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  • Writer's pictureJoe Gehrke

Bruch's Violin Concerto No.1 in our 16 June 2024 concert

Max Bruch (1838 – 1920) was a talented and respected composer whose musical style was firmly in the camp of his contemporary, Johannes Brahms. Not for him the extravagant and progressive orientation of Wagner, Liszt, and their popular followers. Rather, like Brahms he composed in the more conservative tradition of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and their admirers. He was a precocious musician, composing from an early age, and displaying through his long career a remarkable gift for lyricism and the ability to craft a melodic line. Active in many genres—operas, symphonies, choral music, chamber music, and song—he is best known for his immensely popular first violin concerto. He wrote two others, as well, but they did not achieve any lasting success. He came to rue the popularity of the first, hoping musicians would perform more frequently his many other fine compositions, but alas! To be sure, a few of his other compositions garnered renown, though, including the Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra and the Kol nidrei for violoncello and orchestra. The reception of the majority of his compositions suffered to some degree owing to his living in the shadow of Brahms; the lack of appeal to British audiences (before and during WWI) of his often German-themed works; and the mistaken assumption by Germans in the 1930s that he was Jewish. To top it off, his dyed-in-the-wool romanticism was old hat by the time of his death in 1920. History is often not kind.

The first violin concerto has its origins very early on, in 1857, when Bruch was a student and only nineteen years old. He deemed it finished in 1865, when he was serving as court music director in Koblenz. It received its first performance a year later. But, it was clear that much revision needed to be done, and for that he sought the advice of the preëminent concert violinist of the time, the great Joseph Joachim (Brahms did likewise with his violin concerto, later). Joachim gave the première of the revised version in 1868, and, of course, the concerto went on to lasting popularity. Unfortunately, Bruch received only a pittance for his efforts, owing to a variety of reasons, basically being more or less swindled out of his autograph copy of the score. It finally ended up in the Morgan Library in New York City only a few decades ago.

The overall form of the work is a bit unusual, for the first movement is somewhat short, and serves rather like a prelude or introduction to the slow second movement. So, rather than a robust, significant first movement as is usual in solo concertos, Bruch was happy with an abbreviated Vorspiel, or prelude. It nevertheless does have two main themes, both firmly reminding us of Bruch’s legendary gift for melody. In the beginning, one hears a brief idea in the woodwinds, followed immediately by a brief, rather pensive, cadenza-like reflection from the soloist. All that repeats, and then the full orchestra starts the affair in earnest. Two main ideas follow: an emphatic, memorable first theme (which, it must be admitted sounds very much like Dvořák), and a much more tender, lyrical second one. Don’t bother to look forward to a typical exploration, or development, of the ideas, for after a robust diversion, very quickly we hear the woodwind introduction from the very beginning of this “prelude,” and it seems like there’s a premature recapitulation. After revisiting the two brief cadenzas of the opening, and an answer from the full orchestra, the movement quickly glides via a sustained low note in the violins to the meat of the concerto: the extensive slow movement.

And a lovely one it is, accounting, no doubt, for much of the concerto’s timeless appeal. Bruch composed a wealth of music, much of it first rate in every regard, yet he takes his place in musical history for this concerto, and this movement, to be sure. Here, his gift for soaring, lyric romantic melodies is supreme. In the last movement, the soloist enters after a brief introduction with the dramatic main theme, with its memorable multiple stops. The second theme comes quickly - another winsome example of Bruch’s innate lyricism - heard first in soaring iteration in the full orchestra, taken up quickly by the soloist. And just as quickly, the development begins working through both ideas. Bruch was not one to “pad” his compositions, and the scintillating conclusion of this timeless work comes without delay. Bruch may have bitterly rued the popularity of this work at the expense of most of the others of his many worthwhile compositions, but a hundred years on, he no doubt would have welcomed the apparent immortality of just one of them.

© 2015 William E. Runyan

For tickets to our 16 June 2024 concert, click here.

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