Bruch’s mother was a singer, and under her tutelage he began to compose at an early age. He wrote numerous choral works that were popular throughout Germany during his lifetime, as well as three operas and three symphonies. He was also an esteemed and successful conductor, and a teacher whose pupils included Respighi and Vaughan Williams in the master classes he taught in Berlin in his later years.
It was his nine pieces for violin and orchestra, however – and his friendship with violinists such as Ferdinand David, Joseph Joachim, and Pablo de Sarasate – that brought him international success. The violin, Bruch said, “can sing a melody better than a piano, and melody is the soul of music.” Joachim gave the premiere of the Scottish Fantasy – poorly, according to the composer, who conducted – in Liverpool in 1881, but the work is dedicated to Sarasate.
A conservative musician, Bruch relied on folk music for inspiration and melodic guidance in the Scottish Fantasy, as well as numerous other works. The Fantasy begins with a somber, bardic Introduction in the stygian darkness of E-flat minor. After it the first movement proper comes as warm, radiant light. It is also a slow movement, opulently scored. Bruch introduces the first of his Scottish songs, “Auld Robb Morris,” as a folk-like duet for violin and harp, delicately accompanied. Bruch’s generous treatment of this tune, in two verses, reminds us that the full title of the Fantasy includes the caveat “free use” (freier Benutzung) of the folk melodies.
The main part of the second movement is based on a vigorous dance tune, “The Dusty Miller.” Bruch develops it in virtuosic variations, and accompanies it with drones and chugging rhythms. He seems to bring it to an emphatic close, but the orchestra violas recall “Auld Robb Morris” and the soloist joins in the reflective reverie, which leads directly into the third movement and the infinitely tender folksong “I’m a’doon for lack o’ Johnnie.”
Bruch marked his finale Allegro guerriero, an unusual indication he found in the preface to Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony. This robust “warlike” dance is based mainly on the traditional tune “Hey Tuttie Tatie,” which Robert Burns used for his patriotic poem “Scots, wha hae,” where it is supposed to be the words of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. (Berlioz also used the tune in his overture Rob Roy.) Bruch inserts lyrical contrasting material, and just before the final close, the soloist reflects one more time upon “Auld Robb Morris.”
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.