At the turn of the 20th Century, the name Ferruccio Busoni was on the lips of music-lovers across Europe. But 150 years after the composer’s birth, contemporary concert goers barely know who he is. How did this happen and why is this so? In this article, we explore Busoni’s early style work, the Suite for Clarinet and String Quartet in G Minor and why this work was one that was bordering on something new. With one foot in the past and one in the future, this is chamber music at its finest.
Busoni was a philosopher and one of the great music-gurus of the early 20th century. If you were a musician in the late 19th century there was no way you would not have heard of Busoni. Even if you weren’t, you would have been aware of him, through his writings and his many piano recitals. Yet, we never (or rarely) hear the music of Busoni in concert halls, opera houses or in the programs of music groups – and this is a trend, not just in Australia – but around the world.
In a portrait of Busoni, painted by Max Oppenheimer, we can see Busoni as a ‘transcendent’; a new Liszt. His mangled hands are on top of the keyboard, there is manuscript strewn around the room and there is a light emanating from him. Busoni is deep in thought here, with rays of light around him. A broken violin sits on the keys of the piano and is upside down – perhaps a statement about the music.
Where did it all begin?
Busoni was educated in music by his parents, his father – a clarinettist, and his mother – a pianist. His father, who had many short-comings as a clarinettist, taught Busoni about Bach and so started the young composer’s love for that music. He also adored Mozart and you can hear the influence of these two composers in Busoni’s Suite for Clarinet and String Quartet in G Minor.
Busoni is largely known as a pianist, one who gave unique performances and interpretations of works, particularly those of Bach and Mozart. He would double octaves in melodic lines, linger on harmonies in particular places and enhance inner voicing within music. This was all part of his thinking and, at times, was quite effective. Like Liszt he also made his own transcriptions of Bach, and they are wonderful interpretations of this music. Many audiences and critics have said that Busoni’s approach to Chopin was ‘too dry’ and didn’t contain the emotion and feeling needed for Chopin. However, he takes Chopin’s music, removing the sentiment and adhering to the music itself, which could arguably be a more ‘true’ performance. I’ll leave that for you to decide.
A Man of the World
Ferruccio Busoni was a pianist, composer, educator, writer, philosopher and conductor. He was a controversial figure, particularly as a pianist. In his younger years Busoni composed music in a late Romantic style (i.e lyrical, yearning, melodic, and with lush and richly chromatic harmonies), but in 1907 this all changed. At that time, he wrote and published his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, and from then on he developed a more individual style, often with elements of atonality – a far cry from the melodic and lyrical sound of his earlier works.
Alex Ross, of the New Yorker, writes:
Busoni was a mesmerizing personality, a Faust of the fin de siècle. He was born in Tuscany in 1866, and lived, variously, in Trieste, Helsinki, Berlin, and Zurich; he died in Berlin, in 1924. As a pianist, he came to be ranked as one of the four or five greatest virtuosos in history; as a teacher, he held sway over an impressive group of disciples, among them Kurt Weill; as a composer, he made the risky decision to concentrate all his energy later in life on a single magnum opus, “Doktor Faust.” His inspiration was not Goethe’s high-minded “Faust” but the gruesome puppet plays that he had seen as a child. At the same time, he made Faust into an autobiographical figure, a Nietzschean artist-hero who perplexed the pedants of his time.
His Sketch of New Esthetic of Music suggested that music should move away from Romanticism and the ideals behind it and goes back to classicism - i.e. giving more control back to the composer. We rarely get much insight into Busoni’s earlier late- Romantic style works, as his later ones are performed as a better ‘representation’ of his overall output. “At times, and in rare cases, a mortal is by listening made aware of something immortal in the essence of music that melts in the hands as soon as one tries to grasp it, is frozen as soon as one wishes to transplant it to the earth, is extinguished as soon as it is drawn through the darkness of our mentality. Yet enough still remains recognizable of its heavenly origin, and of all that is high, noble, and translucent in what surrounds us and we are able to discern; it appears to us as the highest, noblest, and most translucent.” (Busoni, “The Essence of Music”)
Music & Philosopher
Busoni lamented that the First World-War was Europe returning to barbarism and Busoni was one of the few musicians who saw a way forward to the future, in regards to music and culture. Prior to the destruction of the war, Busoni lived in an apartment in Berlin. He loved the lifestyle there; there was art, culture, and music and it was a complete life for him. He could study, compose, give recitals and engage with the rich culture that existed there.
After the War, Busoni decided it was time to rebuild, and in order to do that, musically, he looked back to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. “We must take these people as our foundations and look what they have left us and move forward from here”. However, Busoni wasn’t a neo-classicist like Hindemith or other composers around that time. Busoni called this a “young classicality,” and he began to employ this thinking in his music.
Around 1916-1920, Busoni commissioned a new quarter-tone harmonium that could play the microtones that he wrote about in his philosophy. During his lifetime, he never saw the realisation of his ideas about music, but his thinking did influence other composers, musicians and philosophers. He says there were always practical issues in playing the keyboard he developed, as there were many notes. Busoni was a bridge to the 20th century and to the music of today. His statements are now coming true – particularly with his ideals about electronic music, and the use of electronic instruments and electronic sounds.
The Suite for String Quartet and Clarinet was composed in 1881. Yet, after 1898 Busoni didn’t compose any chamber music until 1918. This was "part of the process of freeing himself from his Leipzig background ... [evoking] worlds of middle-class respectability in which he was not at home, and [in which] the shadows of Schumann, Brahms and Wolf loomed too large.” The first decade of the 20th century was, for Busoni, "a creative pause,” after which he "finally gained an artistic profile of his own" as opposed to the "easy routine which had kept his entire earlier production on the tracks of eclecticism.”
Originally, the Suite was three character pieces for string quartet and clarinet, but under his father’s suggestion, Busoni put them together to make the Suite in G minor. You must ask yourself, does this music suggest a man who was on the edge of something new and who, in a few years, would abandon his style and aesthetic in favour of a bold, new one? Busoni, much to his dismay, was more widely-known as a pianist than a composer. His love of Bach, Mozart, and Liszt, and his disdain for Wagner are widely known. Busoni was an Italian, who thought like a German, and his music is a testament to this.
If we look at the Suite for Clarinet and String Quartet in G minor with a magnifying glass, we can see that Busoni wrote this in a quasi-Romantic style. All the characteristics of this style are there; the soaring melodies, the lush and languid harmonies, the tension and release; the yearning and striving for resolution from tension and overall, the aesthetic and feelings of the composer (perhaps). Yet, at the same time, we can hear a sense of yearning towards something else, as though Busoni was tired of this language but was at odds as to what to do with it.
Within the Suite for Clarinet and String Quartet we are not hearing the composer who would think in terms of microtones and electronic music, but a composer with a “creative mind mulling over several powerful currents from the musical past,” as he was only fifteen when he composed the work and had yet to receive studies in composition in Leipzig at the time. Busoni wrote this work for his father to play on a concert tour.
His father was a convincing clarinettist and encouraged the young Busoni to compose music from an early-age. Busoni's father, Ferdinando, was an itinerant clarinettist who, by sheer swashbuckling personality, commanded a small following in several Italian cities, using "his instrument in special ways as a soloist," his son recalled, "sometimes emanating from the violin, sometimes from Italian song.
His whole life long he scorned a post in an orchestra, half from pride and half because he was a natural artist, who worked things out more by instinct than by knowledge, and to whom reading from music and the division of bars presented some difficulties. "My mother, on the other hand, was correctly trained and her playing belonged to the line of pianists coming from the Thalberg school...." From instinct or caprice, Ferdinando hit upon the one thing needed for his son. Looking back at the end of his life, Busoni noted, "I have to thank my father for the good fortune that he kept me to the study of Bach in my childhood, and that in a time and in a country in which the master was rated little higher than a Carl Czerny. My father was a simple virtuoso on the clarinet, who liked to play fantasias on Il trovatore and The Carnival of Venice; he was a man of incomplete musical education, an Italian and a cultivator of bel canto."
As a result, the young Busoni, encouraged by his father, composed several ‘lighter’ works for clarinet and other various combinations. His father could then play these while he was touring and performing. Like many composers who write for the clarinet, Busoni utilises the singing tone of the instrument and produces a melodic line that is similar to that of a vocal line; enhancing the ‘bel canto’ effect that is often produced by the clarinet. The clarinet writing in the Suite for Clarinet and String Quartet is not overly technical and given the fact that it was written for his father, who may have had some technical short-comings on the clarinet, the work is both introspective and melodic, enhancing the role of the soloist.
Don’t miss the chance to hear Busoni’s beautiful Suite for Clarinet and String Quartet with the idyllic setting of Sydney Harbour in the background, as Omega Ensemble presents “Songs from the Bush”. Also featured in this concert is the world-premiere of Cyrus Meurant’s Concertino for Clarinet and String Quartet, Ian Munro’s Clarinet Quintet, Songs from the Bush and Mozart’s iconic string quartet, “The Hunt.” A delightful afternoon of rare gems, new works and iconic chamber pieces that will nourish your soul and delight the senses.