Creativity in motion: The artistic legacy of Ferruccio Busoni - Part 2

Perhaps it is a weakness of the human ego that 'originality' is deemed more glamorous and historically 'significant' than work which is more obviously linked/associated with previous generations, yet ultimately it is the quality of what we do rather than the deed per se that counts. In any case it is probably well-nigh impossible to create something of lasting value which is entirely separate from the work of older generations, and Busoni was well aware of a 'theory of systematic progress', looking to youth and the future whilst continuing to steep himself in the classics. For this reason he was misunderstood both by traditionalists and radicals, and indeed for Busoni such distinctive groupings had little significance. His essays on 'The oneness of music' and 'The Essence of Music' look beyond the hero worship of individual geniuses towards the very spirit of the Art itself and prompt further examination here of another suite from his 'original' list of compositions, one which in fact consists almost entirely of 'transcriptions'; the 'An Die Jugend' sequence of pieces in four volumes with an epilogue of 1909. In my opinion it is here that we find the real essence of Busoni. No other work for solo piano presents his genius, ideals and prophetic tendencies to quite such an acute extent.

Volume one of 'An die Jugend' would be transcribed the following year into the first Sonatina. In its original context it is presented as a miniature three movement suite, opening with a C major ostinato. The peaceful writing is almost child-like in its simplicity and starkness, but quasi-imperceptible shifts move the writing into chromaticisms, leading towards atonality. It is as though we are witnessing Busoni the explorer, embarking on a dangerous and innovative journey from the familiar, beautiful tranquillity of his infant years. The move from pastoral tranquillity to chromatic instability within an overall classical perspective continues in the second movement, a fugato also centred round C, whilst the 'Esercizio', movement three, springs from a polyrhythmic contrast between the hands, with a persistent left hand waltz figuration acting as a foil to all kinds of harmonic innovation, including whole tone formations, in the right. But the piece concludes with traditional harmonies. Busoni's adventure into terra incognito appears like a dream. He must go deep into the past for further marvels to unfold...

So begins Volume two, an edited version of the D major Prelude and Fugue from Book One of Bach's 'Well-Tempered Clavier', with articulation and phrasing meticulously complementing occasional re-voicings and re-distributions. But just as the conclusion of the fugue appears inevitable, figurations derived from the Prelude lead into the miraculous and highly virtuosic finale, which is in fact an extraordinary combination of the fugue's main material with most of the Prelude! The writing appears effortless and smooth, and the effect in performance is of an extraordinary 'coup de theatre', a remarkable innovation which is all the more effective for having been latent in the material from the day it was first written by Bach.
It is indeed by subtle means that Busoni's makes his genius felt, and volume three of the cycle, devoted to Mozart, expands and illuminates on chromatic implications already hinted at in Mozart's original scripts. The 'Kleine Gigue' K.574 is followed by an arrangment from Act 3 of 'Figaro' (the fandango) before Busoni re-works the Gigue in duple time, distorting chromaticisms into phrases of remarkable chromatic complexity where rhythmic asymmetry is much more extensive than in anything by Mozart.

Volume four, 'Introduzione e Capriccio (Paganinesco), based on the 11th and 15th Caprices by the celebrated violinist, is as much about Liszt as Paganini. In its out-sized pianism and ferociously difficult athletic demands it seems to extend the bounds of virtuosity into realms beyond even those two masters. As such it brings the cycle to the very summits of pianism, continuing the peculiarly idealistic odyssey which the cycle has now become, and preparing the way for a visionary glance far into the future, as surmised in the remarkable and concluding 'Epilogo'.

This final brushstroke by Busoni utilises the simplest, most peaceful of themes in the most extraordinary way. Its opening phrase seems to sum-up over three centuries of history, beginning with six notes from a conventional minor scale, continuing with whole tone steps, then sweeping away into the realms of atonality, fantasy and mystery. The fugato theme from volume one is re-presented in several different harmonic contexts, ( chromatic, whole tone and parallel triads respectively) as though Busoni were intent on nobly presenting possibilities for the benefit of future generations, yet the truly miraculous fact is that the overall structure and style is completely convincing, and quintessentially beautiful. The 'Epilogo' is a minor masterpiece of the author's 'Young Classicality', and a remarkable summary in miniature of most of the trends in music in the early part of the twentieth century.


Busoni's entire oeuvre is a rich tapestry of transcription and re-transcription, of thoughts and afterthoughts on ideas penned by himself and many others. Every one of his major compositions has a whole series of 'satellite' works around it, including of course the work which is deemed by most to be the crowning achievement of his entire career, the unfinished opera-mystery play Doktor Faust, which quotes, paraphrases or remoulds a total of no less than 23 earlier compositions! But the enormous power and scale of Busoni's Faust has led to the popular misconception that this opera was meant to be the composer's great and final masterpiece. Ronald Stevenson has written that the composer's widow Gerda Sjostrand held the belief into her nineties that her late husband had planned a fifth, comic opera as his last testament. The fact that he did not live to achieve this ambition is Busoni's real tragedy, for it has produced lop-sided views on his values and motivations, many of which are eloquently expressed in the standard textbook on the composer by Antony Beaumont (Faber and Faber 1985). If Beaumont had considered the transcriptions on fairer terms with the 'original' 60 odd works which he discusses at length in his book, then he may have hesitated before writing 'the Fantasia Contrappuntistica is the forerunner of such works as Hindemith's 'Ludus Tonalis' or the Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich-otherwise it stands like a skyscraper, isolated, massive and imposing yet not without a certain element of ugliness'. In fact Busoni made sure that it was surrounded by sympathetic bedfellows when he incorporated it into his monumental 'Bach-Busoni' Edition, originally published in 1918 over seven volumes which include not only all of the Bach transcriptions and works including the 5th Sonatina and 'Fantasy after Bach' but also his editions of both books of the 'Well-Tempered Clavier'. These contain commentaries which are astonishingly exhaustive and perceptive about both piano playing (book one) and composition (book two). Thus in one epic encyclopaedic swoop the Busoni Bach Edition was able to gather up a significant corpus of the author's achievements across the compositional, transcriptive, editorial and pedagogical fields and mould them into a consistent whole for posterity. And it is posterity's loss that the publishers have so far failed to re-print this remarkable testament in its original, entire ,coherent form.

Busoni gathered many of his other exercises, studies, transcriptions and smaller compositions from decades of practice as both teacher and virtuoso into another, highly significant 'encyclopaedia' of pianism, the 'Klavierubung', which appeared in ten volumes for its second edition (1925) and which stands as a great technical edifice in the history of the piano. Revolutionary concepts relating to fingering, staccato and non legato technique, as well as remarkable connections and systems of study which relate an enormously diverse range of repertoire are particularly significant here in a series which runs from scales (volume 1), through scale-derived patterns (volume 2), Chord playing ( Volume 3) 'Three hand' technique (volume 4) Trills (volume 5) Staccato (volume 6) 8 Etudes after Cramer (volume 7) Variations and variants on Chopin (volume 8) Etudes for the cultivation of Part-playing (volume 9) and Studies after Paganini-Liszt (Volume 10). Again, the current generation of pianists remains sadly deprived of the system Busoni so clearly outlines in the 1925 edition, (still available through the British Library).

Since Busoni had evidently began to classify and order his music in his last years, it seems fair for us to do the same, especially if it can help to silence critics who are baffled by the diversity of content within particular cycles of pieces. In addition to the two groupings above, the epic Piano Concerto would seem to act as an enormous summation for much of the music written for the instrument in the 19th century. With regard to the later music, there are many pieces which demand a lightness of touch, as they are nourished on Mozart yet imbued with the spirit of the Commedia dell'arte and so close to the opera 'Arlecchino' (eg the 'Perpetuum Mobile', Concertino and third Sonatina). The massive opera 'Die Brautwahl' of 1911 juxtaposes the magic-fantastic with the comic and forms a centre-piece not only for various other compositions and transcriptions but also for Busoni's overall creative development. Many Other compositions relate to Busoni's interest in Liszt, and of course there are also the works which are directly connected as satellites to Doktor Faust (eg.the second sonatina, 2nd and 3rd Albumleaves and the Toccata) . Finally, Busoni's early penchant for the exotic as exemplified in his attempts towards incidental music for Oehlenschlager's Aladdin story can connect this project to the opera 'Turandot' as well as the solo and concertante works inspired by the Amerindians.
It goes without saying that 'threaded' programme planning can enhance the conviction of Busoni's music in concert, even if ultimately it goes against the spirit of freedom and breadth which is intrinsic to everything Busoni stands for. In any case, it would be wrong to imagine that each of the above classifications stands in isolation, (for example, the Toccata of 1920 begins with a transcription from 'Die Brautwahl', continues with a 'Fantasie' which utilises material from Doktor Faust, then concludes with a 'Ciaccona' which utilises the rhythm of Bach's famous D minor Chaconne from the violin partita!) Though it may be convenient for us to neatly parcel art into manageable chunks for consumption, the truth is nearly always much more subtle and elusive.


Whilst Liszt was equally at home in transcription, and Percy Grainger equally indistinct with regard to boundaries between 'originality' and 'transcription', Busoni seems to be without parallel in his concentrated efforts towards musical necromancy. His interpretations as a pianist were often described as 'commentaries' and 'thoughts' on the works rather than mere filial reproductions of the text, so that in a sense he continued his unique 'composition-transcription' art on the concert stage, and was therefore totally single minded as a composer, transcriber and performer. As one of the most prolific and illuminating letter writers of his time, he frequently sketched musical 'puzzles' for amusement and illumination, and his shrewd combination of themes from both Brahms concertos in one telling epistle falls into this classification.

I sometimes think that the only true way to fully embrace this artist's legacy would be to present an enormous multi-media event, an'exhibition in sound'which would in essence be an ongoing concert marathon in which transcriptions and compositions by Busoni, his predecessors and successors (they include composers and pianists of the calibre of Kurt Weill, Edgar Varese, Egon Petri, Gino Tagliapietra, John Ogdon and Ronald Stevenson) could be performed side by side in imaginative contexts. Ideally experimentation with 3 D imagery could allude to literature, painting, sculpture and letters from the period, all adding ,hopefully, towards something that would begin to do justice to such an all-encompassing figure. 'Creativity in motion' could be emphasised by new transcriptions of Busoni, for his open-ended philosophy seems to cry-out for further reflection and creativity , additional transcriptions and paraphrases rather than for the 'closed doors' approach of stuffy museum curation. But it would be impossible, and ultimately not in the spirit of the man to even begin to try and parcel him up in such a manner. 'Music was born free and to win freedom is its destiny' is one of his most quoted maxims. It implies a welcome lack of interest in the worldly fate of egos, and if Busoni had a wish for his own legacy, it is surely best expressed in part by his epilogue to Doktor Faust, a work which in so many ways seems autobiographical to an astonishing degree. The modesty and encouragement enshrined in Busoni's own words gives hope to us all:
'So many metals cast into the fire, does my alloy contain sufficient gold? If so, then seek it out for your own hoard; the poet's travail is his sole reward. Still unexhausted all the symbols wait that in this work are hidden and conceal'd; their germs a later school shall procreate whose fruits to those unborn shall be reveal'd'.

Murray McLachlan