Prophets, With and Without a Fatherland
Busoni, Bartók and Sibelius
A waltz for the ages: Ferruccio Busoni
“I make little use of modern music,” Hermann Hesse confessed in 1952, “my interest stops at about Ravel and Bartók, but on the radio I listen to some new music not without interest. Of the already almost forgotten modern composers, I love Busoni and Berg.” Apparently forgetting also has its cycles. Alban Berg is ubiquitous on concert programmes with his slender but rich oeuvre. Ferruccio Busoni, on the other hand, has to be content with the ambivalent posthumous reputation of an unknown great. Only a few of his numerous compositions haunt the repertoire as rarities: every performance becomes a discovery. For example, the Tanz-Walzer op. 53, which the Berliner Philharmoniker premiered under Busoni in the (old) Philharmonie on 13 January 1921 – and completely ignored after that: 100 years of silence.
As Busoni himself recounted, the Tanz-Walzer “was originally written in jest (and as a personal test of my own lighter talents), inspired by strains of a waltz issuing from inside a coffee-house, heard while walking in the street. ... The work is dedicated to the memory of Johann Strauss, whom the composer sincerely admires.” Busoni’s suite of waltzes amounts to more of a mega- or meta-Strauss, however. Busoni knew how to ennoble the light, fleeting, old-fashioned character of the dance with a sense of grandeur, light and shadow, classicism and decadence, to idealize it, to elevate it from the moment to the monumental. Everything has its place in this Tanz-Walzer: melodious grace, urbane elegance, Hoffmannesque irony, thrilling energy, the bad omen and the melancholy of bidding farewell (to an era).
Every lie bounces off this artistry: Béla Bartók
Who was the greatest composer of the 20th century? One day the violinist Yehudi Menuhin was confronted with this question. The person he was talking to was none other than Jean Sibelius. An awkward situation, since the questioner was himself one of the prominent artistic figures of his day. But the greatest? Menuhin was saved from embarrassment when Sibelius answered for him without further ado: “Bartók is our greatest composer.” Béla Bartók was by no means regarded as a prophet in his fatherland during his lifetime, however. He had to endure being branded as “cosmopolitan”, “unpatriotic” and a “corrupter of youth”, since his understanding of Hungarian music, which was influenced by his painstaking research on folk music, was incompatible with the nationalist Romantic ideas of his countrymen. In the face of this aggressive propaganda Bartók felt like a stranger in his own land: “Where politics begin, art and science come to an end, equity and good faith cease to exist.” Even before he went into American exile, Bartók chose the path of inner emigration.
With a “visionary insight into the very nature of musical logic” confirmed by his student Sándor Veress, Bartók was able to generalize the unwritten laws, the typical characteristics, even the performance style of folk music from the individual case of a particular song or dance and to write compositions for which musical folklore was not merely exotic seasoning but an inner compass. The Second Violin Concerto is such a work. Bartók was encouraged to compose this concerto, which dates from 1937/38, by the violinist Zoltán Székely. At first Bartók planned only a single movement, a set of variations – presumably the original version of the Andante tranquillo. Then, however, he complied with Székely’s request for a “standard” three-movement violin concerto and began composing the opening Allegro non troppo. Bartók patterned its first theme after a type of slow dance which he had heard in Transylvania. He devised a twelve-tone row as the second theme, without drawing the rigid conclusions of Schoenberg’s doctrine from this idea, however. The themes from the first movement return in the finale, which is structured as a “free variation”.
With his music, as concrete as it is radical, thousandfold thought-out, tested and shaped, Bartók created an alternative world which did not merely survive all ideologies and regimes but fundamentally questioned them. Dictators come and go, but Bartók’s musical truths remain unassailable; every lie bounces off this artistry. It shows a sense of responsibility – no note is superfluous, no bar unconsidered – which explains even his works for the youngest, for beginners on the piano, and treats them with the same seriousness, the same passion as the avant-garde compositions in which even virtuosos recognize their limits.
The movement of the water determines the shape of the river bed: Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius indisputably deserves the status and title of Finland’s national composer. His leading role in the dramatically increasing strength of the independence movement, in which the Finns rebelled against Russian dominance and Swedish cultural hegemony, earned him love and admiration that even the greatest artists are rarely given. Sibelius’s creative beginnings were still influenced by European high and late Romanticism, but his fascination with Finnish mythology and intimate knowledge of the folk music of the region beyond the Romantic era led him to a breakthrough that was unparalleled in its boldness, originality, robustness and imagination.
Sibelius once compared the symphony to a river: “The river is made up of countless streams all looking for an outlet: the innumerable tributaries, streams and brooks that form the river before it broadens majestically and flows into the sea. The movement of the water determines the shape of the river bed; the movement of the river water is the flow of the musical ideas, and the river bed that they form is the symphonic structure.” This mythically idealized law of nature goes far beyond the academic perspective and central European conventional wisdom. Take the Second Symphony in D major, op. 43, which Sibelius began in February 1901 during a trip to Italy and completed after more than a year. Do we hear a single variable theme in the opening Allegretto? Or two? Or even three? It is not difficult to find expert musicologists to support each of these theories, who argue heatedly among themselves not only about the number of themes but also over which bars they appear in. But such questions do not achieve anything anyway; with boundless creative power Sibelius’s Symphony disregards all drawing board drafts yet conveys the overwhelming feeling of musical logic, an irrefutable “this way and no other”.
Sibelius’s musical ideas sound like incantations; they get caught up in the maelstrom of a ritual, fall into the intermediate state of a trance or intensify to a breathtaking musical frenzy. The Finnish composer Sulho Ranta confessed that in the Second Symphony “there is something about this music – at least for us – that leads us to ecstasy, almost like a shaman with his magic drum”. The score began with ideas and sketches for an orchestral work to which Sibelius gave the working title The Stone Guest (a Don Juan theme) but also contemplated a cycle entitled “Festival” and even plans for setting selected verses from The Divine Comedy. In the end, all these literary-inspired beginnings were incorporated into the four movements of the D major Symphony – music that was always modern and is always old. And it has not lost its freshness in more than 100 years.