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  • Ivan Hovorun

Stupor Mundi.

Updated: Jan 12, 2019




Why “Hommage a Ferruccio Busoni“ ?


Ferruccio Busoni is the most influential and controversial figure of the piano world, who shaped technical and psychological aspects of the piano performance in the XX century. Possibly, the musical direction of his piano art took roots from romanticism, developing through realism and finally towards symbolism.


The Motto of “ Hommage a Ferruccio Busoni” program project was taken from the Sketch of a new approach of music by Busoni.


“The function of the creative artist consists in making laws, not in following laws ready made. He who follows such laws, ceases to be a creator.”


As a case of curiosity, Ferruccio was taken to court in Canada for performing on a Sunday and therefore violating the Holly Day. The witness policeman testified that nothing remarkable happened, just one man continuously playing piano very loudly for a long time.


He adopted all thetechnical achievements of his keyboard predecessors such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt , as well as developed a new approach towards the piano technique.


Typical perfection of Busoni’s style combines clear and light sound without depth and roundness of tone, as well as magically fast octaves, lightning fast scales, filigree clarity in staccato passages with brilliance , as well as perfection of the finger and wrist technique. If, for Theodor Leschetizky the ideal of the passage was like smooth glissando, for Busoni the ideal was perlato, granulato. This idea of the sound aesthetic was borrowed from Franz Liszt, who tried to convince Valérie Boissier in superiority of “Pique” up on “Lie” style of playing. We may assume , that not much of canonic Chopinesque singing in Busoni and Liszt legato was related to the natural soundboard aesthetic of Boisselot or Bechstein pianos used by Liszt and Busoni. The Pleyel or Steinway preferred by Chopin and Rachmaninoff , has got an absolutely different soundboard , with different sound possibilities and effects.


Busoni’s fast tempos were extremely fast, with clear and sharp but not wavy changes in their speed and dynamic . Simple, polyphonic and symmetrical phrase lines, without extra roundness, were not very common to his contemporaries. Vertical and horizontal forearm gestures, with fixed wrist, vertical or absolutely flat finger positions, were so different from the piano school of Clara Schumann, or the school of Theodor Leschetizky.


This piano performance technique was very dependant on the relevant type of the piano mechanic action . It may not be possible to apply the same performance technique for the good result, or the same finger and wrist technique to the different instruments from the ages of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Busoni or Rachmaninoff.


As witnessed by C.A Martienssen, his fingers were that strong, that he was able to break a single granule of sugar for fun by just one dazzling hit of the fourth finger.


Busoni masterly used piano pedals in an unusual way for us and his contemporaries; left pedal only, both pedals at the same time ,more direct than delayed pedal, half and quoter pedal, pedal tremolo, and large parts of the music with no pedal at all. Sometimes Busoni was accused of mixing different harmonies on the same sustain pedal as a colour, but not harmonically.


The application of over holding, overlapping harmonic sounds was evidently used by Busoni at Duo Art piano roll recordings.


Busoni never played the composer, he always played himself and every time differently. If you listen carefully to Busoni’s recordings, you would never hear Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, as this music sounds today . Busoni Art Rolls is a very well prepared improvisation in the style of Busoni-Bach, Busoni-Mozart, Busoni-Beethoven, Busoni Chopin, Busoni Liszt.


His transcriptions of J.S Bach were so famous, that both surnames of Bach and Busoni became united in people’s minds, so much so that his wife was referred to as Mrs. Bach-Busoni in New York.


Flexibility of the form details, text cuts, numerous ossia variants, improvisations, prelude introductions was in the piano performance practice well before and after Busoni.

So, why are Busoni’s direct text adjustments, music cuts and speed so shocking for public today?


Alexander Scriabin stated that it is impossible to record adequately music on paper, and furthermore fixed notation is not always the best and only variant of music expression.


According to Busoni:

“Notation, the writing out of compositions, is primarily an ingenious expedient for catching an inspiration, with the purpose of exploiting it later. But notation is to improvisation as the portrait to the living model.


It is for the interpreter to “resolve the rigidity of the signs”into the primitive emotion. But the lawgivers require the interpreter to reproduce the rigidity of the signs; they consider his reproduction the nearer to perfection, the more closely it clings to the signs. What the composer's inspiration necessarily loses through notation, his interpreter should restore by his own. If the lawgivers had their way, any given composition would always be reproduced in precisely the same tempo, whensoever, by whomsoever, and under whatsoever conditions it might be performed.”


The local authorities in educational institutions, auditions, competitions, often manipulate the ‘fixed’ tradition of music reading and performance tradition. Sometimes, these ‘authorities’ could not give an adequate music judgement, if such a judgement is possible in terms of music. In their comments and without a hardcopy of music manuscript in hand, they often step onto the slippery path of relying on printed text, different variants of music editions or local music performance traditions.

More or less, the above described music traditions called upon authority and tradition to ensure a steady income.


With respect to the text of the composer, today’s literalists will allow less text adjustments than the composer himself would in his day. Text literalists thus proclaim themselves to be “more monarchist than Her Majesty the Monarch" or even "more sacred than his Holiness the Pope”.


The legislators would often point out even to the composer that he plays his music not as it was printed.


How Ferruccio grew up as a pianist?


His mother was fine salon pianist and played for Franz Liszt in Rome while she was pregnant and eight days before Ferruccio’s birth.

His farther "knew little about the pianoforte and was erratic in rhythm, so he made up for these shortcomings with an indescribable combination of energy, severity and pedantry" From the ages of nine to eleven, Busoni studied at the Vienna Conservatory and around this time he was able to meet with Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms and Anton Rubinstein.

For several years, Busoni was strongly influenced by Anton Rubinstein’s performance style and wrote detailed reviews for Rubinstein’s concerts in Vienna in February 1884. At that time, Ferruccio treated Rubinstein as an example of a perfect artist and sometimes literally copied his performance style.

If the generous support of Busoni by Rubinstein is worth our admiration for his public references, concerts at Russian Musical Society and his recommendation of Busoni for a teaching position at the Moscow Imperial Conservatory on one hand, on the other the fact that Rubinstein offered his piano competition prize to a then unknown Russian pianist instead of Busoni, may come as puzzling at he least. Fairly enough, we must admit that Anton Rubinstein always strongly believed in what he did.

Busoni also met Johannes Brahms to whom he dedicated two sets of piano Etudes and who recommended him to undertake study in Leipzig with Carl Reinecke.


Why is the name of a lesser known Carl Reinecke important for us today? I would suggest that Carl was the only example we have of a pianist born as far as1824 and three years before Beethoven’s death (1827) who left piano recordings for us in XX century. These recordings are evidence of the piano performance style ideas from the XIX century.


But what were the general tendencies towards music perception during Busoni’s lifetime ?


Eugen d'Albert in the Preface to his reduction of Wohltemperiertes Klavier said: "I know people who listen to J.S Bach Cantatas for hours without getting bored. But these people are hypocrites or pedants" The intellectual performances were often qualified as far- fetched and the ideal piano performance technique was achieved by smooth wrist attack, connected singing sound, round shaped praising and wavy dynamic and rhythm.


Even nowadays, I feel that the music world is still shaped by legislators of local music taste and the tradition of score reading in local academic institutions. Smooth, metronomic, linear development of music, which is not fast nor slow, not loud nor soft just like a local rainy landscape. Of course, this comes against Beethoven’s temperament or Busoni’s music ideas or even as an analogy in opposition to the local landscape of the composer.


The fact that the local taste in music was shaped by the students of Clara Schumann or by the music taste of Queen Victoria does not give us the right to customise composer’s ideas or temperament according to the local public taste, needs or musicality within our understanding.


As usual, Busoni was very original in his statement about musicality :

“’My dog is very musical’, I have heard said in all seriousness. ‘Should the dog take precedence of Berlioz?’”


The deep understanding of the philosophical idea that Bach’s God, the protestant God who was merciful and forgiving was not the God of Busoni who was strict, punishing and triumphant can be recognised among the music and architecture.

Of course we may have a polemic about Bach’s religious views and question why he composed Catholic Messe if he was a protestant himself?


I would rather like to leave this subject to academic researchers together with questions; did really Vladimir Lenin hear Busoni and did really Busoni know the works of Karl Marx?

Some articles written in Eastern Europe give Lenin exceptional music knowledge and surprisingly this “music knowledge“ was obtained by Lenin several decades after his death in the mausoleum.


How should Busoni’s piano transcriptions be played?


If you would really like to play pure Bach, Mozart, Liszt, then for the best possible result you would also have to play it on their period instruments, using the facsimile and knowledge of their contemporaries.


This still does not guarantee the perfect result or that you would match the composers music performance style because we never heard them play in the first place.


If, hypothetically speaking, we would have this privilege, like with Rachmaninoff’s recordings, then our individual perception and further interpretation would always be applied. Overall, that would be our own interpretation of the composer.


So, why are we commonly applying the knowledge of a primary composer, if there is any of course, to the adaptations made by Busoni? As the result, we are getting our perception of Bach, Mozart, Liszt without Busoni in his transcriptions!


Wouldn’t it be more wise to apply the knowledge of the Busoni performance style to this compositions?


Also, the vast amount of information, recording and period instruments available today was most likely not available to Busoni in his days.


I would like to conclude all above by the words of Busoni’s from Sketch of a new esthetic of Music:

Its ephemeral qualities give a work the stamp of "modernity;" its unchangeable essence hinders it from becoming "obsolete." Among both "modern" and "old" works 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.

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