String Quartet No.1 in C Major, Op.19
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) is remembered as a great pianist and was among the first rank of virtuosi during his lifetime, but what generally is no longer remembered is that he was an important composer. Cecil Gray, writing in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music notes:
“The popular notion that his creative efforts were simply the outcome of a virtuoso’s ultimate ambition, when no further laurels remained to be conquered in his own sphere, is wholly erroneous. There can be little doubt that if he had been a less brilliant player, his music would have received greater attention. This is the great tragedy of Busoni’s career...Busoni’s significance as a composer has often been grievously under-estimated. In natural talents he was richly endowed, and in technical command and versatility of achievement possessed phenomenal powers.”
Born in Tuscany, Busoni’s parents were both musical. Busoni’s musical talent showed itself early and by the age of 8 he was performing before the public. The family then moved from Trieste to Vienna, so that Ferruccio might have better opportunities and so that he might study composition. In Vienna, Busoni befriended Karl Goldmark and got to know Brahms. In 1886, upon Brahms’ recommendation, Busoni was sent to the Leipzig Conservatory where he studied composition with Carl Reinecke. There, he had the chance to meet and get to know Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Sinding, Grieg and Delius. While he only spent a year at the Conservatory, he remained in Leipzig for three. His two string quartets date from this period. In 1890, Busoni received an appointment to teach at the Helsinki Conservatory where he met Sibelius. In this same year, his Concertino for Piano & Orchestra Op.31a won the Rubenstein Prize which brought a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory which he turned down to pursue a concert career in America. He concertized in the States for three years while teaching at the New England Conservatory in Boston. In 1894, he settled in Berlin where, except during WWI, he remained based for the rest of his life when not touring. After the War he was made a professor at the Berlin Academy of the Arts and began to hold master classes where his new theories about composition began to influence a younger generation of composers such as Kurt Weill and Philipp Jarnach. While no adherent of the Schönbergian 12 tone school, Busoni did believe that, “Everything experimental from the beginning of the 20th century should be used, incorporated in the coming finality.” He opposed the late 19th century trend to programmatic music and urged his students to restudy Bach and Mozart, the greatest exponents of absolute music.
String Quartet No.1 in c minor, Op.19 was composed during Busoni’s first year in Leipzig while he studied with Reinecke. It cannot, however, be classed as a student work. The opening theme to the 1st movement, Allegro moderato, pathetico, is set against a background of pulsing 8th notes in the inner voices. Immediately one senses, just as at the beginning of a Bruckner Symphony, not only the brooding quality of the music but also that this is to be a movement of great breadth. The final part of the melodic phrase has a heroic tinge to it and is slightly more sunny. Busoni uses the viola to introduce the lovely folk tune upon which the second movement, Andante, is based. A Minuetto is the surprising choice for the third movement. But this is not the classical minuet of Haydn or Mozart but the earlier baroque French minuet. The introduction to the finale, Andante con moto, alla Marcia, begins in a somber, but not foreboding, fashion in g minor. It ends happily, however, on a major chord. The cut time Allegro molto e con brio in C Major begins with a cheerful and syncopated main theme. The lyrical theme of the middle section is taken from the Andante introduction. After only a few measures, it dissolves into a fugue.
This work certainly deserves to be heard in concert and will also be of great interest to amateurs.
Parts & Score: $33.95