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Length: 22 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic
performance: Feb. 17, 1972, with
violinist Jaime Laredo, Zubin Mehta conducting
Ferruccio Busoni is all over the map of early musical modernism. A touring virtuoso before he reached his teenage years, he made Berlin his primary home but had brief stints in Leipzig, Moscow, Boston, Zurich, and Paris. In each case he made his mark on local culture as performer, pedagogue, and philosopher. The 1897 Violin Concerto, his only effort in this genre, was composed during the early Berlin years and dedicated to violinist Henri Petri, father of pianist and Busoni friend Egon Petri. Though the listener may not hear many hints of the cultural ferment that was to develop in the next two decades (and that Busoni was so much a part of), the Concerto does reflect another aspect of the composer's life: his immersion in performance. Dissatisfied with his command of the piano, he retired from concertizing to develop a new approach to both technique and interpretation, eventually becoming "the first of the great modern pianists," according to music critic Harold Schonberg. And though this concerto was not composed for Busoni's own instrument, his experience as a virtuoso certainly affected his approach to the genre.
Given Busoni's centrality to so many important ideas and figures in musical culture, it is ironic that his own musical style is so hard to pin down. As musicologist Christopher Hailey puts it: "Busoni was a classicist; his musical models were, first and foremost, Bach and Mozart, his highest priorities clarity of form and a limpid contrapuntal texture." Yet it was Busoni who proclaimed: "Music was born free, and to win freedom is its destiny." The new classicism he argued for shared theoretical space with arguments for an expansion of the chromatic scale, for electronic instruments, and for more freedom in the treatment of form and musical development.
In keeping with these seeming paradoxes, his Violin Concerto is a work that is easier to define for what it doesn't do than what it does. It is neither romantic nor modern; it neither breaks new ground nor clings to the past. It acknowledges tradition but within a modern consciousness - something like the attitude Busoni took toward his pianistic interpretations: "You start from false premises in thinking it is my intention to 'modernize' the works. On the contrary, by cleaning them of the dust of tradition, I try to restore them their youth." And the composer's personal preoccupations are evident throughout: the virtuoso's touch in the work's soaring phrases and idiomatic gestures; the classicist's in its sense of proportion and internal logic.
Three broad sections correspond to traditional movements. The opening theme, presented by woodwinds and horns, embodies the concerto's larger qualities: it is a singing line, evocative of the composer's Italian heritage, with slightly irregular turns of harmony and phrase structure. Built around a small melodic kernel, from which everything else seems to unfold, it is a perfect example of one of Busoni's compositional principles: "Every motive - so it seems to me - contains, like a seed, its life-germ within itself." The violin enters shortly and wastes no time in establishing a virtuoso presence, stretching out into sweeping arpeggiated figures. For the most part, the relationship between soloist and orchestra remains conventional, the ensemble acting as a backdrop and a framework within which the more nimble soloist cavorts. The mood changes dramatically as the opening gives way to a dynamic march. The Andante section is sublimely beautiful, with a long melody that unwinds gracefully, just touched with bits of wind color. There are moments in which Busoni uses the solo violin and woodwinds in gentle harmonies that are inspired, even Mozartian. A cadenza gradually makes its way upward and is suspended above the orchestra just before the Allegro impetuoso plunges into a dialogue between low strings and cascading violin passages, tweaked with syncopation. A particular feature of this last movement is the extraordinary - almost Mendelssohnian - skittishness with which the violin and winds approach the development of the themes. In the final più presto, the orchestra's discreet chords allow the soloist all the glory.
Susan Key is a musicologist specializing in 20th-century American music, and a co-curator of the Los Angeles Philhar-monic's Inside/Outside seminar series.