There can be few personalities as remarkable as Ferruccio Busoni.
He was a top pianist, a composer, and a visionary. His knowledge
of literature, art and music was formidable, and it informed
his all inclusive theories of art and music: his ideas, which
embraced world music and non-traditional media, remain influential
today. His cosmopolitan life-style, his rejection of cliché and
his openness to innovation, all mark him as a man for our
times. Yet he is still relatively little known, and mainly
for his somewhat limited output as composer. He doesn’t fit
any neat pigeonhole. Indeed, his ideas may prove to be his
legacy: Edgar Varèse called him “a figure out of the Renaissance”,
who “crystallised my half-formed ideas, stimulated my imagination,
and determined, I believe, the future development of my music”.
Busoni believed that “music was born free and to win freedom
is its destiny”, and that it was just in its infancy as an
art-form. Thus any new recording
of his work is worth seeking out.
Nearly all of Busoni’s forty songs were written in his
Sängers Fluch, for example was written when he
was only twelve. Admittedly, he was precocious for his age,
piano prodigy who supported his parents by performing on
stage; the comparison with Mozart was noted extensively at
the time. The poem, by Uhland, who was to inspire Brahms,
is straightforward melodrama and wouldn’t need subtlety even
if young Busoni wanted it. To Busoni’s credit he doesn’t
set it strophically, but uses the piano line to explore piano
techniques, remembering to insert decorative effects every
now and then to progress the dramatic line. This is a very
long ballad – nearly 18 minutes without a break – bringing
to mind some of Schubert’s Schiller songs. Young Busoni’s
treatment, however, is straightforwardly illustrative.
What a difference, then, to come to the Goethe-Lieder, to
which Busoni turned towards the end of his life. These are
distinctive - their choppy staccato rhythms quite unlike
anything else being written at the time. This may not be
Second Viennese School, but it’s totally original. It’s as if Busoni were experimenting with a completely different type of modernism. If anything, they’re
like the Flight of the Bumble Bee, or Mephistopheles and the Flea. Indeed,
Busoni sets the same text as did Mussorgsky, though in German,
rather than Russian. Busoni’s Mephistopheles and the Flea is
much more manic, with wonderfully demented circular figures
on piano. It’s hardly surprising that this is one of Busoni’s
most famous songs.
Es war eine Ratt' im Kellernest, or Lied des Brander is
a high-spirited satire about an official who lives “on fat and butter”.
Even more pointed is the satire in Lied des Unmuts. For
Busoni, Goethe’s words had personal resonance. He, too, knew only too well about people who couldn’t
tell “Mausedreck von Koriandern” (mouse droppings from coriander) yet are “those who find it most difficult when others are successful”.
The same wild, driving pace infuses Zigeunerlied,
where ostensibly it’s an imitation of Gypsy dancing, only much more extreme. The music swirls around like the dance of a whirling dervish, getting higher and higher on its own adrenalin. It’s
surreal, but then, so is the tale, of seven female were-wolves,
whom the singer recognises as women from the village. The
nonsense chorus, “Wille wau wau wau, Willw
wo wo wo, Wito hu, Wito hu!” at once evokes the howls of wolves and hoots of owls, while
also satirising the horror genre. Schubert would not have
set this text with such subversive humour. Similarly, Busoni’s
self-deprecating wit illuminates what could, in other hands,
be a song of self-pity. In Schlecter Trost, ghosts
appear to a weeping man, who tells them he used to be someone
important, but they couldn’t care less. Not only has his
love left him, so too have the ghosts!
Reminicenza Rossiniana, one of Busoni’s last works, is a bitingly witty send-up
of Rossini and his popularity. Busoni was a trenchant observer
of musical fashion and affectation, and the words are taken
from one of his own writings – there are references to popular
pot-boilers like the Wilkie Collins novels. This is Busoni
the polymath, the individualist and the visionary at his
best. One day, perhaps a book will be written about his work
as a commentator on music and society – in many ways possibly
his greatest contribution to twentieth century thought.
The other eleven songs on this disc are early pieces
from the 1880s interesting for the insight they shed on Busoni’s
eventual frustration with the lieder form. They are conventional
enough, but this was not a composer to feel content with
being conventional. Composers like, say, Pfitzner and Othmar
Schoeck might have written similarly Hoch Romantiker pieces,
but Busoni had too much else to explore. They are also interesting
in that Busoni hovers between German and Italian styles,
as was his heritage.
Since the majority of songs on this set are fairly straightforward,
they aren’t much of a challenge to either singer or pianist.
It’s a bit of a lost opportunity, as the Goethe-lieder could
stand a sharper and more sardonic interpretation. No texts,
and rather badly written booklet notes (by Bruns himself)
also don’t contribute as much as they could to helping people
appreciate Busoni as much as he deserves. One day, perhaps
there’ll be a new recording. There’s one still on the market
with no less than Erik Werba, and another which I’ve owned
for years, but of course can’t find when I needed it!