The Busoni Enigma

Classic Arts Features   The Busoni Enigma
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson celebrates Ferruccio Busoni in a series of concerts for Great Performers.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was once venerated as the towering composer, theorist, and pianist of his age. The legendary Arthur Rubinstein called him an "awe-inspiring master" and "by far the most interesting pianist." Gunnar Johansen, who gave the world premiere of Busoni's 1922 Ten Variations on a Prelude of Chopin, told writer David Dubal, "In Germany, we didn't speak of Mr. Busoni. We spoke of Der Busoni, as if he were a monument." Yet for some time, despite the occasional recording of a piano piece or two and moderate interest in his opera, Doktor Faust, Busoni's name has been inescapably linked to those of more celebrated composers‹such as Chopin, Bach, Brahms, and Liszt‹whose works he "transcribed" for the modern piano. Indeed, his legacy as a mere arranger is so pervasive that when his daughter-in-law, Hannah, ran the Busoni Society from her New York apartment in the 1980s, a weekly trip to the local grocery store reportedly brought her the greeting: "How nice to see you again, Mrs. Bach-Busoni!"

"He was, of course, a great transcriber, in the Liszt manner," agrees pianist Garrick Ohlsson. "And this served a useful purpose. As the composer himself put it, transcriptions made it possible for the piano to 'take possession of the entire literature of music.' However, Busoni's original pieces are genuine and vital‹full of irony and wit and color and life. He's a very special character, and to ignore him to the extent we have is to lose an important contributor."

Now, audiences will have an opportunity to experience some of what they have been missing in a three-concert series at Alice Tully Hall (on January 19, February 26, and March 23), at which Ohlsson will present music by Busoni alongside works by two of his greatest influences, J.S. Bach and Franz Liszt.

Ohlsson, whose previous series at Lincoln Center focusing on the music of Chopin and of Liszt garnered extraordinary praise, has been hailed by Le Monde as "one of the last known avatars in a tradition of pianists who know all the expressive and technical resources of the keyboard." He is perfectly suited to perform music written by a piano virtuoso for other piano virtuosos. Still, audiences have not exactly clamored for these works. One wonders: Why Busoni?

"The idea initially came from Jane Moss, Lincoln Center's Vice President for Programming," says Ohlsson. "We were tossing around possibilities. And the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I had won the Busoni Competition in Italy when I was 18, and recorded the Piano Concerto. But the fact is I grew up with him, more or less. My first piano teacher, Tom Lischman‹someone who was wonderful with little kids, yet a person of great culture and knowledge‹had studied with a Busoni student, Frieda van Dieren. I have been told that she was the equal of Busoni's other famous student, Egon Petri. Lischman introduced me to Busoni's music. I remember playing the "Christmas" Sonatina‹a mildly atonal, impressionistic work written in the shadow of World War I.

"I was also taken with Busoni's statement that works like Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata were revolutionary and shocking in their day, but that now we take them for granted. He believed performances of such works must inspire. Music, he said, which should be special‹consecrated‹had become too routine. Apparently, he could rouse audiences to a fever pitch; sophisticated Berliners began applauding him in the middle of the Paganini Variations. Some people reacted to his playing by thinking, 'My God, the man must be drunk,' and others said they felt he was forcing them to stare down at the bottom of an abyss."

Busoni's futuristic theoretical writings reveal other facets of this approach: A creative artist, he believed, must shake himself free from tradition. "But," he noted, "intentional avoidance of the rules cannot masquerade as creative power, and still less engender it." Thus, his compositional ideals were Beethoven and Bach, who came closest to producing what he called "infinite music." It was in his Bach-inspired Fantasia contrappuntistica, announced Busoni, that he found his ideal convergence of "precise calculation" with "mystic belief."

"Busoni began by accompanying his Italian father, who was a wandering clarinetist," explains Ohlsson. "His mother, a pianist, was German. He felt himself both Italian and German, and experienced the pull of those two cultures‹extreme lyricism on the one hand, and strict formalism on the other‹very strongly. Perhaps that's a clue to his range. On the first program, I'll be playing two Elegies‹one written for his father and another for his mother. Ironically, the piece for his Italian father is very severe and contrapuntal; the one for his mother is freely tonal and loosely structured.

"He was certainly an important composer. After all, he was the composition teacher of Kurt Weill, Stefan Wolpe, and Claudio Arrau. However, I think that the public doesn't clearly associate its musical language with him. When you see his name on a piece of music, it may be neoclassic, romantic, or austere. He had many languages, in the way some people are polyglot. And he often doesn't write endings that excite audiences‹they may be soft, or fade out in an ironic or visionary way. He's so un-standard. Yet most of his music is fascinating to the ear.

"So I've picked out things that I believe will make a good case for him. I felt he needed company, so we have included Bach and Liszt on the programs. They are his most natural companions; the connections between their music and his are clear. For example, on the first concert I'll include Liszt's rarely heard Fantasy and Fugue on the name B-A-C-H, which shows Liszt drifting toward the 12-tone concept. On the second concert, Liszt's Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale Ad nos salutarem undam written for organ, has been transcribed by Busoni for piano. It's a marvelous work, and it documents the composer's Liszt studies. The last program includes Busoni's Fantasia contrappuntistica, based on parts of Bach's Art of Fugue, and I'll be playing some contrapunti from Bach's piece as well."

The result should be, at the least, entirely fascinating. Garrick Ohlsson's tribute to Busoni‹hyphenated and not‹gives us new opportunities to appreciate an important musical mind and the world he inhabited.

Stuart Isacoff is Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Piano Today, and author of Temperament: The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle.

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