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About this Piece

Ferrucio Busoni, born in Italy of an Italian father and a German mother, displayed a passion for Bach at an early age. A prodigy who played some of his own compositions in a piano recital in Vienna when he was 10 years old, Busoni made an exhaustive study of Bach’s music and throughout his adult life worked tirelessly at editing and making transcriptions of works by the Baroque master. His philosophical notions of music and the advanced practices of composition that he applied to his own pieces seem now to be at odds with such a bravura, flamboyant piece of work as his transcription for piano of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin. The transcription was made sometime in the late 1890s and was dedicated to the pianist Eugene d’Albert; Busoni himself played it frequently on his own blazingly brilliant recitals.

Lest it be thought that Busoni was being irreverent in appropriating the lofty Chaconne for showpiece purposes, one must remember that the unimpeachably ethical Brahms made a piano transcription of the selfsame piece, for left hand alone. It must be said that, whereas Brahms imitates the original as closely as possible, Busoni ventures an arrangement that seems to be a piano realization of a grand orchestral or organ work rather than one for a single violin.

In fact, the Chaconne, the final movement of the Partita, is monumental in its original version—a set of more than 60 variations on a simple bass theme. The great Bach scholar Philipp Spitta (1841-1894) gave a description of the Chaconne that might have quickened Busoni’s fascination with it. Wrote Spitta:

“The overpowering wealth of forms displays not only the most perfect knowledge of the technique of the violin, but also the most absolute mastery over an imagination the life of which no composer was ever endowed with... What scenes the small instrument opens to our view!... From the grave majesty of the beginning to the 32nd notes which rush up and down like very demons; from the tremulous arpeggios that hang almost motionless, like veiling clouds above a gloomy ravine, till a strong wind drives them to the tree tops, which groan and toss as they whirl their leaves into the air; to the devotional beauty of the movement in D major, where the evening sun sets in the peaceful valley. The spirit of the master urges the instrument to incredible utterances; at the end of the major section, it sounds like an organ, and sometimes a whole band of violins seems to be playing. [Busoni took this reference seriously.] The Chaconne is a triumph of spirit over matter such as even Bach never repeated in a more brilliant manner.”

—Orrin Howard