Wednesday, 30 June 2010

‘The Life of an Honest Man’

Thirty years in the making, Tully Potter’s monumental two-volume Adolf Busch is now at press and will be available in the UK at the end of July and elsewhere the following month. ‘Eagerly awaited’ hardly begins to describe the level of anticipation that surrounds it.

Adolf Busch was not only a remarkable musician but an admirable man living in desperate times. Potter’s biography will look at his life and work in detail and will certainly remain the definitive source for many years to come. Two CDs accompany the books, providing an opportunity to hear Busch’s playing as well as his own compositions.

If anyone is thinking of following in Potter’s footsteps and starting a biography of a many-faceted musician, here is how you begin:

We had the Glyndebourne recording of Don Giovanni at home when I was growing up, so I was aware of the name Fritz Busch. But I probably first heard of his brother, the violinist and composer Adolf Busch, in the early 1960s, through LPs issued by EMI as ‘Great Recordings of the Century’. I remember finding his violin tone strangely haunting. Living in South Africa had made me aware of the evils of racism; and when I learned how well Adolf Busch had behaved during the Third Reich years, when many of his colleagues had behaved abominably, I began to be interested in him as a man, not just as a musician.

Back in Britain from 1966, I developed a fascination for string quartets, although I had been led to believe that Beethoven’s late quartets were rather daunting. When I actually acquired the three LPs of the Busch Quartet that were available from Germany, I discovered that all one had to do was listen – and this I did, often into the early hours of the morning. I count myself lucky that my introductions to Beethoven’s Op. 59/3, Op. 95, Op. 131 and Op. 132 came via the Busch ensemble. The only drawback has been that the playing of Busch and his colleagues has spoilt me for anyone else.

Gradually I discovered that a number of Busch’s friends and pupils lived in London. By 1975 I had begun collecting memories of him; and it was borne in on me that these precious recollections were unique. Hearing Rudolf Serkin in concert and speaking to him further fired my enthusiasm; and whenever anyone from Busch’s past came to London, I would try to see them. I also wrote to many people, such as the delightful widow of his younger brother Herman. In due course many members of the extended family were helpful to me, the sole exception being Fritz Busch’s son, Hans.

I went up to Edinburgh on the milk train to interview the composer Hans Gál, a friend and contemporary of Adolf and Fritz Busch. The train was five hours late and I only just made it to the interview in time, but it was a memorable meeting. Dr Gál, a tiny man in his late 80s, had heard both Joachim and Mahler and could recall what they were like as musicians. He kept leaping up to demonstrate something at the piano. I twice interviewed Sir Robert Mayer, who could remember Brahms, and I travelled to Paris to meet the American pianist Eugene Istomin. Hearing him in concert, I was amazed when just about every wind player in Paris turned up to boo the evening’s other soloist, Gervase de Peyer, because he was using an English clarinet.

I got to know Paul, the son of Busch’s violist Karl Doktor; and Björn, the son of Busch’s second violinist and assistant Gösta Andreasson, was supportive – sadly Gösta himself had already retreated into a twilight world. I missed speaking to Horszowski, because I did not realise at first how well he had known Busch. Fortunately, with his wife’s help, I was able to make up this particular lack.

Discovering, through contacts with the Busch Society in Germany, that Busch’s brother-in-law Otto Grüters had compiled a detailed chronology of his life, and had noted down many of their conversations, was another spur. Although Dr Grüters had understandably made mistakes – some of which sent me on wild goose chases – his frequent personal contacts with Busch had provided invaluable material.

Over more than 30 years, I have written and rewritten, checked and rechecked. One particular paragraph took me something like 20 years to get right. When I started out, most Continental orchestras and other musical organisations had very little available in the way of archives – many German sources had been destroyed by Allied bombing. But much has been recovered over recent decades and digitised.

In 1984 a friend and I published a little home-made paperback called Adolf Busch: The Life of an Honest Man, Volume 1. It was full of mistakes and, as so often happens, Volume 2 never materialised. The title came from something written by Charles Péguy, which was a favourite quotation of Busch’s: ‘The life of an honest man must be a perpetual infidelity.’

I am grateful to Martin Anderson of Toccata Press for the opportunity to issue a much expanded biography. I have changed ‘Man’ to ‘Musician’ in the title and I am taking the precaution of publishing both volumes simultaneously! My text is very detailed in places and there are a dozen appendices but I believe that Busch’s importance, as a leading figure in tumultuous times, demands this exhaustive treatment. I hope I have managed to provide a picture of a whole era – among Busch’s friends were such giants as Max Reger, Fritz Steinbach, Albert Einstein and Arturo Toscanini.

Working on Busch’s life has been worth every minute and far from getting bored with him or beginning to dislike him, as has happened to many other biographers vis à vis their subjects, I now like him more than ever. Meeting many of his friends, among them Serkin, Gál and Sir Ernst Gombrich, has enriched my life.

Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician by Tully Potter will be published shortly by Toccata Press, distributed worldwide by Boydell & Brewer.

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