Max Bruch ‘Scottish Fantasy’: “Lamenting the Glorious Times of Old”

Dearest classical music fans, thank you for your continued support and consistent views it has put classicalexburns on the map after a recent ranking of 5th ‘Best Music Blog’ by ScoreBig! After nearly a month with no internet in my new house, it has finally been installed and I am happy to be blogging once more. Today’s blog is going to be delving into the sound world of German Romantic composer, Max Bruch and his work for solo violin and orchestra – Scottish Fantasy. I am sure you will enjoy this work as much as I do, so sit back, relax and join me on this new journey!

Max Bruch was born on January 6th 1838 in Cologne. He received early musical training by pianist and composer, Ferdinand Hiller. Unlike quite a large proportion of classical musicians, Bruch’s family were very supportive of his music studies, and were often pushing him to take it one step further in the education ladder. Perhaps due to this, Bruch’s compositional output is large and covers many different genres including sacred and secular settings of songs pslams and motets, violin sonatas, piano works, orchestral works and chamber music for strings.

Bruch married singer Clara Tuczek in 1881, and in 1882 they had their daughter, Margaretha. Due to his long and fruitful career, Bruch held many prestigious musical posts all across Germany and the United Kingdom. Starting in Cologne and moving around Mannheim, Koblenz, Sonderhausen, Berlin, Bonn and Liverpool. Bruch died peacefully from old age in his house in Berlin in 1920, a year after his wife died, to which Bruch was buried next to her. Their daughter later carved Music is the Language of God’ on their gravestone.

As well as a composer, Bruch was also a conductor and pedagogue, and during his lifetime he was perhaps most well-known for his choral music and opera conducting. Saying this, however, his violin concerto in G minor overshadowed many of his efforts and has now become a standard in violin repertoire (due to it being heavily influenced by Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor). For his second violin concerto in 1878, Bruch took inspiration from the violin playing of Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). Similarly, for Scottish Fantasy, Bruch also took inspiration from Sarasate, with the work being dedicated to him. Although entitled a ‘Fantasy’, Scottish Fantasy  was originally claimed as a concerto. This misleading title alludes to semi-structured miniatures, rather than the fairly hefty four-movement work that it is, with many parts reflecting that of a symphony or indeed a concerto. However, one could speculate that this was down to Bruch not wanting to be completely constrained by structures and forms that come with larger-scale works. Furthermore, the score was initially published with the title (translated for this purpose) as: Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies. Long, right? However, researchers have highlighted that the mention of the harp was significant, as it connotes the Romantic association with ballads that are related to the folk music of the British Isles.

The premiere of Scottish Fantasy, was in Liverpool, UK, on February 22nd 1881, with Bruch conducting the Liverpool Philharmonic Society, with violinist Joseph Joachim playing the solo part. However, Bruch was unhappy with Joachim’s performance of his work, and he said that he had ‘ruined the work.’ From there on, Sarasate began playing the solo part, which pleased Bruch a lot more.

As alluded to in the title, the four movements of this work are built on Scottish folk melodies. Below are the movements and the folk melodies they take inspiration from:

  1. Introduction; Grave, Adagio Cantabile – Through the Wood Laddie
  2. Scherzo; Allegro – The Dusty Miller 
  3. Andante sostenuto – I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie 
  4. Finale; Allegro guerriero – Hey Tuttie Tatie, Scots Wha Hae

The first movement was described after the premiere by an associate of Bruch as depicting the image of ‘an old bard who is contemplating a ruined castle and lamenting the glorious times of old.’ The slow introduction is atmospheric and based around Eb minor. The solemn funeral-like sustained chords that start the piece set the scene for the violin to enter very gently around 12 bars in. The richness of the solo melody is built up through pauses, call and response from the soloist and orchestra, and the use of double stopping and other violin techniques. The introduction gradually leads us into a brighter and major-dominated section of the movement. The first movement stays the same tempo throughout, with the focus being melodic development. The rich development that comes from this movement is resonated throughout the rest of the work, but I must say, this movement is probably my favourite!

The second, much livelier movement, based on The Dusty Miller, picks the pace up and reveals an interesting relationship between the violin and the orchestra. With the driving force of the orchestra, the violin often interrupts with a delicate, heavily ornamented sequence of notes, before the orchestra enter again. The open chords that are played by the basses are resonant of that of a bagpipe, which ties in with the pertinent Scottish theme.

The tempo slows once more to reminisce the first movement’s melodic framework. This then provides a segue into the third movement, which very much contrasts the second. Throughout the third movement you can certainly hear how Bruch has intertwined ideas from the first movement, as well as utilising the folk song I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie. Bruch’s use of harmony in this movement is most interesting, as he fluctuates between major and minor, reflecting perhaps some confusion or uncertainty within his life.

The Finale is based on the oldest tune of them all, Scots Wha Hae. Entitled ‘Allegro guerriero’ (‘a warlike allegro’), this movement highlights the virtuosic soloist, with a march-like accompaniment from the orchestra. From fast passages and vigorous triple stops from the soloist, the movement also reflects the atmosphere from the first movement, with slow, rich sequences that lead into a final burst of triumph for Scots Wha Hae. 

Scottish Fantasy gives us a snap shot of where Romanticism was heading in the late 1800s, with Bruch’s extensive use of Scottish folk songs a reflection of past songs set by composers such as Haydn and Mendelssohn. With both delicate and vivacious writing for the soloist, this set of four movements offer many different emotions, atmospheres and interpretations of folk song. Known as a staple work in Bruch’s catalogue, Scottish Fantasy keeps being performed and recorded for many to hear. I for one love this work, and I hope you do too!

On Saturday 11th November, Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing this work at Victoria Hall with violinist Sarah Thornett – make sure you go along so you can hear this wonderful work live!

Happy reading!

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