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8.557245 - BUSONI, F.: Songs (Bruns, Eisenlohr)
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Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924)

Although Feruccio Busoni's songs are not central to his oeuvre, they open more than marginal insights into the work of one of the greatest artistic and intellectual personalities of his epoch. Celebrated as a child prodigy, even as a new Mozart, he took upon himself, at an early age, the role of self-assured artist with a mission, and continued to grow into it throughout his life. Most of his approximately 40 songs date from his childhood and youth, until about 1885. Then Busoni composed not a single song with piano accompaniment for over 30 years, returning to the genre only late in life with several Goethe settings.

Yet between these two periods, in his main creative phase starting around the turn of the century, Busoni was occupied with the human voice and vocal expressivity: on the one hand, in sporadic choral works, such as the Piano Concerto with Male Chorus (1906), and, on the other, in his operas. He also arranged opera excerpts (mostly for piano) and folk songs (e.g., Kultaselle, variations on a Finnish folk song for cello and piano, or the Indian Diary for piano). Their melodic qualities attracted him, and he was interested in the problem of the musical transformation of text and meaning. His rejection of verismo stems from this attitude; music should rise above the mere representation of human experience. He always tried to come to grips with the essence of a thing, in order to give it new expression. Hammering out his own compositional style in this fashion, his strong sense of self-confidence was as important as the persevering encouragement of his parents and teachers or the disciplined study of the works of Bach, Mozart and Liszt.

Busoni felt the need to give his music architectural form from his early youth. His desire for clear structures can already be seen in 'Des Sängers Fluch', which represents a tremendous challenge set for himself by a barely 12-year-old boy. Sections are marked by returning, lightly varied themes, melodic material is assimilated and developed. Powerful and less mature ideas are about equally present, and they impress more by their abundance than by their dramaturgical structure. Nevertheless, the impression prevails of a powerful spirit who has created a work of fascinating atmosphere, if only moderate interest.

About 18 months later (1879), 'Wer hat das erste Lied erdacht'was composed. It harks back somewhat to Schumann. Vigorous vocal lines heavy with sentiment flow over a pianistically demanding accompaniment which corresponds almost naturalistically to the poetry. The same can be said about 'Bin ein fahrender Geselle', in which rhythmic concision is united with musicianly joie de vivre.

Busoni, the gifted pianist of almost boundless powers, naturally influenced Busoni the composer. His melodies are primarily instrumental, not vocal. It is most likely this aspect of his art that earned him a reputation, especially in Italy, as too "German" a composer. This tension shows up in the four songs composed between 1879 and 1884, Album Vocale Op. 30. One's ears perk up at a recurrent melodic Italianità, but a moment later a thrilling or moving musical idea is robbed of its natural effect by the young man's compositional ambition. Still, the melodic and atmospheric self-sufficiency and the formal clarity of each of the four songs is endearing. The listener's attention is drawn primarily to the musical setting, so that the poor quality of the first three texts seems less important. Arrigo Boito's concise and graphic language in the closing Ballatella seems, on the other hand, to have especially inspired Busoni.

In the 1880s, the teenager's curiosity and wide-ranging interests are mirrored in his choice of texts. A certain unencumbered, youthful sentimentality, in tune with the times, shows how Busoni was still finding his way as a composer, trying out his craft and integrating a variety of influences into his style.

This also applies to the setting of the medieval text by Neidhard von Reuenthal, 'Wohlauf, der kühle Winter ist vergangen' (1884). And yet, this song appeals immmediately to the listener by its carefree, charming good-humour and its archaizing melodies.

The two Hebräische Lieder Op. 15, composed in the same year, probably to Busoni's own translations of famous poems by Lord Byron, seek yet again a completely different world of sound and expression. 'Ich sah die Träne' remains stuck in a kitschy, sentimental pose, not least because of the poem's backward-looking stance. Busoni strings short phrases together without dramatic rigour. He achieves a far better effect with longer phrases, richer in musical substance, in 'An Babylons Wassern'. Here, too, he employs the "Hebraic" augmented second a little too prominently, but achieves convincing intensity with beautifully arching melodies and arresting rhythmic figures, as well as with dynamics and colouring rich in fantasy. By all these means the song becomes equally attractive for performers and listeners.

'Es ist bestimmt in Gottes Rat' is a strange poem, which only takes on contours through Busoni's contrapuntal, carefully-phrased setting. The funeral march in the piano and the simple vocal line leave behind a calm, serious and solemn impression. More than a year later, in the summer of 1885, something like compositional mastery flashes out in the 19-year-old's 'Lied des Monmouth'. He stages Fontane's poem to great effect with a build-up through the whole song, which reaches an incisive conclusion in a defiant, bitter punch-line. One notes how Busoni's mind was teeming with ideas, which he was able, through an effort of the will, to tame into a form. This pleasure in the will's accomplishment reveals itself to the listener as well.

Busoni composed no more songs with piano accompaniment until 1917. He rejected the all-too-bourgeois small form, not least because he found himself incapable of contributing anything decisively new. He sought his own path as a composer in works for piano, various chamber ensembles, and orchestra. Only during his work on the opera Dr. Faust did he find a language which permitted him to write songs which were more than "footnotes to the text". He didn't wish to be merely subjected to the text, but rather to take a substantial part in its statement of content.

In an epoch constantly in search of symphonic dimensions, the Busoni of the Goethe-Lieder had instrumental colours in mind. On the other hand, in these songs he breaks with the late-Romantic tradition of a Hugo Wolf or Othmar Schoeck, whose piano-parts almost always are vehicles for the psychological illumination of and commentary on the text. Busoni gives the piano an accompanying function, but one which is tightly bound up with the vocal line. The melody conveys the texts clearly, expressively, but relatively simply. The music is thus completely connected with the text, and struggles with it at the same time; the song is, semantically and dramaturgically, utterly moulded by the text. Vocal line (melody), rhythmic shape and harmony do not arise from independent musical inspiration, but rather from Busoni's absolute will to convert the essence of Goethe's idea into a new expression in his own language. His uncompromisingness in this respect may appear wearying to the listener, even when content and actual sound give no reason for it. He consciously required an active engagement on the part of the listener and interpreter, an opening-up to content and materials.

Busoni was a personality of compelling and dominating charisma, not entirely free of vanity. This is strikingly illustrated by the appended 'Reminiscenza Rossiniana'. Written as a birthday greeting in 1923 to his friend and later biographer Edward Dent, these brief lines of music, tossed off with verve and mastery, reveal a witty and, depite its precision, relaxed sense of humour, which we may be inclined to overlook in this enormously self-possessed, strong-willed genius.

Martin Bruns
English translation: Glen Wilson

Sung texts and translations are available as PDF files online at

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