Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)

String Quartet in C minor, Op. 19 (1880-81? Or 1884?)

"He had the noblest, most beautiful head I have ever seen and I watched him as much as the stage. He seemed to be very much touched by the work ( L’Histoire du Soldat ). But whether it was the play by Ramuz, my music, or the whole thing, was not easy to determine, especially since I knew that I was his bęte noir in music. Now, thirty-five years later, I have a great admiration for his vision, for his literary talent, and for at least one of his works, Doktor Faust."

Igor Stravinsky, From Conversations with Igor Stravinsky

By Igor Stravinsky & Robert Kraft University of California Press, 1980

"Stravinsky told me once, through a third person, that he found it strange that I admired the German classical composers. Whereupon I commissioned the third person to reply to Stravinsky that if he knew the classical composers he would also value them. (I have not been able to ascertain if the reply was delivered."

Ferruccio Busoni, From the essay The Future of Music

The Essence of Music and Other Papers Dover Publications, 1965


In 1950, The International Ferruccio Busoni Prize, instituted by the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, presented every other year to the composer who contributed most significantly to contemporary music, was awarded to Igor Stravinky by an international jury of critics.

" To composing, Busoni brought the same trenchant and restless intellect which made him so fine a classical scholar, philosopher, poet, painter, essayist – and one of the aristocratic interpreters of piano music of his generation. His musical thinking was profound (sometimes even abstruse), as perhaps only those who listened to his discussions on esthetics can best appreciate. Though he was dissatisfied with the restrictions imposed on him by conventions and academicism, he did not altogether break with the past in his indefatigable search for new musical expression. He invented new scales; and new harmonic schemes growing out of these scales; he tried to evolve a new system of musical notation; he experimented with quarter-tones. Frequently he used composition as a kind of laboratory in which to test or prove his theories or solve a specific technical problem. Since a great many creative theories and problems occupied his mind, he did not achieve a single style, but went from one manner to another, following the dictates of the musical problem at hand. His music, consequently, is often an exercise in intellectual powers, in which the form is dictated by the idea, in which emotion is avoided, and in which new musical resources are continually explored. It is not the kind of music that can have a wide and permanent appeal, and for this reason is not often heard; but the kind of music that exerts a far-reaching influence on musical development."

David Ewen,The Complete Book of 20th Century Music

Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1952, 1959

"There was something Faustian about Ferruccio Busoni, that restless, tormented man of pianistic genius, the theorist and intellectual, the avant-garde composer who worked out new scale systems. The titanic technician and master of pianistic effects… Busoni’s life was spent in quest (Faustian again; and his greatest work though unfinished, is his opera Dr. Faust). It was his quest for the ideal music that he could play, the ideal music he could compose. In his youth his repertoire was all embracing. As he grew older it became slimmer and slimmer; and toward the end he confined himself to nothing but Bach, Mozart and a few things of Beethoven. At his farewell concerts in Berlin in 1922 it was nothing but Mozart – twelve of his piano concertos.

…His compositions have never firmly entered the repertoire, though they are strongly admired in some circles. As a philosophical musical thinker he could be brilliantly penetrating, then turn around and propound the tritest of platitudes. And he could be inconsistent. On the one hand he preached the necessity of getting close to the composer’s intentions. On the other hand, like all musicians of the day, he had no hesitation about touching up music…Busoni refused to see anything sacred and inviolate in the printed note, and in that he followed the classic and romantic tradition. He changed to suit himself. These changes he considered unimportant; and in a strange way, they were relatively unimportant. For he left the pianistic pedantism to the pianistic pedant; and, as an interpretive artist, he succeeded in the main endeavor of interpretation – to bring out the Beethoven in Beethoven, the Liszt in Liszt, and the Bach in Bach."

Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists

Simon & Schuster, New York 1987


"He came of German-Italian ancestry. To his Latin heritage he added the intellectuality of the German. He himself, though he made Berlin his home for the greater part of his career, considered himself an Italian. "What refreshes me," he declared "is the Latin attitude to art with its cool serenity and its insistence on outer form." All the same, one could hardly regard him as a countryman of Puccini and Mascagni."

"As one follows the curve of his life one has the impression that he could not compose because he had to play concerts all the time. Upon closer observation, one begins to suspect that he played concerts all the time because he was not quite sure he could compose. It could not possibly have required so much to support a wife and two children."

"Busoni lacked the spontaneous, almost naďve, capacity for expression which is at the core of the artist’s nature – especially of the Italian artist’s nature. "I reflect too much", he said. In his youth he leaned toward the grand manner of romanticism. As he matured he moved ever closer to the Mozartean ideal, seeking stylization in art, serenity and lightness. He came back to the Italian masters, and to the works that revived the spirit of classical comedy: Rossini’s Barber and Verdi’s Falstaff. ‘The German’ he wrote, ‘is sober, sentimental and awkward – all that goes against art. The German is bourgeois; art is aristocratic. The Germans are becoming the custodians of museums. Let us go forward and let us remain Italian.’

Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music

W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York 1961


[This last quote, spleen ala Nietzsche, might well pass as an example of trite platitudes propounded, and a most curious utterance from a Bach worshipper.]

And at last the notes on this piece!

To boil down all of the above blab, what we have here, regardless of denials, is a case of a German being trapped in the body of an Italian. But enough of this. Busoni was highly regarded as a teacher, and taught at the Helsingfors (Finland) Conservatory (It was to this conservatory that he dedicated his edition of the Bach Inventions), the Moscow Conservatory, the New England Conservatory, as well as, the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Probably, his best known pupils are the pianist Egon Petri, the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, and the composer Kurt Weill.

Among Busoni’s best known compositions are the aforementioned opera Doktor Faustus (1916-24), the gargantuan Piano Concerto (1903-04) in five movements, the last of which contains a male chorus. The late, great British pianist, John Ogden revived this work, in the late 1960’s.

His Six Sonatinas, virtuoso works, not at all what one would expect from the title sonatina, have also achieved some familiarity through recording, as well as the wonderfully titled Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1912) (I don’t know why you need 2 "p’s") for two pianos; which is nothing less than Busoni’s own imaginative completion of the last fugue, left unfinished by the death of J.S. Bach, from The Art of the Fugue.

Lest the listener be scared off by all the talk of laboratory experiments with scales, harmonies and even quartertones; rest assured, the String Quartet in C minor, Op.19 contains none of these. Busoni himself regarded the quartet as a work of his "youth", and stated that he did not find his way as a composer until his Second Violin Sonata, Op. 36a (1898). Since he did have a good number of his works published when he was still a child, he divided his works up into those of "Childhood", "Youth", and "Manhood". (It is curious that though he proclaimed himself Italian, it is the works of childhood and youth that have Italian titles, and the works produced after he "found his way" as a composer have German titles.)

Most of his chamber music was composed in "Childhood" and "Youth". The C minor quartet, the first of two published quartets, is a genial work and melodic work, inspired by the quartets of Haydn and Mozart rather than those of Beethoven and the Romantics. The first movement Allegro moderato features the interplay of songful themes as well as some incursions into counterpoint. The second movement Andante presents another lyrical theme accompanied by a running bass figure. For the third movement, young Busoni wrote a "neo-classical" sounding minuet rather than the scherzo movement developed by Beethoven, and favored by later quartet writers. After a mock-solemn march-like introduction, the joyful theme of the finale bursts forth with much energy, while alternating with a variant of the march-like theme, and a dash of imitative counterpoint thrown in for good measure.

 1999 - 2000 Season, Program I, Sunday October 17, 1999

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