Unanswered Question | Ferruccio Busoni: "A Fresh Gust of Air"

Ferruccio Busoni: “A Fresh Gust of Air”

July 28, 2019 by Joseph Horowitz

Preparing an August 15 Busoni/Schoenberg/Kandinsky program for The Phillips Collection in DC, I discovered myself newly entranced by one of the most magical figures in the history of Western music. Around the same time, Kirill Gerstein’s revelatory new CD of the Busoni Piano Concerto turned up — and I felt impelled to take stock. I wound up writing 4,500 words:

On the first anniversary of the death of Ferruccio Busoni, in 1925, his former pupil Kurt Weill wrote: “I will never forget the feeling of relief which we experienced when, in 1920, after an absence of six years, Busoni returned to Berlin. . . . He came like a fresh gust of air. He was able to transcend the distortions in which we had sought escape.”

The moment was crucial for twentieth century composers. In the wake of Wagner, in the wake of the Great War, in the wake of spent Romanticism and tarnished ideals, something radically new was needed.

For Arnold Schoenberg, the new idea was an esoteric theory of non-tonal music propelling Romantic chromaticism a step further into the unknown. In comparison, Igor Stravinsky attacked Romanticism from the rear, reversing the trajectory toward harmonic complexity in favor of a stripped down “neo-classicism.” These antithetical strategies long dominated a heated discourse over music’s proper modernist future.

Today, looking back, modernism no longer seems as dominant. Composers irrelevant to Schoenberg and Stravinsky – including such unrepentant Romantics as Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, and Richard Strauss – are no longer footnotes. And neither should be Busoni. If his genius remains too rarified to secure wide appeal, his “fresh gust of air” is enjoying a fresh gust of advocacy.

In two respects, Busoni surpasses Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and the others: the charismatic appeal of Busoni the man and the stature of Busoni the performer.

Weill’s encomium reads in part: “It is strange enough that such a phenomenon appeared in our time. Even in the past we find few figures in whom the man and the work are thus unified . . . We are bound to think of Leonardo. In him also we find that comprehensive spirituality which strives to open up all attainable spheres, that sublimity above life’s trivialities.” Many another testified to the spell cast by Busoni’s idealism and intellect. His letters document a hypnotic personality, aloof yet prone to acute humanistic observation. He was born in Empoli in 1866 – and so straddled two centuries. His father was a nomadic Italian clarinet virtuoso out of Fellini. His mother’s lineage was German and Jewish. No less than Mahler (who esteemed him), he embodies qualities of paradox and irony both implicit and manifest. His Faustian striving is oddly leavened by espousals of Mediterranean clarity and proportion.

Busoni the pianist was famously regarded as a successor to Franz Liszt – whom he both resembles and contradicts. His core keyboard affinities were for Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Liszt. His eight acoustic recordings of 1922 illuminate a singular perspective. His Bach is in equal portions analytical and subjective; he pedals the ending of the C major fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, to discover an aura of mystery. In Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13, he reproduces Liszt’s zithers and gypsies in a Mephisto mirror of his own idiosyncratic devising. His 1933 biographer Edward Dent, who knew Busoni well, wrote: “Those who never heard Busoni play during those last years (1919-1922) can have no conception of the prophetic inspiration and grandeur of his performance. His technical achievements in mere speed and strength must have far surpassed anything accomplished by Liszt and [Anton] Rubinstein.” Of Busoni’s late Beethoven, Dent wrote: “To hear him play these sonatas was an almost terrifying experience; dynamic and rhythmic relations were treated with such vast breadth and freedom that one seemed taken up to heights of perilous dizziness and made, as it were, to gaze steadily into the depths until one’s vision became serene.” Of Busoni the man, Dent summarized: “He was . . . of warmly affectionate temperament and irrepressible humour; his married life with Gerda Sjostrand brought them both thirty-four years of unclouded happiness, and his kindness and thoughtfulness for his pupils were inexhaustible.”

Busoni’s legacy will inevitably hinge on his compositions, in which every Busoni paradox is somehow in play. He cherishes vivacity, elegance, simplicity, and grace. And yet he is a fervent thinker and other-worldly seeker. The resulting music has always hovered on the fringes of the repertoire. And yet three of the most interesting pianists prominent on today’s stages are Busoni advocates. And there are reasons to believe that this is not coincidental.

Busoni’s compositional output falls into two periods; call them “early” and “late.“ A lot of late Busoni tacks toward a pair of concepts from his aphoristic writings: “Ur-Musik” and “Young Classicism.” That the concepts seem contradictory is a typical Busoni ambiguity. The first connects, at times precisely, to the contemporaneous efforts of Schoenberg and Wassily Kandinsky to capture instinctual creativity at the cusp. The latter overlaps but does not describe neo-classical restraint.

In his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music(1907), Busoni writes of Ur-Musik (“absolute music”):

Is it not singular to demand of a composer originality in all things, and to forbid it as regards form? No wonder that, once he becomes original, he is accused of “formlessness.” Mozart! The seer and the finder, the great man with the childlike heart – it is he we marvel at, to whom we are devoted; but not his Tonic and Dominant, his Developments and Codas. . . .

[Beethoven] did not quite reach absolute music, but in certain moments he divined it, as in the introduction to the fugue of the Sonata for Hammerklavier [Op. 106]. Indeed, all composers have drawn nearest the true nature of music in preparatory and intermediary passages . . . , where they felt at liberty to disregard symmetrical portions, and unconsciously drew free breath.

Busoni also pertinently observes: “The rest and the pause are the elements which reveal most clearly the origins of music. . . . The spellbinding silence between two movements becomes, in this context, music itself. It leaves more room for mystery . . . “

The same “free breath,” drawn “unconsciously,” animates Kandinsky’s first excursions in non-representational art and Schoenberg’s first attempts at non-tonal music. In fact, Schoenberg and Busoni corresponded on this and other topics – a span of letters (1903-1914) beginning with the characteristic Busoni sally: “Maybe I, some later Siegfried, shall succeed in penetrating the fiery barrier which makes your work inaccessible, and in awakening it from its slumber of unperformedness.” The common ground they evince, in Busoni’s words, compasses “pure, unspecified, refined ideas for the piano, sound without technique.” Schoenberg calls it “unshackled flexibility of form uninhibited by ‘logic.’’’ In the same letter he disavows “harmony as cement or bricks of a building,” “protracted ten-ton scores,” and “pathos.” Not the least fascinating aspect of this dialogue is its self-portraiture, juxtaposing Busoni’s complex urbanity with Schoenberg’s extremism of sentiment and opinion, as when he insists upon envisioning a subconscious music captured on the fly before his mind corrupts it: “This is my vision: this is how I imagine music before I notate=transcribe it. And I am unable to force this upon myself; I must wait until a piece comes out of its own accord in the way I have envisaged. . . . My only intention is to have no intentions!”

That Busoni shared comparable goals is evident in such music as the mercurial Sonatina No. 2 for piano (1912). Among his purest essays in Ur-Musik, it shuns tonal centers and interposes irregular bar lengths.It also uses the piano more resourcefully than the Op. 11 Piano Pieces (1909) that Schoenberg mailed to Busoni for his consideration. (Busoni attempted in vain to share with soothing irony his reservations about Schoenberg’s piano writing.)

“Young Classicism” is a somewhat later Busoni credo, dated 1920. He writes:

By ”Young Classicism” I mean the mastery, the sifting and the turning to account of all the gains of previous experiments and their inclusion in strong and beautiful forms.

This art will be old and new at the same time at first. We are steering in that direction, luckily, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly. . .

With “Young Classicism” I include the . . . return to melody again as the ruler of all voices and all emotions and as the bearer of the idea and the beggeter of harmony . . .

A third point not less important is the casting off of what is “sensuous” and the renunciation of subjectivity . . . and re-conquest of serenity.

Busoni’s Concertino for clarinet and chamber orchestra (1918), for instance, sublimates the virtuosic operatic paraphrases his eccentric father would perform. The music levitates. Its effect is ruined if the soloist’s cascading acrobatics betray effort or ego.

“Late Busoni” also includes the musical legacy of some 49 months in the United States (1891-94), where he taught and also toured widely. His letters home document both estrangement and fascination. The Native American proved a magnet for Busoni’s mystic bent and wide curiosity. In his Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra (1914) – a work American pianists and orchestras should perform – the “formless” stretches of Ur-Musik attempt to capture elemental Western landscapes wedded to elemental ceremony and song. His opera Doktor Faust, to his own German libretto, is Busoni’s summa. He did not live to complete it. Its pivotal Sarabande – a vaporous symphonic interlude – is a Busoni litmus test: if you succumb to the peculiar serenity (the music critic Paul Bekker’s 1924 term for the Busoni affect) of this valedictory ascension, you succumb to Busoni. Not everyone does. (The recording to hear is German-Italian: the Cologne Radio Symphony conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini.)

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Busoni’s first period, preceding all this, defies generalization: he is finding his way. The sound of his riper music is here more than nascent, but the scale and weight remain Romantic. (Brahms is a sometime influence.) Best-known are the Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano (1898) and the five-movement, 70-minute Piano Concerto with chorus (1904). Joseph Szigeti, Adolph Busch (partnering Rudolf Serkin), and Gidon Kremer were inspired exponents of the Sonata. Leonidas Kavakos and Frank Peter Zimmermann – consequential names in the violin world – play it today. The Concerto, which in Busoni’s own view concluded his initial quest for his real musical self, was long championed by his piano protégé Egon Petri. A 1967 recording by Petri’s onetime student John Ogden first generated wide awareness of its sui generis properties (at a time when Busoni the composer remained virtually unknown in the US). Recently it has been more frequently performed, most prominently by Garrick Ohlsson and Marc Andre Hamelin. A new recording on myrios classics by Kirill Gerstein in live performance with Sakari Oramo and the Boston Symphony is to my ears the most compelling yet – and argues that, peculiarities notwithstanding, the Busoni Piano Concerto deserves as much favorable attention as Liszt’s FaustSymphony or Mahler’s Eighth (setting Goethe), both mega-compositions it somewhat resembles.

The concerto’s German and Italian elements are not so much fused as juxtaposed. Movements two and four – “Pezzo giocoso” and “All’ italiana” – are festive/demonic Italian set pieces. Movements one, three, and five are exercises in gravitas. The entirety is knitted by recurrent themes, the most prominent of which generates the closing male chorus, setting (in German) reverent verses from Adam Oehlenschlaeger’s Aladdin; Busoni comments: “It resembles some original inborn quality of a person which in the course of years comes out again in him purified and matured as he reaches the last phase of his transformations.”

Plainly, the Busoni concerto maps a journey of the spirit. As in Faust, the journey visits German and Italian realms, higher and lower climes, with Oelenschlaeger evoking Goethe’s closing chorusmysticus. The traveler is the pianist: the composer himself. Nothing could be more characteristic of Busoni than his paradoxical diffidence in this role: less a soloist than a partner. He called the concerto template of his forebears a “caricature of a symphony,” “ a bravura piece for a single instrument, for the greater glory of which the orchestra, the most perfect and powerful musical medium, is subordinated. . . . For the sake of respectability these morceauxd’occasion were given the outward shape of a symphony: its first movement put on the mask of a certain dignity, but in the following movements the mask was gradually dropped, until the finale brazenly displayed the grimace of the acrobat.”

And so the soloist in Busoni’s concerto never flaunts his wares: though the piano writing is supremely dense and difficult, it supports and comments upon a symphonic tapestry. Perhaps posturing is not wholly avoided. Perhaps a faux religious mode interposes at times. But the same could be said of the Romantic religiosity of Liszt and Mahler when Goethe is in play. Busoni’s soloist projects heroism and temperament, but not display. This defining paradox of the Piano Concerto is unique and unprecedented.

There exists an incandescent 1932 broadcast recording of Egon Petri performing the concerto’s fourth movement with Hans Rosbaud and Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. The movement itself is a tour de force, a mega-tarantella escalating to a pulverizing coda. Petri and Rosbaud drive the whirling dance rhythms at the fastest possible clip (Busoni asks for “Vivace”); the festivity acquires a phantasmagoric dimension. If nothing like this transpires in the new Gerstein/Oramo recording, it remains a marvel of creative advocacy. Beyond praise is the pianist’s intellectual grip, the clarity of passagework and texture, the misterioso sonic undulations. And it matters that Oramo – a Finn who currently presides over the BBC Symphony and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic – is not new to this piece. From the opening moments, he commands the long, smooth phrases with which Busoni evokes a pregnant ebb and flow of thought and feeling, sometimes acqueous, sometimes airborne, swelling to plateaus of grandeur.

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Gerstein also plays late Busoni, but has not recorded any. Two prominent pianists who have are Igor Levit and Marc-Andre Hamelin. Most of the pieces in question have long been accessible on LP and CD, but readings of quality are few and far between. Busoni’s ripest piano works are permanently elusive. Playing the notes will get you nowhere. The oddity of the harmonies, the idiosyncrasies of scoring invite clairvoyant voicings and pedallings: a fresh conception.

Last season, Levit toured with a program of Bach, Liszt, Busoni, and Frederic Rzewski conceived in remembrance of a close friend, and recorded it all for Sony Classical. The Busoni pieces, both from 1909, are the Fantasia after J.S. Bach, composed by Busoni in memory of his father, and the Berceuse, remembering his mother. The latter, signature late Busoni, limns a hovering melancholic barcarolle, a Venice of the mind. On the page, it’s simple and spare; no Busoni piano work is easier to finger. Levit’s performance is weighted with grief. A Hamelin version of the Berceusemay be found as the last of seven Elegies(1907-09) included on his landmark three-CD set on Hyperion: “Busoni: Late Piano Music.” Compared to Levit, Hamelin cultivates a cooler Busoni sound. Gerstein’s Busoni is colorful, aerated, more individual.

Hamelin has recorded Busoni in bulk. In addition to the complete Elegies, his “late Busoni” box contains all six sonatinas, the Toccata, excerpts from the Klavierubung, the Indian DiaryBook I, and assorted shorter piece, all postdating the Piano Concerto. As a consolidated act of advocacy, it is invaluable. I would also call it timely.

A striking feature of this or any Busoni collection is its “oneness.” In Busoni’s lexicon, this term references a unity of the whole of musical experience. In practice, what it means is that Busoni’s music abounds in cross-reference and self-reference. He appropriates Bach and Mozart, Christmas carols and Italian tunes, Lutheran chorales and “Greensleeves” (a spectacular transformation, in the Elegy No. 4). And he borrows incessantly from himself. The Piano Concerto, for instance, echoes dreamily through the barcarolle elegy “All’ Italia!” There is even a name – “Nachdichtung” – for the Busoni genre in which borrowed and fresh materials interfuse.

For many decades, Busoni was best-known for his piano transcriptions of Bach. These range from organ works rendered pianistic to what is probably the most esteemed, most performed Bach-Busoni: an epic, irridescent version of the Chaconne from the D minor Partita for solo violin. The deserved popularity of these reincarnations was aborted sometime after 1950 by purists intent upon “authenticity” (at the Curtis Institute, Rudolf Serkin forbade his students to play any music in transcription). In other words: Busoni’s piano corpus spans a vast continuum from Bach-Busoni to unadulterated Busoni, with every gradation of appropriation in between. Because today the bias against transcription has evaporated, issues of ownership should matter less. So much the better for Busoni. (In 1981 Claudio Arrau told me that he had stopped performing Busoni’s CarmenFantasy – a mainstay of his repertoire in Germany in the twenties and thirties — because of “idiotic prejudices” that had since abated.)

Busoni’s “oneness” of music treats all music as common property. It also – Busoni being Busoni – intimates a kind of celestial intermingling, connoted by such typical Busoni instructions as “mistico,” “transfigurato,” and “visionario.” The late Busoni pieces Hamelin has recorded are authentically strange. As a listening challenge, they are not nearly as esoteric as Schoenberg’s non-tonal keyboard works. But, no less than Schoenberg, Busoni insists on his vision; he makes no effort to cajole or impress. He enacts a withdrawal.

With the evidence at hand, one can plausibly predict that the Busoni Piano Concerto and Second Violin Sonata will be more performed in years to come. The same could be said of at least two specimens of late Busoni: Doktor Faust, which shows increasing signs of resilience, and two solo keyboard works: the Toccata and the aforementioned Kammer-Fantasie uber Carmen, both for now far better known to pianists than to the musical public. Subtitled “Preludio-Fantasia-Ciaccona,” the 10-minute Toccata (1920) bears an inscription from Frescobaldi, yet does not remotely evoke the early Baroque. The sostenuto melody of the Fantasia is the Countess’s hallucinatory aria from Doktor Faust. The velocity and intensity of the faster sections insure that, however incidentally, any competent player will make a galvanizing impression. (A riveting 1965 Rudolf Serkin performance is now on youtube.)

The Carmen Fantasy (1920), which Busoni calls his Sonatina No. 6, does and does not recall the operatic paraphrases of Liszt. Liszt is Romantically flamboyant and expansive; Busoni is curt and chilling. To close, he dissolves Bizet’s “fate” motto (“Andante visionario”). The composer Kaikhosru Sorabji, who in 1920 heard Busoni in London, remembered Bizet’s tunes “’controlled’ by Busoni in a way that recalls the control of a psychic sensitive by some powerful discarnate entity . . . It was amazing to feel the audience at the Wigmore a little horrified and frightened by something the likes of which they had certainly never known before.” There exist a couple of terrific early recordings by pianists who heard and revered Busoni in Berlin: Petri (1936) and the 25-year-old Arrau(1928). Both are very quick: Arrau’s takes 7:04, Petri’s an incredible 6:34 – at which speed the affect is not superhuman (as in Liszt), but inhuman.

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Busoni’s influence is a protean topic – and characteristically elusive. It is odd that in the copious scholarship on Kurt Weill, his mentoring within the Berlin Busoni circle is so little stressed. Weill himself judged his teacher’s Doktor Faust“in every respect” a model for future “musical stage works.” And Busoni’s writings on opera are a virtual primer for Weill’s historic collaborations with Bertolt Brecht; Busoni prophesizes the “alienation effect” Brecht would make his own. Weill’s pre-eminent concert work, the Second Symphony of 1933, is a dark essay in distantiation in which many pages actually sound like Busoni.

Of Busoni’s other Berlin composition students the most notable was Edgard Varese, for whom Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aestheticwas a veritable bible for its treatment of musical form and espousal of quarter-tones played by electronic instruments. A new study, Ferruccio Busoni and His Legacy,by Erinn E. Knyt, adduces a third important composer upon whom Busoni impacted: Jean Sibelius, who in 1921 wrote to Busoni: “I thank you from the bottom of my heart . . . Without you, the [fifth] symphony would have remained paper and I an apparition from the forest.” In Helsingfors in 1888, Sibelius and Busoni met almost daily, commencing a relationship that lasted until 1921. When one reads that Sibelius admired Busoni’s Berceuse elegiacque( 1909), a picture snaps into place. Both as pianist and composer, Busoni was obsessed with sound per se. So when he transformed his four-minute piano Berceuse into a nine-minute symphonic vignette, he did not merely orchestrate it; he re-composed it. The result is a musical chiaroscuro in which timbre and color are, as Knyt observes, as important as pitch or harmony. A kindred work is Sibelius’s valedictory tone poem Tapiola (1926), a species of Ur-Musik in which the sight and sound of “Northland’s dusky forests” matter less than a presiding essence. Busoni also promoted Sibelius via the indispensable concerts of new music he conducted, engaging the Berlin Philharmonic at his own expense (1902-09); his programs also included Debussy, Delius, Schoenberg, and Bartok.

Beyond Weill, Varese, and Sibelius, a short list of the composers mentored or otherwise instructed by Busoni would include Percy Grainger, Louis Gruenberg, Ernst Krenek, Otto Luening, and Stefan Wolpe. The pianists who studied with him, in addition to Petri, included Eduard Steuermann, later an essential member of Schoenberg’s circle. And Busoni in Berlin cast a spell on Arrau, Mitropoulos, Serkin, Szigeti, Serkin and Busch. That said, there is no “Busoni school” of composition or performance.

The generation that heard or knew Busoni is long past. A hiatus ensued. But now – another Busoni twist – globalization may entice Ferruccio Busoni back to us. It is pertinent that Kirill Gerstein, Igor Levit, and Marc-Andre Hamelin are twenty-first century artists not circumscribed by place. Born and raised in Russia, Gerstein studied classical piano in the Soviet Union and jazz piano in Boston, then with teachers in New York City, Madrid, and Budapest.  He is today an American citizen living in Berlin. His wife is Israeli. Levitt, also born in Russia, moved to Germany an early age. Like Gerstein, he is Jewish and lives in Berlin. Hamelin, born in Montreal, is French-Canadian – i.e., his country of origin lacks a legacy of classical composers. He lives in Boston. And it occurs to me to add that Dimitri Mitropoulos, who more than any other conductor tirelessly championed Busoni in the United States, was a Greek musician seasoned in Busoni’s Berlin before settling in Minneapolis, then Manhattan; Mitropoulos was also a peerless Mahler interpreter, ultimately as placeless as Busoni and Mahler both.

Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who once seemingly embodied the future of music, were immigrants to America – and yet permanent exiles of fixed national identity. Schoenberg famously quipped that his twelve-tone method would insure the supremacy of German music. Even his most patriotic American work – the searing Ode to Napoleon, composed in grateful response to Pearl Harbor – remains incorrigibly Germanic in style and lineage. Stravinsky, like Schoenberg a longtime resident of California, was admired for his magpie facility, musically adapting to Paris, even in some ways to Los Angeles. And yet upon his one return to Russia, in 1962, he was heard to declare that “a man has one birthplace, one fatherland, one country – he canhave only one country – and the place of his birth is the most important factor in his life,” even to express regret that “circumstances separated me from my fatherland, that I did not give birth to my works there and, above all, that I was not there to help the new Soviet Union create its new music.” To Aaron Copland, Stravinsky in America (as of 1943) embodied a “psychology of exile” characterized by “a lack of immediacy of contact with the world around him.” More recently Richard Taruskin has influentially called Stravinsky the “most Russian” of all Russian composers.

Born in Italy, Busoni mainly lived in Germany. He resided in the United States longer than any other country except Switzerland, where he spent the war years. He also lived in Russia. His wife was Finnish. His pupils and disciples were utterly diverse in origin. He was for decades victimized by nationalist prejudice – an interloper in Germany, a deserter of Italy, a evader in Switzerland. Stefan Zweig observed him in Zurich “shadowed by sadness,” haunted that his scattered students might be “shooting at each other right now.”

A blurring of boundaries enriches or problematizes Busoni’s life and work: Italy and Germany, Bach and Busoni, Ur-Musik and Young Classicism, artist and man. The notion of Schoenberg or Stravinsky gravitating toward Native Americans, as Busoni did in the West, is actually risible. He was, for his time, unfashionably cosmopolitan, controversially tolerant.

Kurt Weill, in his Busoni encomium, wrote: “He let us breathe of his being . . . It was an exchange of thoughts in the highest sense, without imposing opinions, without self-righteousness, without the slightest trace of envy or malice, and the acknowledgement of each creation which revealed talent and capability was unrestrained and enthusiastic. . . . Such individuals are immortal not only though their work but through the radiation of their personality, through the gradual influence of their humanity.”