Composition and premiere: Bruch completed a preliminary version of the concerto in 1866; that version was premiered in April 1866 under the composer’s direction with Otto von Königslow as soloist. Working with violinist Joseph Joachim, Bruch revised the score thoroughly over the next year, completing a new version in time for its first performance on January 5, 1868, in Bremen, with Karl Martin Rheinthaler conducting and Joachim as soloist. The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance took place in October 1882, Georg Henschel conducting and Louis Schmidt as soloist. Arthur Fiedler led the first Tanglewood performance on August 8, 1975, with BSO assistant concertmaster and Boston Pops concertmaster Emanuel Borok as soloist. The most recent Tanglewood performance was soloist Joshua Bell’s with Herbert Blomstedt leading the BSO on July 12, 2009.
Max Bruch was a child prodigy who grew into a gifted composer of extraordinary taste and refinement who could always be relied on to turn out works of professional finish and often of 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; it used to be given in Boston every year or so. Similarly, his Odysseus (a cantata 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 throughout 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. With the exception of a double concerto for clarinet and viola, all of his compositions for soloist with orchestra—three concertos, the Scottish Fantasy, a Serenade, and a Konzertstück—feature the violin. The absence of other media in his concerto output was not for lack of opportunity or invitation. When Eugen d’Albert specifically asked for a piano concerto in 1886, Bruch wrote to his publisher Simrock, “Well—me, write a piano concerto! That’s the limit!” Twelve years earlier, when Simrock had suggested that there might be a market for a cello concerto, Bruch was even more outspoken: “I have more important things to do than write stupid cello concertos!”
The first of his three violin concertos was one of his earliest successes and remains the most frequently performed of all his works. The fact that his other music has almost totally dropped out of sight may have been caused, in large part, by his desire to compose music that was immediately “accessible,” comprehensible to the bulk of the audience on first hearing. Bruch was certainly never embroiled in the kind of controversy that followed Brahms or Wagner or most of the other great innovators. Violinists themselves have kept the G minor concerto—along with his later Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra—before the world. Melodious throughout and ingratiatingly written, the G minor concerto is so popular that it is typically referred to as “the Bruch concerto,” though he wrote two others for violin, both in D minor.
Bruch had a great deal of difficulty bringing the work to a successful conclusion; he reworked it over a period of four years, which included 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 would serve much the same function for the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms), to whom the score is dedicated. He worked out the bowings as well as many of the virtuoso passages; he also made suggestions concerning the formal structure of the work. Finally, he insisted that Bruch call it a “concerto” rather than a “fantasy,” as the composer had originally intended.
Bruch’s planned title, “Fantasy,” helps to explain the first movement, which is something of a biological sport. 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 progressively more dramatic dialogue. The modulations hint vaguely at formal structures and new themes, but the atmosphere throughout is preparatory. Following a big orchestral climax and a brief restatement of the opening idea, Bruch modulates to E-flat for the slow movement, which 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 (in the bass, under violin triplets). Though the slow movement ends with a full stop (unlike the Prelude), it is directly 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 (by the soloist) of the main rondo theme. This is a lively and rhythmic idea that contrasts wonderfully with the soaring, singing second theme, which remains in the ear as one of the most striking ideas of the work, a passage of great nobility in the midst of the finale’s energy.
Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.