Max Bruch – Adagio on Celtic Melodies for cello and orchestra op. 56
(b. Cologne, 6 January 1838 – d. Berlin, 20 October 1920)
Cellists have every right to be a bit jealous of their colleagues on the violin: if practically every composer of note has left behind one or more violin concertos, the list of known cello concertos is relatively short. Though Max Bruch did not, strictly speaking, leave behind a cello concerto, cellists are nevertheless extremely grateful for the four single-movement concertante pieces from his pen. Their stature in the repertoire is reflected in their number of CD recordings. One of them, Kol Nidrei, occupies second place in the Bruch discography with almost one hundred entries; only the G-minor Violin Concerto has been recorded more frequently. But Bruch’s other concertante pieces are likewise finding their way onto CD, whether as “padding” to augment concertos by other composers, or on complete recordings of his works for cello and orchestra.
The initial sketches for Bruch’s Adagio date from the year 1890, when he was about to leave his conductor’s post in Breslau and move to Berlin. To recuperate from his tiresome work in Breslau, he traveled in the summer to the Bergisch countryside and stayed at the Igel farmstead near Bergisch Gladbach, where he began to write several concertante works at once. In addition to preparatory work on his Third Violin Concerto (op. 58), he sketched the Adagio appassionato for violin and orchestra (op. 57) and two pieces for cello and orchestra: Canzone (op. 55) and the present Adagio on Celtic Melodies (op. 56). His material for the latter two pieces has survived; the sketches, preserved in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek, are revealing of his compositional method. Basically, he began with the solo part, jotting down a few melodic lines for the accompaniment and at best suggesting a skeletal harmonization.
The sketches for op. 56, dated “Igel, 31 July 1890,” were initially headed Andante. Indeed, the choice of title caused Bruch no end of trouble. Like many of his orchestral works, the piece uses a folk melody in each of its two sections. The original title was thus meant to be Andante on Nordic Folk Tunes. The final choice of title and the reasoning behind it are reflected in Bruch’s correspondence with his publisher Simrock, which sheds light not only on the music but on his artistic personality: “The first melody is Scottish, the second (in E major) Irish. As it was impossible to write ‘Adagio on Scottish and Irish Melodies’ (sic) on the title page, I lit on the idea … of using the portmanteau term ‘Celtic.’ But now I’ve come to believe that the Scots are actually not Celts at all…. On the other hand, no one knows the old collection of Scottish songs from which I took the first melody (The Scotch Musical Museum, Edinburgh, 1788), just as no one can prove the origin of the Irish melody…. I would like to see the man capable of proving that the first (E major) melody is not Celtic! Moreover … there is something special about the title, and it sounds interesting, so I think I’ll cast my scruples to the winds and keep it. What does the ordinary cellist, musician, and dilettante think of when he hears the word ‘Celtic’? Nothing! It just sounds strange and alien to his ears – and that’s exactly as it should be.” (Letter of 10 December 1890 to Simrock, quoted from Wilhelm Lauth: Bruchs Instrumentalmusik, Cologne, 1967).
Whether by “ordinary cellist” Bruch was referring to the work’s dedicatee, Jacques Rensburg (1848-1910), is impossible to say. Rensburg, who knew Bruch from his early years in Bonn, received the freshly printed piano reductions of the Canzone (op. 55) and the Adagio (op. 56) as a present in September 1890. Originally Simrock planned to issue the two as companion pieces with a single opus number, 58. The orchestral versions presumably originated at the same time as the piano reductions before Bruch relocated to Berlin. But only the Adagio was published by Simrock, who issued it with orchestral accompaniment and in piano reduction as op. 56 in 1891. A version for violin and piano appeared at the same time, presumably prepared or at least welcomed by Bruch himself. (The Canzone was issued that same year as op. 55 by Breitkopf & Härtel with a dedication to the well-known cellist, Hausmann.)
While the piano reductions of both works have remained available for purchase to the present day, the scores of the orchestral versions have long been out of print. It is hoped that the present reproduction of the first edition will further the justified interest in Bruch’s music for cello and orchestra, whether for the “ordinary cellist, musician, and dilettante” or beyond.
Translation: Bradford Robinson
For performance material please ask Benjamin, Hamburg.