By Max Bruch
Composed in 1880
In Scotland, the cross-fertilization between classical violin music and traditional fiddle tunes began in the 18th century. Because fiddle players in Scotland had an unusually high rate of musical literacy, their folk music, unlike that in other countries, was often learned and written down. As a result, hundreds of printed and manuscript collections were created between the 1740s and the end of the century. Max Bruch found some of these Scottish melodies in a copy of Scottish Musical Museum by James Johnson, during a visit to the Munich Library in 1862. 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.
The “Fantasia for the Violin and Orchestra with Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies,” better known as the “Scottish Fantasy,” was written mostly during the winter of 1879–80. Bruch struggled over whether to call the work a fantasy or concerto and in the end chose the word “Fantasy” because of its free style. Unlike a normal fantasy, however, the Scottish Fantasy consists of four full-fledged movements. The role of the harp, an instrument associated with Scotland’s earliest traditional music, is nearly as prominent as that of the violin soloist.
Each of the Scottish Fantasy’s four movements are based on a different Scottish folk tunes. The piece begins in darkness, evoking the image of “an old bard, who contemplates a ruined castle, and laments the glorious times of old.” We then are introduced to the 18th century tune “Through the Wood Laddie.” The second movement is based on “The Dusty Miller,” a lively, cheerful tune that first appeared in the early 1700s. “Through the Wood Laddie” is revisited in the transition to the third movement whose main theme is derived from the 19th century song, “I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie.” 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 war song and “stomping dance” has taken on many different titles and sets of lyrics over the years. Bruch alternates virtuostic variations on the main theme interspersed with a contrasting lyrical melody. After one last appearance of a phrase from “Through the Wood Laddie,” the Scottish Fantasy concludes triumphantly.