Tuesday 21 November 2017

Back to the source - the music of Max Bruch

Max Bruch: folk influence
Max Bruch: folk influence

The composer Max Bruch will be forever associated with his violin concerto. Recordings of this breathtakingly melodic and shimmeringly sensuous creation are regularly teamed with Mendelssohn's to produce a sumptuous musical feast for fans of the fiddle.

It drove Bruch mad that all he was known for was this one piece. It was the first of three violin concertos he would write, and there was plenty more besides, but the stunning success of this quintessentially Romantic masterpiece overshadowed everything.

Not the three symphonies, not the three operas, not the chamber music, not the songs and the choral works, no it's that violin concerto that everybody thinks of when they hear the name Bruch.

But a deeper exploration of his output is rewarding, and generally speaking, you won't have to look too hard. There are two pieces in particular that concert promoters and radio programmers are always happy to revisit.

Like many of his contemporaries - he lived from 1838 to 1920 - Max Bruch was fascinated by folk music.

Coming from Cologne, he was part of a heritage of musical sophistication that stretched back to Bach and beyond. But it was to the traditional that he turned, time and again.

As a young man, he said, he preferred to study folk songs, wherever they came from, for he believed that in folk song, you found the source of all true melodic style. He found inspiration in Scotland. He'd never been, but he came across a collection of Scottish music in a library in Munich, and was immediately hooked. The prominence of the fiddle was, presumably, a factor.

From this grew a four-movement piece. This was his 'Fantasia for the Violin and Orchestra with Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies', a bit of a mouthful for sure. A 'Fantasia', he called it, because it was too free in its structure to merit the title 'concerto', but that's what it is, to all intents and purposes.

Known now as his Scottish Fantasy, it draws on four distinct Scottish songs, coming to a rousing conclusion with music based on the traditional battle cry, Scots Wha Hae.

It sits easily in the Bruch canon, for the composer had a particular fondness for the work of the Scottish author, Walter Scott. Bruch's cantata Das Feuerkreuz, for instance, is based on Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

Then there's Kol Nidrei, a wonderfully expressive piece, which stemmed from Bruch's interest in Jewish folk music.

Taking two tunes - one of them from the communal prayer that gives the piece its title - Bruch weaves what he called 'An Adagio on Hebrew Themes for Cello and Orchestra'.

Bruch himself was a Protestant, and the piece is no more authentically Jewish than the Scottish Fantasy is essentially Scottish, but it serves as a wonderful example of how the composer could take such source material and create something new.

The sonorous tones of the cello are the perfect match for the melodic content and the spaciousness of the slow tempo. It's as if the cantor is singing to the congregation in the synagogue. Bruch's serene orchestration is the perfect complement.

Max Bruch was much appreciated in his time as an active composer. In later years, though, it became all too clear that his legacy was going to be the one violin concerto that springs to mind whenever his name is mentioned.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

with George Hamilton

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