The title of Ferruccio Busoni’s 1907 manifesto Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music might suggest that the Italian pianist-composer would be looking to the future, yet many of its philosophical passages find him lingering in the past. Writing out “of convictions long held and slowly matured” (he was 41 at the time), Busoni extolled the virtues of the Baroque and classical ages, Bach and Beethoven being the exemplars—in “spirit and emotion they will probably remain unexcelled.” Busoni’s embrace of the past, however, was no rejection of modernity. “Among both ‘modern’ and ‘old’ works,” he wrote, “we find good and bad, genuine and spurious. There is nothing properly modern—only things which have come into being earlier or later; longer in bloom, or sooner withered. The Modern and the Old have always been.” Past and present, tradition and experiment—all could happily coexist in art. Thus, in more or less the same breath, Busoni could praise the elegance of Mozartian classicism while pondering some avant-garde technique, such as microtonal harmony. What mattered most of all were spirit and emotion; “he who mounts to their uttermost heights,” the musician wrote, “will always tower above the crowd.”
To speak of a single Busoni style is difficult, even pointless. Just as he called so many places home—journeying during the course of his life from Tuscany to Trieste, Vienna to Helsinki, Leipzig to Moscow, Boston to Berlin—so too was he conversant in many styles and idioms. He began composing at the age of seven, at the same time he was making a name for himself as a prodigiously talented pianist. (He would end up being wildly successful in both endeavors, while writing extensively and conducting, too. He was, in the words of the pianist Wilhelm Kempff, “a kind of musical Leonardo.”) He took inspiration from the German tradition, and the scores of Wagner and Liszt provided him a rich course in orchestration. Busoni’s long association with Bach—he made piano transcriptions, with great imagination and flair, of many of the Baroque master’s works—possibly dates to an encounter with the D minor Toccata and Fugue for organ. In 1893, Busoni attended a Berlin performance of Verdi’s Falstaff, and it was at that moment that the composer realized the degree to which he had neglected his Italian musical heritage in favor of blind adherence to the German masters. It was, Busoni wrote, “the beginning of a new epoch in my artistic life.”
During the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Busoni produced piano and chamber works, two violin sonatas and a violin concerto, and a sprawling, bombastic piano concerto that, lasting over an hour, might well be the longest in the repertoire. (With the offstage male chorus needed for its finale, it might also be the most idiosyncratic.) After the publication of the Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, however, Busoni disavowed a good bit of his earlier work.
The pianist Alfred Brendel has written that Busoni’s mature period commenced with the Elegies, a set of six piano pieces (later expanded to seven) published in 1908. Now, Brendel wrote, Busoni “finally gained an artistic profile of his own.” Busoni himself identified the four-book collection of piano pieces called An die Jugend, composed in the summer of 1909, as his musical crossroads. He would go on to write many compelling and arresting pieces, culminating with the opera Doktor Faust, which lay unfinished at the time of his death in 1924. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss those earlier works, among which many riches can be found. One of these is the Violin Concerto, Busoni’s opus 35a, written between 1896 and 1897.
When I was a teenager, I had the habit of recording music off the radio. One day, I made a cassette tape of the Busoni Violin Concerto, with Joseph Szigeti as the soloist. The classical music station of Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida, had fairly ambitious programming in the 1980s, though I can’t imagine that the Busoni Violin Concerto was a playlist staple. It was as much a rarity then as it is now. I can’t say that I loved the piece at first. Strange as it seems now, I found the opening melody somewhat elusive; I was unsure where those meandering lines were headed. Only later did I realize that those passages at the beginning of the first movement were a direct response to Beethoven’s seminal Violin Concerto, both works featuring long legato lines gliding sinuously up and down the keyboard. This isn’t the only bit of homage. I also hear echoes of the Brahms Violin Concerto in the sunny, genial, and warm first movement. (It so happens that like Beethoven’s concerto and Brahms’s, Busoni’s is in the key of D major—not a coincidence, I think.) Although the idiom of this movement is primarily songlike and melodic, the violinist must contend with several challenges to the left hand—passages of rapid finger work and double stops—while having to employ a nimble bow-arm technique. The drama builds steadily as the musical narrative unfolds, until soloist and orchestra combine forces in an exhilarating climax.
With the second movement comes another musical echo—this time, the slow movement of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. It would be easy to dismiss such moments as derivative, but these nods to Busoni’s precursors seem born not out of some anxiety of influence but rather a respect for a tradition he was consciously building upon. Even later, when Busoni’s harmonic language would become more complex and daring, he would never abandon the past (the old and new coexisting). At any rate, the resonances are by no means the defining feature of the movement, which occupies more ambiguous emotional terrain than the Bruch does. Busoni’s slow movement has the reverential air of an extended prayer, with many heartbreaking and beautiful passages—a foil for the rousing and virtuosic finale, with its dizzying chromatic passages, its confidence, exuberance, and irresistible ending.
Busoni never quite rejected his Violin Concerto, as he did so many of his other early works. When Szigeti expressed his deep admiration for it (they had just read through it, with the composer at the keyboard), Busoni said, “Well yes, I must admit, it is a good work—if unpretentious.” As unpretentious an assessment as one can imagine, but one that seriously undersells this infectious, appealing, ingratiating piece.
Listen to Frank Peter Zimmermann perform Busoni’s Violin Concerto, with Marek Janowski leading the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Berlin:
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