New essay on Musical necromancy

Post Date: 5 April 2016
Post Type: Piano Things


Musical Necromancy: Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on BACH and Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica

For nearly twenty-five years it was a touching and generous habit of Ronald Stevenson to send me parcels and/or envelopes containing musical ‘goodies’ as well as exquisitely scribed letters, (envelopes always extravagantly and multi-colourfully embossed with the large hand written letters ‘FIRST CLASS’). In the 1980s one of these- invariably inspiring and exciting- packages contained a copy of an article, ‘Ferruccio Busoni-necrometer of the keyboard’ which Stevenson had written for ‘The Listener’ magazine back in the 1960s. ‘Necromancy’ was something I had not heard of at the time, and Stevenson’s article made a big impression.

There is an aspect of virtuoso pianism that involves transcendental imagination from the executant. This repertoire seeks to turn pianist into magician, making the impossible become reality as the dead past is brought alive in the present in order to glimpse with vision at the future. Necromancy as such is the belief and practice of communicating with the dead, reaching the deceased by summoning their spirit. There are accounts of it from Ancient Greece, Babylon and Roman times, when Magic circles, wands, talismans and incantations were already in full use! The oldest literary account of necromancy is found in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, the earliest fragments of which date back as far as 300 BC!

Of course a more recent literary example of this comes in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, first published anonymously in London in 1818. It is important for musicians who aspire to play Liszt especially to be aware of the ‘necromantic’ background that undoubtedly had a profound influence on art and culture in the romantic and post romantic era. Liszt of course was inspired by Paganini, and his association (at least in the minds and imaginations of many of his listeners!) with the Devil and demonic energy is also most obviously important in coming to terms with the spirit of musical exorcism and exhumation. It all seems black, scary and dangerous…

… and if adopted in musical terms by the likes of Liszt, Busoni, Godowsky and others also possibly sacrilegious! What right has anyone got to meddle with the achievements of past masters? How dare their works be tampered with? Those who view music in terms of classified/ordered historical perspectives will certainly not ‘get’ musical necromancy’ until they have been converted to the art of transcription. A good starting point towards appreciation of this art is an awareness that Bach and Handel were profligate musical borrowers themselves, thinking nothing of using the works of others for their own compositions. Reading Busoni’s essay ‘Value of the transcription’ is important too, because in its conclusion it sees the very notating of a musical idea onto paper as an act of transcription in itself. The essay also views variations on a theme by another composer as being in the same artistic ballpark as transcriptions. Perhaps the conclusion from all of this is that mediocre and poor ‘arrangements’ are responsible for the bad press and poor reputation of this genre. At its highest level, transcriptions are as valid and ‘original’ as any other musical genre/approach to composition.
But of course there has been lots of subtle necromancy in music before the 19th century. You can view late Beethoven as moving towards this aesthetic. Certainly in the fourth movement of the ‘Hamerklavier’ sonata op. 106 we see the composer grappling, struggling and ‘evolving’ a contrapuntal style- Beethoven is conjuring up before our ears baroque polyphony, seen through the colours of his own late compositional style. Perhaps Bach did similar things by using older compositional styles in works such as the B minor Mass. And in the 19th century itself we can sense a move to the past in Franck’s ‘Prelude, Chorale and Fugue’- a work which seems to plead, pray and summon forth baroque glory for the late romantic era to celebrate and pay thanks for.

Those who like life with neat historical packages and boxes may find this historical leapfrogging, borrowing and renovating rather distasteful. It may be difficult for the doubtful to understand the attraction, the motivation that a great composer-pianist may have to dig around in musical graves, opening up coffins and finding transcendental energy and new illumination from musical corpses. The answer surely lies in the fact that great composer-pianists of the past were already doing this sort of thing in their own recreative performances of the past masters in public. The ürtext era of course has (largely rightly) meant that performances nowadays have to be much more generic and true to original editions/manuscript facsimiles. That does not mean a cloning of wooden conformity though. Corpses no more! And in the hands of a great recreative composer-pianist today, music from past generations can still be given a totally different perspective.

In terms of necromantic music, it is important to always remember that nothing has been ‘lost’ by the summoning forth of the past. Of course the ‘original’ is still left intact, but the resulting ‘commentary in sound’ the ‘nachdichtung’ that arises, becomes a new, vibrantly energised and ‘original’ offshoot of the ancient corpse. If you are going to play works that are necromantic- and the ones that come to mind most readily in this sense are Liszt’s ‘Fantasy and Fugue on BACH’ as well as Busoni’s ‘Fantasia Contrappuntistica’, then you have to put on your proverbial Dracula clock, step inside the magic circle, summon up spirits with incantations and the use of your magic wand, and travel back in time! Who cares about whether or not you are ‘interpreting Bach of Liszt’ or holding the structure neatly together?! If you are motivated strongly enough by the magical vision of creating a wizardly sonic vision, then the intensity and effort of your role playing will give your performance all the energetic gusto and conviction it needs to hold itself together. By its very nature incantation and time travel will lead to a lack of continuity- the vision will appear strongly, vanish briefly then re-emerge. Schoenbergian unity is not a priority- indeed if you are too ‘slick’ and tidy when you play this music, you are probably stepping out of the necromantic magic circle, turning the music into something more conventional and boring. And other ‘practical’ issues cease too become relevant too: Musical necromancy is a scary, frightening and ‘black’ art. If you pedal too much or too little, poorly judge a hall’s acoustic, worry about the balance between the hands and whether or not you are producing a ‘good’ sound (whatever that may mean) then your priorities are all wrong. If you play this kind of repertoire, you should want to unsettle and disturb your listeners. Making them sit back and feel admiration for your ‘good’ piano playing is totally wrong. This is what I wrote a couple of years back in relation to my first experiences of ‘musical necromancy’

A few years ago when working on Busoni’s ‘Fantasia contrappuntistica’ the image- part humorous- of being like ‘Doctor Who’ (i.e. a ‘time lord’!) was evoked for this piece in a diary entry I wrote that was an homage to Ronald Stevenson and my first visit to his home as a teenager (Easter 1983): ‘On my first visit to Ronald and Marjorie Stevenson's home in West Linton, Peebleshire (April 1983), hours were spent talking about piano, pianists and musical values. Conversations largely took place with Ronald in his music room by the fireside. Perhaps only those who know this room can understand just how inspiring it is to sit in it, next to the Steinway, the bookcases crammed with literature, the desk with bound copies of Ronald's major works and the walls and piano lid with many photographs of famous musicians, including pictures of Ronald with friends (usually famous too) and - pride of place- a whole series of photographs of Ferruccio Busoni. Of course what was most inspiring of all was Ronald himself. His oratory in radio broadcasts has been compared to Winston Churchill. Certainly his eloquence, wit, enthusiasm and verbal banter was without comparison to anyone I had come into contact with as a teenager. Preconceptions and long held beliefs were turned immediately upside down and sideways. Radical, inspiring approaches to life and music were offered during that first intense evening spent in Ronald's extraordinary company at Townfoot House. Conversation was always relieved by piano interludes in which Ronald would pounce on the keyboard and effortlessly produce beautiful impromptu renderings of whatever happened to tickle his fancy. I recall one of the FG Scott transcriptions being played, as well as Percy Grainger's 'cake walk smasher'. I was not allowed to be a passive listener- I still cringe at the memory of my embarrassed attempt at playing through one of Ronald's most famous works: he insisted that I sight read all of his 'Peter Grimes Fantasy', which I did not know at the time at all, with him turning pages and pointing out every misread note and rhythm I made (of which there were many).
Anyway, after several hours of chat, I was led through to the gramophone player in the Stevenson lounge, and Ronald played the Egon Petri recording of Fantasia Contrappuntistica to me. We both followed with the score. It was one of the most inspiring musical experiences of my teenage years. I vowed on the spot to perform the work, and have been devoted to it ever since. My obvious affinity with the music prompted Ronald to comment: ' Do not learn it until you have studied the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. Good that you have played the C sharp minor Prelude and Fugue from book one of the '48'. The Fantasia contrappuntistica follows on from these two works'. He then rewarded my devotion to the cause" by producing 'the most valuable thing in the house'- namely the manuscript of Busoni's 9 variations on Chopin's C Minor Prelude'. It was almost frightening to see Busoni's original calligraphy and hold manuscript paper that the man had worked on. I immediately commented on the elegance of Busoni's hand writing- a work of art in terms of calligraphy itself. Ronald said ' every about the man was elegant'. Anyway, eventually I performed the work and recorded it in 2003 and again in 2004 (live performance of latter) :

In reading all of this I can well understand why Glenn Gould thought Busoni has indulged in ‘contrapuntal exhibitionism’ in his musical necromancy. There is something extremely operatic, theatrical, stagey about the whole genre under discussion. Irony of ironies is that Liszt left us with no operas. Busoni wrote four, but they use archetypes as characters and are removed from the vulgarities of ‘good theatre’. We do not need operas from Liszt to see his extra-pianistic, visionary credentials: They are evident in every phrase he wrote. Living in the cinematographic era gives us an easier perspective in order to understand and come to terms with music that reinvents the work of others (or in the case of Busoni, often reinventing his own work). But in order to really be convincing and powerful in this music as a performer, it is important to synchronise and synergise with the artistic motivation behind the composition of the notes. That means putting on your black gothic coat and enjoying being at least a little bit horrific and scary!

Murray McLachlan 5 April 2016