Ave Maria Op. 61 for cello and orchestra
(b. Cologne, 6 January 1839 – d. Berlin-Friedenau, 2 October 1920)
Ave Maria, Opus 61
History—in our case, reception history—can be cruel to composers who, during their life time, were considered mountaintops. Soon after his death in 1847, Felix Mendelssohn was relegated to a “has-been” according to one or both of two criteria: 1) a composer of sentimental music, appropriate perhaps for the Victorian age but of little relevance for the future of music, and 2) a composer who, by virtue of being a Jew among Germans, lacked grounding and artistic conviction. (Richard Wagner’s pamphlet of 1850 published under a pseudonym anticipated anti-Semitic ideologies of later generations that tried to purge Mendelssohn from concert halls and music history books.) Only in the last few decades of the twentieth century was the damaging trend fully reversed and the music of Mendelssohn, in all its stylistic variety, restored and the composer’s works recognized again as constituting a peak of human endeavor.
A similar case of cultural amnesia seems to have affected the reception of Max Bruch. During the second half of the nineteenth century, he was considered one of the greats, frequently performed not only in his native Germany, but also in the United Kingdom and in the United States (he undertook an American tour). Bruch was a prolific composer, contributing choral works, chamber and orchestral music, songs, cantatas, and oratorios, even several operas (including Loreley on a libretto written by Geibel for Mendelssohn). He held conducting positions in several German provincial cities (including Mannheim, Koblenz, Bonn, and Breslau) and in England (where he was the director of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society), before being appointed in 1891 to conduct master classes in composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. Indeed, an honorary doctorate from Cambridge and his membership in the French Academy of the Fine Arts are evidence for the international reputation that Bruch acquired during his life time. His death almost coincided with the collapse of the German Empire as a result of World War I. Shifting trends in the political and cultural arena no doubt contributed to the lack of resonance for a conservative Romantic whose music was modeled after Mendelssohn and Brahms. The fact that Bruch composed a Kol Nidrei for violoncello and orchestra, using some Jewish liturgical melodies as material, may have led in the 1930s to rumors that he was Jewish (he was not—one of his middle names was Christian) and thus, like Mendelssohn, dispensable. In any case, Max Bruch barely survived in the twentieth-century concert hall by dint of just one work: the Violin Concerto in G Minor, Opus 26 (the first of three concertos for that instrument). With the exception of a sprawling account, in German, of Bruch’s accomplishments by K. G. Fellerer (published in 1974 as part of a series on the history of music in the Rhineland) and a more focused monograph in English by Christopher Fifield (1988), the life and works of one of the once-towering figures of music is, by and large, terra incognita.
But there are signs that this may change. Fifield’s monograph (reissued in 2005) seems to have awakened interest in a composer neglected for a long time. Performers have picked up the torch and recorded works by Bruch other than the first violin concerto: Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig must be mentioned with renditions of all violin concertos (soloist: Salvatore Accardo), other works for solo violin and orchestra (Serenade, Scottish Fantasy) plus the three symphonies (Philips). The Naxos label seems to be particularly devoted to Bruch. CDs with Bruch’s string quartets and other chamber music, the oratorio Moses and the Weihnachtsmusik are available in respectable performances. A quick glance at the Explorer catalogue of Höflich Music Production features more than a dozen scores of the music of Max Bruch. A Bruch centennial is coming up in 2020—an ideal time perhaps for reassessing the artistry of a composer whose works have been unjustly neglected.
The Ave Maria, a concert piece for violoncello with the accompaniment of the orchestra, is based on the sixth movement (a prayer scene) of Bruch’s cantata Das Feuerkreuz (The Fiery Cross), Opus 52. The cantata, whose movements outline a narrative from Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, had a long gestation period, but was finally finished in 1888-89. Bruch was particularly fond of the Prayer Scene: he not only published it separately for voice and orchestra, but also reworked it (transposing it from D minor to A minor) in 1892 for violoncello and orchestra, at the insistence of his friend, the cellist Robert Hausmann (1852-1909), who wanted to have a companion piece to the successful Kol Nidrei, Opus 55. The vocal recitative in the Feuerkreuz movement becomes now an extensive cadenza for the cello, functioning as a middle section (Andante con molto di moto and Allegro moderato), mostly in E minor, with a stringendo leading to a dramatic highpoint. The return to the Adagio of the beginning, originally in A minor, is magical, because the material is now cast in A major and brings the piece to a pensive conclusion. All in all, an effective and touching piece composed with a keen sense for balancing the solo instrument with the rest of the orchestra. A good performance depends certainly on the virtuosity and artistry of the soloist; it would surely gratify audiences.
Jürgen Thym|, Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, 2017
For performance material please contact Boosey & Hawkes, (www.boosey.com), Berlin
Solo Instrument(s) & Orchestra
210 x 297 mm