The Kennedy Center

Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46

About the Work

Max Bruch Composer: Max Bruch
© Thomas May

There's a curious if rather indirect link between Haydn and the Scottish Fantasy, as it happens. The folk melodies used in this piece were taken from an anthology known as The Scots Musical Museum - an ambitious, multi-volume publication gathering some 600 folk songs that was initiated by the music seller James Johnson in Edinburgh in the late 1780s. The Musical Museum soon began attracting international notice and inspired curiosity from several prominent composers as the rage for Celtic lore became a widespread phenomenon. Haydn was the first major composer from the Continent to publish arrangements of these Scottish folk songs (more than 400!). He embarked on this often overlooked but significant effort during his first tour of London in the early 1790s. Beethoven also contributed some arrangements of his own.

Nearly a century later, well after the first fevers of Romanticism had stoked a fascination for Northern folk culture (along with fantasies of bards of old), the German composer Max Christian Friedrich Bruch returned to this material for his Scottish Fantasy. Concertgoers tend to know Bruch's work exclusively through the first of his three numbered violin concertos: the Concerto in G minor, a much-loved repertory staple. But as in the case of, say, Pachelbel (he of the inescapable Canon in D), such disproportionate attention to a single piece unfairly overshadows Bruch's wide-ranging achievements as a composer. Two other instrumental works, both of which are of the same vintage, have changed the picture somewhat: Kol Nidrei for Cello and Orchestra and the Scottish Fantasy immediately preceding it. It was Jascha Heifetz who rekindled enthusiasm for the latter, after a long period of neglect, with his recording of 1947 (albeit a bit abridged).

Born in Cologne (a decade after Jacques Offenbach, another famous son of that city), Bruch began composing at a very young age and was a protégé of Ferdinand Hiller, a leading German musical personality who had close ties to Mendelssohn and Schumann; Bruch would remain firmly rooted in that aesthetic terrain, which led to his being typecast as a stodgy "conservative." Also a conductor and pedagogue, Bruch first gained notice as an opera composer and, during his lifetime, was widely known for his choral music. But the Concerto in G minor, a work unmistakably influenced by Mendelssohn's canonical Violin Concerto in E minor, came to overshadow his other efforts.

Its popularity eventually grew annoying to Bruch himself, who groused to his publisher: "Nothing compares to the laziness, stupidity, and dullness of German violinists. Every fortnight another one comes to me wanting to play the first Concerto. ... I tell them, ‘Go away and once and for all play the other Concertos, which are just as good, if not better.'"

Bruch veered down a different path for his more dramatic Second Violin Concerto (1878), which was inspired by the playing of the Spanish violin celebrity Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) served as the composer's principal inspiration - as he did for the Scottish Fantasy, which Bruch wrote in 1879-80 and dedicated to Sarasate. Scottish Fantasy is, at first glance, perhaps a misleading title for a substantial, four-movement work that has the dimensions of a symphony or concerto. In fact, at various points the composer changed his mind and advertised it as a concerto, well aware that in the 19th century the term "fantasy" connoted a loosely structured miniature. 

On the other hand, he acknowledged its lack of the more rigorous forms associated with large scale works. In any case, the score was published under this full title (as rendered in English): Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies. The mention of  harp is not accidental: to that instrument Bruch accords a significant role by virtue of its Romantic associations with archaic ballads and (for the composer), specifically with the folk music of the British Isles.

Bruch's biographer Christopher Fifield reports that the writings of Sir Walter Scott were on the composer's mind when he took up the Scottish Fantasy, since he had just set aside Das Feuerkreuz (The Cross of Fire), a dramatic cantata based Scott's The Lady of the Lake (the source, too, for Rossini's opera La donna del lago). An associate of Bruch later recalled that the work's slow introduction was inspired by the image of "an old bard who contemplating a ruined castle and lamenting the glorious times of old."

Bruch evokes a marvelously atmospheric sense of "once upon a time" with the sustained chords of his slow introduction, in crepuscular E-flat minor. With a grim recitative- like solo, the violin gently enters the scene, and gradually the music brightens and turns to the major for Bruch's treatment of his first Scottish melody. Most commentators claim the tune in question is Auld Rob Morris, but as the violinist Rachel Barton Pines accurately points out, Bruch had used that tune in an earlier Scots-themed work from 1863 (Twelve Scottish Songs) and the actual source here is a song known as Thro' the Wood, Laddie. In any case, it's a heart-tugging melody, filled out with double stops and richly developed.

The lively second movement turns toward Scottish dance, using a tune called The Dusty Miller and the trope of imitation bagpipe provided by the open chords on the bass. Simple and vigorous as it is, Bruch adorns the melody with ornamented commentary from the violin. A slowing of pace brings a sentimental reminiscence of the first movement's melody, which serves as a transition to the slow third movement, based on I'm a' Doun for Lack o' Johnnie. Here Bruch's love of melody's unaffected power is most evident. The composer, whose mother was a soprano, cherished the strength of melody that he believed was preserved by folk music; for Bruch, it offered an antidote to the afflictions of an age beset with uncertainty and confusion.

Mendelssohn, an earlier Romantic who created musical monuments from his experiences of Scotland (The Hebrides Overture, the Third Symphony), suggested the unusual marking Allegro guerriero (a "warlike" Allegro) in the preface to his Third Symphony, and Bruch picks this up  for his finale. The original tune in this case, Scots, Wha Hae, shows the oldest pedigree of those used in the Scottish Fantasy: it's believed to date back to the Middle Ages and was associated by legend with Robert the Bruce  (specifically, his improbable defeat of a much larger English army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 - a piece of information offered here on condition that it not be allowed to elicit images of Mel Gibson). New lyrics were provided by none other than Robert Burns when James Johnson published the melody in his Musical Museum.

Calling for vigorous triple stops and much virtuoso courage from the soloist, Bruch emphasizes the tune's rhetorical, martial power. This he contrasts with more tender moments and with another reminiscence of the opening movement, drawing down the curtain with a last, exuberant gathering of forces for Scots, Wha Hae.