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Max Bruch (1838 - 1920)


Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46
I. Grave : Adagio cantabile
II. Scherzo : allegro
III. Andante sostenuto
IV. Finale : allegro guerriero

Born in Cologne, Germany, Max Bruch was a highly regarded teacher, conductor and composer. As a teacher he influenced other composers (Respighi was a pupil briefly), and as a conductor he was widely travelled, visiting the USA, and spending three years in England as director of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Until about 1900 he was very highly regarded as a composer, his most successful work being not the violin concerto so popular now, but an oratorio called "Odysseus". Sadly he lived long enough to see his music go very much out of fashion, and he died a disappointed and bitter man.

Written in 1880, the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra with Harp freely using Scottish melodies was composed for the Spanish virtuoso Pablo Sarasate, and was first performed by him in September 1880. The harp plays a very considerable part, and is almost a concerto soloist in its own right. It is a full length violin concerto in all but name.

Bruch's source of the tunes was a collection called The Scots Musical Museum… In the late 18th century, as full political union between Scotland and England grew closer after the suppression of the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, there was a gradual awakening of interest in Scottish history and culture. One outcome of this was a collection of Scottish songs which the poet Robert Burns worked on with an Edinburgh music publisher James Johnson. Titled The Scots Musical Museum, this appeared in six volumes between 1787 and 1803, and was a source for many 19th century composers, including Beethoven.

The fantasy opens with an introduction of solemn brass chords in the gloomy depths of E-flat minor which alternate with rhapsodic phrases for solo violin. This leads into the first movement proper, which (unusually) is a slow one. It is based on the nostalgic tune "Old Robin Morris", which is first sung in full on the solo violin with much double-stopping.

The second movement is a lively dance on the tune of "The Dusty Miller", and gives the soloist a fine opportunity for a display of fireworks. At the end, a passage recalling the theme of the first movement leads directly into the following andante. This is based on another Scots tune "I'm a-doun for lack of Johnnie" and is full of expressive feeling.

The finale uses the famous war-song commemorating the Scottish victory over the English at Bannockburn "Scots wha hae". Another vehicle for a display of violinistic brilliance, this provides a vigorous conclusion to the Fantasy.

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
II. Adagio
III. Finale

Though chiefly remembered nowadays for this concerto and the Scottish Fantasy (also for violin and orchestra), Bruch was a prodigious composer, well respected teacher, and outstanding conductor. His conducting posts took him all over Europe, and included three years in Liverpool. He worked in all forms: orchestral, concerto, choral, opera and chamber music, but was best known during his life for choral works with orchestra - oratorios and the like. Indeed, his most successful work was an oratorio Odysseus, now quite unknown! His style was traditional, being closer to Mendelssohn that the more radical composers of his day such as Wagner. This concerto was first performed in Koblenz in 1866, but Bruch was unhappy with it, and revised it immediately. He did this in conjunction with Joseph Joachim, the great violin virtuoso of the late 19th century, to whom he dedicated the revised version. Joachim gave the first performance of this revision in 1868, with Bruch conducting. It was an immediate hit with audiences and violinists, and has remained popular ever since.

The first movement is rhapsodic, and is well titled Prelude. The opening chords are followed immediately by a flourish on the solo violin; then the main theme appears, allegro moderato, characterised by much double stopping (a feature of the solo writing in the whole concerto). A similar chorale and flourish end the movement, which leads without a pause into the lovely Adagio. This glorious movement has three main themes, all dreamy, which alternate and intertwine freely. Eventually a passionate climax is reached, decorated with sweeping arpeggios by the soloist.

The finale, allegro energico, has a main theme which dances energetically, featuring copious double and quadruple stops in the solo part. Again rhapsodic, though not as free in form as the first movement, the dominant mood is brilliance and fire.

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