Bruch's Ineffable Magic
March 28, 2013 at 4:17 PMThis first appeared at The Classical Girl
Max Bruch, German composer of the Romantic Era, wrote over 200 works. Ask any violinist and they’ll nod, maybe even roll their eyes, saying “of course, the violin concerto. Played it. Everyone student has.” Or heard it. Or heard Bruch’s celebrated Kol Nidrei for Cello and Orchestra. Or his Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra. And that sums up Bruch for most.
Bruch wrote two more violin concertos, that, possibly, you’ve never heard (not to mention a gorgeous Serenade for Violin and Orchestra). He wrote three symphonies that, likely, you’ve never heard. I’m listening to the second one right now. It’s cracking my heart open.
The problem with poor Bruch was, you see, he was born too late. He had to follow in the footsteps of German masters of the Romantic Era such as Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms. He learned a lot from them. He loved their structured, balanced, lyrical style; it was what he did best. However, by the time Bruch had a really good sound going, the times, they were a-changing. A new kind of Romantic music was piquing the interest of the public, the more flamboyant, passionate styles of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Wagner, Bruckner. Big sound, larger than life drama and pathos and redemption all built in. Bigger orchestras. Bigger risks. More attention when those risks paid off.
And like that, the tides had shifted. While Bruch continued on with a successful career, composing, teaching, conducting, what have you, history turned its back on him. It cast him as a side note to the masters and deemed his repertoire, with the exception of his violin concerto and Kol Nidrei, largely forgettable. Not music you will hear too frequently in today’s concert halls.
I love Bruch’s other violin concertos, his Serenade for Violin and Orchestra (op. 75), his Romance for Violin and Orchestra (op. 42), his Im Memoriam (op. 65). And his symphonies. The No. 2 in F-minor, in particular. The second movement. I am utterly smitten.
I play it over and over and it’s as if I can feel the spirits of Schumann and Beethoven—heck, the whole gang of them. They are all clustered around me here as I sit and listen. Where did it come from, this music? What made Bruch write the movement this way, with those swirls of otherworldly emotion, so very much like Schumann’s own Symphony No. 2, third movement? It’s uncanny. I get that same prickly feeling, both elated and close to tears, and it’s like I’ve consumed a shot of something heady, like antique scotch, and instantly my emotions are running higher, as is the extravagance of my thoughts, my descriptions of the music, along with this increased need, almost frantic, to get it right, to explain it all with words.
I step outside myself, study myself, and wearily shake my head. Observe the stubborn soul, so set on the obscure notion of blogging about classical music, not the best market-oriented decision for a working writer, not one of those things that will get circulated via the Internet mainstream. And not only do I chose an obscure subject to blog about, but a relatively obscure composer and his relatively forgotten work.
And yet, really, isn’t that the reason, right there, to do it? To hold something up, turn on the mic, and shout your find out to the world. To say, “Folks, this one is a gem. You have to hunt down a copy and give it a good listen. This is pure genius.” No, wrong word. It wasn’t pure genius, pure originality on Bruch’s part. I’d have to give those awards to Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann. But what Bruch produced, is art. Pure unadulterated art that seems to give off an invisible radiance, one you can feel on your flushed cheeks, deep within your heart as you listen. This is art that got overlooked because it came just a little too late in the cycle of things, in the relentless push of progress, seeking out a new sound, something less romantic, more gritty and provocative.
I love Mahler. Love his work. I think it’s one-of-a-kind. But just right at this moment I want him to take a back seat to the deserving art of Max Bruch and the ineffable magic he has conjured, particularly in his second symphony, second movement. I’m not sure how many people will agree with me on this. Reviews I’ve found online call it “not very memorable” and, while faithful to the style of the German masters, “nothing as tuneful or engaging.” And I play the second symphony again, listen, and shake my head at how wrong the reviewer got it.
The second movement plays for eleven minutes. For that time (because of course I am listening to it yet again), I will once more puzzle over what makes it work, what is seizing my heart, keeping it hostage. I will come back tomorrow, play it again and again, in the hopes that at some point I will find the clues required to unlock that place, release me from this obsession. And maybe, through that, I can crack the nut of why classical music affects me as it does, and why it feels so important, so vital, that I transcribe.
I’m sure I’ve failed dismally with these extravagant, sentimental words of mine. Or maybe, just by trying, by sending it Out There into the public domain, I’ve set the wheel in motion, the music in motion. One can only try. That, I’ve decided, is obligation to art, and the artists who created it.
* * *
Here is a performance of Bruch's Symphony No. 2; the second movement begins at 12:27.
From Terez MertesHere's the link to YouTube. Second movement starts at 12:28.
Posted on March 28, 2013 at 6:21 PM
Give it a listen and tell me if you find it as delicious as I do. And then for fun, compare it to Schumann's Symphony No. 2, 3rd movement. Some striking similarities.
From Tom HolzmanTerez - it is wonderful that you find such art and pleasure in Bruch's music. You are certainly not alone. I am a fan, although not as ardent a fan, perhaps, as you. And, the fact that he composed a wonderful piece based on my religion's most sacred prayer, is important to me (he was not the first-try the 6th movement of Beethoven's op. 131 quartet). I once read that Scottish Fantasy was Heifetz's favorite piece to play. In addition, thanks for flagging his symphonies. I am not really familiar with them and would love to take a listen.
Posted on March 28, 2013 at 7:24 PM
From Terez MertesTom, I love all your comments, and yes, do take a listen. (Just don't trust YouTube's quality recording to decide things for you.)
Posted on March 28, 2013 at 9:36 PM
I was delighted to see, alongside the YouTube version, some links to Bruch's string quartets #1 and #2. Whoa! Didn't even know they existed!
From Terez MertesTom, I was musing over your comment, and wanted to add this bit, that I'd researched, but it didn't make its way to my final copy. It's taken from the Wiki for Max Bruch, and is very interesting, although it could be urban myth. Tell me what you think.
Posted on March 29, 2013 at 12:37 AM
Oh, and Happy Passover, to you and all the other Jewish members of V.com. And an early Happy Easter to the Catholics/Christians...
"The success of Kol Nidrei has made many assume that Bruch himself was of Jewish ancestry—indeed, as long as the National Socialist Party was in power (1933-1945) his music was banned because he was considered a possible Jew for having written music with an openly Jewish theme. As a result of this, his music was completely forgotten in German-speaking countries, but there is no known evidence that Bruch was of Jewish origin. As far as can be ascertained, none of his ancestors were Jews, and Bruch himself was given the middle name Christian and was raised Rhenish-Catholic."
From Tom HolzmanTerez - thanks for adding that. I knew that the Nazis thought he was Jewish, but they also thought Bizet and Saint-Saens were Jewish based on some sketchy information. And, they refused to admit that some composers, the Strauss family for instance, were not Jewish under their test, because the Strausses composed some of their most loved music.
Posted on March 29, 2013 at 11:33 AM
From Anne HorvathDespite regrettable cuts, I adore Heifetz's SF recording. He made it fairly late in life, (early 1960's), yet he sounds like an emotive, passionate, energetic, exuberant teenager. In a good way, of course. (Smiley)
Posted on March 29, 2013 at 12:18 PM
Please keep writing about uncool stuff no one cares about. After all, isn't that the Path To Coolness?
From Terez MertesAnne, I just love your comments. The last one cracked me up.
Posted on March 29, 2013 at 2:02 PM
Tom, wow, that's fascinating about the Strauss family. How did the Nazis react to Mendelssohn's music, then? I know his family shifted to Christianity, and used the last name of Bartholdy (officially? unofficially?). That used to confuse me, back when I was less knowledgeable about stuff, that Felix Mendelssohn Bartoldy and Felix Mendelssohn weren't cousins or anything, they were one in the same. (Yikes. Let's keep that confession here between us.)
From Tom HolzmanThe Nazis considered Mendelsohn's music to be Jewish, degenerate music, no different from Mahler's and Schoenberg's or any other Jewish composer. Conversion did not matter to them. They treated the descendants of the part of the family that had converted and the part that had not just the same. All Jews as far as they were concerned.
Posted on March 29, 2013 at 3:50 PM
From Terez MertesHeartbreaking. I have a book here, Alma Rosé, Vienna to Auschwitz, that I'd gotten years back, during research for an earlier novel. Shocking to think that Mahler's family was exposed to equal persecution. I see him as such a national/global treasure. Ah well. The Nazi regime had its own ideas of national treasures.
Posted on March 29, 2013 at 4:12 PM
Alma Rosé, wow, what a heroic woman and musician.
From Karen AllendoerferTerez, I had the same confusion about Mendelssohn/Bartholdy. In fact although I knew they were the same person, I didn't know until now where the Bartholdy came from or what the history was.
Posted on March 29, 2013 at 8:30 PM
I join Tom in saying thanks for calling my attention to these pieces. I didn't even know he wrote symphonies!
From Terez MertesOh, yay, Karen, you too! Yes, that confused me, the Bartholdy bit. And do give the symphony a listen. It's so delicious. : )
Posted on March 29, 2013 at 10:59 PM
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