It began when my friend Miki Hatcher called me up and said “Hey, Kevin, wanna do a reading of the Bruch Octet at my house?” And I said “Hell yes!” Max Bruch finished The String Octet in B-Flat Major in 1920, shortly before his death. His style is most often compared to Mendelssohn’s. He was a romantic with a gift for melody, and the octet absolutely fits that description.
The work now has the attention it deserves, but only after a long and convoluted journey.
Bruch dedicated the octet to a Royal Manchester College of Music professor, Willy Hess, who years later, in 1936, gave the performing rights to Max and Gertrude Bruch, the son and daughter-in-law of the late composer. Finally, in 1937—seventeen years after its completion—the work was premiered to little notice in a BBC broadcast.
In what remains somewhat of a mystery, Gertrude’s hand-written copies of the parts of the Octet were mistakenly allocated the wrong opus number and wound up in the BBC Music Library. According to Bruch’s biographer, Christopher Fifield, the players may have left their parts behind on their music stands, after which the copies were collected and placed in the library.
Decades passed before the manuscript came to public attention again. Fifield located it—this time, in Vienna’s Austrian National Library. Publication of the re-discovered manuscript in 1996 also represented a renewal of the gift that Bruch had given to bass players. Instead of following convention, in which the instrumentation would have consisted of four violins, two violas, and two cellos, Bruch substituted a double bass for one of the cellos.
That’s what led to the call from Miki.
The musicians at Miki’s place were playing solely for the joy of it (and the shared experience). You could call it a jam session—and many do—but since no improvisation is involved when classical musicians are playing from a score, the literal term is a “reading.”
Miki hosts these readings often, but there are so few chamber pieces with double bass that I had never joined one until now. I thank her and Max Bruch for the opportunity to play this rich, spirited work with a supremely talented group of friends.