Creativity in motion: The artistic legacy of Ferruccio Busoni
Post Date: 30/08/2012

As we leave behind the specialised militant tendencies prevalent in certain influential musical circles at the end of the last century, it is refreshing to consider the potential for inspiration which the great Italian-Austrian composer, pianist, conductor, author and teacher Ferruccio Dante Michaelangiolo Benvenuto Busoni (1866-1924) can offer society today. That he was one of the greatest figures as an executant in the history of the piano has long been established, but his towering achievements as a re-creator, prophetic essays and his sonorous Bach transcriptions have always over-shadowed his compositional output. Initially it was as though many could not contemplate such a consummate pianist being at least equally gifted in another discipline, but as composers began to group into 'schools' or follow militant manifestos, Busoni's compositional cause became unfairly isolated. Mud has an unfortunate tendency to stick, and even today critics in reputable journals can make appallingly clumsy evaluations and conclusions with regard to this composer, describing his music as 'expressionless expressionism', 'eclectic', 'rambling' 'cerebral', 'cold', 'faceless' and so on.

Like Stravinsky, Busoni had extraordinary dreams, and in one he recalled that there was a figure far in the distance- so far apart from the crowd that the group cried out that the man in front did not have a face. I believe that we are at last beginning to catch-up with Busoni's visionary outpourings, and that the face he presents to the 21st century is far from anonymous. His idea of 'Young Classicality', which he described as 'the mastery, the sifting and the turning to account of all the gains of previous experiments and their inclusion in strong, beautiful forms', is as relevant to composers today as ever. In a remarkable essay, Jeremy Eicher recently wrote that 'Busoni was the first significant composer to wrestle with the problem of inheriting all the styles.... He was an artist besieged by the multiplicity of options. His problem was very much the problem of the composers of our time: How to forge a unique style when everything seems available.' In fact, Busoni has been seen as a symbol for the highest integrity and effort for generations, and Edward Elgar once tellingly described him as 'the musical conscience of the age'. But if we are to begin a truly just appreciation of Busoni, we must shed ourselves of many pre-conceptions and orthodox lines of thought. Just as Schubert's large-scale Sonata movements required new analytical approaches for appreciation and understanding, so too does Busoni's compositional output. The main purpose of this article is to provide a few anchor points and ideas for new explorers, as well as to hopefully inspire curiosity and interest in the values which Busoni himself so strongly believed in.

Confusion will initially rein in evident triumph after a cursory glance over the 'major'solo piano compositions of Busoni. Often the first impression is one of bewilderment and disorientation, as though several works by other, familiar composers have nearly been quoted in any one movement, or as though the music is existing in the twilight of a glorious summer, refusing to share more than hints of the sunshine that was. Here is a composer who rarely attracts instant adulation, but who's music can entrance and captivate to an extraordinary degree -given time. At first it may be that only a few bars of ravishing subtlety will linger on in your mind, like the evocation of bells at the beginning of Doktor Faust, or the 'misticamente, visionaro' passage in the Intermezzo of the 'Fantasia Contrappuntistica', but from such slim beginnings many have found that much more follows. The idea of gradually falling in love with music may be an unattractive one to our age, accustomed as it is to instant gratification and immediate sensationalism. One can also understand why those who expect European composers of the late nineteenth century/early twentieth to indulge in post-Wagnerian histrionics may find Busoni rather reserved. Be that as it may, the only way to begin a just appreciation of any work of art is to judge it on its own terms, and that requires a significant shedding of prejudice in Busoni's case. If a listener is patient, on each re-hearing he will discover new beauties throughout the catalogue of Busoniana. In fact it isn't an exaggeration to say that every mature composition and transcription contains its share of secrets. Busonians may be a minority of connoisseurs within the minority which is the concert-going public, but the music inspires a fierce loyalty and devotion from all who are touched by it. The works seem to grow in stature the more familiar they become (of course it is often the reverse, sadly, with many other composers).

Most of the best known Busoni works can be found in a Dover Edition, (Mineola, 1996) which includes the Stuke, op.33b (1896), Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1910), Six Sonatinas, (1910-20), Seven Elegies (1907), 'Fantasia nach Bach' (1909),and the Red Indian Diary ( 1915). Many of the remaining compositions in Busoni's prolific output are published by Breitkopf & Hartel and include, in chronological order, the 'Suite Campestre', op. 18 (1878), Sonata in F minor op. 20a (1880), 24 Preludes op.37 (1881), 'Variationen und Fuge in Freier Form uber Chopin's C moll Praludium' (version one: 1884, version two: 1922), Vierte Balletszene in Form eines Concert-Walzers, op. 33a (1894), Op. 30a Klavierstucke (1891, rev. 1914)'Nuit de Noel' (1908), 'Fantasia nach Bach' (1909), An die Jugend (1909), Drei Albumblatter (1917), Toccata (1920), 'Perpetuum mobile' (1922), 'Sieben kurze Stuke zur Pflege des Polyphonen Spiels' (1923), and the 'Prelude et Etude en Arpeges' (1923). For two Pianos there is the 'Improvisation uber das Bachsche Chorallied 'Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seele' (1917), which is a re-working of the second violin sonata of 1898, as well as a version of the Fantasia Contrappuntistica, and transcriptions of Mozart, whilst the repertoire for piano and orchestra ranges from the D minor Concerto of 1878 for piano and strings, to the later 'Red Indian Fantasy' (1915), the 'Concertino. Romanza e Scherzoso' of 1921, as well as the much earlier Konzertstuck (Introduction and Allegro)op.31a of 1892, and of course the legendary and enormous five movement 70 minute long 'Concerto per un pianoforte principale e diversi strumenti ad arco a fiato ed a percussione', op. XXXIX of 1904! As you've probably guessed from this rather crude summary, the Busoni opus number classification is very confusing, but fortunately the new Jurgen Kindermann classification (K numbers) of 1980 is gradually gaining wider usage, even if re-prints still often fail to acknowledge this system.

Whilst the tactile pleasure, exquisite attention to detail, eloquent pianistic layouts, memorable melodies and intriguing structures can immediately be appreciated in all of the compositions listed above, the sheer range of what is on offer, even within a single work or cycle of pieces, can leave a would-be Busonian bewildered and uncertain. Take the Seven Elegies (1907) as a case in point. Though Busoni had written several hundred compositions before these extraordinary miniatures, he insisted that they be regarded as a 'new beginning', coming as they did immediately after publication of his visionary pamphlet 'Sketch of a New aesthetic of Music' in which, amongst other things, he prophesised the emergence of electronic music and the subdivision of semitones.
But those who might expect a uniform essay in iconoclasm similar to Schoenberg's opus 11 Klavierstucke in the Elegies will be sorely disappointed. On the contrary, after the initial movement, ('Nach der Wendung'(recueillement)), which fluctuates in free tonality remarkably, beautifully and subtly from C to F sharp major), Busoni offers in bravura style a re-working of material from the second movement of his Piano Concerto of 1904('All'Italia!'), a transcription of 'Greensleeves', ('Turandot's Frauengemach', a piece which he had already used in his orchestral 'Turandot' suite and which would later re-appear again in his opera of the same title in 1917), and a neo-Bachian Chorale Prelude, which at times sounds Brittenesque in its use of harmony and which would later be used in the 'Choral-Vorspiel und Fuge' of 1912 as well as all versions of his Fantasia Contrappuntistica from 1910 onwards('Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu Dir'). The cycle continues with two movements which would eventually re-appear, transformed, in the epic comic opera 'Die Brautwahl' (1911) after a story by E.T.A. Hofmann ('Erscheinung', a sonorous nocturne, and 'Die Nachtlichen' a waltz which exploits exotic and altered scale patterns in extraordinary ways) and concludes with a deceptively simple, exquisite lulluby ('Berceuse') which would eventually be utilised as a sketch for his orchestral masterpiece, 'Berceuse Elegiaque' (1909).

The enormous stylistic gamut evident in the Elegies is also apparent in the Six Sonatinas (contrast the closeness to atonal Schoenberg in the second sonatina with the neo-Mozartian clarity of the third, the 'back to Bach' polyphony of the fifth with the neo-Lisztian bravura in the sixth, also known as 'Chamber-Fantasy on Bizet's Carmen'), and most of the other cycles. Though there are many 'Busoni finger-prints' which are consistent and strong throughout the catalogue, ( a love of major-minor harmonic fluctuation, painstaking gauging of voicing and chordal balancing, a frequently subtle polyphonic tendency, a move towards compression and an avoidance of repetition in the late works, extensive use of the middle pedal, exquisite craftsmanship, an Italianate love of melody, a preponderance of bell-like sonorities, eloquent avoidance of hysteria and bombast, usage of symmetrical counterpoint as advocated by the theorist Bernhard Zein in his treatise 'CanonicStudies', etc), the impression many are left with is of an artist who only had time to hint at possibilities for the future in works from 1907 onwards, whilst previous to that many of the compositions seem to come too easily, as though Busoni was profligate with his compositional gifts, expanding many a score into a time scale which posterity would find hard to justify.
Such criticism is extremely unfair, simply because if you divorce Busoni's 'compositions' from the rest of his artistic legacy, especially his 'transcriptions', a complete picture can never be evident. The catalogue of Busoni arrangements is almost as extensive as the catalogue of his compositions, and even the quickest glance through the often grossly neglected transcriptions in his output shows that Busoni was not one to meekly re-assemble notes. His essay 'Value of the transcription' expresses the view that transcriptions are as 'original' as variations on a theme of another author!

Quite often Busoni's penetrating intellect produces astounding discoveries in his arrangements, especially those based on works by Bach where all kinds of new imitative lines, voicings and spacings of chords can shed extraordinary wisdom on notes which may have appeared very familiar beforehand. In the case of the most radical re-workings, such as the celebrated transcription of the Chaconne from the Violin Partita in D minor, it is as though Busoni has renovated a beloved edifice,decorating it with glorious romantic upholstery. The result is a wonderful ambiguity, a unique janus-faced structure which is at once of the baroque, the romantic, and the future. We have a 'commentary' on Bach guaranteed to give academics apoplexy, and one which would later lead to the thirty minute long Fantasia Contrappuntistica, a work of ferocious virtuosity, stamina and difficulty which is partly radical 'transcription' of sections from Bach's 'Art of Fugue', partly futuristic thoughts and extensions on the transcribed material. Why classify this extraordinary work in the list of 'compositions' whilst relegating the Chaconne to the list of transcriptions?

Murray McLachlan