Max Bruch

Max Bruch was an enigma: a throwback to an age he wished had never died. He lived from 1838 to 1920, and so he lived for 82 of arguably the most exciting years in the history and development of classical music. His lifetime saw the birth and death of Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Dvorak, Massenent, Bizet, Grieg and Debussy.

When you think of it, in the year of Bruch’s birth Mendelssohn was forming ideas for his Violin Concerto; but by the time of his death, Mahler had been dead for nine years, having stirred a symphonic revolution, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was already seven years old. Bruch was never anything other than a romantic composer, and he would rage futilely against the unstoppable forces of change. He was to the end staunchly resistant to musical developments. He was very conservative and back-word looking, he believed music should be tuneful and accessible. Someone once wrote this of his music:

It offends no-one, yet equally it rarely excites through anything other than its emphasis on melodic beauty.

So, while he was largely derided as terribly old-fashioned by the time of his death, few could argue that his music was anything other than beautifully lyrical and distinctly stylish, with rich melodies and lush orchestration.

Interviewed in 1911 Bruch correctly predicted that “while most of my works will be more and more neglected I will be remembered chiefly for having written my G minor violin concerto”.

So let’s start with that violin concerto, the first of three that he wrote, not least because Bruch himself would probably be pleased that we’re getting it over with quickly. Despite the fact that it’s a brilliant piece he came to deeply resent it, and not only because it tended to overshadow his entire output. There were other reasons why he had some difficulties with the concerto.

Bruch himself conducted the premiere of the concerto in Berlin in 1866 but he withdrew the work after the first performance. Later, he sent the manuscript to the renowned virtuoso Joseph Joachim, who helped him to revise the score, and the amended work was premiered in Bremen a couple of years later. Bruch made a big mistake in selling the score to a publisher for a small lump sum, taking a one-off payment rather than royalties.

At the end of World War I, he was destitute. He had been unable to enforce the payment of royalties for his other works because of chaotic worldwide economic conditions. So he sent his autograph to the American duo-pianists Rose and Ottilie Sutro (more of whom later), so that they could sell it in the United States and send him the money. However, Bruch died in 1920, without ever receiving any money.

I have previously featured the stirring last movement so let’s instead hear the heart of the concerto, the slow, heart-rending second movement, played by Nicola Benedetti with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

Max Bruch was born in 1838 in Cologne. He received his early musical training from Ferdinand Hiller, then a well-known pianist and composer. At the age of nine, he wrote his first composition, a song for his mother's birthday. From then on music was his passion, and his studies were enthusiastically supported by his parents. He wrote many minor works, now sadly lost, when he was very young. He had a peripatetic career and a conductor, composer and teacher, with various posts throughout Germany and, in the 1880s, three years as conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society prior to becoming professor of composition at the Berlin Academy.

Let’s hear some more music now. Bruch was a fine pianist and wrote quite a bit for the instrument, even though he is said to have loathed it: he was a strings man, as you will hear. He once said: "The violin can sing a melody better than the piano can, and melody is the soul of music".

He wrote a set of six small piano pieces in 1861. Here is the fifth of them, a waltz, played by Martin Berkofsky (more of whom later).

While Bruch’s 1st Violin Concerto is played regularly all over the world, his other two violin concertos are rarely heard. However, Itzhak Perlman became a champion of his 2nd concerto, written in 1877 and dedicated to the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, who premiered it in the Crystal Palace in London.

It’s unusual because its first movement is an adagio, which we will now hear with Perlman playing. It’s a famous piece which shows Bruch’s lyrical gift at its finest and has passages of exceptional beauty. I think the orchestral work in this concerto reflects his growing confidence as a composer.

Let’s tell you some more about Bruch. He married a singer, Clara, when he was in his 40s and they had a daughter while he was working in Liverpool. It was his daughter, Margaretha, who had the words ‘Music is the Language of God’ carved on Bruch’s gravestone in Berlin, where he died.

He was, like Brahms, a famously grumpy man, particularly towards the end of his life, when he was totally disillusioned with the direction music was taking.

Tchaikovsky once called him “a disgustingly pompous figure”. It’s certainly the case that he wasn’t everyone’s best friend.

He left behind over 200 works, including four operas, three symphonies, three violin concertos and various chamber works and songs.

Earlier I mentioned the American pianists Rose and Ottilie Sutro. Well, they come up again in my next story, which introduces Bruch’s Concerto for Two Pianos.

In 1911 he heard the Sutro sisters play one of his pieces and was so delighted with their performance that he decided to write a double concerto for them.

He recast an organ suite into a two piano concerto and gave the Sutro sisters the sole performing rights to the work. They had promised to sell the manuscript for him in the United States and to send Bruch the money.

They never did. And without his permission, the unscrupulous sisters rewrote the piece to suit their abilities, copyrighting their version. They performed the premiere of this version with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski in 1916 and in1917 they played a further revised version of the work, with the number of movements reduced from four to three, with the New York Philharmonic under Josef Stránský.

The Sutros gave two performances of this version – and never played it again. They never played Bruch's original version at all. But they continued to make revisions to their version. Ottilie died in 1970, aged 98 and some of her miscellaneous scores, manuscripts and newspaper cuttings were auctioned.

The pianist Nathan Twining purchased a box of unidentified papers for $11, and found it contained the autograph score of the sisters’ version of Bruch's concerto, a work unknown to him. The orchestral parts for the original version were bought by other people at the same auction and Twining tracked them down and bought the parts back from them. He and Martin Berkofsky, the pianist I mentioned earlier, then reconstructed Bruch's original version, and they recorded it for the first time in November 1973, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

And it’s that recording you are going to hear now, or at least the second and third movements of the concerto.

I said at the beginning that Bruch was something of an enigma. Consider this: in 1880 he wrote a piece for cello and orchestra called Kol Nidrei, which means All Vows in Aramaic.

He called it an Adagio on Two Hebrew Melodies for Cello and Orchestra and is made up of two very Jewish musical themes. And yet, Bruch wasn’t Jewish: he was a Christian.

The success of Kol Nidrei led to many people assuming he was Jewish. Even though he maintained that he wasn’t, and one of his middle names was Christian, the Nazis restricted performances of his work because he was considered a possible Jew.

This, then, is Kol Nidrei, with Jacqueline du Pre and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the cellist’s husband, Daniel Barenboim.

So, Bruch was a Christian and yet he wrote a Jewish piece, Kol Nidrei; he wrote a Roman Catholic hymn, Ave Maria, and yet he was a Protestant; and he wrote a piece about Scotland, his Scottish Fantasy, and yet he barely knew the country – although he did come here once, it was after he wrote the fantasy.

What was that about? Well, he was always interested in setting melodic material that originated from other ethnic groups. Later, if we have time, you will hear a piece that had its roots in Sweden.

By the way, I mentioned that he wrote an Ave Maria. In fact, he wrote two, one for cello and orchestra and tone for one of his three operas, Die Loreley. It premiered in 1863 and had a few years of success before fading into obscurity, where it had pretty much remained ever since. By the way, the libretto for this opera had been written for Mendelssohn but he dropped the idea and Bruch picked it up.

But before that, let’s hear the Scottish Fantasy, which in this country at least is doubtless played more often than his 1st Violin Concerto. It is, in essence, a violin concerto with the dimensions of a symphony. In fact, Bruch couldn’t decide what to call it. At various points he changed his mind and advertised it as a concerto, well aware that in the 19th century the term "fantasy" meant something else entirely.

The writings of Walter Scott were on Bruch’s mind when he wrote the Scottish Fantasy in 1880. This was a time when Scott and all things Scottish went down well in Europe, and Bruch must have known he was onto a winner.

There are four movements, and each one takes a Scottish tune as its central theme. So, in the opening movement, we hear a tune known as Thro’ the Wood, Laddie. The second movement features an old Scots dance, The Dusty Miller, with Bruch seeking to recreate the sound of the bagpipes.

The inspiration for the slow third movement was a piece called I’m a Doun for Lack o’Johnnie, and the finale, which he scores as Allegro Guerriero, or warlike allegro, uses Scots Wha Hae. All these tunes he got from folk song collection in a large volume called The Scots Musical Museum by a Scottish publisher and book seller, James Johnson.

So, let’s hear all four movements of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. I have heard a few recordings of this piece and I’ve chosen a 1961 recording with Sir Malcolm Sergeant conducting The New Symphony Orchestra of London and Jascha Heifetz playing the violin. There are those who say that Heifetz was the greatest violinist of all time and it’s been said that it’s with pieces like the Scottish Fantasy that he truly excels.

By the way, I said Bruch did spend some time in Scotland. I have read many sources, including a book I have here, that in 1898 he began two years as conductor of what was then called the Scottish Orchestra. He did not. That conductor was someone whom Max Bruch called “a terribly distant relative”. Sir Henry Wood wrote this about Wilhelm Bruch’s time with the relatively new Scottish Orchestra:

He could not speak a word of English and hated the cramped life of Glasgow – no café, no lagers, everything closed at night and deadly dull on Sundays! The band nicknamed him Sleepy Billy, as he evinced excessive boredom. After the first month, the first English he spoke was to express a longing to go home. He went after a season in Scotland.

Anyway, here’s Max Bruch and his Scottish Fantasy.

Before we finish, let’s hear some of the Bruch music that had its roots in Sweden that I mentioned earlier. This is from a set of 14 piano and violin pieces called simply Swedish Dances and written in 1892.

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Max Bruch playlist

Each Spotify track has been chosen specifically; however, the corresponding YouTube videos may be performed by different orchestras.