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Ferruccio Busoni: A Musical Ishmael
Della Couling

2005
354 pp
SCARECROW PRESS INC.
www.scarecrowpress.com
ISBN 0 8108 5142 3 (hardcover)
$45

 


Scarecrow Press is one of the leading publishers of books on music and academic work, so it was with great excitement that I looked forward to this book. 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, are influential today. His cosmopolitan lifestyle, 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 repertoire as a composer. He doesnít 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". (Couling p. 202.) 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.

This is perhaps the first readily available full biography in English for decades. The 1934 Edward Dent biography is still around but is not up to date. Anthony Beaumontís pioneering study, Busoni the Composer, undoubtedly the best survey, is particularly strong on musical analysis. Thereís certainly a market for a comprehensive book on Busoni, which demonstrates just how relevant he is to modern thinking. Indeed, a really good account could do much to regenerate interest in Busoniís reputation.

Delia Coulingís book is well researched and relies heavily on Busoniís letters. This is both its strength and weakness. Busoniís correspondence was voluminous, even by the standards of the day. There is so much material that a researcher has to be extremely selective about whatís included. Couling does good work on Busoniís childhood, showing his relationship with his parents, both relatively unsuccessful musicians whom their child supported with his greater talent, from an early age. This aspect of his life is relatively undocumented and could be the subject of a study on its own, like Stuart Federís analyses of Charles Ives and Gustav Mahler. Couling also conveys something of the flavour of Busoniís wanderings in her accounts of his numerous journeys. After all, she refers to him as an Ishmael, abandoned in the desert. But we really donít need to know about his holidays, for example, in detail. How the rootlessness shaped his mind and art, might be more interesting. Nearly half the book is taken up with Busoniís life up to 1894, when he moved to Berlin. The background is interesting, but it was in the 20th century that Busoni transformed himself and became most productive and creative. Beaumont draws a parallel with Mozart: thereís no point discussing the juvenilia if it means occluding Don Giovanni.

Couling is also to be lauded for careful research into her sources. For example, she takes the trouble to identify people Busoni met and corresponded with, even if they were of minor importance. Some of them must have been interesting in their own right. But Busoni knew everyone worth knowing, and it would be useful to know more about his relations with Sibelius, Schoenberg, etc. Couling is particularly good on Busoni in America, for example in his interest in Native American music, for which she gives credit to the pioneering woman researcher who taught him about it. Again, though, Busoni was such a personality that he could generate dozens of books on his own. Somehow, there comes a point in which detail and a broadly focused approach must balance. For example, Busoniís interest in Native American music produced his own Red Indian Fantasy. It also was a foretaste of the modern interest in world music and in percussion. This may go beyond strict biography, but is important as it shows why Busoni was and is a man to be reckoned with. Similarly, more analysis would be helpful, even if it may be speculative. What is Busoniís place in music history? What impact did his unconventional ideas on opera have? Why was he eclipsed so early and so thoroughly? Why did Schoenberg take precedence as musical thinker, rather than men like Busoni or Valen? There could be more on his music, like Doktor Faust, for example, or the way his pianist background shaped his compositions. These ideas do go beyond Busoni and into the realm of European music in general, and they could be controversial, but they are valid in assessing what Busoni means.

Coulingís fidelity to the subjectís own words is admirable, However, the volume of his writings makes it difficult to present a full account without circumspect editing. Busoni was such an overwhelming character that one can be blinded by the sheer light of his presence : standing back might allow a clearer focus. Moreover, as Couling does point out, Busoni was a man of contradictions, whose very complexities can generate study.

At 354 pages, including footnotes and in fairly large font, this is not a huge blockbuster. It would be an invaluable introduction to Busoni, but it presupposes that readers will already be familiar the subject. Yet it is precisely those who donít know Busoni that should be reading a new book on him, because there really is little else. Beaumont, published 1985, remains the best and most thorough analysis, though itís more of a study "from" the music rather than of the amazing man himself and does not cover other aspects of Busoniís career, like his conducting, performances and libraries. Much as I enjoyed this book, it makes me dream of another, more substantial one in the future, perhaps double the size both in terms of weight and content. There is just so much to the amazing subject that the possibilities go far beyond the niche market for music books. And please Ė footnotes at the end, not after chapters! Many thanks, then, to Couling and to Scarecrow Press for starting what could be a major shift in the assessment of modern thought and modern music.

Anne Ozorio



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