BRUCH:  Concerto No. 1 in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 26

Concerto No. 1 in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 26

Max Bruch was born in Cologne in the Rhine Province of Prussia on January 6, 1838, and died in Friedenau, a suburb of Berlin, on October 2, 1920. The G minor Concerto, part of whose music goes back to 1857, was completed in 1866 and first performed on April 24 that year by Otto von Königslow with the composer conducting. With the help of Joseph Joachim, Bruch revised the concerto, which was reintroduced in its present form at Bremen on January 7, 1868. Pablo de Sarasate gave the first United States performance on February 3, 1872, Carl Bergmann conducting the New York Philharmonic. Maud Powell was the first to play the work with the San Francisco Symphony, on January 10, 1913, and Henry Hadley conducted. In the most recent subscription performances, in October 2010, Joshua Bell was soloist and James Conlon conducted. The orchestra consists of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, with four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-three minutes.

At the celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday in June 1906, the great violinist Joseph Joachim said, “The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, the most uncompromising, is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.” Joachim spoke from a position of singular authority. Not only had he performed Beethoven's Concerto since just before his thirteenth birthday, but it was his advocacy that had turned it from an obscure and problematic work by a famous composer into the summit and cynosure of the concerto repertory. He had helped Brahms crucially with his concerto (many of the notes in the solo part are actually Joachim's), he had been the first to play it, and he wrote a cadenza for it that has all but become a canonical part of the text. As a boy, he had been Mendelssohn's protégé; his teacher was Ferdinand David, who had been to Mendelssohn what Joachim was to Brahms; and he had played the famous concerto more than two hundred times, going back to 1846 when the composer himself conducted. He had also worked with Bruch on the revisions that gave the G minor Concerto its final form, the one in which it became seductive and popular, and he had given the premiere of that definitive edition in Bremen on January 7, 1868.

Reading these words of Joachim's might cause us to raise our eyebrows at his yoking together of these four concertos. Mendelssohn with Beethoven and Brahms? But mainly the accolade to Bruch is surprising, though when you stop to think about it and take “richest” to refer to immediate sensuous impressions, Joachim is exactly on target. It is, however, a question of context. We may be reluctant to speak of Mendelssohn as though he were on a plane with Beethoven and Brahms, let alone describe his beautiful concerto as “the most inward” of these four, but that concerto is for us part of a large, coherent picture of a brilliant, versatile, distinguished, serious musician. With Bruch, we feel no such assurance, for he comes perilously near to being a one-work composer, the one work being the G minor Concerto. In his day, however, Bruch was a most substantial figure on the musical landscape, and if he failed to develop richly—the works with the greatest vitality and freshness were those he wrote in his thirties and forties—he retained, through his long life, respect for his command of craft and affection for his devotion to euphony.

Max's mother, a soprano, was his first teacher; his father was a civil servant. The first musical training he received outside his home was from Heinrich Carl Breidenstein, a jurisprudent and philosopher (a pupil of Hegel) as well as a musician. He was indoctrinated in the conservative Mendelssohn-Schumann-Brahms faction in German music as against the progressive Liszt-Wagner wing. At twenty he settled down to teach in Cologne, where his first opera, Scherz, List und Rache (Jest, Cunning and Revenge), after Goethe, was performed the same year. He had composed prodigiously since boyhood. He took up conducting and held, over the years, a succession of appointments in Koblenz, Sonderhausen, Liverpool, and Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland). In the 1870s he enjoyed a couple of patches of prosperity and independence that allowed him to devote himself entirely to composition. In 1891 he was granted the title of Professor, and from then until his retirement in 1910 he taught in Berlin. In 1893, in the distinguished company of Grieg, Saint-Saëns, and Tchaikovsky, he received an honorary doctorate at Cambridge. That same year, his travels brought him to America, where he conducted his oratorio Arminius with the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston.

Bruch had originally called the first movement of this concerto Introduzione-Fantasia but changed the title to Vorspiel (Prelude). Orchestral chord sequences and solo flourishes alternate: It is a dreamy variant of the opening of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. Bruch finds—or makes—room for two expansive and memorable melodies. It might be a “real” first movement up to the moment when a development seems due. There Bruch brings back his opening chords and flourishes, using them this time to prepare the soft sinking into the Adagio. All this caused him considerable concern, and he asked Joachim whether he ought not to call the whole work a fantasy rather than a concerto. “The designation concerto is completely apt,” Joachim wrote in reply. “Indeed, the second and third movements are too fully developed for a fantasy. The separate sections of the work cohere in a lovely relationship, and yet—and this is the most important thing—there is adequate contrast.”

In the Adagio resides the soul of this perennially fresh and touching concerto, lyric rapture being heightened by Bruch's artfully cultivated way with form, proportion, and sequence. As for the crackling, Gypsy-tinged finale, never having paid attention to the date of composition, I had always assumed that Bruch had borrowed a notion or two from his slightly older friend Johannes Brahms. It turns out that Bruch got there first.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music

Recordings: Pinchas Zukerman with Zubin Mehta conducting the Los Anglese Philharmonic (RCA)  |  Joshua Bell with Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Decca)  |  Maxim Vengerov with Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Teldec)  |  Isaac Stern with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony Classical)  |  Itzhak Perlman with Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (EMI Classics)

Reading: Max Bruch: His Life and Works, by Christopher Fifield (Boydell Press)