Ferruccio Busoni 1 April — 27 July was an Italian composer , pianist , conductor, editor, writer, and teacher. His international career and reputation led him to work closely with many of the leading musicians, artists and literary figures of his time, and he was a sought-after keyboard instructor and a teacher of composition. From an early age, Busoni was an outstanding if sometimes controversial pianist. After brief periods teaching in Helsinki , Boston, and Moscow, he devoted himself to composing, teaching, and touring as a virtuoso pianist in Europe and the United States.
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Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as possible, including inconsistencies in spelling and hyphenation; changes corrections of spelling and punctuation made to the original text are marked like this. The original text appears when hovering the cursor over the marked text. Translated from the German by Dr. Copyright, By G. Loosely joined together as regards literary form, the following notes are, in reality, the outcome of convictions long held and slowly matured.
In them a problem of the first magnitude is formulated with apparent simplicity, without giving the key to its final solution; for the problem cannot be solved for generations—if at all. But it involves an innumerable series of lesser problems, which I present to the consideration of those whom they may concern. For it is a long time since any one has devoted himself to earnest musical research.
It is true, that admirable works of genius arise in every period, and I have always taken my stand in the front rank of those who joyfully acclaimed the passing standard-bearers; and still it seems to me that of all these beautiful paths leading so far afield—none lead upward. The spirit of an art-work, the measure of emotion, of humanity, that is in it—these remain unchanged in value through changing years; the form which these three assumed, the manner of their expression, and the flavor of the epoch which gave them birth, are transient, and age rapidly.
Spirit and emotion retain their essence, in the art-work as in man himself; we admire technical achievements, yet they are outstripped, or cloy the taste and are discarded. There is nothing properly modern—only things which have come into being earlier or later; longer in bloom, or sooner withered.
The Modern and the Old have always been. Art-forms are the more lasting, the more closely they adhere to the nature of their individual species of art, the purer they keep their essential means and ends. Sculpture relinquishes the expression of the human pupil, and effects of color; painting degenerates, when it forsakes the flat surface in depiction and takes on complexity in theatrical decoration or panoramic portrayal.
Architecture has its fundamental form, growth from below upward, prescribed by static necessity; window and roof necessarily provide the intermediate and finishing configuration; these are eternal and inviolable requirements of the art. Poetry commands the abstract thought, which it clothes in words. More independent than the others, it reaches the furthest bounds.
But all arts, resources and forms ever aim at the one end, namely, the imitation of nature and the interpretation of human feelings. Architecture, sculpture, poetry and painting are old and mature arts; their conceptions are established and their objects assured; they have found the way through uncounted centuries, and, like the planets, describe their regular orbits.
Music, compared with them, is a child that has learned to walk, but must still be led. It is a virgin art, without experience in life and suffering. It is all unconscious as yet of what garb is becoming, of its own advantages, its unawakened capacities. And again, it is a child-marvel that is already able to dispense much of beauty, that has already brought joy to many, and whose gifts are commonly held to have attained full maturity.
And we have talked of them for a long time! We have formulated rules, stated principles, laid down laws;—we apply laws made for maturity to a child that knows nothing of responsibility! Young as it is, this child, we already recognize that it possesses one radiant attribute which signalizes it beyond all its elder sisters.
And the lawgivers will not see this marvelous attribute, lest their laws should be thrown to the winds. This child—it floats on air! It touches not the earth with its feet. It knows no law of gravitation. It is wellnigh incorporeal. Its material is transparent. It is sonorous air. It is almost Nature herself. It is—free. But freedom is something that mankind have never wholly comprehended, never realized to the full.
They can neither recognize nor acknowledge it. They disavow the mission of this child; they hang weights upon it. This buoyant creature must walk decently, like anybody else. It may scarcely be allowed to leap—when it were its joy to follow the line of the rainbow, and to break sunbeams with the clouds.
Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny. It will become the most complete of all reflexes of Nature by reason of its untrammeled immateriality. Even the poetic word ranks lower in point of incorporealness. It can gather together and disperse, can be motionless repose or wildest tempestuosity; it has the extremest heights perceptible to man—what other art has these? It realizes a temperament, without describing it, with the mobility of the soul, with the swiftness of consecutive moments; and this, where painter or sculptor can represent only one side or one moment, and the poet tardily communicates a temperament and its manifestations by words.
Therefore, representation and description are not the nature of music; herewith we declare the invalidity of program-music, and arrive at the question: What are the aims of music? Absolute Music! What the lawgivers mean by this, is perhaps remotest of all from the Absolute in music. But Form, in itself, is the opposite pole of absolute music, on which was bestowed the divine prerogative of buoyancy, of freedom from the limitations of matter.
In a picture, the illustration of a sunset ends with the frame; the limitless natural phenomenon is enclosed in quadrilateral bounds; the cloud-form chosen for depiction remains unchanging for ever.
Music can grow brighter or darker, shift hither or yon, and finally fade away like the sunset glow itself; and instinct leads the creative musician to employ the tones that press the same key within the human breast, and awaken the same response, as the processes in Nature. Methinks I hear the second violin struggling, a fourth below, to emulate the more dexterous first, and contending in needless contest merely to arrive at the starting-point.
The composers sought and found this form as the aptest vehicle for communicating their ideas; their souls took flight—and the lawgivers discover and cherish the garments Euphorion left behind on earth. Is it not singular, to demand of a composer originality in all things, and to forbid it as regards form?
Such lust of liberation filled Beethoven, the romantic revolutionary, that he ascended one short step on the way leading music back to its loftier self:—a short step in the great task, a wide step in his own path.
He did not quite reach absolute music, but in certain moments he divined it, as in the introduction to the fugue of the Sonata for Hammerclavier. Indeed, all composers have drawn nearest the true nature of music in preparatory and intermediary passages preludes and transitions , where they felt at liberty to disregard symmetrical proportions, and unconsciously drew free breath.
Even a Schumann of so much lower stature is seized, in such passages, by some feeling of the boundlessness of this pan-art recall the transition to the last movement of the D-minor Symphony ; and the same may be asserted of Brahms in the introduction to the Finale of his First Symphony.
But, the moment they cross the threshold of the Principal Subject , their attitude becomes stiff and conventional, like that of a man entering some bureau of high officialdom. Therefore, Bach and Beethoven [E] are to be conceived as a beginning , and not as unsurpassable finalities. In spirit and emotion they will probably remain unexcelled; and this, again, confirms the remark at the beginning of these lines: That spirit and emotion remain unchanged in value through changing years, and that he who mounts to their uttermost heights will always tower above the crowd.
What still remains to be surpassed, is their form of expression and their freedom. Wagner, a Germanic Titan, who touched our earthly horizon in orchestral tone-effect, who intensified the form of expression, but fashioned it into a system music-drama, declamation, leading-motive , is on this account incapable of further intensification. His category begins and ends with himself; first, because he carried it to the highest perfection and finish; secondly, because his self-imposed task was of such a nature, that it could be achieved by one man alone.
They—like all things in creation—may form only a circle; but a circle of such dimensions, that the portion visible to us seems like a straight line.
Wagner's circle we can view in its entirety—a circle within the great circle. The name of Wagner leads to program-music. In reality, program-music is precisely as one-sided and limited as that which is called absolute. In place of architectonic and symmetric formulas, instead of the relation of Tonic to Dominant, it has bound itself in the stays of a connecting poetic—sometimes even philosophic—program. Every motive—so it seems to me—contains, like a seed, its life-germ within itself.
From the different plant-seeds grow different families of plants, dissimilar in form, foliage, blossom, fruit, growth and color. Even each individual plant belonging to one and the same species assumes, in size, form and strength, a growth peculiar to itself.
And so, in each motive, there lies the embryo of its fully developed form; each one must unfold itself differently, yet each obediently follows the law of eternal harmony. This form is imperishable, though each be unlike every other. The motive in a composition with program bears within itself the same natural necessity; but it must, even in its earliest phase of development, renounce its own proper mode of growth to mould—or, rather, twist—itself to fit the needs of the program.
Thus turned aside, at the outset, from the path traced by nature, it finally arrives at a wholly unexpected climax, whither it has been led, not by its own organization, but by the way laid down in the program, or the action, or the philosophical idea.
And how primitive must this art remain! True, there are unequivocal descriptive effects of tone-painting from these the entire principle took its rise , but these means of expression are few and trivial, covering but a very small section of musical art. Begin with the most self-evident of all, the debasement of Tone to Noise in imitating the sounds of Nature—the rolling of thunder, the roar of forests, the cries of animals; then those somewhat less evident, symbolic—imitations of visual impressions, like the lightning-flash, springing movement, the flight of birds; again, those intelligible only through the mediation of the reflective brain, such as the trumpet-call as a warlike symbol, the shawm to betoken ruralism, march-rhythm to signify measured strides, the chorale as vehicle for religious feeling.
Add to the above the characterization of nationalities—national instruments and airs—and we have a complete inventory of the arsenal of program-music. Movement and repose, minor and major, high and low, in their customary significance, round out the list.
And, after all, what can the presentation of a little happening upon this earth, the report concerning an annoying neighbor—no matter whether in the next room or in an adjoining quarter of the globe—have in common with that music which pervades the universe?
To music, indeed, it is given to set in vibration our human moods: Dread Leporello , oppression of soul, invigoration, lassitude Beethoven's last Quartets , decision Wotan , hesitation, despondency, encouragement, harshness, tenderness, excitement, tranquillization, the feeling of surprise or expectancy, and still others; likewise the inner echo of external occurrences which is bound up in these moods of the soul.
But not the moving cause itself of these spiritual affections;—not the joy over an avoided danger, not the danger itself, or the kind of danger which caused the dread; an emotional state, yes, but not the psychic species of this emotion, such as envy, or jealousy; and it is equally futile to attempt the expression, through music, of moral characteristics vanity, cleverness , or abstract ideas like truth and justice.
Is it possible to imagine how a poor, but contented man could be represented by music? And Music is a part of the vibrating universe. I may be allowed to subjoin a few subsidiary reflections:—The greater part of modern theatre music suffers from the mistake of seeking to repeat the scenes passing on the stage, instead of fulfilling its own proper mission of interpreting the soul-states of the persons represented. When the scene presents the illusion of a thunderstorm, this is exhaustively apprehended by the eye.
Nevertheless, nearly all composers strive to depict the storm in tones—which is not only a needless and feebler repetition, but likewise a failure to perform their true function. The person on the stage is either psychically influenced by the thunderstorm, or his mood, being absorbed in a train of thought of stronger influence, remains unaffected.
The storm is visible and audible without aid from music; it is the invisible and inaudible, the spiritual processes of the personages portrayed, which music should render intelligible. Suppose a theatrical situation in which a convivial company is passing at night and disappears from view, while in the foreground a silent, envenomed duel is in progress. Here the music, by means of continuing song, should keep in mind the jovial company now lost to sight; the acts and feelings of the pair in the foreground may be understood without further commentary, and the music—dramatically speaking—ought not to participate in their action and break the tragic silence.
Measurably justified, in my opinion, is the plan of the old opera, which concentrated and musically rounded out the passions aroused by a moving dramatic scene in a piece of set form the aria. Word and stage-play conveyed the dramatic progress of the action, followed more or less meagrely by musical recitative; arrived at the point of rest, music resumed the reins. This is less extrinsic than some would now have us believe. Notation, the writing out of compositions, is primarily an ingenious expedient for catching an inspiration, with the purpose of exploiting it later.
But notation is to improvisation as the portrait to the living model.
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The Essence of Music, and Other Papers
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The Essence of Music and Other Papers by Busoni Ferruccio Ley Rosamond
Essence of Music and Other Papers