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Living in Light of Fantasy: On Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy”

Editor's note: This essay is part of our series of monthly reflections on important works of music. Every month we'll bring you a new post just like this one. Thanks to Lindsey Brigham for spearheading this project.

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From its first drenching wave of sound, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy sweeps the listener into the brooding, lonely landscape of E flat minor, and to a musical world in which the seeming exaggerations of dramatic melody unfurl a clearer picture of reality.

As the introduction unfolds one majestic chord at a time, the features of the setting are patiently drawn from the shadows and given shape. One gets the sense of seeing the place through a dreamlike veil: a scene somehow out of reach and yet strangely familiar. Out of this misty darkness, in a tone of unspeakable tenderness and childlike fragility, the violin speaks. Growing in passion, it builds through a poetic progression of ascending sequences (short musical phrases repeated again and again, each time on a new starting note) and finally cries out with sudden octave leaps (jumps between notes a whole octave, or eight notes, apart) before drawing a breath and tumbling upward with rapid arpeggios (musical chords with their notes played in sequence rather than simultaneously) to a heartbreaking climax. Then, as though its grief is spent, the violin breathes that single tone once again, fragile and yet intense, until it can summon the more tender melody to follow. As this mournful line meanders to a close in a solitary trill, the orchestra swells to prominence, and with hymn-like textures reminiscent of a cathedral organ, reverently ushers in the first of the four melodic pillars which bear up this great work.

Take a listen (the introduction runs to 4:28):

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BOTH WORDS in the Scottish Fantasy’s title provide interpretive keys to open our listening to the rest of the piece.

The word Scottish gestures toward the composition’s nationalistic flavor. A special wave of Nationalism arose during the last 1700’s and into the mid 1800’s as Europe emerged from the French Revolution and saw the downfall of Napoleon. During this time, the philosophy of Rousseau and Johann Gottfried von Herder—specifically the idea that geography shapes a people’s culture, society and natural economy—began to filter into the blood of the people, igniting a new enthusiasm for traditional folktales and folk music.

Nationalism, coinciding with Romanticism’s reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, led artists to reject Classicism’s love for form, context, and decorum, and to embrace the expression of strong, spontaneous emotions, grounded in one’s particular place and identity, as the ideal aesthetic. This was seen in music in the (still somewhat scandalous) indulgence in minor keys and dissonance (the simultaneous sounding of two or more notes that produce a tense or clashing sound, used to create suspense, express emotional tension, and build towards more dramatic resolutions), as well as in dramatic change of volume or tempo and in the loosening of the Classical forms (such as the prescribed number of movements a symphony or sonata must contain and the rules for development and recapitulation of musical themes within a work.)

Scottish Fantasy provides an escape from the realities which fill most of our hours—but it is an escape which bolsters the soul

These ideas came to their full fruition in the Romantic movement as composers began to title their works with descriptive phrases rather than traditional forms like “Sonata,” which implied a clear structure to the piece. This is the significance of the word Fantasy in Bruch’s title, which in its original publication was called Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies. Bruch insisted on the whimsical description Fantasy because its form was so free and because the liberal use of folk tunes was so fundamental to the work.

Fantasy also hints at another key aspect of Romanticism: the license to escape.

Classical music as a whole held up the known, the orderly, the rational. Romanticism sought out the exotic, rustic, wild, distant, and any form of nature not “spoiled” by the constructs of society, all of which were supposed to inspire emotions of awe and even terror. In a blending of Nationalism with Romanticism, the unique, “unspoiled” folklore specific to each people group began to be elevated to a position of nobility in the culture once again, along with a renewed interest in medievalism. In fact, it was the medievalesque writings of Walter Scott (in combination with a trip to Scotland) that inspired Max Bruch to pen his musical escape to this rich realm.


Max Bruch

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IN THE CONTEXT of Nationalism and Romanticism’s love for folk tunes, drama, and escape, it makes sense that Bruch would center each of the four movements of the Scottish Fantasy around folk tunes which he overheard during his travels in Scotland.

The first melody (running from 4:28-5:44) is richly set with luscious double stops (a challenging stringed instrument technique in which more two or more strings are played with the bow at one time) and is based on an old Scottish tune known as “Thro’ the Wood, Laddie.” Bruch also chose to suddenly reduce the orchestral textures to a thread on the emergence of this melody, highlighting the harp and violin in duet for the first time—an homage to the two most prominent instruments in celtic music of that time, the harp and the fiddle. It is strikingly symbolic as well that the first truly hopeful melody in this work occurs in duet, powerfully contrasting the stark and lonely voice of the solo violin in the opening.

This graceful melody is followed in the second movement by the rousing tune, “The Dusty Miller” (8:09-9:15). The movement opens with the orchestra pulsing out hearty drones reminiscent of bagpipes from which the violin leaps onto the scene with the romping dance tune. The movement ends with a flourish from which a single tone emerges, melting into a reprise of “Thro’ the Wood, Laddie” as transition into the third movement.

This Adagio sets “I’m a-Doun for Lack o’Johnnie” (13:18-14:13). This tune, taken in combination with the last movement, demonstrates more than anywhere else in the piece the wistful nostalgia and inspirational power Romantic Nationalist music is known and loved for. Here it seems the Scot and the foreigner alike are drawn into a world where heroic tales are no longer generic but belong to a particular group of people in a particular time in history. This world calls to the listener and as the music swells from a tenderly whispered tale to a soaring charge in which section after section of the orchestra joins to form an overwhelming force singing the same anthem, the listener cannot help but be inspired to go forth with similar bravery, joy and passion, aware more than ever of the historic host in whose steps he now trods.

The final movement crescendoes these emotions by presenting the iconic Scottish melody “Scots Wa Hae” (19:12-19:39), originally set to lyrics of Robert Burns about the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 by which Scotland maintained its sovereignty from the the Kingdom of England. The first stanza, in the voice of Robert the Bruce, gives the flavor of the whole:

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!

Carried along with the rustic regality of the Scotch snap (the dramatic Scottish rhythmic gesture “long-short” in which the short note is emphasized) and growing louder with every triumphant chord, we seem to hear these chords of history singing out again: “We will drain our dearest veins / but they shall be free!”, and “Liberty’s in every blow! / Let us do or die!”

For most of us, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy provides a twenty-five-minute escape from the realities which fill most of our hours—but it is an escape which bolsters the soul. For, as T.S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

To live in light of fantasies that are refractions of a true future too glorious for us to bear: that is reality.

Yet, paradoxically, a fantasy such as the one we have encountered here may hold the most concentrated form of reality we can bear, if we take it in earnest. For a fleeting moment, it fuses the richness, strength, and grim reality of the past—captured here in folk music resonant with history—with the transcendent beauty and hope of the future, captured in the way the folk tunes are transfigured by Bruch’s glorious setting. And this interweaving of time itself is described by Eliot as reality.

Between contemplation of a glorious future that can leave us unresponsive to present duties, and meditation on a past that can breed paralyzing nostalgia or bitterness, there is a place—perhaps best captured in fantasy and in music— where the rich past and unbearably glorious future are united.

“And do not call it fixity / Where past and future are gathered,” Eliot writes; “Neither movement from nor towards / Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

To live in a fantasy is wrong; but to live in light of fantasies that are mere refractions and coruscations of a true future too glorious for us to bear—to believe the Scriptures when they hint that the beauty to come is indeed more than we can imagine, not less—that is reality.


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