Is Busoni historically greater than Schoenberg or Stravinsky?

Joe Horowitz makes a case for the leonine Beethoven lookalike in a new festival essay:

In two respects, Busoni surpasses Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and the others: the charismatic appeal of Busoni the man and the stature of Busoni the performer.

(Kurt) Weill’s encomium reads in part: “It is strange enough that such a phenomenon appeared in our time. Even in the past we find few figures in whom the man and the work are thus unified . . . We are bound to think of Leonardo. In him also we find that comprehensive spirituality which strives to open up all attainable spheres, that sublimity above life’s trivialities.” Many another testified to the spell cast by Busoni’s idealism and intellect. His letters document a hypnotic personality, aloof yet prone to acute humanistic observation. He was born in Empoli in 1866 – and so straddled two centuries. His father was a nomadic Italian clarinet virtuoso out of Fellini. His mother’s lineage was German and Jewish. No less than Mahler (who esteemed him), he embodies qualities of paradox and irony both implicit and manifest. His Faustian striving is oddly leavened by espousals of Mediterranean clarity and proportion…

Read on here.

Busoni’s influence, in my view, was far greater than his composing legacy.

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  • I’m not sure if anything is to be gained from these ‘league tables’ of great composers 🙁 Stravinsky’s star doesn’t burn brighter by denigrating hid convemporaries – this is school playground talk.

    However, Busoni, largely by accident of history, somehow slipped through the cracks. His works are certainly underrated – Doktor Faustus and Turandot deserve to be seen and heard more often.

  • A very interesting post, and a question I am pondering as I am currently writing a programme note on Busoni’s piano concerto.
    I am minded to agree with you, Norman.

    • Count me as someone who considers Busoni’s Piano Concerto a titanic achievement, and second only to Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto as my very favorite. I’ve been completed bowled over by Busoni’s PC. It’s such a life-affirming, powerful, and moving piece of music. I became familiar with the piece by listening to it on CD (Ohlsson/Dohnanyi, and Donohoe/Elder), and then later heard it live. It’s just an astonshing piece of music that really moves me. I don’t know any other Busoni works, but interestingly enough, today in the mail I received the 3-CD set of late Busoni piano works performed by the magnificent Marc-Andre Hamelin. I can’t wait to hear it.

  • Fascinating article by Horowitz on a fascinating musical personality.

    Busoni’s Berceuse is a beautiful work:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etyXF_gaNaI

    … like his 2nd sonatina a further exploration of late Liszt’s troubled, brooding music, heavily influenced by Debussy and shifting into autumnal dissolution.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-c34MmFLoE

    Once I tried to listen to the piano concerto but gave up after a couple of minutes, a monstrum of misconceived egotrippery. If you need all that time and means to say something, it won’t be much to begin with (like Mahler VIII which is blown-up Mendelssohn).

    In spite of its beautiful episodes. B’s music always struck me as experimental, intellectual, consciously conceived, searching without really finding, and lacking some musical energy. For instance, his operas ‘Dr Faustus’ and ‘Arlecchino’ sound like distant panels to be looked at instead of musical drama to be experienced, they are weirdly inexpressive.

    Busoni’s and Schoenberg’s dislike of ‘classical forms’ were based upon their dislike of academic teaching which disconnected classical structure from musical substance. In reality, the structural complexities and subtleties of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven went far beyond any later academic categories; their dynamics are stil clearly heard in Busoni’s and Schoenberg’s work, in spite of their ‘Urmusik’ attempts.

    The overwhelming influence of Debussy on both composers has always been denied or was kept in the shadows, also by themselves, but their attempts at finding new satisfying forms was already entirely achieved – effortlessly – by the frenchman, without intellectual deliberations as these two futurists were prone to.

    Busoni had a knack for grand philosophical statements which, at some examination, don’t offer much substance: ‘Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny’ – composers through the ages, if talented enough, were never inhibited by formation but in contrary, invented them as vehicles for expression; ‘The music of Bach and Beethoven should be conceived as a beginning, and not as an unsurpassable finality’ – which is the usual utopian historical linear thinking as also bedevilled Schoenberg; his hope that future music would devide the octave into more than 12 semitones as a form of progress was entirely fulfilled in sonic art, but was no longer a musical art. Etc. etc….

    His understanding of the importance of subjectivity in interpretation must have been inspiring young pianists, but will also have stimulated the emotional distortions which plagued so many performers, up to our own days.

    • Concerning the piano concerto, it depends on whose playing it. I once heard it twice in a few months. The ASO did it, and it was a bore. Just empty passage work. Then, I heard Marc-Andre Hamelin do it with the NJ Symphony, and I was enthralled.

      • The beginning is like a promising symphony, probably the longest ‘introduction’ of any piano concerto in existence, and then the piano enters with entirely empty and ridiculous pompous figuration and thus it goes on and on.

        Compare it with a truly Grand Piano Concerto of symphonic proportions: Brahms 2nd. Then you know what is wrong with the Busoni. It is not a matter of talent but of judgement, how to write such piece, and what the distribution of themes and motives should be, and the interaction between soloist and orchestra.

        Of course pianists who like to show-off their runs up and down, like the piece.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohPzurDZzZ4

  • There is little value in such ‘league tables’ of composers.

    Stravinsky’s star doesn’t burn more brightly by denigrating Busoni

    Busoni’s works were ahead of their time. Perhaps the world is now more ready to give its time to his Turandot, or Doktor Faust?

    • Could not agree more – having helped promote Enescu’s music for many years in the UK and also now writing a programme note on his first symphony – I cannot rate his compositional output highly enough.

  • Thank you for bringing this most interesting essay to my attention. I have always found Busoni a tough nut to crack, and apart from Szigeti’s recordings of the Sonata No. 2 and the (very early) Concerto, which I listen to because, well, it’s Szigeti, I usually seem to hit a brick wall with the piano music.

    I am a bit surprised however to read no mention in Horowitz’s essay, of the Egon Petri student, pianist and composer and musical thinker Gunnar Johansen, who made the first real effort at recording the Busoni piano literature and trying to keep the Busoni flame alive. I believe Johansen at least knew Busoni and his circle; he never claimed to be a pupil.

  • I doubt that many would claim that Schoenberg’s or Stravinsky’s strengths included personal charisma or stature as performers, so not the highest bar here for Busoni to exceed, which he did with room to spare. Also agree that Busoni was an interesting but not great composer. But he attracted quite a varied array of great musician friends and young musicians who wanted to absorb what they could from him. Vladimir Horowitz was very disappointed that he could not get out of Russia before Busoni died. He might have been a rather different pianist had they connected.

  • In regards to Busoni and Mahler, I find no evidence that Busoni ever showed Mahler his piano concerto (Busoni began composing it in 1901). They performed four works together: Beethoven piano concertos 4 and 5, List-Busoni “Rhapsodie Espagnole” and the Weber-Liszt “Konzertstuck”. By conicidence (I think), Busoni was on-board for Mahler’s last voyage across the Atlantic. Mahler was terminally ill at that point, and Busoni allegedly entertained Mahler by showing him musical sketches of some sort. Alma complained that Busoni wasn’t around when she truly needed help. Take that with a grain of salt.

    As a Mahler enthusiast, my favorite Busoni work is the “Berceuse Elegiaque”. John Adams made his own orchestration of it for chamber orchestra.

  • The more familiar one becomes with the Busoni corpus, the more it comes together. He didn’t aim for the personal voice, rather the universal. But he projected his identifiable personality anyway by simply ‘relying’ on it. He gathered such an unprecedented number of preoccupations, from Bach to Commedia del’Arte; a man who quoted Anatole France and Tolstoy to make his ‘omni-presence of time’ comprehensible to his flock, yet a devotee of street puppet shows, from which much of his operas derive. And of course it’s all a furious mix. I’ll be performing the Toccatta this september, and when I hear Doktor Faust the thematic material is all there (Perpetuum Mobile’ as well.) And Anthony Beaumont’s completion of Faust uses the dm masterpiece from FB’s Five contrapuntal pieces, all late works. Music was all ‘one’ to him. And recyclable melody was part of his ideology. And he knew about tone rows too. He had to; he edited the Well Tempered Clavier and would have immediately discerned the quasi-rows in the Bm fugue from Book 1 and the Am from Book Two. But that too he understood as existing from the beginning; in fact even before it was written, just like the Americas existed before Columbus ‘discovered’ them. It was already there waiting. I believe Stravinsky and Schoenberg both saw him as a visionary. Busoni’s suffered from short and troubled life, the life a virtuoso supporting his family and both his parents. He didn’t live to the advanced age of the other two, and his ultimate accomplishments were consequently truncated. His influence was less immediate but will prove more ultimately pervasive.

  • Try as I might, I simply can not place Busoni ‘above’ either Stravinsky or Schoenberg (or Alban Berg, for that matter). Fortunately, all three are very different. Therefore, such comparisons are almost meaningless. I think the question of how nice a composer was is nearly irrelevant. These days, many think of Mahler as having been a saint, but he was actually a very difficult person to be close to. Beethoven – as all know – could be impossible. Do we color the worth of those two composers by their somewhat flawed personalities?

    I find it strange that the overall worth of Stravinsky is sometimes challenged these days. For decades, he was considered the best of the 20th century. I think it’s true that, to some degree, Stravinsky peaked out at “Le Sacre du Printemps” – stretching out his neo-classical period a bit too long in the process. But I find many of his late serial and ‘Webern-esque’ works quite interesting. For me, he remains a major figure. Going off the beaten path, I love his “Jeu de Cartes” and the “Symphony in 3 Movements”. The “Capriccio for piano and orchestra” is a goodie too. And who can deny the uniqueness of either “Les Noces” or “Le Histoire du Soldat”? Granted, Schoenberg is a more difficult case.

    While many of Schoenberg’s works are very thorny indeed (violin concerto, “Serenade”, “Die Gluckliche Hand, “Jacob’s Ladder [Jakobsleiter], etc.), who can deny the warm appeal of “Transfigured Night”, or the epic grandeur of “Gurre-Lieder”? In some respects, Schoenberg surpasses Mahler 8 with his bright, optimistic ending to “Gurre-Lieder” (while I love Mahler 8, the ending does have a sort anthem quality about it). And while it’s not ‘easy’ to listen to, “Pierrot Lunaire” remains an expressionistic masterpiece of the highest order. No doubt, Busoni’s “Doktor Faust” is ‘easier’ to listen to than Schoenberg’s “Moses and Aaron”. However, I find “Moses und Aron” dramatically superior and must remain in the pantheon of Schoenberg’s greatest works (personally, I like Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” more than either of those two). I also enjoy his first Chamber Symphony, as well as the late piano concerto and the “Fantasy for Violin and Piano”. Perhaps Schoenberg’s entire oeuvre is best concentrated in his brief cinematic music that never got used: “Begliet Musik zu enier Lischtspielszene”.

    As a final note, none of this is meant to downplay Busoni’s contribution at all. But as far as ‘underrated’ composers go, I would like to add Francis Poulenc to the list.

    • For a fine painter, Schoenberg was a great composer, for a fine composer, Schoenberg was a great painter. In other words, a better painter than composer.

    • You are perhaps forgetting Stravinsky’s great “neo-classical” period, before he went serial/atonal. And even that, when you see Agon performed as a ballet, the music makes sense. But Orpheus is at least a minor masterpiece. And the Ebony Concerto? Poulenc is no more overlooked than Milhaud, who had a much greater output. But, Carlos Salzedo composed a new literature, a new notation, a new esthetic, a completely new identity for an existing instrument, a feat no-one else can claim. The modern harp. But he, too, is being overlooked due to politics. We need a musical assessment of the achievements of 20th century composers, the real ones, the mainstream ones, like the awesome Villa-Lobos, De Falla, Ravel, Shostakovich… and one thing most of them have in common, the biggest development in 20th century music, the increased use of overtones, ie. chords of the fifth and fourth, the emphasis on color and sonority as a source of musical expression. Hovhaness, Cowell, Dello Joio, Thomson, Copland, Barber, Menotti, etc.

  • I am writing this little post and making a caveat that I rather enjoy Busoni’s compositions. However, Busoni’s legacy rests on his skill as a concert pianist, his Bach transcripts, a few recordings and his well documented skills as a teacher. Pupils Claudio Arrau, Egon Petri, Kurt Weill and Maurice Abravanel immediately come to mind. Whilst his Bach transcriptions are performed, his original works are dusted off periodically and presented as novelties and have never had repertory legs. Dimitri Mitropoulos once wrote to Steinway when he was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic and they were pushing Gunaar Johansson, who was the flavor of the month in the mid 1950’s and made a specialty of the Busoni piano concerto; “We tried it with Serkin and as it has a chorus, it was very expensive and the public didn’t come. But when we have Serkin play Mozart and Beethoven the public fills the hall. Mr. Johansson is not as well known as Mr. Serkin.”

    The comparison of Busoni to Stravinsky and Schoenberg as a composer is frankly absurd. Sure all three’s careers began in the late 19th Century and they became 20th Century modernists. But, Stravinsky and Schoenberg’s music have legs and in many cases are standard repertory in multiple classical music configurations from symphonic to chamber. Perhaps the only similarity between the three composers is their operas are rarely scheduled. But I’ve never been a fan of Joe Horowitz’s writing which I find attempts to put a lot of square pegs in round holes.

    • The holes are mostly found in the minds of his readers who have different opinions about things and don’t like to have them squared.

  • What a silly comparison. He had a big influence on pianists. He was an interesting composer. Carlos Salzedo was a far more important composer, and no one was more important in the 20th century, perhaps ever, than Igor Stravinsky. It’s amazing how much Stravinsky has been forgotten. He influenced far more composers than Schoenberg ever did. Only, they were all more mainstream, or Boulanger pupils, so academia likes to discount them. Hindemith, too.

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