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Busoni as Pianist

Busoni as Pianist

Grigory Kogan
Translated and Annotated by Svetlana Belsky
Volume: 73
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 197
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    Busoni as Pianist
    Book Description:

    Ferruccio Busoni is most widely known today as the composer of such works as the Second Violin Sonata, the incidental music for Gozzi's ‘Turandot’, and the most monumental piano concerto in the repertory (some eighty minutes long, with male chorus in the finale). But Busoni was also renowned in his day as an author and pedagogue and, most especially, as a pianist. Busoni's recordings of pieces by Chopin and Liszt-and of his own arrangements of keyboard works by Bach and Beethoven-are much prized and studied today by connoisseurs of piano playing. Yet even his most important biographers have cast only a cursory glance at the pianistic aspect of Busoni's fascinating career. Grigory Kogan's book ‘Busoni as Pianist’ (published in Russian in 1964, and here translated for the first time) was and remains the first and only study to concentrate exclusively on Busoni's contributions to the world of the piano. ‘Busoni as Pianist’ summarizes reviews of Busoni's playing and his own writings on the subject. It also closely analyzes the surviving piano rolls and recordings, and examines Busoni's editions, arrangements, and pedagogical output. As such, it will be of interest to pianists, teachers and students of the piano, historians, and all who love piano music and the art of piano playing. Grigory Kogan (1901-79) was a leading Soviet pianist and music critic. A conservatory professor at the age of twenty-one, Kogan created the first-ever course in Russia dealing with the history and theory of pianism. Through his brilliant lectures, his concert performances, and his many books, articles, and reviews, Kogan influenced an entire generation of Soviet pianists. Svetlana Belsky is a teacher and performer, and is coordinator of Piano Studies at the University of Chicago.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-756-8
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword Grigory Mikhailovich Kogan (1901–1979)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Nina Svetlanova

    I had the privilege of meeting Grigory Mikhailovich when I was a small child taking piano lessons with his wife, Sofia. Soon I became his student, as well. Since that time, and until his death, he was my teacher, my mentor, and my dear friend.

    Kogan was one of the most remarkable figures of his time. As a man of extraordinary scholarship, he spoke many languages, and was also a pianist, lecturer, critic, and pedagogue, the author of many books on a variety of subjects, ranging from The Psychological Requisites for Pianistic Success, The Texture of the Piano, to Ferrucio...

  4. Preface: Grigory Kogan: His Life and Times
    (pp. ix-xxii)
    Svetlana Belsky
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxiii-2)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 3-6)

    Among the most prominent performing musicians whose fame history has preserved, it is difficult to name one whose art aroused as stormy and contradictory a reaction among contemporaries as that of Ferruccio Busoni, the German-Italian pianist of the turn of the century. His activities—not only performance but also composition, pedagogy, and musicology—constantly attracted the attention of the musical world, sparked passions, and created an extensive literature. His book Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetic der Tonkunst [Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music] excites a lively polemic in the press;¹ his idea for the reform of keyboard notation (Versuch einer...

  7. Chapter One [Busoni’s childhood and youth, 1866–88.]
    (pp. 7-12)

    Busoni did not become an innovator all at once. The beginnings of his activity took place under very different artistic ideals. Let us look first at this time—the childhood, adolescence, and youth of our hero.

    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...

  8. Chapter Two [Finland and Moscow, 1889–94.]
    (pp. 13-16)

    His two-year long sojourn in Finland’s capital played a large role in Busoni’s biography. An acquaintance with the country’s folk music,¹ closeness with a number of Finnish musicians—Wegelius, Kajanus, Järnefelt,² and others, a closeness, which, with one of them—Sibelius—grew into lifelong friendship, opened new horizons for Busoni, and began the process of eroding the foundations of his then rather conservative musical worldview.

    Among other events of Busoni’s life in Helsingfors,³ in 1889 he met the daughter of the Swedish sculptor,⁴ Gerda Sjöstrand,⁵ who, in one year’s time became his wife.⁶

    During the stay in Finland, which was...

  9. Chapter Three [Berlin: Busoni’s emergence as a great pianist.]
    (pp. 17-18)

    Now settled in Berlin, Busoni renewed his concertizing, appearing before the public as a much-transformed pianist. During the years described in the previous chapter, his playing offended or irritated no one, nor did it make a particularly strong, extraordinary impression. Now it had become an important artistic phenomenon, which, while it provoked heated arguments, also attracted ever-greater world attention.

    The first considerable success came to Busoni in 1898, after his Berlin cycle dedicated to the “historical development of the piano concerto”; the cycle consisted of four evenings, during which the artist performed with orchestra fourteen concertos of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven,...

  10. Chapter Four [Busoni’s technique: Piano orchestration, tone production.]
    (pp. 19-22)

    The most indisputable quality of Busoni’s pianism was his technique. There were no disagreements in its estimation. Both the rapturous admirers and the fierce detractors of the artist were united in the opinion that the technical achievements of his playing “defy description and comparison with any of the contemporary pianists,” that such technique was “never before possessed by any pianist.” “His technical perfection is fantastic, especially the octaves. There can be no doubt that Busoni has no competition—Rosenthal’s technique seems childish after Busoni.” “One needs to play the piano for thirty years to properly appreciate Busoni’s playing,” as a...

  11. Chapter Five [Busoni’s repertoire: An anti-Romantic approach.]
    (pp. 23-26)

    Despite individual (sometimes significant) differences between the virtuosos of that epoch, the vast majority of them were trained in the traditions of Romanticism. However, the times of the flowering of this style in piano playing, the times of Liszt and Rubinstein were already past, and the style leaned toward decadence. The concert repertoire consisted of a limited number of composers and compositions. The classicism of the eighteenth century seemed a cold and obsolete art, Bach—an esteemed museum relic. “How many of his works can no longer appeal to us!” wrote the famous pianist Eugen d’Albert in the foreword to...

  12. Chapter Six [Busoni’s interpretation of Beethoven, Liszt, and Chopin.]
    (pp. 27-32)

    The peculiarities of Busoni-the-interpreter, clearly evident in the matter of what he played, stand in even sharper relief in how he played it. Here, the performer’s “great personality,” his “giant, brilliant, and original individuality” left an inimitable stamp on his “unusually personal,” “uniquely special and independent” renditions. “Going to hear other pianists, even the great ones, we usually know quite well exactly how this or that piece will be played and get ourselves on a particular track in advance. Busoni, however, pushes us off that track: everything with him is more or less unexpected . . . acquiring a new...

  13. Chapter Seven [Busoni’s interpretations. Textural liberties.]
    (pp. 33-37)

    As related in the previous chapter, Busoni was criticized for “liberties” of two varieties: departing from the commonly accepted, traditional interpretations, the “inheritance of the great interpreters,” on the one hand, and altering the original text, on the other.

    The first reproach should not be taken too seriously. Any true artist, an artist-performer included, without exception, differs in some way from his predecessors and necessarily departs from their accomplishments; otherwise, his “creations” would have no greater value than exact repetitions of the Ninth Symphony or War and Peace. “The ‘new’ is included in the idea of ‘Creation.’ . . ....

  14. Chapter Eight [Busoni’s interpretations of Bach. Articulation.]
    (pp. 38-42)

    “Of course, technically he is practically flawless. Undoubtedly, his interpretation is original, personal and individual. Still, this sun does not give warmth, it blinds. Busoni’s performance lacks spontaneity, enthusiasm, pathos, as well as expressivity, gentleness, or grace. Listening to him, one always feels acutely interested in his interpretation, but almost never—impassioned or captivated.”¹

    The same opinions are heard in a number of other reviews: “The most power in his performance belongs to thought, not to the heart. . . . But what we want from music is what is felt, not what is thought. . . . And here,...

  15. Chapter Nine [Rhythm and dynamics.]
    (pp. 43-46)

    The questions of rhythm and dynamics play an important role in any system of musical interpretation.

    Most pianists in the epoch in question built their playing on rhythmic and dynamic “waves,” made into a principle by Leschetitzky. Busoni rejects this principle.¹ He classifies constant rubatos, “coquettish” “long established” quickenings and retards, “well-rounded” ritardandos and accelerandos, “surging” beginnings and “melting” ends as bad taste. Himself playing, according to the critics, “extremely metrically,” he demands of others—especially in Bach—“consistent motion,” “strictly rhythmical playing,” distinct articulation of every eighth note, conjunct, nonarpeggiated chords: “it is especially important to make sure that...

  16. Chapter Ten [Busoni’s recording of the Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase.]
    (pp. 47-54)

    In 1904, M. Welte, a Freiburg manufacturer, built an apparatus he called “Welte-Mignon” designed to record and reproduce piano playing by means of piano rolls.¹ This method of recording had a number of disadvantages compared to the acoustical,² but also some advantages; in particular, it registers various elements of the performance (such as rhythm, tempo, basic dynamics, partially even pedaling) in a manner that allows exact measurement, and, therefore, analysis.³

    In 1905 Busoni recorded a number of piano rolls, including Liszt’s Rigoletto. In 1906, the same composition was recorded by the famous Russian pianist Annette Essipoff (1851–1914),⁴ the student...

  17. Chapter Eleven [Technical phrasing.]
    (pp. 55-59)

    As we have already seen, while Busoni’s interpretations ignited important arguments, his technique was unanimously acknowledged to be unique in the pianistic world. Therefore, familiarity with his views on this aspect of pianism, his recommendations regarding devices and methods of technical work are of great interest.

    Busoni considered technique not the preeminent, but a very significant aspect of piano playing. In his article “On the Requirements Necessary for a Pianist” and in his review of Galston’s Work Book¹ he wrote:

    No, technique is not and never will be the Alpha and Omega of piano-playing, any more than it is with...

  18. Chapter Twelve [Technical variants.]
    (pp. 60-72)

    The second important link in Busoni’s technical “system” is the so-called method of technical variants. Following Liszt’s legacy¹ again, Busoni counsels every pianist, in working out a difficult passage, to invent textural variants for them and use these as helpful exercises and etudes. As examples, he offers his own technical variants to Preludes I, II, III, V, VI, XV, and XXI of Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach,² to Etudes, Op. 10, nos. 1, 2, 7, 8, and 9 and to Prelude, Op. 28, no. 3 of Chopin.³

    This method of technical work is echoed by other great...

  19. Chapter Thirteen [Fingering, pedal.]
    (pp. 73-81)

    The technique of a great artist can never be a thing in itself, separate, independent of art as a whole; it is always closely related to that art, adapted for the expression of the creative worldview, ideas, and intentions of the artist.

    At the bottom of Busoni’s technical system was the same principle of thinking in “large unities,” in blocks, that underlies his interpretations.¹ “Technical phrasing” subdivides a passage into groupings; Prelude XV of the first Book of the Well-Tempered Clavier:

    is turned into blocks by means of the following “technical variant”:

    The same principle reigns in Busoni’s fingering. The...

  20. Chapter Fourteen [Compositions, transcriptions, editions, teaching, writings.]
    (pp. 82-91)

    Let us now return to describing Busoni’s activities after he moved from America to Europe and settled in Berlin. Piano playing, to which we have devoted so much attention on the preceding pages, was the Master’s central occupation, but far from the only one during these years. He continued to devote a great deal of attention to the field of musical creation, to composition. The change that he had undergone in his artistic worldview made its mark here, too: his composing went down a new road. He ardently attempted to disavow everything he wrote earlier. “. . . In the...

  21. Chapter Fifteen [Busoni’s esthetics.]
    (pp. 92-97)

    We have now completed the description of Busoni’s twenty-year sojourn in Berlin—the period of the greatest blossoming of his talents, the final development, full unfolding, and solidification of the most important and best aspects of his art. It is time to take stock, to analyze the nature of Busoni’s pianistic and compositional endeavors and the essence of his esthetic views.*

    The cardinal question of any esthetic is the question of the relationship of art and life. Is art a reflection and an expression of life, or is it a collection of purely formal, “unexpressive” constructions, unconnected to human thoughts...

  22. Chapter Sixteen [Busoni’s esthetics, continued.]
    (pp. 98-100)

    What was the nature of the “face“ hiding behind the masks of Busoni’s “old“ and the “new” artistic principles? What was the real, as opposed to the imagined, pathos of his art?

    This pathos was in his struggle against the Academic and Neoclassical Romanticism that reigned in art between the end of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth centuries. This was the stylistic hybrid whose self-indulgent passions swallowed and dissolved both the intense ardor of Romanticism and the joyful freshness of Classicism. Busoni was not the first among composers, but first among pianists to acutely sense the...

  23. Chapter Seventeen [World War I. Operas.]
    (pp. 101-107)

    World War I, which began in August 1914, did not immediately bring great changes in Busoni’s life. In January 1915 he undertook a long concert tour of America. However, he was unable to return home: during his absence Italy declared war on Germany, and the road to Berlin was closed to the Italian Busoni. Instead, like some other artists (d’Albert, Masereel,¹ Romain Rolland), he went to Switzerland and settled in Zurich for the remainder of the war.

    The slaughter into which capitalism dragged humanity shook Busoni profoundly. To his honor, he did not succumb to the lies of the chauvinistic...

  24. Chapter Eighteen [Busoni’s final years, 1918–24.]
    (pp. 108-111)

    The war ended in 1918. Busoni was able to depart his Swiss confinement and resume concert tours of various countries. Europe, slowly reviving from the carnage, hastened to reclaim its surviving cultural values. Intellectual elites everywhere show the Master their respect, admiration, and love. The University of Zurich awards him an honorary doctorate. London welcomes his return to the concert stage with a series of essays by Edward Dent. The German premiere of Turandot and Arlecchino (in Frankfurt on October 15, 1918) signals the start of an energetic campaign for Busoni’s repatriation to Berlin. Papers and journals, in a series...

  25. Conclusion
    (pp. 112-114)

    Busoni’s place in history is based on his accomplishments during his period of artistic maturity—during the second and, partially, the third stages of his life. An artist of genius, one of the four or five greatest in the entire history of piano playing, he elevated the field of pianistic virtuosity to unseen heights, created unforgettable examples of interpreting Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. He enriched piano literature with wonderful editions and transcriptions, wrote a substantial amount of interesting music; his book and his many essays contain fascinating observations, interesting ideas, and valuable thoughts. And much of what he brought...

  26. Annotated Discography
    (pp. 115-120)
  27. Notes
    (pp. 121-158)
  28. Bibliography
    (pp. 159-164)
  29. Translator’s Bibliography
    (pp. 165-168)
  30. Index
    (pp. 169-172)
  31. Back Matter
    (pp. 173-175)