String Quartet No.2 in d minor, Op.26
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.2 in d, Op.26 dates from 1889, Busoni’s last year spent in Leipzig at which point he was no longer studying at the Conservatory. The Quartet begins with a massive and very powerful Allegro energico. After 3 unison chords, the cello brings forth an ominous theme which is sounded over a low, lengthy pedal note in the 2nd violin and a series of hurried 8th notes of the same pitch in the viola. There is an instant sense of urgency. Tension grows as this theme is developed. Suddenly, a furious and heroic second theme of powerful 8th notes bursts forth as the viola and 2nd violin each present a measure and a half of it in a virtuosic hand-off. We find traditional tonality cleverly interspersed with modernity and the music virtually bristles with original and unusual ideas. The Beethovian second movement, Andante con moto, is much more traditional. It begins as a lovely, melancholy duet between the cello and first violin. Next comes a Vivace assai. It is a scherzo that might make perfect music for a frenzied chase down a torch lit but dark passage way beneath a mediaeval castle. Busoni begins the finale with an introduction, Andantino. It is pensive though not ominous and bears no relationship to themood of main movement, Allegro con brio (mit Humor). The first subject is given to the cello alone with the development beginning with a short fugue which is gradually torn apart by a process of chromatic disintegration. For 1889, there are a lot of advanced tonalities and fresh rhythmic ideas to be found here. This Quartet belongs in the front rank. It is a masterpiece, very original and entirely successful. It should be in the repertoire and is highly recommended to professional quartets looking for an accessible modern work by an accomplished composer.