Max Bruch lived for 82 of the most exciting years in the history of music though he remained staunchly resistant to musical developments during his lifetime. […] Mendelssohn had yet to write Elijah when Bruch was born; but by the time of his death, in 1920, Mahler had been dead for nine years, having stirred a symphonic revolution, and Stravinsky’s harshly modernist Rite of Spring was already seven years old. The range of musical styles developing during Bruch’s lifetime can be gleaned from a cursory glance at the composers of the time, who include Bruckner, Parry, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Dvorak, Leoncavallo, Bizet, Massenet, Debussy, and Grieg. Bruch’s musical style developed little after he began work on the popular First Violin Concerto, around the year 1865 – the very year that Wagner demolished the boundaries of tonality with his opera Tristan und Isolde, so even the chamber music he penned in the last year of his life uses the musical vocabulary of the mid-19th century. Bruch raged futilely against the unstoppable: Wagner and Liszt, the so-called German New Romantics, were his nemesis, and any conductor who dared promote their work over his was usually dismissed as a ‘podium peacock’. Inevitably performances of his works (and 100 of them were published) dwindled as his music was seen more and more to be old-fashioned, and he became very bitter as he grew older. Yet despite this his music remains beautifully tuneful and distinctly stylish. His First Violin Concerto in G minor, Op.26, remains one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire, but clearly he should not be dismissed as the archetypal one-work composer.
Bruch studied with the extremely influential composer and conductor Ferdinand Hiller, and at 14 won the Frankfurt Mozart Foundation prize to study with Carl Reinecke and Ferdinand Breunung. Having completed his Op. 1 (the one-act opera Scherz, List, und Rache) in 1858 he was sent on five years of travel to complete his musical education, the most important city visited being Leipzig, where musical life had been dominated by Mendelssohn. There he met Reinecke again, Ferdinand David (the dedicatee of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto who would in turn play an advisory role in Bruch’s First Concerto some eight years later) and Ignaz Moscheles. From Leipzig he went to Berlin (where he encountered the conductor Hans von Bülow and violinist Joseph Joachim), and then to Mannheim, where his opera Die Loreley, based on a Rhine legend, was staged in June 1863 and heard by many influential musicians such as Clara Schumann, Anton Rubinstein, Hermann Levi, and Joseph Joachim Raff. All of them encouraged him […] on his way as a conductor or as a composer, and in this latter capacity he was now beginning to attract attention.
With the success of his male-voice cantata Frithjof, Op. 23, performed in Aachen in 1864, his reputation rose rapidly . At the age of 26 he had demonstrated an extraordinary power and facility in the manipulation of large vocal masses; his choral writing was now the work of a completely accomplished musician, solid and earnest as well as spontaneous, tuneful and effective. During the mid-19th century amateur music-making in Germany was being stimulated by the industrial revolution, spawning great numbers of orchestras and choral societies affiliated to factories. With Frithjof he reached to the heart of them by writing for chorus, and by the appeal of his choice of subject-matter, namely an Icelandic saga of love, vengeance, heroic deeds and national pride. With such success behind him he began considering the opportunities of a post wherever one might fall vacant. This aspect of his career was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life, the restlessness of the composer/conductor forever travelling, forever worried about money, forever weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of either being a freelance artist or having a permanent position. The dilemma worsened from January 1881, when he had a wife and, in due course, four children to support. It was again Hiller who played a role in recommending Bruch to Koblenz, where he began work as a conductor in September 1865. He stayed for just two seasons, during which time he produced the original version and first revision of his First Violin Concerto. By October 1867 he was in a new post at Sondershausen, and for most of the 1870s he managed to exist from composing; whilst in the 1880s he turned again to conducting, first in Liverpool (1880-1883) and then Breslau till 1890. From then until he retired in 1911 he was an eminent professor of composition at the Berlin Music Academy, with Vaughan Williams and Respighi briefly among his pupils.
Having allied himself to the conservative musical line from Mendelssohn through Schumann, he also had to live in the shadow of another German titan, namely Brahms. This did not help his growing bitterness, especially as he realised that, even though he outlived Brahms by almost a quarter of a century, it was an uneven contest. Despite his uneasy relationship with the older composer – who had shown himself to Bruch as a master of the put-down – he unreservedly credited Brahms with far more originality than himself, with an independence of thought, and with an admirable courage to take musical risks with his harmonic language without worrying about public or critical reaction. Interviewed in 1911 Bruch correctly predicted that ‘as time goes on he will be more appreciated, while most of my works will be more and more neglected. Fifty years from hence he will loom up as one of the supremely great composers of all time, while I will be remembered chiefly for having written my G minor violin concerto’. Although both the deeply haunting Kol Nidrei (and whenever this particular cello work is mentioned it is always necessary to point out that Max Bruch was not Jewish) and the Scottish Fantasy are by no means absent from the concert hall, record catalogues, or radio stations, it would be fair to say that it is only during the last ten to fifteen years that his other works are beginning to be explored. So what do 100-or-so works consist of, and why are we not hearing them, as much as many of them deserve to be heard?
Apart from the piano, which he loathed despite being a good pianist himself, Bruch was comfortable in all sorts of musical forms and instrumental colours. During his lifetime he was renowned for his large-scale oratorios, most of them inspired by the strong undertow of nationalistic, Prussian/Bismarckian political activity which led to the unification of Germany in 1871, and of which Bruch was an eager supporter. His oratorio subjects focused on national leaders as role models (the Greeks Odysseus and Achilles, and the Germans Arminius and Gustav Adolf) while even the biblical Moses was seen as a political figure leading his nation on a crusade to reach their own promised land. Another theme which attracted him was Scotland (a country he never visited, even during his time in Liverpool), mainly because of his deep love of folk music which he considered to be the basis for all melodic invention. For Das Feuerkreuz he used the novel The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott as his inspiration, while the end of his short cantata Schön Ellen (Fair Ellen, based on an incident at the Siege of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny) ends with a stirring rendition of ‘The Campbells are coming’. If one can ignore their ultra-bombastic texts and the poor translations they received at the time, the music itself is very approachable and often inspired. In recent years Odysseus and Moses have been performed in Britain and America, while Das Lied von der Glocke (The Song of the Bell), to a text by Schiller, gets a welcome airing in Liverpool next February.
Bruch’s unshakeable belief in the power of folksong produced not only settings from many lands for solo voice and piano or for small unaccompanied choruses, but also other instrumental or orchestral music such as serenades and suites. Besides the first violin concerto there are two others which are well worth hearing as well as six further concertino works for the instrument – including the Scottish Fantasy – plus a double concerto for clarinet and viola, a short but beautiful Romance for viola, and four short pieces for cello and orchestra. Bruch did himself no favours in writing such brief (ten- to fifteen-minute) single-movement concertino works – for they are devilishly hard to programme by managements, and audiences want a soloist’s presence for double that amount of time – but those with imagination and enterprise will not regret their decision.
There is also some charming chamber music from the early period and more again at the closing years of his life, some of which is very playable for good amateur groups. Finally there is another opera, Hermione, (based on The Winter’s Tale) which unfortunately flopped, whereas even Mahler gave Die Loreley his blessing when he conducted it in 1887. All of which leaves the three symphonies.
It was his friend Hermann Levi (a close ally of Brahms, despite being Wagner’s chosen conductor for Parsifal) who urged Bruch to break out of the choral field and write his first symphony. This he did in 1868, shortly after the success of his First Violin Concerto. In 1890 Hermann Kretschmar referred to the Symphony (which Bruch dedicated to Brahms) as ‘one of the best known of the period’, which in turn begs an interesting question: who was composing symphonies during the 1850s and 1860s? After the powerful influences of Beethoven and Schubert, there appears to be a ‘black hole’ between Schumann’s last symphony, the Fourth written in 1851, and Brahms’ first in 1876, assuming that one ignores the works by lesser-known composers, such as Spohr, Raff, Anton Rubinstein, Sullivan, and Gade. While, during the 1860s, Tchaikovsky and Bruckner had each written their first symphonies and Dvorak his first two, their careers were not yet established, and these works made little impact at the time. Bruch’s First Symphony appeared in 1868, the second in 1870, and the third in 1883, and all of them contain inspired melodies, masterful orchestration, and lucid structures. After the Schumannesque First Symphony, the Second is slightly less conventional. It has no Scherzo (‘I did not feel like writing one so I didn’t’), while the Third has a programme based on Bruch’s reminiscences of his natiuve Rhineland (he even considered subtitling it ‘On the Rhine’), bringing another Schumann connection, to his Third, ‘Rhenish’ Symphony.
Increasingly more popular, there are already two complete cycles in the recording catalogues and a third on the way.
Bruch was by all accounts an adept conductor, and his concert programming reflected his catholic taste of the Classical and Romantic repertoire. It covered all the Schumann and Beethoven symphonies (though the Ninth was given without the choral finale, as was customary at the time), works by Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Mozart, Gade, Spohr, Raff, Reinecke, and some of his own music. He conducted new, unpublished works including the two orchestral serenades by Brahms, and he even performed works by Wagner and Liszt (though it could well have been these encounters with their music that finally caused him to repudiate this school of the New Germans once and for all). Bruch gradually came to resent the First Violin Concerto more and more, not only because it overshadowed the rest of his music but also as he had opted for a one-off payment rather than royalties in dealing with its publisher Cranz.
When he was an old man he visited Rome but fled his hotel when a barrel organ in the street below began playing themes from the concerto. He was even cheated of the manuscript of his most famous work by two unscrupulous American pianist-sisters, for whom he had recast an organ suite into a two-piano concerto (Op.88a) at their request. They had promised to sell the manuscript for thousands of dollars when they got back to the United States, and send him the proceeds, but instead they simply held on to the score (fortunately it turned up in the 1970s and is now safe in New York’s Morgan Library). An unhappy end of a long and not always happy life, and yet his music is consistently full of inspired and optimistic melodies. The First Violin Concerto, with its heart-rending slow movement, may continue – with some reason – to represent the pinnacle of Bruch’s achievements, though its popularity masks other valuable works, for example those stemming from his Romantic explorations of folk music. And while his music eschews the intellectual rigour of his fellow German Romantics, his rich melodies and often lush orchestrations lend his music a distinctly sensuous quality.