáček would have been pleased with it. The subjectivity of this claim is clear when we listen to this passage and compare its style to Janáček’s music, for example to the Glagolitic Mass. The principles, complexity and aesthetics of Suk’s personal style are a different world.
However, Suk’s reaction reveals that there was something profound in Janáček’s music that was close to his personal creative impulse. I can thus conclude this essay with a thought: an analytic comparison between Janáček’s and Suk’s music is not as absurd as it might seem at first glance. I think, for example, that a comparison of Suk’s String Quartet No. 2 (1911) with Janáček’s quartets could perfectly capture the specific qualities of the Bohemian and the Moravian streams of Czech music of the early 20th century. The styles of the Bohemian composers of that time followed and innovated the romantic tradition;[57] Suk extends it courageously, creating a new expressive style, especially in his later works such as the Second Quartet. The other stream, represented by Janáček, showed the specific mental and cultural potential of the long-isolated Moravian region, raising it to an art form that has impressed the entire world.
At the end, let’s return to one of Janáček’s quotes I mentioned: it is great that Suk now does have his devoted spokesmen, who have brought hope that he will be better known and appreciated in the world as he deserves. I mean the significant conductors Kirill Petrenko and Jakub Hrůša above all. Hrůša has finally restored Suk’s Epilogue to the Czech Philharmonic repertoire for 2022 after a very long time.

[1] Talich, Václav: Okolo pastorkyně. Národní divadlo 18, March 15, 1941, p. 2. See also: Kuna, Milan: Václav Talich 1883–1961: šťastný i hořký úděl dirigenta. Praha: Academia, 2009, p. 784.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Květ, Jan Miroslav, ed.: Živá slova Josefa Suka. Praha: Topičova edice, 1946, p. 49.
[4] Janáček, Leoš: Za Antonínem Dvořákem. Hudební revue 4/8–9, 1911, p. 432.
[5] See the table in the monograph: Tyrrell, John: Janáček: Years of a Life. Volume I (1854–1914), The lonely blackbird. London: Faber and Faber, 2006, pp. 261–262.
[6] Janáček, Leoš: České proudy hudební. Dr Antonína Dvořáka „Polednice“. Hlídka 14/6, 1897, s. 454.
[7] Janáček, Leoš: Zvláštní úkaz. Hudební listy, 1. 3. 1888.
[8] Hlídka, 1897 and 1898.
[9] Rektorys, Artuš, ed.: Korespondence Leoše Janáčka s Artušem Rektorysem. Janáčkův archiv IV, Praha 1949, pp. 140–141.
[10] Tyrrell, 2006, op. cit., p. 758.
[11] Janáček, 1911, op. cit., pp. 432–433.
[12] Janáček, Leoš: Glossy ku Dvořákově „neoriginalitě myšlenkové“. Hlídka 32/1, 1915, p. 41.
[13] Bartoš, Josef: Antonín Dvořák: kritická studie. V Praze: Josef Pelcl, 1913.
[14] Kuna, Milan, ed. Antonín Dvořák: korespondence a dokumenty: kritické vydání. Sv. 2, Korespondence odeslaná, 1885–1889. Praha: Supraphon, 1988. pp. 177–8.
[15] Květ, ed., 1946, op. cit., p. 49.
[16] Ibid., p. 50.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., pp. 50–51. See also: Vojtěšková, Jana, ed.: Josef Suk: dopisy o životě hudebním i lidském. Praha: Editio Bärenreiter, 2005, p. 140.
[19] Zahrádka, Jiří et al., eds.: Korespondence Leoše Janáčka [online]. Brno 2016 [cit. 5. 2. 2024]. Available in
[20] Brod, Max: Život plný bojů: autobiografie. Praha: Nakladatelství Franze Kafky, 1994, p. 243.
[21] Ibid., p. 258.
[22] Květ, 1946, op. cit., p. 51.
[23] Brod, 1966, op. cit., p. 255.
[24] Ibid., pp. 258–259.
[25] Ibid., p. 260.
[26] Tyrrell, John: Janáček: Years of a Life. Volume II (1914–28), Tsar of the forests. London: Faber and Faber, 2007, p. 151.
[27] Ibid., p. 262.
[28] Brod, Max: Leoš Janáček: život a dílo. Praha: Hudební matice Umělecké besedy, 1924.
[29] Brod, Max: Leoš Janáček: Leben und Werk. Wien: Wiener Philharmonischer Verlag, 1925.
[30] Brod, 1966, op. cit., p. 264.
[31] Vojtěšková, ed., 2005, op. cit., p. 261.
[32] Tyrrell, 2007, op. cit., pp. 463–64.
[33] Ibid., p. 513.
[34] Květ, ed., 1946, op. cit., pp. 53–54.
[35] Janáček, Leoš: Kvarteto pro dvoje housle, violu a violoncello: z podnětu L. N. Tolstého „Kreutzerovy sonaty“. Praha: Hudební matice Umělecké besedy, 1925.
[36] Tyrrell, 2007, op. cit., 534.
[37] Janáček, Leoš: I. kvartet pro dvoje housle, violu a violoncello (z podnětu L. N. Tolstého „Kreutzerovy sonaty“). Praha: Hudební matice Umělecké besedy, 1945.
[38] Štědroň, Miloš: Preface. In Janáček, Leoš: Smyčcový kvartet č. 1: z podnětu L. N. Tolstého „Kreutzerovy sonáty“: urtext. Eds. Leoš Faltus, Miloš Štědroň. Praha: Editio Bärenreiter, 2007, pp. VI–X.
[39] Tyrrell, 2007, op. cit., p. 866.
[40] Květ, ed., 1946, op. cit., p. 54.
[41] Ibid., p. 122.
[42] Ibid., p. 120.
[43] Ibid., p. 53.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Ibid., p. 54.
[46] Novák, Mirko: Úsměvné vzpomínání. Praha: Karolinum, 1998, pp. 72–73.
[47] Kirill Petrenko in conversation with Alexander Bader [online]. 2020 [cit. 23. 9. 2021]. Available in
[48] Zahrádka, Jiří: “Divadlo nesmí býti lidu komedií: Leoš Janáček a Národní divadlo v Brně.” Druhé, doplněné vydání. Brno: Moravské zemské muzeum, 2018, p. 100. Translation of the quotation according to: Tyrrell, 2007, op. cit., p. 474.
[49] Kuna, 2009, op. cit., p. 258.
[50] Ibid., p. 259.
[51] Štědroň, Miloš: Leoš Janáček a hudba 20. století: paralely, sondy, dokumenty. Brno: Nadace Universitas Masarykiana, 1998, pp. 242 and 244. Janáček obviously means Vítězslav Novák’s symphonic poem In the Tatras when he mentions “Tatras”.
[52] Květ, ed., 1946, op. cit., pp. 47–48.
[53] Ibid., p. 48.
[54] Vojtěšková, ed., op. cit., 2005, p. 88.
[55] Květ, ed., 1946, op. cit., p. 54.
[56] In this passage, a hungry and thirsty pilgrim comes to people, who apologize to him for that they have only bread made of bark and cloudy water. He answers: “When a present is given with love, how could it be bitter?”
[57] Vítězslav Novák was also typically “Bohemian” composer in these terms, although he was inspired by Moravian and Slovak folk songs.

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