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Max Bruch - His Life and Works
by Christopher Fifield
16 b/w illustrations
400 pages
Size: 23 x 15 cm
ISBN: 1843831368
Binding: Paperback
First published in second edition: 2005
Price: 39.95 USD / 19.99 GBP

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It’s good to welcome this fine book back to currency especially brought up to date and at a very competitive price.
Make allowances, please: I had not read the first edition of this book. My impressions are from someone coming to the volume for the first time.

Mr Fifield points out that until his book came out from Gollancz in its first edition in 1988 there had been no single volume on Bruch - not even in German. I wonder if this book has now been translated into German. It certainly merits that attention.

In any event Bruch deserves a full-scale study and this is what he and his music gets. Strange how he could have been neglected in print for so long. Especially when one considers the fame of the Violin Concerto (the one in G minor - the first of three) for long a partner on disc typically in harness to the Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky.

Bruch was long-lived, dying at the ago of 82 in 1920. He wrote well into old age rather like Vaughan Williams who briefly was a pupil of Bruch's. The Serenade on Swedish Melodies dates from 1916, the unpublished String Octet from the year of his death and the String Quintet from 1919.

Bruch's pupils, for he was a formidable and sought-after composition teacher, included Ottorino Respighi, Oskar Strauss and Vaughan Williams (whose works bear the imprint of his other non-British teacher Ravel but not noticeably of Bruch).

Bruch shared with RVW an obsession with folksong and there are many examples of its influence in his oeuvre although to completely different effect from that of the English composer.

Mr Fifield's triumphant success, for this is exactly what the book is, can be discerned not only in its monumental detail but in the humanising of a man who from the illustrations cuts a forbidding Old Testament figure - bald and bearded. Strange perhaps how those eyes seem kindlier in old age than when young. Years that bring the philosophic mind?

That kindly glint is also completely consistent with his reported observations in 1907 on his own reputation as against that of Brahms. Bruch said that Brahms was a far greater composer and that essentially he took more risks. He referred to the economic necessity of earning a living which prompted him to write comfortably within mainstream expectation. He said that he always composed good music but music that sold readily. He then praises Brahms to the skies for his originality.

Mr Fifield's achievement is all the more notable because Bruch's memoirs, part dictated in old age, reveal nothing of his emotional life. His letters and articles however sometimes open the door to this dimension. The most revealing document is that quoted in Chapter Seven which speaks of Bruch's devotion to Bergisch Gladbach and the Igeler Hof. This was Bruch's ‘land of lost content’ and the years 1850-1859 seem to have been his idyllic domain as much as Fournier's in Le Grand Meaulnes. In 1920, his last year, he wrote an article almost ecstatic in its yearning for the Igeler Hof - it is searingly poignant; much more than the smoke of nostalgia.

As for his musical idiom it stood firmly and unwaveringly struck deep into the gravid soil of Mendelssohn and Schumann. His later works clung to that mulch. For him there was no modernising imperative. Not for him was the later example of Frank Bridge who absorbed dissonance into his post-1918 works. Like George Lloyd, like Bax and many another composer - in fact most - once he had found an idiom he would not loose his grip on it ... or perhaps its grip on him would not loosen.
The chapter layout and titles are a model of clarity and I'll list them here because they also give an overview of Bruch's life:-
Childhood and Youth 1838-58
Years of Study 1858-609
Mannheim 1861-3
Folksong and Frithjof 1864
Coblenz 1865-8
Sonderhausen 1867-70
Freelance composer Berlin 1870-73
Freelance composer Bonn 1873-78
Return to Berlin 1878-80
Liverpool 1880-83
Breslau 1883-90
Berlin I 1891-7
Berlin II 1898-1911
The Final Years 1911-20

Perhaps a few words on his British and specifically Liverpool sojourn. Bruch first went there in 1877 to conduct his Odysseus (a work of which he had the highest opinion). In 1879 he was there for a concert of his Das Lied Von der Glocke. His English was not perfect but good enough having been honed in train journeys with his father between Köln and Bergisch Gladbach. His accent however was a problem. During his three years in the city he conducted 35 concerts and all were well received. Both works mentioned above were repeated. Also he gave many of his other works. Other composers’ works included Verdi’s Requiem, Mendelssohn's Elijah, Sullivan's Martyr of Antioch, Gounod's Redemption, Saint-Saëns second piano concerto with the composer at the piano and Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante K364. Native talent also got a look-in and works by Cowen, Stanford, Heap Benedict and Sullivan all made appearances. He left Liverpool for an appointment in Breslau .

As far as I can see the first 351 pages are a straight reprint of the 1988 first edition. The revisions and corrections come on pages 353 to 399. This new material consists of an Afterword to the New Edition and a chapter on Bruch at Sondershausen drawn from newly conducted research in that town. There's a long and fascinating list of Bruch's concerts and repertoire at Sondershausen. Mr Fifield includes six more book and article entries in an anhang to his original Bruch bibliography. There's also a listing of new editions of Bruch's works as well as a select discography. To that we can now add CPO's recording (777 130-2) just released (July 2005) of the choral-orchestral Schiller setting Das Lied von der Glocke.

The index on pp. 343-351 has not been updated to key into entries on pages 353-399; not that this is a major problem but it's clearly not ideal. On the other hand it's little short of miraculous that you can get this book (albeit paperback) for just short of £20.00.

The index is in several sections: Works by Bruch, works by others and names .

Speaking of the index you should note that it does not take you to entries in the new section - i.e. the last 25 pages.

The Afterword is a must-read for any Bruch enthusiast. It is fascinating to see how the rarer works have fared since 1988 with 15 performances of Moses, 5 of Odysseus and 13 of Das Lied von der Glocke.

The Finnish composer Ernst Mielck was just a name if that for most of us in 1988. Now his symphony has been recorded twice - once by Sterling and once by Ondine.

Typos are in short supply but here are the ones I picked up:-

p. 391 Lorzting should be Lortzing

p. 389 (and elsewhere) shouldn't Benedix be Bendix.

On p.355 Mr Fifield deals with a number of detailed corrections of the original text.

Not wanting to criticise the book for failing to be something it never set out to be .... there are two omissions. Mr Fifield must be amongst the best informed of scholars when it comes to the Bruch performing tradition. With this in mind a listeners' guide leading us to the best recordings of each work and warning us off the ‘shipwrecks’ would have been extremely helpful. I wonder if he can be persuaded to write such an article.

The second omission relates to the unrecorded works. I would have valued Mr Fifield's observations on those works so far unrecorded (or having CDs in very limited circulation) that merit a session in the recording studio.

The book is easy to read using a comparatively large serif typeface.

Sources and notes are listed neither at the foot of the text page nor at the end of chapter. They appear grouped altogether chapter by chapter on pages 331-337. This is by far the best solution and the least disruptive to a cover-to-cover read.

This is the work on Bruch but its merit lies not only in being the only book but in the detail, pacing and presentation of Bruch's life. The humanising communicative faculty that Mr Fifield brings to bear lifts the book from mere gap-filling as does its evident determination to lift Bruch from the slough of one-work composers. In all these ways the book and its author bears the laurels of victory.

Rob Barnett

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