Ferruccia Busoni, Piano Concerto

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert Parallel Lives: Liszt & Busoni, performed on Dec 11, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

Ferruccio Busoni was a protean figure: a pianist of fearsome virtuosity, a marvelous composer, an influential conductor, and a subtle writer. Like his great hero, Franz Liszt, Busoni’s magisterial ability as a pianist obscured his reputation as a composer. Born to a musical family in Italy, the young Busoni was taken to Vienna, where was befriended by Brahms and met Liszt. Busoni’s mother, who was of German heritage and a fluent pianist, had already introduced her precocious son to Liszt’s music. Through a profound reverence for Bach, Busoni was able to reconcile the dual influences of Brahms and Liszt, creating an inimitable style that was admired by Mahler, Schoenberg, and Berg. A sophisticated aesthetician as well as a practicing musician, Busoni wrote an extended essay in 1907 that he entitled Sketch of a New Aesthetic in Music. In this remarkable production, he anticipated such later 20th-century musical developments as microtones and electronic music. In this essay, Busoni declared his credo: “Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny.”

Like many of his contemporaries, such as Mahler, Elgar, Franck, and Bruckner, Busoni participated in a post-Wagnerian brand of modernity predicated upon the manipulation of the listener’s apprehension of time over long musical spans. Nowhere is Busoni’s Wagnerian modernity more apparent than in his Piano Concerto in C major, op. 39, completed on August 18, 1903 and premiered in Berlin the following year with the composer as soloist. Far longer than even its mightiest predecessor, Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, op. 83 (1881), Busoni’s concerto is an unparalleled example of a fin de siècle composer chaffing against the bonds of time and the limits of human endurance. Cast as an enormous arch of five movements whose capstone is the central section of a tripartite third movement, Busoni’s concerto welds together a developmental density worthy of Brahms with a harmonic daring derived from Liszt.

In the fourth movement, “All’italiana (Tarantella),” which sounds like a swirling, gargantuan homage to the tarantella of Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli (1859), the virtuosity demanded of both soloist and orchestra reaches a vertiginous climax. By contrast, the finale, “Cantico,” is an introverted setting for an offstage male chorus of a poem drawn from the 1808 German version of the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger’s poetic drama, Aladdin, or the Magic Lamp. (Oehlenschläger was inspired to make this translation by a 1806 visit to Goethe, who was finishing the first part of his own verse drama, Faust.) Although there existed a clear precedent in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, op. 80 (1808), the intrusion of a chorus at the conclusion of a concerto for piano and orchestra so disconcerted Busoni’s British biographer, Edward J. Dent, that he tried to explain it away as a mere sonorous effect: “The actual meaning of the words hardly matters. The chorus is directed to be invisible; it sings in plain chords, like a body of soft trombones added to the orchestra.” Blinded by his own aesthetic prejudices, Dent is willfully obtuse about the composer’s purpose. Busoni’s inspired strategic deployment of Oehlenschläger’s text is the key to the expressive intent of the entire concerto, which is transformed from the virtuoso display of the tarantella into a searching meditation on time, transience, and eternal renewal: “Thousands and thousands and once again thousands/Of years –serene in their power then as today–/Flash by purely with radiance and strength,/They display the Indestructible.”

© Byron Adams, 2011

Mr. Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside, and his music has been performed across Europe and the U.S. He has published widely on the subject of English music of the 19th and 20th centuries.