Thursday, 30 September 2010

Father and Son

Svetlana Belsky’s translation of Grigory Kogan’s classic study, Busoni as Pianist, has already been featured on this blog. However, to fill the two week gap as we ply our trade at the Frankfurt Book Fair (hall 8, stand C930 for anyone planning a visit), we thought you might enjoy the following excerpt from the book which describes Busoni père’s attempts to make a little Mozart out of his son. Anyone interested in musical and cultural history should read Belsky’s Preface to the book (see Google Book Search for example), which includes a chilling and evocative account of artistic life - and death - under Stalin.

In the north of Italy, in Tuscany, near Florence lies a little town called Empoli. There, on April 1, 1866, the future great pianist was born. He was the only son of the Italian clarinetist Ferdinando Busoni and the pianist Anna Weiss, who was Italian on her mother’s side and German on her father’s. The boy’s parents concertized and led a wandering life, which the child, too, was obliged to share.

Eleven months after birth he was taken away from his native town, and, travelling from place to place, in 1869, found himself in Paris where the family planned to settle. However, the Franco-Prussian War that began in 1870 forced Busoni’s parents to abandon this intention. The boy’s father set off on an extended concert tour of Italy, while Ferruccio and his mother settled in Trieste in the home of his grandfather, Giuseppe Weiss.

In Trieste—an Italian city, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire— Busoni’s musical education began. His abilities, as is usual among great musicians, manifested themselves early. By four years of age he already played the piano by ear. The first lessons of piano and musicianship were given by his mother, and soon the pupil could perform small four-hand pieces of Diabelli with his teacher.

Busoni’s mother was a good pianist, quite successful on the stage (eight days before her son’s birth she performed in Rome in the presence of Liszt); her son remembered in her playing a faultless technique, great facility, and a certain “salon” approach “in the spirit of Thalberg’s art.” In 1872, after an absence of two years, suddenly his father came back, and the boy’s life underwent great changes.

Busoni’s father was a colorful, original personality. Far from lacking in talent, but deficient in general education and professionalism, he continually nurtured grand plans, which usually greatly exceeded his rather modest real gifts. He did not wish to play in an orchestra, considering that beneath him, and, quite possibly, could not, for, according to his son, he could not manage rhythm or sight-reading any too well. But solo concerts, which had brought him “small fame,” could not entirely satisfy his ambition, either. In search of the road to success he tried many and various ventures: now attempting to write and publish poetry, then “making” his son’s career, and so on. Ardent and outspoken, unceremonious and despotic, always “temporarily” without a penny to his name, but nevertheless full of unwavering faith in the future, he often evoked ironic smiles in those around him and materially complicated the lives of his family members.

His father’s fantasies left their mark on Busoni’s life from the very start. By his wish, the newborn was given four names: Ferruccio-Dante-Michelangelo-Benvenuto—in the naive belief that the “patronage” of the three great Tuscan artists (Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Benvenuto Cellini) would guarantee the child’s glorious future. Naturally, having reached the age of awareness, Busoni hurriedly discarded the “heavy responsibility” tactlessly laid upon him by his father, rejected the two middle names, and, eventually, also the fourth, leaving himself only the name Ferruccio.

Back with the family, his father immediately commenced furious activity. Having insisted on moving the family away from the home of his father-in-law to a separate apartment, he dismissed his wife from further instruction of the child, and, thoroughly unembarrassed by his incompetence in questions of pianism, undertook the boy’s education himself. These lessons are colorfully described in Busoni’s “autobiographical fragments”:

My father knew little about piano playing, and, in addition, did not have very good rhythm, but he compensated for these faults with absolutely indescribable energy, severity, and pedantry. He could sit by my side for four hours a day, controlling every note and every finger. There could be no indulgence, rest, or slightest inattention on his part. The only pauses were precipitated by explosions of his unusually irascible temperament, which were followed by reproaches, dark prophecies, threats, an occasional box on the ear, and ample tears. Finally, there was repentance, father’s consolation, and assurance that he wishes only the best—and the next day it all began again.

Having put it into his head at all costs to make another Mozart out of his son, Busoni’s father decided that the boy was most likely to reach this goal by following, step by step, the artistic path of the author of Don Giovanni. The latter, of course, studied music from the age of four and performed at six. Busoni’s lessons began at the “correct” time. It only remained to prepare him successfully for a public debut, which took place—alas, with a certain delay in “the plan”—in Trieste, on November 24, 1873: the seven-year-old Busoni took part in his parents’ concert, playing the first movement of Mozart’s C-Major Sonata, the F-Major Sonatina of Clementi, and two pieces from Schumann’s Album for the Young: “Armes Waisenkind” and “Soldatenmarsch.” The little pianist appeared under the dual name Weiss-Busoni—the father’s new idea, in the belief that the combination of two “big names” would create good publicity for the young prodigy.

Readers of this blog may buy this book at 35% discount during the month of October (shipping extra: US $5.95 UK £3.00 Europe £6.50). Simply visit the book’s page on our website and follow the order instructions, quoting reference number $10296 in the US and Canada and 10249 elsewhere. Do hurry, this offer can only run for the month of October 2010.

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