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.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

“Haydn’s Ribbits and Beethoven’s Cheep-Cheeps”

In a previous post we shared Daniel Albright’s intriguing preface to his recent book Music Speaks: On the Language of Opera, Dance, and Song. Below we reprint some typical passages from several of the book’s chapters. Perhaps “typical” is not even the best word, considering how playful and inventive his writing and thinking is. As Paul Griffiths (renowned author of The Substance of Things Heard: Writings about Music and The Sea on Fire: Jean Barraqué) noted with regard to Music Speaks: ‘“teasing” -- in the senses of gently mocking, of pulling out, and indeed of titillating -- is . . . [Albright’s] modus operandi.”

For Wittgenstein, music isn’t like speech; instead, speech is a special case of music. Some of the things you say to me I understand in the way I understand Mozart; some of the things in the way I understand Cage; some of the things in the way I understand Britney Spears. But in all cases, speech is a game with sounds, just as music is a game with sounds–neither strictly possesses meaning, or conviction, but meaning and conviction may glide around either....

[If] language is beset by the same problems of jarring and incommensurable, un-unifiable models that beset music, then music and language are in exactly the same uncomfortable situation. Yes, Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegel lurches wildly from narrative to speech-inflection to exasperating tangles of unconstruables; but a written chronicle of Till’s adventures would behave identically. So we are left in paradox: the more we try to understand music as language, the more strongly it resists that understanding; and the more we try to understand music as the opposite of language, the more sweetly, strongly, plainly it speaks to the ear. We understand the siren’s song only at the moment when we stop trying to understand it. [pages 13-14]
Poets have always been listening. The meanings they seek to convey in their poems often seem to lie half outside the words, in the rush of wind or water, in the thunder, in the cries of birds, as if poets were trying to translate into human language a poetry that pre-exists in the whole body of the world’s sounds. Composers also listen; and when they read poems, they listen both to the music of the words themselves, and to the music on the far side of the poems, the music that the poets themselves were attending to. So–when Haydn sets a passage in The Seasons in which frogs appear, he sets the orchestra a-croaking. The philosopher Schopenhauer greatly deplored this tendency in Haydn, on the grounds that music should strive to align itself with the deep urgencies hidden in the heart of things, and not to imitate external phenomena. But it’s futile to try to argue Haydn out of his ribbits, or Beethoven out of his cheep-cheeps in the song Die Wachtel, The Quail. In a poem about sound, the external sound is an irresistibly potent metaphor for the poem’s meaning. [page 105]
At the beginning of Ottavio Rinuccini’s libretto to La Dafne, Ovid himself descends from Elysium to warn the spectators that they’re about to see a play about the dangerousness of love: beware, you might fall in love with a girl only to find her turned into a tree. Immediately after this brief prologue, Apollo kills a dragon with his bow and arrow. The whole protocol of this opening is all wrong by the standards of Greek tragedy: if there is a prologue, it is a god (as in Euripides’ Hippolytus), not a poet; and monsters are killed offstage and enter the play as a form of narrative (also as in the Hippolytus). The early opera writers quite liked combats with monsters: in the third intermedio from La Pellegrina (music by Marenzio), Apollo slays the monster at Delphi. To some extent we might say that opera labored to bring into the theatre what was in the world of the Greeks indecorous—obscene in the root meaning of the term, that is, incapable of being presented onstage. Ovid’s poetry seemed to offer opportunities for sex and violence beyond what was permitted in serious Greek or Roman drama.

In later times, actual Greek tragedy made its way onto the operatic stage, but hesitantly and in much altered form. The most important Greek tragedy, for operatic purposes, was Euripides’s Alcestis, the subject of substantial operas by (among others) Lully, Handel, and Gluck. I suspect that part of the reason for this popularity was (1) the fact that the plot—a harrowing of Hades for a beloved wife—was the closest thing in Greek tragedy to the plot of Orpheus, the gold standard in operatic story lines; (2) the story had a happy ending, unlike that of Orpheus, though with some wrenching and hammering a happy ending for Orpheus was usually contrived (Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo had an unhappy ending according to the published libretto of 1607, but not according to the published score of 1609); and (3) the luxury-uxorious aspect of the tale flattered an increasingly bourgeois taste—here was a G-rated opera fit for the whole family. [pages 122-23]

The great master of the inconsequential ballet was of course Meyerbeer, who thought it a fine thing to provide, in Le prophète (1849), a little relief for the bloodthirsty, war-torn Anabaptists in the form of a delicious ballet in which provisions-sellers on ice-skater, simulated with that newfangled contrivance the roller skate, take a break from their capitalist enterprise by dancing. Wagner considered that a Meyerbeer opera was a series of effects without causes, “a monstrously piebald, historico-romantic, diabolico-religious, fanatico-voluptuous, frivolo-sacred, mysterio-jaunty, sentimento-knavish dramatic hodge-podge.” You might get the impression that Wagner disapproved. But you have only to hear Wagner’s words to understand that Meyerbeer’s time has come: no pithier description of the Postmodern sensibility exists. Rauschenberg’s goat plugged into an automobile tire, Serrano’s Piss Christ, Schnittke’s Dr. Faustus, the whole canon of Damien Hirst–what are these but more recent manifestations of the piebald, diabolico-religious, sacro-frivolous, mysterio-criminal? Maybe the patron saint of our age is Giacomo Meyerbeer. [pages 163-64]

Music Speaks is available from all good booksellers. Read more on Google Book Search.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Lessons of the Masters

As we approach the official publication date of Tully Potter's long-awaited life and times of Adolf Busch, here are two short extracts which demonstrate how Adolf and his brother Fritz were willing to learn from others. First, we join the brothers in Pyrmont:

More progress in broadening and deepening his repertoire was made that summer, when Fritz had a second season as Pyrmont Hofkapellmeister and Adolf again agreed to be his concertmaster. This time there was no chance of reinforcing the moth-eaten orchestra with young, unpaid students; worse, there was little music of good quality for the ‘court musicians’ to play. Chamber music came to the rescue. […] Fritz also arranged a small Schumann Festival, at which Adolf performed the Fantasy and the renowned tenor and reciter Ludwig Wüllner took part with his sister Anna in Manfred: the chorus was provided by visitors to the baths, augmented by the local male-voice choir. After the morning rehearsal, Fritz asked Wüllner for his comments and was told: ‘Young man, you are doubtless gifted but you have not the slightest idea what lies behind the notes of this magnificent work. The spirit, the true beauty of this music is a completely dead letter to you, and I am afraid you will never grasp it, as you are much too conceited’. That afternoon Wüllner gave Fritz a three-hour tutorial in the interpretation of Schumann’s music; and the evening concert was an experience neither of the Busch brothers ever forgot.

Most of the time, the musicians were expected to grind out selections from operettas by men such as Paul Lincke, the particular local favourite. Fortunately the chief director of Simrock, publisher of Brahms and Dvořák, was taking the waters at Pyrmont. When he heard of Fritz’s plight, he sent for the scores and parts of all Dvořák’s available orchestral works and made the young Kapellmeister a present of them. The Busch brothers already liked the Bohemian composer’s music but this chance happening led to a lasting love for it: they played it ad infinitum that summer of 1910, until the regular clientele began to complain and Kurt von Beckerath ordered Fritz to lay Dvořák aside and give the customers their usual fare. Adolf then suggested the ingenious ploy of announcing Lincke’s music on the programmes but playing Dvořák’s. All went well until Lincke, who unbeknown to the brothers had been taking the cure at Pyrmont, presented himself to Fritz and complained that he kept seeing his own name on the programme and hearing the strains of Dvořák. Adolf made a strategic exit, leaving Fritz to pacify the angry composer by suggesting a special series of Lincke evenings in the park, to be conducted by the composer himself with red illuminations; there would also be Lincke pieces in the morning concerts – which Fritz did not conduct. Thus honour was satisfied on both sides and the brothers could go back to their lodgings to play Beethoven and Bach sonatas.

A little over a year later, Adolf Busch found himself playing in New York with the great maestro, Toscanini:

Then came the most demanding test, Busch’s first concert with the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York under Toscanini, at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, 26 November. The programme would seem curious today: Mozart, Symphony No. 29; Bach, A minor Violin Concerto; Franck, ‘Morceau symphonique’ from Rédemption; interval; Beethoven; Violin Concerto; Overture, Der fliegende Holländer. During a run-through of the concertos at the Astor with Giesen at the piano, an amicable argument arose over a detail in the Bach, as Piero Weiss related:

In the last movement there was a grace note that Busch interpreted as a long grace note. Toscanini disagreed and wanted him to play an acciaccatura, not an appoggiatura – short, not long. Years later, Busch came to him and said: ‘Maestro, you were right about that note in the Bach Concerto, because I was just the other day reading Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s treatise on keyboard playing and there he quoted a passage that was exactly the same’. Toscanini said: ‘Mio caro Busch, either you feel it here’ – touching his heart – ‘or you need to read a lot of books’.

It appears that, at the concert, Busch played the disputed note Toscanini’s way. After the conductor had taken his final bow, green, pink and yellow slips of paper rained down from the top gallery, bearing the legend: ‘Long live the great Maestro Arturo Toscanini! Mussolini and his Black Shirts do not represent the spirit of Italy. Viva Arturo Toscanini!’ But Busch had his share of the evening’s ovations and cabled home: ‘Greatest success. Wonderful music-making. Maestro happy with me’. Fritz in Dresden received a similar telegram, signed by Toscanini and Kreisler – one of many string-players present. The programme was repeated on the Friday afternoon; but before then Busch had read some of the best notices of his life.

The two-volume set of Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician by Tully Potter is available from wherever good music books are sold.