York Bowen was a concert pianist and mainly composed music for piano. And yet fifty-five years after the composer’s death it is generally his works for strings that are performed, in particular for the viola – a concerto, two sonatas and a rhapsody. One of the reasons for the composer’s passionate relationship with this instrument were performances together with Lionel Tertis – a violist who performed a great deal, composed a little, produced several arrangements and also wrote the books Cinderella No More and My Viola and I. Tertis deliberately worked with composers so that they would broaden his own repertoire and the repertoire of his viola class at the Royal Academy of Music. It was only in the final years of Bowen’s life that his love of the viola took on a new fervour – the viola d’amore. The Fantasia for Four Violas (Oр. 41 No 1) was composed in 1907 and for unknown reasons was united in one opus with the 1918 Second String Quartet in D Minor (Oр. 41 No 2). Apropos, Bowen’s style changed little over the years, the composer remaining true to romantic aesthetics. The Fantasia is no exception, the violas in it appearing, as with the romantic composers of the 19th century, in gloomy tones. Even if the piece was intended for Tertis’ students, Bowen was clearly not asked to write it more simply in technical terms – rather the reverse, it is more complex, using all manner of techniques.
On 24 March 1721 Johann Sebastian Bach sent Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, the scores of six concerti “for various instruments.” The Margrave, whom Bach had met in 1719 in Berlin, was a passionate music lover who collected the scores of more than two hundred concerti by various composers in addition to being a strong proponent of Antonio Vivaldi. Bach’s Brandenburg concerti were based on a model created by Vivaldi (almost all are in three movements and feature wind instruments), but each of them is highly original. No two are alike, each is unique, and together they comprise a veritable encyclopaedia of Baroque music.
Brandenburg Concerto No 6 was composed for two violas, two violas da gamba and basso continuo. In a break with tradition, the “Cinderella” violas perform the solo, the noble violas da gamba accompanying. This can probably be explained by the fact that Bach’s then patron, the Prince von Anhalt-Köthen, loved to play the da gamba while Bach himself liked to play the viola (it is not hard to imagine which of the two was the more virtuoso performer!). In the second movement the da gambas fall silent and, to the background of an accompaniment continuo, the violas carry the infinitely beautiful two-voiced fugue. If the number of performers is increased, Concerto No 6 becomes a concerto grosso for two violas and low strings.
Edward Elgar’s piece for string quartet and string orchestra was first performed under the baton of the composer on 8 March 1905. Elgar had already won fame in his homeland thanks to the Enigma Variations and the oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, for several years he had been conducting symphony music concerts and in his mind he was already mulling over his Violin Concerto. The appearance of the Introduction and Allegro was a result of the composer’s growing international renown. In 1905 he visited the USA to receive a doctorate at Yale University on 28 June. For this he had to thank Professor Samuel Sanford – an American pianist and composer and a pupil of Anton Rubinstein. Elgar indeed thanked him, dedicating his new work to Sanford. Naturally, it was very academic. The Introduction and Allegro is in the concerto genre, but in Elgar’s work there is not a single cadenza and the soloists’ music is no more virtuoso than that of the orchestral musicians. In the G Minor Introduction we can hear all of the piece’s themes. Then they become somewhat deliberate, with a clear demonstration of technique developing in the G Major Allegro. This Allegro was written in strict sonata form, while the place of the development is replaced with an even stricter G Minor fugue.
The seventy-three-year-old Max Bruch needed all of his courage to perform his Double Concerto, Op. 88, in 1911. Two years after Schoenberg’s first atonal works in 1909 and two years before the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, Bruch ventured to compose in the style of his creative youth – as if he had always remained a younger contemporary of Schumann and Brahms, a fervent follower of von Weber and Mendelssohn. The era of modernism took its revenge on Bruch, undeservedly labelling him with the reputation of a retrograde. The composer of the popular Violin Concerto in G Minor, Op. 26, was accused of being a second-rate imitator of Brahms while no-one pointed out the fact that Bruch’s concerto had been written ten years before Brahms’ Violin Concerto.
Apropos, a great future awaited the young musician from the very outset. At the age of fourteen, Bruch conducted the premiere of his own early symphony in Cologne, by the age of nineteen he had graduated from the conservatoire in composition and piano studies and, at the age of twenty, he was already teaching music theory topics at the conservatoire in Cologne. Premieres of his operas, oratorios, symphonies, instrumental concerti, chamber ensembles and vocal cycles followed one after another. His performing and teaching career developed with equal alacrity; Max Bruch’s pupils included such outstanding 20th century maestri as Italy’s Ottorino Respighi and Great Britain’s Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Today Bruch’s most popular works include Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, the Adagio on Celtic Melodies, the Hebrew melody Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra and arrangements of Russian and Swedish songs and dances. Contemporaries had a high regard for the talent of Bruch, a fervent and vivid romantic, a first-class melodist, a maestro of refined musical form, a dedicated scholar and a truly dazzling professional. In 1893, the same year as Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Grieg, he was awarded the title of Honorary Doctor of Music by the University of Cambridge.
When listening to Bruch’s Double Concerto, it is perhaps better to try and forget that it was composed in 1911. By thinking ourselves into the “golden age” of German musical romanticism and, like the composer, being within the circle of his great predecessors and contemporaries, we come face to face with a classical example of the style and a source of direct emotion and rare melodic charm.
The Concerto was first performed in Wilhelmshaven in 1912.
The version of the Concerto for Violin and Viola proved immensely popular.