Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1

Max Bruch might have had some sharp words about tonight’s programming. “Nothing compares to the laziness, stupidity and dullness of many German violinists,” he raged in a letter to his publisher Fritz Simrock. “Every fortnight another one comes to me wanting to play the first concerto. I have now become rude, and have told them: ‘I cannot listen to this concerto any more – did I perhaps write just this one? Go away and once and for all play the other concertos, which are just as good, if not better.” To his pupil Leo Schrattenholz, he said that he would be willing to hear another student audition to study with him– but only if the student did not play the first concerto.

Such is the curse of an artist who does too much, too well. As a child, Bruch was a prodigy first as a painter. When he began composing at age 11, he immediately caught the attention of composer and conductor Ferdinand Hiller, and his achievements as a musician soon grew hefty enough to leave no room for his aptitude in painting. He was raging publicly against the extent to which the first concerto did to the rest of his compositional career what his musical talent did to his painting; it was simply too huge to withstand competition.

In private, however, he was fiercely defensive and proud of it. To a poor review from a critic, he replied that said critic “could go drown himself” for writing “barbaric nonsense” about the concerto which in his words, “has become the common property of all the violinists in the world.”

If it is indeed common property, then violinists are certainly within their rights to prefer it over the others. But before it belonged to all violinists, Bruch’s concerto belonged to one specific one: Joseph Joachim. Although Joachim is well-known for having collaborated with Brahms on his violin concerto, his collaboration with Bruch a decade earlier was even more involved.

Although the concerto was first premiered in 1866, Bruch was unsatisfied with it. He sent the manuscript to Joachim for comments, and many months later, received a long letter addressing each of Bruch’s questions at length, and wishing that they could simply visit in person to work it out. Joachim asked that some parts be expanded, others cut, and penciled in a cadenza. Some passages he altered to sit better in the fingers, one to resemble less the Mendelssohn violin concerto to which it would surely be compared. “Do you think me too outspoken?” Joachim fretted, before launching into yet more advice.

Bruch did not think so. He replied detailing which of the edits he had made and which few he had rejected. “Your alterations to the last cadenza are written as if from my own soul,” he gushed. The entire exchange was so involved that when Joachim’s son asked for permission to publish the letters forty years later, Bruch refused; he was worried that his deference to Joachim would seem “schoolboy-like.”

Though the letters were eventually published, neither the exchange nor the orderly, Romantic three-movement concerto that resulted appear juvenile. On the first page of the manuscript, there is a dedication: it originally read, “To Joseph Joachim, with respect.” In Joachim’s hand, the word “respect” is crossed out, and replaced with the word “friendship.”