The Aesthetic of Stjepan Šulek (A Synthetic Survey of his Basic Conceptions)


  • Ivo Supičić



Stjepan Šulek is one of the greatest masters of orchestration and polyphony in Croatian music where in the last two decades he has taken a central position as composer and teacher. He is the author of six symphonies, three classical concertos for orchestra, two piano concertos, many concertos for other instruments, two operas and other compositions. The subject of this analysis is not his composition but his aesthetic views. Though šulek attributes great importance to a thorough mastery of technique, being, in his opinion, the essential basis of composition, he doesn't find the fundamental problem of musical creation in the technique but rather somewhere deeper. The aim of technique in composition is not a primary but a secondary one: a perfect technical construction, like the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, owes its artistic effect to its musical and not to its technical element. In music the essentials are the musical idea, thoughts and content. According to Šulek, the technique of classical composition, which received its decisive character from Mozart and Beethoven, is a model not to be discarded in spite of certain later modifications because he discovered in it a universal and inexhaustable possibility of a normal development and elaboration of musical ideas. Therefore a counter-model of this technique based on completely different principles can't be taken into serious consideration. Šulek doesn't consider Schoenberg's dodecaphony or Webern's pointillism to be authentic techniques of musical composition. In addition to this, since musical thought is essential in music, the sound itself is only a means to express this thought. Hence to put the sound as an aim or to reduce music to »pure sound«, as some avant-garde composers do, in Šulek's opinion is a degradation of music. It is also a degradation to strive consciously for originality, another characteristic of the avant-garde. Authentic originality may only be spontaneous. Moreover, the problem of originality is not always the most important in musical creation but only a part of a far broader question which concerns the total artistic value. Nor can the authentic evolution of style be conscious and intentional. The style comes into being in a gradual growth. And this implies that we don't break radically and violently with musical tradition but that we respect it. In his aesthetic view and his way of composing, Šulek was never for a destruction of tradition but rather for its continuation. As essential criteria he demands not only respect for the musical past but a complete sincerity of expression and a fidelity to one's own feelings. His musical output is characterized by consequent and gradual evolution and not by the incessant changes and confusion characteristic of so many contemporary composers, which results from their striving after originality and affirmation. According to Šulek, a great deficiency of the most avant-garde composers lies in their inadequate knowledge of the musical tradition. A real progress in music can result only from a sufficient possession, both practical and theoretical, of musical culture. However, in spite of his emphasizing the need to have a broad knowledge of technique and a solid musical culture Šulek doesn't regard music and composition primarily as a profession but as a part of the intimate world and experience of man. Yet, he doesn't think of the artist as an exceptional being as the romantics did. However, he sees in music a certain expression of man, an art connected in various aspects with man. Discarding the schematic division of music into »programme« and »absolute« music, Šulek thinks that every piece of music composed with a deeper feeling and meaning has its psychological background and so cannot be realized without philosophic meditation. It is also intimately connected with ethics: any composition of artistic value, in his opinion, includes a positive human element. The composer's philosophy of life and his music are connected in such a way that the character of the music and its spirit cannot be contrary to this philosophy which comes, to a greater or a lesser extent, to expression in the works. The extreme and most profound meaning of music is to make a contribution to the humanization of man. In this lies the fundamental creative problem posed.


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How to Cite

Supičić, I. (1969). The Aesthetic of Stjepan Šulek (A Synthetic Survey of his Basic Conceptions). Musicological Annual, 5(1), 101–110.