The best known classical violin piece based on Scottish fiddle tunes comes from a German composer, Max Christian Friedrich Bruch (1838-1920). He wrote the Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46 in Berlin in 1879-80 at the request of the Spanish violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, to whom the work is dedicated. Although Bruch began conducting in England in 1878, he did not make his first visit to Scotland (Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh) until 1882, more than a year after the Scottish Fantasy's premiere.
Bruch and Sarasate met in 1871 while both were returning from Zurich. In 1877, Bruch conducted his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26, with Sarasate as soloist. The public's response was the most enthusiastic Bruch had ever received. Enraptured with Sarasate's playing and wishing to compose something for him, Bruch quickly wrote his Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 44. The two musicians premiered it together in London in November of the same year.
In 1879, Bruch wrote to pianist Otto Goldschmidt, "Yesterday, when I thought vividly about Sarasate, the marvelous artistry of his playing re-emerged in me. I was lifted anew and I was able to write, in one night, almost half of the Scottish Fantasy that has been so long in my head." Bruch asked Sarasate for a meeting to collaborate on the new piece. Then, feeling that the Spaniard was unresponsive, the easily offended Bruch turned to Joseph Joachim for advice. Joachim premiered the piece in Liverpool on February 22, 1881. According to Bruch, Joachim "annihilated it" by performing with insufficient technique and a lack of proper feeling. Two months later, Bruch reconciled with Sarasate.
Sarasate first performed the Scottish Fantasy on March 15, 1883, with the London Philharmonic in a memorial concert for Wagner. His interpretations of the piece were among his most successful performances. A few other violinists of the day, including American Maud Powell, incorporated the Scottish Fantasy into their touring repertoires. In the first half of the 20th century, however, the work all but disappeared. Then, in 1947, it was recorded for the first time. Jascha Heifetz's brilliant interpretation single-handedly re-established the piece and renewed the public's affection for it. Bruch's Scottish Fantasy is now a fixture in the repertoire of most concert violinists.
The Scottish Fantasy's original title was Fantasie für Violine mit Orchester und Harfe unter freier Benutzung schottischer Volksmelodien ("Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, freely using Scottish folk melodies"). The role of the harp, an instrument associated with Scotland's earliest traditional music, is nearly as prominent as that of the violin soloist. The work's dark and brooding Introduction was inspired by the writings of Sir Walter Scott describing "an old bard contemplating the ruins of a castle, and lamenting the glorious times of old."
Each of the Scottish Fantasy's four movements is based on a different Scottish folk tune. Bruch found some of them in a copy of Scottish Musical Museum by James Johnson (Edinburgh 1787-1789) during a visit to the Munich Library in 1862.
The first movement, Adagio cantabile, comes from the popular 18th century tune, "Through the Wood Laddie," possibly McGibbon's version. The original tune has a typical baroque flavor, using the old pentatonic scale. Bruch transforms it into a lush, romantic melody by employing double stops and the key of E-flat major. This tune is often misidentified as "Auld Rob Morris," one of the traditional tunes Bruch arranged for voice and piano in his Twelve Scottish Songs of 1863.
The second movement, Allegro, is based on "The Dusty Miller," a lively, cheerful tune that first appeared in the early 1700s. The entrance of the solo violin over a bagpipe-like drone is marked Tanz (dance). "Through the Wood Laddie" is revisited in the transition to the third movement. The main theme of the Andante sostenuto, the emotional heart of the work, is derived from the 19th century song, "I'm A' Doun for Lack O' Johnnie." Bruch's beautiful voice-like treatment of the solo violin's opening statement of the theme was no doubt informed by his skill and experience in writing for singers.
The main theme of the Finale is the unofficial Scottish national anthem, "Scots, Wha Hae," Robert Burns' tribute to the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn. This ancient tune has taken on many different titles and sets of lyrics, dating at least to the 15th century. Interestingly, Bruch sets the same tune in his Scottish Songs, using an earlier set of lyrics and the accompanying title, "Hei Tuti Teti." While the tunes used in the Scottish Fantasy are not identified, the extroverted character of the triple stops in the movement's opening and the marking Allegro guerriero (fast and war-like) make a solid argument in favor of "Scots, Wha Hae." Variations on this tune are interspersed with a contrasting lyrical melody. After one last appearance of a phrase from "Through the Wood Laddie," the Scottish Fantasy concludes triumphantly.
A stubborn anti-modernist, Bruch wrote of the "feeling, power, originality, and beauty of folksong being a salvation in unmelodic times." Although he also drew from Swedish, Russian, Welsh, and Hebrew folk melodies for many compositions, he was particularly fond of Scotland's music. He said that the Scots tunes "pulled me into their magical circle" and that they were more beautiful and original than folk tunes from Germany. He once wrote, "Whoever bases a composition on folk melodies, his work can never become old and wizened." Bruch claimed to know over 400 Scotch songs.
The following recollections from Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie's autobiography, A Musician's Narrative, published in 1927, are illustrative.
With him [Max Bruch] I conversed much and was sharply questioned about the state of music in London . . . When he assured me of his intense interest in Scottish folksong, saying "Es hat mich eigentlich zum komponieren veranlasst" (It really incited me to compose), I hardly realized how much truth the statement contained until I heard the once popular prelude to his own Lorelei. A prominent subject in that piece consists of four bars of the second part of "Lochaber no more." As a wide distance separates the Rhine and the Highland moor, the connexion seems a remote one.
And the opening bars of the often sung Ave Maria in Das Feuerkreuz are clearly recognizable as our old song, "Will ye gang to the ewebuchts, Marion." . . .
Apart from his great ability as a conductor, the impression created by Bruch's personality upon me was that of a highly-cultured, musically-gifted man, somewhat cynical of speech and brusque of manner.