Adolf Busch, Three Études for Orchestra

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Giant in the Shadows, performed on March 17, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born August 8, 1891, in Siegen, Germany
Died June 9, 1952, in Guilford, VT
Composed in 1940
Premiered November 16, 1940, in New York City by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Steinberg
Performance Time: Approximately 23 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English Horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 5 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, snare drum, cymbals), 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

In 1933, Thomas Mann characterized Adolf Busch as “an extraordinarily appealing person, strongly opposed to the Hitler nonsense, in exile from Germany, and yet ‘the German violinist,’ very comforting, a kindred spirit.” Indeed, Busch despised the Nazis so profoundly that he issued a resolute public statement in April of 1933 that declared, “Because of the impression made on me by the actions of my Christian compatriots against German Jews . . . I find it necessary to break off my concert tour in Germany.” In 1937, when the Nazi government tried to induce Busch to return, he said, “If you hang Hitler in the middle, with Goering on the left and Goebbels on the right, I’ll return to Germany.” Busch was unquestionably the leading German violinist at the time, but when he immigrated to America he never recaptured the fame that he enjoyed in the 1920s and ‘30s. Busch left a lasting legacy in the New World: he co-founded Vermont’s Marlboro Music School and Festival with his son-in-law Rudolf Serkin.

Busch was born into a musical family: his father was a noted luthier and his brother was a distinguished conductor. Busch began his studies at the Cologne Conservatory in 1902 and he met Max Reger seven years later. He liked Reger both personally and professionally: he characterized the composer as a “humorous, generous, impulsive man who cannot bear restraint or hear of anyone being oppressed.” Reger also praised Busch highly, telling the violinist’s wife Frieda that her husband was “taking the place of Joachim.” Since Reger was a superb pianist, he and Busch concertized together often.

During his heyday, Busch played some two hundred concerts a year—an incredibly demanding schedule—and yet also found the time to become a prolific composer who created a large body of chamber music. Unsurprisingly, Reger’s music deeply influenced Busch’s own rich and polyphonic style. Written decades after the older composer’s death, Busch’s Three Études for Orchestra, Op. 55, still show traces of Reger’s influence; this score was premiered during an NBC radio broadcast on November 16, 1940, with William Steinberg conducting the orchestra.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.