Academic journal article ARSC Journal

The Compromise between Performative Originality and Reproductive Literalness: Ferruccio Busoni on Performance and the Musical Score

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

The Compromise between Performative Originality and Reproductive Literalness: Ferruccio Busoni on Performance and the Musical Score

Article excerpt

Ferruccio Busoni once reportedly stated to Egon Petri: "I never play a piece unless I can change something in it." (1) Yet despite Busoni's comment about performative freedom and his reputation for giving eccentric performances of Chopin and other composers, it would be fallacious to conclude that Busoni viewed scores as mere outlines or recipes to be altered by the performer with liberality. He believed that a performer, unlike a composer, needed to negotiate a fine balance between originality of expression and fidelity to the composition. He expressed this in a letter written in 1917 in response to Hans Huber's praise of one of his piano recitals in Basle: (2)

Your kind words were a fine reward. Your trust is an incentive to me: although I have only earned half of it, this half, which I retain for myself, cannot be unequally distributed between the creative and the reproductive artist in me. For these two are one and the same or, at the most, the former is the extension of the latter. But, while the virtuoso in me still abides by older habits, I believe that I have, as a composer, stripped myself of all superficiality and 'inevitability' in the practice of my profession. Where the performer has after all to reach a compromise between his originality and that of the programme, the composer is free of such binding agreements. (3)

Busoni's understanding of the timeless question about the necessary compromise between the programme or score and performative originality forms the main topic of this paper, a topic which this study will explore through the lens of Busoni's aesthetic writings about performance, reviews and testimonial accounts of his performances, and analyses of Busoni's recordings and piano rolls.

Aesthetic Theories

Busoni's prose writings such as his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, which was first published in 1907 and reissued in an expanded edition in 1916, express attitudes about the relationship between performance and the musical score that at least initially seem more readily associated with 19th-century performer-centered aesthetics than with emerging 20th-century score-centered Werktreue ideals. Busoni's writings reveal that he offered an alternative vision to contemporary literalist manifestations of the emerging shift towards Werktreue in which the score was thought by Heinrich Schenker, Arnold Schoenberg, and others, to accurately depict the composers' thoughts, despite their acknowledgement of potential ambiguity in transmitting those ideas to the performer through notated symbols. (4) Another contemporary manifestation of the concept was the gradually emerging canon of performance repertoire and the association of scores with set historical performance traditions, conditions, and instruments. Seemingly in contrast to these emerging ideals, Busoni maintained that notation was not only ambiguous at times, but also that it was actually incapable of accurately representing a composer's ideas, elusive ideas, as he argued, that once committed to paper were necessarily bound by notational constraints of genre, key, form, meter, and the choice of instrumentation, that necessarily ensured some distortion of the ideas. For Busoni believed the score to be like a tangible, but imperfect copy of an abstract ideal original. Therefore, he reasoned, why should performers seek to literally (however loosely the term may be defined) reproduce and be faithful to it in all of its imperfection? A key passage from Busoni's text articulates these ideas in a succinct manner:

Notation, the writing out of compositions, is primarily an ingenious expedient for catching an inspiration, with the purpose of exploiting it later. But notation is to improvisation as the portrait to the living model. It is for the interpreter to resolve the rigidity of the signs into the primitive emotion. But the lawgivers require the interpreter to reproduce the rigidity of the signs; they consider his reproduction the nearer to perfection, the more closely it clings to the signs. …

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