Who’s the grown-up: Schoenberg or Busoni?

Who’s the grown-up: Schoenberg or Busoni?


norman lebrecht

August 31, 2019

At the dawn of modernism, two great personalities had a moderately civilised exchange.

Here’s Joseph Horowitz‘s take:


Busoni and Schoenberg also corresponded: an even more amazing written exchange. The moment I discovered it I knew it had to be animated in performance. The opportunity materialized two weeks ago in the form of a PostClassical Ensemble Concert at The Phillips Collection in DC: “The Re-Invention of Arnold Schoenberg.”

The Busoni/Schoenberg correspondence is not only acute; it is hilarious – and at our concert William Sharp, enacting both parts, had the audience in stitches. Schoenberg’s impassioned self-exhortations to “express myself directly,” to renounce acquired knowledge in favor of “that which is inborn, instinctive” can sound like a tangled Monty Python script:

“This is my vision which I am unable to force upon myself: to wait until a piece comes out of itsown accord in the way I have envisaged. My only intention is to have no intentions!”

Busoni is the adult in this exchange. But he is also a serene provocateur. When Schoenberg sends him a pair of non-tonal piano pieces (Op. 11 – composed in 1909), he is full of admiration. He then imperturbably adds:

“My impression as a pianist, which I cannot overlook, is otherwise. My first qualification of your music ‘as a piano piece’ is the limited range of the textures. As I fear I might be misunderstood, I am taking the liberty, in my own defense, of appending a small illustration.”

Busoni here takes a measure of Schoenbeg’s piano writing, and “enhances” it….

Read on here.


  • barry guerrero says:

    Not sure what the point is, if any. Obviously both men were quite head-strong and very different. I don’t think one makes Busoni better by denigrating Schoenberg. And “Ode to Napoleon” is not the only ‘good’ atonal work by Schoenberg; far from it. Yes, Schoenberg was difficult and could be a pain in the arse. So to Mahler, so what does that prove? For me, nothing by Busoni approaches the perfect expressionism of “Pierrot Lunaire” (I’m fully aware that P.L. will never be a popular work). I think the opus 16 “Five Orchestral Pieces” is pretty good too. My favorite Busoni is the “Berceuse Elegiaque”. I very much like the orchestral “Sarabande and Cortege from Dr. Faust” too. Apples and oranges. I think a more appropriate comparison would be Busoni to Hindemith, or Busoni to Honneger (or Milhaud).

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      As I see it, Busoni was not ‘denigrating’ Schönberg – he was just bullying a little, and was doing it in privacy.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed with the Pierrot Lunaire accolade, it’s a unique and tragic piece.

      As for Busoni: he was a pianist, and Schoenberg was not. Sch’s piano writing is not pianistic at all because he only cared about what the notes would do. One can see it in the piano writing of Pierrot, which is for two separate hands instead of 10 fingers. But there is in itself nothing wrong with un-pianistic piano writing, much in Beethoven is not much pianistic. The piano is for music first, and only second for pianists.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Very interesting….. Both Schoenberg’s expressionism (his wanderings in non-tonal territory) was, like expressionism in painting, a reaction to academism as taught in the cultural educational system, especially in Germany and Vienna. Both Mahler and Strauss, sources of inspiration for Schoenberg, were heavily criticized at the time for their ‘deviations’ from ‘common practice’. Schoenberg also discussed atonal music with Mahler, who experimented with it in his 9th and 10th symphony. Busoni’s 2nd ‘Sonatina’ derives from late Liszt, and is still tonal, i.e. its musical dynamics (phrasing, texture formation, etc.) are the same as in Beethoven and Chopin, only the surface is over-chromatic, drowning the music in a pool of brooding pessimism.

    The problem composers had at the time was, how music can find its form as organically related to the musical idea of a piece, instead of ‘filling-out’ a pre-existing mould. In fact, the idea of classical form as circulating in academia, was incomplete, superficial and often wrong; Charles Rosen’s “The Classical Style” has corrected that image, since ‘the classics’ used forms entirely freely and as part of the idea of the material. The contradiction between form and content was created by misunderstanding ‘the classics’.

    Schoenberg successfully followed Beethoven’s way of formation in his First Chamber Symphony of 1906, perfectly integrating form and content, i.e. structure and expression – they are the same, as in Beethoven. And, with all the tonal freedom, still entirely tonal.

  • Henk Guittart says:

    On August 29 I posted two posts on Mr. Horowitz’s blog, they are still awaiting moderation.

    Hilarious? Monty Python? Adult? In stitches? Insane? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    How easy to make fun in a disrespectful way of a correspondence of a century ago. You have struck a goldmine, see the correspondence of all the great men and women of those days.
    BTW: when performing Schoenberg I also never think of the pubic!

    Dear Mr. Horowitz, It seems to me that you write your own review of a programme that you ‘designed’ yourself. What you call ‘electrifying’ I found extremely dull in the performance of those last pages of the Ode. Out of rhythm, no sense of drama, hardly any accelerando, and a whining interpretation of the speaking voice, always going down on every note, it seems. But beauty is also in the ear of the beholder.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Consider the source of this nonsense: Joseph Horowitz.
    That’s all that need be said.
    As for Barry Guerrero’s comment: right on the mark.
    (You should open your own blog, Barry!)

    • Henk Guittart says:

      Thanks! I now understand why Mr. Horowitz does not allow my posts above to be seen on his blog. Only praise gets published.