Josef Suk - The Ripening, Symphonic Poem for Large Orchestra, Op. 34 (1912/1917)
If there is a piece of music for late summer, it is The Ripening by Josef Suk. Suk worked on the music over the course of five years or so from 1912 to 1917. Yet this is not a foodie symphony full of farm-to-table produce.
The Ripening could also be thought of as “the maturing.” The cycle of the seasons is often used as a representation of the human life cycle. The birth and adolescence of spring give way to the exultant youth of early summer which ripens into the maturity of middle age in late summer and then transitions into autumn. Death arrives at the tail end of winter.
If we give each season about 20 years, in our current circumstances, then we can see about what age the ripening might occur — it’s after the midlife crisis in late summer, just before autumn.
Suk had come through several crises in his midlife. There was the death of Antonín Dvořák, who was his father-in-law, followed shortly by the death of his wife (Dvořák’s daughter). Suk composed his most famous piece, the Asrael Symphony, in their memory.
Suk began The Ripening six years after Asrael was premiered. While composing The Ripening, Suk’s own parents died. The piece wasn’t written for them, but their deaths did add to the time it took Suk to complete the music.
The music of The Ripening is divided into sections with titles such as “Youth,” “Fate,” and “Love.” The final section is titled “Self-moderation.” But the original German title — Selbstbescheidung — also translates as “modesty.”
Modesty is one of those traits which we appreciate in others whenever we encounter it, but oftentimes do little to cultivate it within ourselves. Life usually does the work for us. Modesty, and not the type which keeps covered at the beach, is a trait which requires life to beat us up a bit.
Suk uses a text-less female chorus in the final segment of music. This can be taken a couple of ways. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 closes with the eternal feminine redeeming us — following Goethe. Suk could be honoring the balance of feminine and masculine characteristics required for modesty. Who knows? Listen to it and feel yourself ripen.