A confirmed Scotophile, Max Bruch was a voracious reader of Sir Walter Scott as well as an arranger of poems by Robert Burns. So when The Scots Musical Museum, a six volume compendium of Scottish songs, appeared between 1787 and 1803, the composer wasted no time in excitedly thumbing through its pages. Several of the songs compiled therein find their way into the Scottish Fantasy. The title of the work may seem something of a misnomer, as it seems rather more like a four-movement concerto. Indeed, Bruch referred to it as a concerto during its composition, before ultimately reasoning that “this work cannot properly be called a concerto because the form of the whole is so completely free and because folk-melodies are used.”
Concerto or not, the work begins with a Grave introduction: a somber trombone chorale accompanied by harp, the soloist playing a free recitative. This leads into a heartrending Adagio cantabile, based on the folk song Auld Robin Morris. The climax is marvelously subdued, and the movement ends quietly. The lively Scherzo: Allegro is based on Hey, The Dusty Miller. Droning basses evoke the sound of bagpipes, while the soloist engages in rustic country fiddling. Auld Robin Morris is briefly reprised as a recitative, leading seamlessly into the Andante sostenuto, a set of lush variations on the song I’m a’ Doun for Lack o’ Johnnie. The Finale: Allegro guerriero opens with hushed anticipation, until the violin enters with the strident Scots Wha Hae, the war song of the Scots. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the song was allegedly sung by Robert the Bruce after his remarkable defeat of the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Representing this turning point in the war for independence from Britain, the song became Scotland’s unofficial national anthem. Following a central tranquillo episode, the entire orchestra reasserts the warlike song, and a brilliant violin cadenza brings the work to a dazzling conclusion.