MAX BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, op. 26

Max Karl August Bruch was born in Cologne, Germany, on January 6, 1838, and died in Friedenau, near Berlin, on October 20, 1920. He composed the Violin Concerto in G minor during the years 1864 and 1867, revising it several times before giving the work its final state in October 1867. There was apparently a performance of a preliminary version in Koblenz on April 24, 1866, with a soloist named O. von Königslöw and Bruch conducting; the definitive version was first performed by Joseph Joachim (to whom it is dedicated) in Bremen on January 7, 1868, with Karl Reinthaler conducting. In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Max Bruch was a child prodigy who grew into a gifted composer of extraordinary taste and refinement, a composer who could always be relied on to turn out works of professional finish and great beauty. He composed in virtually every medium and was highly successful in most. His cantata Frithjof, Opus 23 (1864), was extraordinarily popular for the rest of the century. Similarly his Odysseus (a cantata built on scenes from Homer), Achilleus, and a setting of Schiller’s Das Lied von der Glocke were long popular in the heyday of the cantata and oratorio market that was fueled by annual choral festivals in just about every town of any size or cultural pretension in Europe and America. He also wrote three operas, three symphonies, songs, choral pieces, and chamber music. He was active as a conductor in Germany and England and eventually became a professor of composition at the Berlin Academy.

Yet today he is remembered primarily for a few concertos. There can be little doubt that the violin was his preferred solo instrument. Of his three concertos for that instrument, the first was one of his earliest successes and remains the most frequently performed of all his works. Bruch’s music was immediately accessible, comprehensible to the bulk of the audience on first hearing, and this may explain why we hear so little of it today. In many respects he resembled the earlier Spohr and Mendelssohn, both of whom wrote a great deal of merely ingratiating music, well made, though not always challenging enough to speak to audiences across the decades.

One of the few works of Bruch that has not fallen out of sight is his earliest published large scale work, the present concerto. And it is, of course, the violinists who have kept it before the world, since it is melodious throughout and universally appealing. The G minor Concerto is so popular, in fact, that it is often simply referred to as “the Bruch Concerto,” though he wrote two others for violin, both in D minor.

Bruch worked on the piece over a period of four years, including even a public performance of a preliminary version. In the end many of the details of the solo part came about as the result of suggestions from many violinists. The man who had the greatest hand in it was Joseph Joachim, who was also to serve the same function for the Brahms Violin Concerto. Joachim’s contribution to the score fully justifies the placing of his name on the title page as dedicatee. He worked out the bowings as well as many of the virtuoso passages; he also made suggestions concerning the formal structure of the work, and finally, insisted that Bruch call it a “concerto” rather than a “fantasy,” as the composer had originally intended.

Bruch’s original title “Fantasy” helps to explain the first movement, which is something of an oddity. Rather than being the largest and most elaborate movement formally, Bruch designs it as a “prelude” and labels it as such. The opening timpani roll and woodwind phrase bring in the soloist in a dialogue that grows progressively more dramatic. The modulations hint vaguely at formal structures and new themes, but the atmosphere remains preparatory. The slow movement is directly linked to the Prelude. This is a wonderfully lyrical passage; the soloist sings the main theme and an important transitional idea before a modulation to the dominant introduces the secondary theme sounded in the bass under violin triplets. Though the slow movement ends with a full stop, it is linked with the Finale by key. The last movement begins with a hushed whisper in E flat, but an exciting crescendo engineers a modulation to G major for the first statement of the main rondo theme played by the soloist. This is a lively and rhythmic idea that contrasts wonderfully with the soaring, singing second theme, which remains in the ear as the most striking idea of the work, a passage of great nobility in the midst of the Finale’s energy.—© Steven Ledbetter