Saturday, October 7, 2017

Sibelius and Busoni

It is worth remembering that the repertory or canon (Taruskin distinguishes these two terms: "repertory" is the body of music that forms the regular programs of concerts while "canon" is those works that are considered to be important by musicians, musicologists and theorists; Pierrot Lunaire is part of the canon, but not the repertory, the Rite of Spring is in both groups while the Pachelbel Canon is, ironically in the repertory but not the canon) of works is a relatively small body of music selected from a much larger one. I just ran into an interesting instance of this.

Busoni, on the left, and Sibelius in London, 1921
Ferruccio Busoni and Jean Sibelius were great friends and great party animals and when they were in the same city they had to be assigned a minder just to make sure that they showed up on time for their concerts. In February 1921 they were both in England for concerts of their music. Sibelius, of course, is a core composer for both the repertory and the canon. Busoni was far more important during his lifetime (1866 - 1924) as a composer, pianist, teacher and writer than he seems to be today. Apart from his Bach transcriptions (most famously that of the Chaconne, originally for solo violin, arranged for piano by Busoni), his music does not appear in the repertory, though some pieces, the  Fantasia contrappuntistica for example, are perhaps part of the canon.

But in 1921 while English audiences received the Symphony No. 5 of Sibelius with great favor, they were much less appreciative of his Symphony No. 4, still considered rather difficult. They preferred the Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra by Busoni! But this work, as so many others by Busoni, seems to have disappeared from concert programs and has only a tiny stub of an article in Wikipedia. Here is a performance with the score (performer not indicated). It has 2400 views on YouTube:

Of course the majority of pieces by Sibelius are also neglected in concert programs, but a few of the symphonic poems and the occasional piece like the Valse triste are staples of the repertoire today and most of the symphonies are well anchored in the canon. The pieces by Sibelius that seem most neglected today are those shorter chamber works such as the Five Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 81:

Of course, he knew at the time that these were lesser works and he wrote them largely for the publishing income.

I guess the general point here is that audiences, critics, musicians and even fellow composers are unlikely to be able to identify what pieces are going to become staples of the repertory fifty or a hundred years hence. In the year 2117 are we going to be listening to a lot of concerts of Steve Reich or Philip Glass? Or perhaps Elliot Carter? Will we have just celebrated in grand fashion the two-hundredth anniversary of the Rite of Spring? Or will it have been nearly forgotten? No-one knows. Heck we may have re-discovered Busoni and be celebrating him in festivals all over.

Here is the aforementioned Fantasia contrappuntistica played by John Ogden (fewer than 1,200 views on YouTube):


Gene said...

Check out Busoni's "Carmen Fantasy" (a.k.a. Sonatina #6) for piano. It's neither in the canon nor the repertory but deserves a place in both: in the former for being a brainy re-imagining of Bizet's immortal tunes, and in the latter for basically the same reason.

Bryan Townsend said...

The interesting question is, what causes works like the one you mention to move in or out of the repertory or canon? In the latter case, I suppose it is the efforts of generations of scholars. The revival of Haydn is largely due to that. What often moves particular composers or compositions into the repertory seems to be the efforts of a few performers. But often these efforts fail. John Ogden tried to get Busoni more accepted on concert programs, but it seems he failed as other pianists have not taken up the torch.