30 Oct 2012

Bruch – Scottish Fantasy

By Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, strings.

Duration: 30 minutes in four movements.

THE COMPOSER – MAX BRUCH (1838-1920) – Though he actively composed throughout his life, many of Bruch’s most rewarding professional successes were on the podium. From 1878 to 1890, he held a conducting posts in Berlin, Liverpool and Breslau, after which he settled for good in Berlin as a professor at the Hochschule. Respighi and Vaughan Williams were among Bruch’s students there but when he passed away in 1920, the world had almost completely passed him by.

THE MUSIC – Had it not been for his friendships with the violin luminaries of his day (Ferdinand David, Joseph Joachim, Pablo de Sarasate) and the nine works he composed for their instrument, Bruch’s music might well have been entirely forgotten. He was an avowed devotee of Mendelssohn and Schumann and an equally passionate opponent of Wagner and Liszt. It was an unpopular position to maintain as the new century approached and Bruch’s old-fashioned sensibilities did a disservice to his reputation and legacy. The penalty would have been fatal if not for works like the 1st Violin Concerto and the Scottish Fantasy of 1880. Bruch always believed that the violin could “sing a melody better than a piano” and his use of folk tunes provided the perfect material upon which to prove his point. The Scottish Fantasy was written while Bruch was conducting in England and he made “free use” (a phrase from the original lengthy title of the work) of melodies such as “Hey, the Dusty Miller,” “Auld Robb Morris” and “Scots wa hae.” The freedom with which he treated the tunes was a point of contention for some reviewers but Bruch was no professional ethnomusicologist. He was much more interested in the spirit of each song and perfectly recreated their individual moods if not their literal constructions. It is interesting that the premiere was performed by Joachim but dedicated to Sarasate. Two great rivals, united by their most dedicated compositional champion.   

THE WORLD – The First Boer War came to an end in 1881, as did Ottoman control of Romania. 1881 also saw the founding of the Boston Symphony, the first appearance of the character Pinocchio and the assassination of Russia’s Alexander II.  

THE CONNECTION – The Scottish Fantasy was performed most recently in 2006 under the baton of Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Elmar Oliveira was soloist.