Max Bruch, German composer of the Romantic Era, wrote more than 200 works. Ask any violinist and he’ll nod, maybe even roll his 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, and 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, and Bruckner. Bigger orchestras. Bigger risks. Bigger sound, larger than life drama and pathos and redemption all built in.
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 In 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. They are hanging out with me here as I sit and listen. Check it out.
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 are my thoughts, my analysis of the music. There is an increased need, almost frantic, to get it right, to explain it all with words. 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, and Schumann. But what Bruch produced is 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 classically romantic, more gritty and provocative.
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, and art, affect me as they do.
I think the joke’s on me, though. Art can never be unlocked, un-cracked, figured out. And lucky us, for that. It means we can spend our lifetimes exploring, searching, falling into it, loving it.
This was originally published in The Imaginative Conservative on April 13, 2018.
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