Bruch: Octet in B-flat major for Strings

Max Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto accounts for almost all of his exposure in modern concert life. Two of his other works for solo instrument with orchestra appear occasionally on programs: his Kol Nidrei for cello, and his Scottish Fantasy for violin. He wrote several splendid chamber works, unconscionably ignored apart from his Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, Opus 83.

Bruch was blessed with longevity: he was born at the beginning of 1838, just a decade after the passing of Beethoven, Weber, and Schubert, and he died in late 1920, three months shy of his eighty-third birthday, at a time when Stravinsky was already very famous, Schoenberg was tumbling into dodecaphony, Bartók had his first two string quartets behind him, and microtonal music was well enough established that in some places it was being viewed as the next big thing. Bruch did not relate to any of this. In fact, it is probably true that he never wrote a really avant-garde piece in his life. What he was composing in 1920 did not differ in its musical fundamentals from what he had composed when he first walked into the spotlight seventy years before.

It was his fate to remain in the shadow of Johannes Brahms, who was five years his elder. In 1907 he offered an assessment in a conversation with the American musical chronicler Arthur Abell:

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. . . . I had a wife and children to support and educate. 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.

A forcible reminder of this is his three-movement Octet for Strings, one of several chamber works clustered at the end of his life. Chamber music was not high among Bruch’s priorities for most of his career. In 1849 (when he was eleven), he had produced an appealing Septet for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and double bass—a big piece of a half-hour’s duration that clearly owes a lot to Beethoven’s similarly scored and ever-popular Septet, as well as to the language of Schubert. Also early on, between 1856 and 1860, while he was still a student, he produced a piano trio and two string quartets. He composed a piano quintet in 1886, though it remained unpublished for more than a century.

Signing off on the manuscript of his String Octet, on March 6, 1920, Bruch wrote that he had derived it from a Quintet written from January through March 1919. (It was one of three string quintets he penned that year, the other two surviving in the form he originally envisaged.) One hears “Brahmsian majesty” in the relaxed theme of the opening, which Bruch grants to the rich-toned first viola. The movement builds in energy and grandeur throughout its sonata-form layout. The Adagio maintains a generally pensive character, although a march-like passage and then a lyrical expanse (with Brahmsian rhythms of two beats vs. three) provide contrast toward the end. The juxtaposition of these disparate sections may invite comparison to Schumann.

The “wind-up” opening to the finale has much in common with the analogous spot in Bruch’s G  minor Violin Concerto. Perhaps the high-point of this movement is its second theme, which begins deep within the ensemble’s texture, enunciated by first cello (with rich harmonization from second viola), and is taken up by the group as a whole. It alternates with the rather Mendelssohnian first theme to create a conclusion that is both invigorating and memorable.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published by Oxford University Press.