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Serenata - opening (2:36)
|" I never had a childhood" exclaimed the Tuscan-born Ferruccio
Busoni, describing his nomadic early years travelling around
Europe as a celebrated young pianist with his clarinettist father and pianist
mother. It was not until 1886 when Busoni was 20 years old and already
a prolific composer that he experienced happier years. Brahms suggested
that he move to Leipzig, a meeting-place for many important composers.
Busoni took up piano teaching appointments in Helsinki and Moscow, where
he won the Rubinstein Composition Prize. However, from this time
Busoni decided to concentrate on his mastery of the piano and his compositions
took a back seat, though he started to make transcriptions of the music
of other composers, for which he later became famous. After two years
in New York and Boston Busoni returned to make his home in Berlin in 1894,
a city he found stimulating and cosmopolitan.
For the last few years of his life Busoni devoted his time to composition and conducting. He struggled to finish his opera Doktor Faust but it was left incomplete by the time he died in 1924. Busoni strove to reconcile tradition with innovation as composer, pianist and writer on music and his importance in creating ideas for the next generation of composers cannot be underestimated. But today he is still remembered more for his piano playing and transcriptions of Bach in spite of his ambitions as a composer.
Busoni's piano playing was by all accounts extraordinary and he was known as a superb interpreter of Beethoven. He was also greatly influenced by the music of Bach, Mozart and Liszt. Inevitably piano music was central to Busoni's composition but he also wrote important orchestral works, several operas and chamber music. In 1905 Busoni said "My existence as a composer only truly begins with the Second Violin Sonata (1898)". He wrote virtually no chamber music after this - to Busoni, songs and chamber music now smacked of middle-class respectability.
Busoni's virtual rejection of his own compositions preceding the Second Violin Sonata alas suggests that he dismissed two early works for cello and piano. However, they are by no means insignificant. By the time Busoni composed the Serenata Op.34 in 1882 he had a wealth of opus numbers behind him - he was just sixteen years old! The Serenata is fresh and youthful, strikingly similar to Strauss's early Cello Sonata Op.6 of 1880- 1883. A rather motley but charming collection of pieces comprises the Kleine Suite Op.23 of four years later. The more substantial set of variations on a Finnish folk theme Kultaselle (1890), inspired no doubt by his years in Helsinki, is a skilfully constructed composition with fuller textures than in the previous works, creating an impressive piece that is once more gaining popularity amongst cellists. It is a wonderful work to play, by turns subtle and simple, dramatic and virtuosic. There are strong similarities to the music of Saint-Saëns with whom Busoni had been in close contact as a young musician and who shared an admiration of Bach and Beethoven. Albumblatt for cello and piano was conceived as a flute and piano piece. It is a late work, written in 1916 between his operas Arlecchino and Turandot. In it he achieves what he calls "schönes Spiel" - this short melody is marked dolce throughout and yet Busoni builds up to the climax through chromatic intensity and the density of its harmonic rhythm rather than dynamically. These were the years of the emancipation of the dissonance, and whilst Busoni did not abandon tonality as Schönberg did, Albumblatt shows his concern with expanding the bounds of tonality.
The delicate Valse Oubliée by Liszt is one of many transcriptions
Busoni was to make of his music, but the transcriptions of Bach begun
in the 1880's were to be an even greater influence on Busoni's own compositional
techniques and textures. The Chorale Prelude arrangements
for piano also date from around this time (1897-8). Why did Busoni transcribe
Bach's great Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in 1917? The only
practical answer is that he was inspired by the playing of a particular
cellist, and indeed this is so. This unusual and impressive transcription
was made for the cellist and conductor Hans Kindler (who was also the cellist
in the original Pierrot Lunaire ensemble - in 1912 Busoni invited
Schönberg to conduct the Berlin premiere of Pierrot Lunaire
in his own home). Otherwise it is difficult to see why he chose the
cello, an instrument unsuited to the keyboard flourishes in the Fantasia.
However, it comes off as a real pièce de résistance
and presents a direct challenge to the performer. This is definitely throwing
down the gauntlet: Busoni seems to be saying, "I dare you!"
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