Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Opera that Never Was: Busoni's Piano Concerto

Today's Unsung Symphonies riddle: What looks like a piano concerto, smells like a piano concerto, and sounds like a piano concerto, but isn't a piano concerto?

The answer: Ferrucio Busoni's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with Men's Choir, op. 39 (1904) by Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924). Don't let the name fool you. It's really a symphony and an opera rolled into one.

I'm exaggerating, of course. This early work by the Italian pianist and composer does lots of things you'd expect out of a concerto. When I see that genre designation, I tell myself that I'll hear a short-ish symphony that highlights one or more solo instruments. Like a good concerto, Busoni's work does feature the requisite interplay between soloist and orchestra. With passages like this one at the end of the fourth movement (recordings here by John Ogden, the John Alldis Choir, Daniell Revenaugh, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), we can easily hear it as a showpiece for a virtuosic pianist:

But a few surface elements make it a little harder to pin down this work. For starters, it has five big movements — a bit unusual for concertos, but not for symphonies. And that fifth movement, as you might have guessed from the work's title, is a stirring number for chorus and orchestra. Again, a bit unusual for concertos, but not for symphonies. Oh, and the whole thing lasts about 80 minutes, significantly outdoing one close runner-up as a symphonic concerto, Johannes' Brahms four-movement Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat. (The underrated Wilhelm Furtwängler also wrote a long piano concerto, but it apparently only has three movements.)

One more thing: Busoni's concerto also has cool artwork (the print on the score is by Heinrich Vogeler).

As it happens, Busoni's (not) piano concerto didn't even start out as a (not) piano concerto, but rather, as a (not) opera. Busoni wrote that he was planning a "Gesamtkunstwerk" — a "total artwork" — "with acting, music, dance, magic" on Adam Oehlenschlaeger's Aladdin. What actually popped out was this dazzling five-movement colossus of a concerto. The most overt reference to his original project was the choral fifth movement, and the whole concerto has been said to contain his ideas from the planned work and another operatic false start, Sigune.1

But the links to opera run much deeper. The musicologist Antony Beaumont wrote that the concerto's "inherent theatricality and its monumental proportions indicate that this is a veritable Bühenweihfestspiel [stage-dedication festival-play] of a concerto," and he pointed to its original seven-movement plan, in which the original third movement was a "Recitativo stromentale".2 In light of this potential link to Wagner's Parsifal, it's not surprising that Busoni called Wagner "a contemptible, little Saxon, with boring music and some strokes of genius,"3 because it tells us he was thinking a lot about Uncle Richard. Wagner in particular (as you might have noticed in the harmonies above), and operatic gestures in general, infuse this piano concerto.

Like any good narrative work, the work brings us in mid-action. A lilting string passage in the first movement, "Prologo e Introito," might as well have been going on for ages before we hear it:

(This sounds a lot like the start of Schumann's Second Symphony, but without the trumpet to tell us immediately that this is a beginning.)

While in a concerto we might expect the movements to end with a bang, here (except for the final one) they tend to fade out ominously, which tells us to anticipate something new right away. Here's how the otherwise rowdy second movement, "Pezzo giocoso," ends (and note how the final chord seems to show up out of nowhere):

Just as Busoni hoped for his big Aladdin musical, the movements are loaded with what might be heard as snippets of songs, dances, and maybe even magic. The long, slow third movement, "Piezzo serioso," is this concerto's emotional center of gravity, and the persistent timpani at the end — like gunshots in the distance — could accompany a nightmare scene:

This clip from the first movement, in which the solo oboe takes up that opening lilting melody, might well work with a scene of spells and charms:

And this passage toward the end of the scherzo-like fourth movement "All'Italiana," sounds like a zany recomposition of the mega-endings of many 19th-century Italian operas — or maybe it's closer in spirit to a Chopin Tarantella. Here you'll notice more ominous timpani and the fact that all this wackiness leads into the cadenza you already heard, above:

In these clips, we've heard the piano here and there, but what does it really do in this work? Unlike in a "real" concerto, strict exchange between piano and orchestra doesn't really hold this piece together. A dramaturgical sensibility actually seems to be what drives it forward. The piano part participates in, rather than defines, the piece's structure. And this makes the piano more of a character in a drama than a convenient carrier of information about the piece's supposed genre. (Busoni apparently thought of this piece as a "Symphonie italienne."4)

In the fifth movement, the piano recedes. It's is just another instrument in the orchestra, the scenery for a cosmic opening. Before the chorus enters with the stunning "Hymn to Allah," the rising string figures herald the text's advice to "Lift up your hearts to the power eternal."

(Busoni might not admit it, but this sounds like it could fit pretty well at the end of Parsifal.)

The piano does rear its head throughout the movement, and particularly toward the end, with the same big arpeggios it started with when it first appeared in the first movement — one of the ways this whole work maintains some structural coherence. (Themes appear and get manipulated from movement to movement, and for more on that, as well as the origins of some of them, see Beaumont's introduction to this piece in Busoni the Composer.)

No matter how much I enjoyed Busoni's piano concerto, one thing is for sure: when it comes to musical treatments of Aladdin, Peabo and Regina have already said it all.

— Matthew Mugmon

1. From a letter to Egon Petri, quoted in Antony Beaumont, "Preface," in Ferrucio Busoni, Concerto für Klavier und Orchester mit Männerchor, op. 39 (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1994) 166.
2. Ibid.
3. Ferrucio Busoni, Selected Letters, trans. and ed. Antony Beaumont (New York: Columbia University press, 1987) 166.
4. Beaumont, Busoni the Composer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985) 74.