The violinists Joseph Joachim and Eugène Ysaÿe had a great influence on violin music of the nineteenth century, inspiring much of its composition. Joachim often volunteered to collaborate with other composers, such as Brahms with his violin concerto. After looking over some chamber music he admired of Dvořák, Joachim suggested that he write a violin concerto. Joachim was so kind as to make over the solo part, wrote Dvořák. Dvořák intended to dedicate his concerto to Joachim, but Joachim had so many objections to the work’s form (claiming he was trying to help Dvořák with his criticisms) that Dvořák finally gave it to a different violinist to premiere.
During the year before its composition, Dvořák became enraptured with the idea of incorporating more nationalism into his music. He completed Three Slavonic Rhapsodies, the Slavonic Dances, a sextet using a dumky (a Slavonic lament) and a furiant (Slavonic folkdance), a Capricio for violin and orchestra full of Slavonic dance elements (the orchestra parts have since been lost), a mazurek for violin and orchestra, a suite of Czech dances, and other works with obvious Slav or Czech characteristics. Dvořák felt that this gave him a greater currency outside his own country than composing in a more universal style. These nationalistic ideas are clearly apparent in his violin concerto, and the recognizable Dvořák of the New World Symphony and the American String Quartet is hardly discernible.
The influence of Wagner is also palpable, in the long, never-ending melodies, hardly giving the soloist a break.
Henri Vieuxtemps was born in Belgium where he began violin lessons with his father. In 1846 he was invited by the Tzar to St. Petersburg, where he founded a violin program at the St. Petersburg Conservatory; the Russian school of violin playing has dominated the world ever since. His most famous pupil was Eugène Ysaÿe, who, like his teacher, both performed and composed violin works. The Franck sonata, also recorded by Antonello, was written for him. Vieuxtemps’s compositions were more in the restrained, classical tradition than the more showy style of Paganini. Ysaÿe quoted his teacher: Not runs for the sake of runs—sing, sing!
The nickname, Le Grétry was attached to the concerto because the second movement’s melody is derived from an aria in André Grétry’s opera, Lucille. Vieuxtemps, even more than Joachim, liked to collaborate with others in his compositions, especially in chamber music and violin and piano works.
Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy is not a collaboration with a living composer, but each movement uses a different Scottish folksong, the last one, the well-known Scots, Wha Hae, by Robert Burns. Bruch, like many European composers, dating back to Beethoven and before, was strongly attracted to Scottish melodies. Scottish songs tend to have strong and often syncopated rhythms, because at one time the Scottish church banned instruments, while still allowing singing and dancing; singers thus were forced to provide the strong beats that dancing requires. Composers have been entranced by the punchy vitality of Scottish tunes ever since. Bruch had plenty of experience arranging Scottish song for singer and piano before he set to work on his Scottish Fantasy. It has a large part for the harp, and he originally titled it, Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, Freely Using Scottish Folk Melodies, which, as a title, would have been a mouthful, though accurate. The work is full of sudden ritardandos and fermatas and requires enormous rhythmic flexibility from the orchestra, far more than any other standard concerto, where rubato is ordinarily confined to the solo part, and sometimes only to cadenzas.
The Scottish Fantasy was wildly successful when premiered by Sarasate in 1883—far less successful a few years later when Joseph Joachim performed it, as described in a letter by Bruch: …in the Scherzo, he lacked Sarasate’s incomparable charm and grace, the ‘cantilena’ in the first and third movements were too restless, the series of trills in the Finale were slow, and the top notes were completely missed. He played from the music (which I never like) … the disappointment was universal. However, Joachim was going through a nasty divorce at the time, and both Bruch and his friend Brahms had sided completely with Joachim’s wife, a singer.
Unlike his G minor concerto, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy soon fell into obscurity, and was not revived until it was first recorded by Jascha Heifetz, a pupil of Leopold Auer, who studied with Joachim.
Bruch himself was quite upset by the fall from favor of his violin concerto. In 1883 he wrote to his publisher: The ‘Scottish Fantasy,’ which even gives pleasure to people like Brahms and Joachim, is torn apart everywhere by critics. One can bear all this for many years, but there comes a time when disgust and bitterness overcomes a creator, and one says to oneself, ‘how much longer do I cast pearls before swine?’
The reason for its unpopularity may have been its mode. Of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos, only two are in a minor key, and these two were Mozart’s only concerto failures during his lifetime. The nineteenth century saw a complete reversal, and the only piano concertos of Mozart to be played were, paradoxically, these two in minor keys. The Scottish Fantasy is relentlessly in a major key, and unreservedly buoyant in mood. Even in its more tranquil moments it is more lush than gloomy. Bruch, later in life, became nauseous on being asked to hear his—to him— overplayed and relentlessly popular G minor concerto.
Schumann, whose piano concerto, violin concerto, and cello concerto are in minor keys, wrote in his public journal, ‘Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik’:
four fifths of the newest concertos which we are in the habit of reviewing for our readers are in minor; one sometimes fears that the major third will disappear altogether from the tonal system.
In a conversation with his friend, Arthur Abell, in 1907, Bruch relates his opinions of his own legacy with great humility and perspicacity:
Brahms has been dead ten years but he still has many detractors., even among the best musicians and critics.
I predict, however, that as time goes on, he will become more appreciated, while most of my works will be more and more neglected. Fifty years 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…. Brahms was a far greater composer than I am for several reasons. First of all he was much more original. He always went his own way. He cared not at all about the public reaction or what the critics wrote. The great fiasco of his D minor piano concerto would have discouraged most composers. Not Brahms! Furthermore, the vituperation heaped upon him after Joachim introduced his violin concerto at the Leipzig Gewandhaus would have crushed me. Another factor which militated against me was economic necessity. I was compelled to earn money with my compositions. Therefore I had to write works that were pleasing and easily understood. I never wrote down to the public; my artistic conscience would never permit me to do that. I always composed good music but it was music that sold readily. There was never anything to quarrel about in my music as there was in that of Brahms. I never outraged the critics by those wonderful conflicting rhythms, which are so characteristic of Brahms. Nor would I have dared to leave out the sequences of steps progressing from one key to another, which often makes Brahms’s modulations so bold and startling. Neither did I venture to paint in such dark colours, à la Rembrandt, as he did. All this, and much more, militated against Brahms in his own day, but these very attributes will contribute to his stature fifty years from now, because they proclaim him a composer of marked originality. I consider Brahms one of the greatest personalities in the entire annals of music.
In spite of Bruch’s self-deprecation, the Scottish Fantasy has recovered its initial stature and grown into one of the concerto repertoire’s most beloved works.
Notes by Peter Arnstein