"All claim to special righteousness awakens
in me that scorn and anger from which a
philosophical mind should be free ...."
It would appear that among the musical legacies of our time, that of Busoni remains the most ambiguous and incomplete. While the posterity of most of the great musicians of our era is now neatly categorized in the different chapters of modern musical history, the case of Busoni still provokes controversy, as well as being subject to varying and contradictory evaluation. It seems that this strange musician, gone not so long ago, was at first completely forgotten, and then subject to an ardent attempt to re-evaluate his work and his importance in general. It cannot be our place here to take part in the discussion of the value of his music, others more competent, are constantly occupied with this task. Rather it falls to us to put the, spotlight on another aspect of Busoni's activities-also strangely ignored--that being his role as an interpreter.
Everyone knows that he was a great pianist and it would never occur to anyone to doubt the important role that he played in that domain. Yet, what remains of that activity? The generally passionate testimony of those (now more and more rare) who heard him play; as well as those few gramaphone records which, because of the technical limitations of the time, cannot accurately represent an interpretation which was, by its very nature 'transcendental'. There are, or there were, scattered across the globe, several of his disciples whose prestigious playing should reflect something of their master's no less prestigious example. But it would certainly be difficult, if not impossible to define exactly what this example consisted of.
Thus, here we are in the realm of souvenirs and memories, that is to say, on grounds where it is impossible to get a concrete foothold. The paradox of the situation becomes even more glaring, as Busoni's importance in the development of the modern piano school has now penetrated our consciousness in the form of a veritable dogma.
How has this idea come to us? Once again, the above-mentioned rare testimony would not be able to furnish the response to such a question. There were, in Busoni's time, other pianists (Padereweski, De Pachmann, Moritz Rosenthal, d'Albert to name but a few) who are spoken of in equally glittering terms, and yet we do not think of them in the same fashion. In other words, wonderful virtuosi and interpreters though they were, it would never occur to us to confer upon them an importance comparable to that of Busoni in the actual development of modern piano technique, nor that of musical interpretation in general. Yet it is precisely this aspect of Busoni's activities that interests us.
Happily, there exists a certain number of transcriptions and paraphrases by Busoni, which realize on a pianistic level, works originally destined for other instruments. Such works pose several very interesting problems, which permit us to evaluate uniquely pianistic concepts, as well as the problems of interpretation that would face our musician. It is perhaps here, that we will find certain answers to our questions.
Among the transcriptions in question, the most famous is doubtless that of the Chaconne in D minor, from the 4th Partita for violin solo, by J.S. Bach. Thus it is perhaps worthwhile to carefully examine this work, which constitutes a very interesting undertaking, whose success could not be contested.
Though it would be impossible for me to offer any concrete proof, I would readily venture to say one of the main reasons pushing Busoni to attempt this enterprise would be due to Brahms, whom we know Busoni greatly admired. Brahms had indeed transcribed this same Chaconne for piano, but he limited himself to a transcription for left-hand, in effect following the original text as closely as possible, minimizing the virtuoso aspects of the piece. Busoni, on the other hand, in utilizing all the resources of the keyboard, actually accentuates this aspect of the work, at times even venturing into the realm of the paraphrase. In spite of these differences, the two musicians had a common desire: to realize the polyphony and harmony, only implied in the original text, and to actualize these elements on an instrument capable of presenting them in their true form. Indeed, the eminently 'well-tempered' language of the Chaconne, which makes abundant use of chromaticism seems better suited to the most 'well-tempered' of instruments which is the piano, rather than the violin which--still today--we play more 'diatonically' than chromatically (1).
Furthermore, regarding Busoni's transcription, we can clearly see the following mind-set: Bach's original text proves itself, in spite of all its richness--and precisely because of this richness--to be transcendental to the possibilities of the instrument. We do not mean by this (we hardly need mention) that Bach's effort was in vain, or that the composer was mistaken as to the instrumental possibilities, nor that he took on a task whose efforts could not arrive at the desired goal. But, in composing a work of such immense ambition, did he not leave an 'open door' to such an effort of amplification, of which this transcription represents the supreme realization?
Right away, what is striking is the amplification of the register. Bach's text covers a range of about two and a half octaves, and naturally does not have recourse to the bass register.
Busoni's transcription extends the instrumental range in a radical way, because the piano is utilized in all its range, and what's more, the deep bass register will here play a pivotal role.
This first operation of amplification is justified on several fronts. Above all, is it not clear that a work this long and complex (conceived, what's more, in the form of variations) can only benefit from this variety, not only from the point of view of the changes in 'color' that this entails, but above all, from the resultant structural clarity. As to the systematic use of the deeper bass register, it is clearly justified by the form of the work. Indeed, the bass of the Chaconne, (the very foundation of the variations), Bach could, for the most part, only indicate in a veiled manner in the form of an 'allusion'; whereas it is realized in all its splendor and in its fundamental role, all throughout Busoni's piano score.
However, this amplification does hot stop there. We have already spoken of the difficulties in polyphony and harmony of the Chaconne. These elements exist often in a latent form in the original work. Here, Busoni's genius is manifest in a radical manner. Not only does his transcription shine a light on the harmonic variants which are abundant in Bach's score, not only does it clearly indicate each of the essential harmonic units‑‑only hinted at in Bach's original text‑‑but it takes each allusion to its conclusion by spelling out often complex chords, on the various degrees of the tonality.
We find a striking example of this type of realization in the fourteenth variation (example 15). Here, the original text is purely monodic, whereas the transcription gives us the two motifs of each measure according to their harmonic function:
VI-II, V-I, IV-VII (V), I, etc.
Each one of these degrees undergoes subtle transformations and alterations: chromatic alterations within the first motif, chords of the augmented second and diminished seventh on the strong beats of the second motif.
This realization of the harmony applies equally to the highlighting of the latent harmony of the Bach text. It is likewise for the third variation, which exposes a new counter-subject, articulated--in the first five measures only--by allusions to the bass, which takes on a new character. Busoni, of course sustains this countersubject, confining it to the right hand; but he spells out the implications of the bass, first by spreading out the entire variation, and then by adding the implied harmonies, and finally, adding to the chords thus obtained, the rhythm of the theme. A similar method is found in the fifth variation (also monodic in the original text) whose melody this time is given to the bass, while it is the right hand that allows us to hear the chords in the rhythm (now slightly varied) of the theme.
We should, in finishing with these observations, give a few examples where Busoni's genius goes deeper still into the structure of the text, as he adds elements of his own invention which are necessitated by the score. It is here that we approach the realm of the above-mentioned paraphrase. It is thus, that in the XVth and XXIInd variations, Busoni doesn't limit himself to a simple exposition of the harmony and polyphony in the sense that we have shown up to now. Instead, here he invents new voices: the bass line for the XVth variation (which consists of a marked embellishment of the bass as indicated by Bach) and the middle voice which is transformed into a bass line--from the XXIInd variation (which accompanies the presentation of the theme in sixteenth-notes, flowing from the preceding variation). The most radical approach in this sense is certainly found in the Xth variation. Here, as is often the case, Bach only gives us a monodic structure. This variation is characterized, what's more, by a sub-division which we find frequently during the course of the Chaconne) into two groups of four measures each, of strongly contrasting materials. Busoni's paraphrase concerns the first of these two groups: the original voice (sixteenth-notes) is given to the right hand. To the single-voiced structure, Busoni now adds a subtle parallelism in fourths, augmented fourths, fifths, diminished fifths and sixths. The left hand now adds two new motifs (eighth-notes) in counterpoint (these two motifs naturally being of Busoni's own invention example 16a). Our musician was surely conscious of the success of this passage, because he allows himself here‑‑and for the only time!‑‑an extension of the original text. Indeed, having played the first group of four measures of this variation, in the abovementioned fashion, he gives us a re‑exposition of this group (before moving on to the second four‑measure group) but reversing all the elements, a little in the manner of doublecounterpoint at the octave. Thus, the original melody in sixteenth‑notes (still featuring the same parallel movement) is now in the left hand, while the contrapuntal motifs in eighthnotes is transferred to the higher register of the right hand (example 16b). Here we have a work that goes far beyond the limits of simple transcription, towards a radical effort which completely transcends the concept of a paraphrase in the strict sense of the term.
I would like to add, for my part, that I see no less here than an effort of musical penetration that ventures to the very limits of understanding Bach's compositional process (2), and that such an expansion of the treated material justifies all the liberties that one would take.
Here, one could perhaps object that we have not yet spoken about the fashion in which Busoni has taken on the motivic, harmonic and polyphonic structure of Bach's Chaconne and that the results of our analysis do not, in any way, clarify the genius of Busoni's interpretation nor even his new ideas in the realm of piano writing. Such an objection does not seem to us entirely valid, given that our commentary has already highlighted‑‑be it only by way of simple indications‑‑certain important points which touch upon musical interpretation as well as on piano‑writing. It is clear however, that these points are worth expanding upon.
We will not deal in great depth on the instrumental techniques of the particular transcription in question, because that would involve us in a mass of details and because these aspects of the work are very evident to whomever closely inspects Busoni's text. We will however, draw attention to the following facts:
1. Piano writing, as Busoni found it at the beginning of his career, was dominated by the influence of Liszt and Brahms. From many points of view these two influences are polar opposites, between which it would seem impossible to find common ground. Indeed, the fluid, and often very free writing style of Liszt would seem to be in radical opposition to Brahm's dense and very often compact style. It would take the intervention of a genius like Busoni‑who was at the same time a great composer and a prestigious pianist‑‑to resolve these two forces and mold them into a synthesis, to create new pianistic possibilities. We find such a synthesis frequently in the pages of the present transcription which owes as much to Liszt's concepts (rapid passages in octaves in the left hand, 'flying' arpeggios, etc.) as to those of Brahms (deep bass registers, sequences of tight chord‑voicings, alteration of accents between both hands, etc.).
2. Busoni was working from a text of purely violinistic character, a type of instrumental writing that we could consider one of the foundations of idiomatic violin literature. To transform such writing into an expression which becomes no less pianistic should, by all accounts, present serious challenges which could only be resolved by a musical mind, itself full of imagination, and not limited to the piato thinking of the time. Busoni goes beyond the type of synthesis in question, creating pianistic figures which will transcend the repertoire of the day, giving a glimpse of works to come (those of Ravel in 'Gaspard de la Nuit', for example and certain concepts of Schoenberg). It is both interesting and significant to note that Busoni's most radical innovations are found in the variations that use (in the original text) the most idiomatic figures of the violin, those which seem impossible to transcribe for the piano (3). By all evidence it is here that Busoni's imagination and pianistic vision were put to the greatest test, and it was it was this test that forced him to create solutions of authentic innovation.
The transcription of the Chaconne sheds new light on the art of interpretation of Busoni. It gives us a complete series of tempo and dynamic markings which are not only of great interest in general, but which also reflect some of the great musicians's concerns. We know that the original score did not contain any of this type of indication; whereas here are some of Busoni's most characteristic indications:
Theme: Andante maestoso, ma non troppo lento; nuance: forte.
Var. I: Forte, sempre motto energico et, plus loin, sempre assai marcato.
Var. II: Piano subito.
Var. V: Più mosso, ma misurato; nuance piano au debut, crescendo par la suite.
Var. IX: Un poco a piacere, ma sempre energico a ritmo; nuance fortissimo dans la premiere partie, piano dolce dana la seconds.
Var. X: Sostenuto (piano), plus loin con fuoco anLmato (forte).
Var. XVIII: Allegro moderato ma deciso.
Var. XXVI: Più sostenuto.
Var. XXX: Più vivo.
Var. XXXI: Largamente rnaestoso.
We can clearly see that Busoni's concerns are as much about the problems of tempo and dynamic as they are of pianistic writing and the work of transcription in general. What follows is above all, the desire to present a richly‑varied discourse of contrasts of all sorts, which are extremely nuanced in the choice of tempo and intensity. It is perhaps here that we are allowed to see most clearly, the interpreter's credo, and it is certainly here that we see the great importance that he played in the molding of the aesthetic of modern interpretation.
Finally, at this juncture we should envision several objections; to take all sorts of liberties with the text, be it from the point of view of the actual musical figures themselves (which are inevitably subject to transformation in the course of the transcription), or from the point of view of tempo and dynamic (here, where the original text offers nothing similar). Is this not a classically 'romantic' attitude, coming out of the famous arbitrary musical practice which did so much damage during the 18th century? Does not the figure of Busoni seem more like that of an out‑dated romantic, rather than of one destined to incarnate the very spirit of modern interpretation?
We will not attempt here to enter into the debate, raging still today, the old and well‑worn opposition between 'romantic' and 'modern', a debate which, in our opinion makes no real sense. We merely believe that all music, (and that of Bach above all) is by its very nature romantic. And that all those who, from the Neo-classicism (4 ) of between the two wars, up until the most recent efforts of the complexity and aleatory schools, having revolted against the romanticism of their forerunners, have only succeeded in robbing music of some of its most essential elements. Looked at from this standpoint, the criticism one could make of Busoni's work in transcription loses, obviously, all significance. However there is one more point having to do with transcription and musical interpretation which is important to underscore, and it is here that we can verify the important role Busoni played in these matters.
It is indeed clear that many musicians of the 19th century allowed themselves to take great liberties with the musical scores of others. These abuses are so well known, and have been so often cited, we need not return to this point. It is therefore not surprising that at the dawning of the XXth century we see a new attitude, which can be defined as 'fidelity to the text'. Among the first champions of this new attitude we can list the names of Busoni and Mahler, two artists who would lead a passionate fight against the false traditions and liberties of all sorts which had invaded the repertoire. But at the same time, these two artists were among the first to undertake all manner of additions to the texts they interpreted (5).
It seems obvious that these two artists experienced no contradiction between these two attitudes and what's more, it seems their example has been followed right throughout the present era (6).
How do we resolve such a paradox?
The answer is not easy, and would in and of itself, require an extremely deep philosophical study. However we can, at this time, propose the following short reflections: the art of musical interpretation constitutes an extremely complex musical activity, which depends, above all on a rigorous reading of the musical text to be interpreted and upon the transformation in 'praxi' of a real understanding of the musical figures which this reading gives us. It goes without saying, that for the authentic interpreter, 'fidelity to the text' represents a 'conditio sine qua non', but it also follows that this same fidelity can be manifest in different aspects. First of all, the interpreter brings a certain amount of subjectivity, and the work itself far from being purely objective, has a latent subjectivity as well.
This explains the variations in interpretation from one artist to another, with each remaining absolutely faithful to the text. This can also account for the differences in interpretation fcom one era to another, which are at times, quite marked and can‑‑under certain conditions‑‑reflect, all of them , real value and validity. All this does not mean that errors cannot be committed, or that various abuses can't become commonplace (we know of many, even in our own time which now pass for 'correct') and we now have the means to fight them. Among the errors and abuses, the worst seem tome, those committed in the name of a kind of rigidity of musical interpretation (a kind of 'anti‑romantic' sectarianism) which represents the score as a sort of inanimate object, rather than as a living organism. It is this that Busoni understood. in the highest sense, the same as he possessed, to the highest degree, the ability to transmit a musical work in its life form and with its real effervescence.
In this‑‑and we hope our commentaries on the Chaconne have been able to prove this, to a certain degree‑‑he will remain for us, the model of a great interpreter and a constant source of inspiration and encouragement.
(1). Please see our essay, "Can we still play the violin?" p. 434-447.
From, "Le compositeur et son double", by René Leibowitz - Editions Gallimard 1986.
(2). Let us not forget, there are a great number of examples of this kind of polyphonic composition in all of Bach's work.
(3). Variations XI, XII, XIII, XIV, the second part of Variation XIX and Variations XX, XXIX, XXX.
(4). Paradoxically (or maybe not?) the term is due to Busoni. himself.
(5). We know of many cases concerning the 're‑touches' of Busoni, and we only have to look at the scores of the Schumann Symphonies to see that they were virtually 're‑orchestrated' by Mahler , to see just how far these efforts have gone.
(6). Closer to our own times, artists such as Toscanini and Schnabel, who were thought of as 'purists', manifest the same spirit as that of Mahler and Busoni. Toscanini's personal scores are, at times, full of instrumental 're‑touches', and the famous Schnabel Edition of the Beethoven Sonatas show us tempo and dynamic markings very similar to those we have already highlighted in the transcription of the Chaconne.