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Ferruccio Busoni. Mozart (and Classical) are no Simpleton Stuff (3)

Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924) at 11 years old in Vienna. Via Wikimedia

We have talked about a concept, classicism, that can embrace for example the works of Horace, Raphael, Racine, Mozart, Goethe, Jane Austen and elements of British and American Georgian culture.

Mozart’s works – according to Ferruccio Busoni (an Italian-German pianist, composer & writer) – faced a curious indifference in 1917. He wrote in that year:

To the Wagnerian generation Don Giovanni’s text and music seem like simpleton stuff. “The baroque splendour – he continued – has made the world insensitive to the pure lines of the ancients.”

Mozart in 1780

Here’s a choice of Busoni’s earlier aphorisms on Mozart published in 1906 in Berlin’s Lokal Anzeiger. A good conclusion in our opinion to our series on ‘what is classical’.

“So denke Ich über Mozart”

So denke ich über Mozart:
Thus I think of Mozart:

Seine nie getrübte Schönheit irritiert.
His never-clouded beauty irritates.

Sein Formensinn ist fast außermenschlich.
His sense of form is nearly supernatural.

Einem Bildhauer-Meisterwerke gleich, ist seine Kunst – von jeder Seite gesehen – ein fertiges Bild.
Similar to a sculptor’s masterpiece, his art – seen from every side – is a finished picture.

Er hat den Instinkt des Tieres, sich seine Aufgabe – bis zur möglichsten Grenze, aber nicht darüber hinaus – seine Kräften entsprechend zu stellen.
He has the instinct of an animal, setting himself his tasks up to the utmost of his limits, but no further.

Er wagt nichts Tollkühnes.
He dares nothing venturous.

Er findet, ohne zu suchen, und sucht nicht, was unauffindbar wäre – vielleicht ihm unauffindbar wäre.
He finds without seeking and does not seek what would be unfindable–perhaps what would be unfindable to him.

Er besitzt außergewöhnlich reiche Mittel, aber er verausgabt sich nie.
He possess extraordinarily rich resources, but never uses them all.

Er kann sehr vieles sagen, aber er sagt nie zu viel.
He can say very much, but he never says too much.

Er ist leidenschaftlich, wahrt aber die ritterlichen Formen.
He is passionate, but preserves the chivalrous forms.

Seine Maße sind erstaunlich richtig, aber sie lassen sich messen und nachrechnen.
His measurements are surprisingly accurate, but they allow to be measured and calculated.

Er verfügt über Licht und Schatten; aber sein Licht schmerzt nicht, und seine Dunkelheit zeigt noch klare Umrisse.
He has light and darkness, but his light does not hurt, and his darkness still shows clear contours.

Er hat in der tragischen Situation noch einen Witz bereit – er vermag in der heitersten eine gelehrte Falte zu ziehen.
In a tragic situation he doesn’t lose his sense of humour – in the most cheerful he can insert an erudite word.

Er ist universell durch seine Behendigkeit.
He is universal through his spryness.

Er kann aus jeden Glase noch schöpfen, weil er eins nie bis zum Grunde ausgetrunken.
He can still drink something from every cup, since he never drank any to the bottom.

Ferruccio Busoni (April 1, 1866 – July 27, 1924). Click for credits

Sein Palast ist unermeßlich groß, aber er tritt niemals aus seinen Mauern. Durch dessen Fenster sieht er die Natur; der Fensterrahmen ist auch ihr Rahmen.
His palace is huge, but he never leaves its walls. Through its windows he sees nature; the windows frame is also nature’s frame.

Heiterkeit ist sein hervorstechender Zug: er überblümt selbst das Unangenehmste durch ein Lächeln.
Gaiety is his most distinct trait: even the most unpleasant he adorns with a smile.

Sein Lächeln ist nicht das eines Diplomaten oder Schauspielers, sondern das eines reinen Gemüts – und doch weltmännisch.
His smile is not that of a diplomat, or of an actor, but that of a pure heart – and yet worldly.

Wolfang Amadeus Mozart (aged 14) in Verona, Italy. Painting by Saverio dalla Rosa (1745–1821)

Sein Gemüt ist nicht rein aus Unkenntnis.
His soul is not pure out of ignorance.

Er ist nicht simpel geblieben und nicht raffiniert geworden.
He has not remained simple and has not become raffiné.

Er ist ein Freund der Ordnung: Wunder und Teufeleien wahren ihre 16 und 32 Takten.
He is a friend of order: miracles and devilries keep their 16 and 32 bars.

Er ist religiös, soweit Religion identisch ist mit Harmonie.
He is religious as long as religion is identical to harmony.

Das Architektonische ist seiner Kunst nächstverwandt.
Architecture is the art closest to his.

Ferruccio Busoni liked Italy but preferred Germany. He died in Berlin in 1924 and there he was interred in the Städtischen Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg. Marlene Dietrich and, weirdly, Helmut Newton rest with him.


Previous posts on ‘classic’ and ‘classical’:

Tapas, Cartizze and Ragù. What on Earth do we Mean by ‘Classic’? (1)

Ragù, Chianti (and Grappa.) Is ‘Classic’ Just a Trick by Goddess Fortune? (2)

See also:

How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?

And the second half of:

Music, Politics and History

About manofroma

Nato a Roma il 1-11-1948

36 responses »

  1. This post fascinates me at two levels:

    1) I observe the translation of the aphorism, and how some cannot quite be translated. There is — dare I say — irony in some of the German versions that does not jump over into the English.

    2) This is a supremely eloquent and devastating (in its modest way) critique of Mozart, and all Mozartian art. It’s something I’ve always felt but never quite dared express.

    • Num 1. I translated the text myself also considering other translations which I disliked. If you have better solutions pls be so kind to tell me. But I guess you imply there aren’t.

      Num 2. This point makes me curious. But I don’t think Busoni criticizes Mozart. He considered him exceptional and very close to Hellenic art. I’ll think of it.

      • As far as the critique of Mozart, I once heard a lecture talking about this very thing. It started with a discussion of the “rules” of classical music and then showed how unbelievably creative M was in stretching them to the breaking point. But I have to admit I prefer Wagner to Mozart.

        • @Thomas

          Wagner is certainly much more sumptuous and free in his form. I like all romantic German music. When I was young and used to play and compose (a little bit) it was impossible not to be influenced by all that.

          • I might have mentioned this in the past, but I had a German political scientist professor in University and one of the texts we were responsible for was a one about Richard Wagner for some reason.

            Heavy and complex individual in a most fascinating age made all the more queer with Italian culture mixed in since he spent time there.

            I aced it with an ‘A.’ And we was notoriously known to be a ferosciously difficult grader.


            As for Mozart, one of the all-time great films was based on his life: Look up ‘Amadeus.’ Wonderful film from 1984.

          • We discussed together many times how German and Italian can mix. They are long time neighbours after all.

            As for the film Amadeus, it emphasized (a bit too much,) among the rest, the scurrility of Mozart, that we know by his letters etc. Which is an everlasting element of classicism in my opinion. It comes I presume from the Greco-Romans, who could be scurrilous and sublime at the same time, which, today, may appear very strange.

          • “The Scurrilous and the Sublime”

            A novel waiting to be written.

          • Jenny, I reply to you *here* too.

            Btw, I was planning a couple of posts on this as a continuation to my saturnalia ones. Although I don’t want to attract readers for such topics only. On va voir.

    • @Andreas
      This explains why Italian and French gardens are different from the English. They are ‘classical’ (nature moulded by reason:)

      Sein Palast ist unermeßlich groß, aber er tritt niemals aus seinen Mauern. Durch dessen Fenster sieht er die Natur; der Fensterrahmen ist auch ihr Rahmen.

      [His palace is huge, but he never leaves its walls. Through its windows he sees nature; the windows frame is also nature’s frame.]

      Notice. A *post by Andreas* on this (plus its discussion) are interesting

  2. Very interesting. Now I know why there are so many Busoni/Liszt combinations.

    • He admired Liszt very much. To him a complete pianist was only one who could play at least 50 piano works by Liszt by heart! But he became rather famous for his Bach piano transcriptions so I would say Bach-Busoni is possibly more often heard.

      It may interest you that in the year 1900 the two major figures in Berlin’s concert and musical life were Busoni and Godowsky. They both created their own influential school of music, Busoni in West Europe, and Godowsky in East Europe.

      Godowsky was Heinrich Neuhaus’ piano mentor, who in his turn was Richter’s, Gilels’, Askenazy’s etc. mentor: the great geniuses of the Russian piano school in the 20th century.

      Here is Neuhaus *comparing* Godowsky and Busoni.

  3. Ausgezeichnet. Ich liebe Mozart.
    Vielen dank, MoR

    und, Ich hahbe die tranen for Piano Concerto in A Major Adagio.

  4. @MoR: Regarding whether or not any of the aphorisms are meant to be critical of Mozart:

    That’s the subtext I read into them. I’m thinking back to our discussion of Apollonian versus Dionysian are (to which we added a third art form, the Socratic). Basically, Busoni, with his ironic turns of phrase, implies that Mozart’s music is either Socratic (mathematically pure, sublime but uninteresting) or Apollonian (exalted, divine but too “light”, too “pretty”) but not Dionysian (dark, primal, excessive and thus human).

    To simplify this: Busoni (or so I read him) implies that Mozart is beautifully boring, or boringly beautiful — the “un-Beethoven” or “pre-Beethoven”)

    • @Andreas

      Busoni music came mainly from Bach but also from German romanticism & from Classicism. His pianism is Listz-derived, which makes Busoni somewhat linked to Wagner (only a bit) too: Wagner and Liszt were close friends plus W had married Listz’s daughter.

      Busoni disliked Mozart until maturity. Then he suddenly ‘discovered’ Mozart. He was a man who underwent several ‘conversions’.
      Update: You make me wonder if these aphorisms were written before or after his conversion 🙂

      Apollonian versus Dionysian and that debate at you blog? Much to the point i believe. Mozart’s classicist art is surely Apollonian and very far from any excess and Dionysian impulse. Although I don’t know whether Busoni found Mozart beautifully boring.

      By the way, I generally find aphorisms thought provoking. Differently said, they rock.

      • The funny thing about this discussion is that Lacrimosa is featured in this post.

        Not, I think, light or pretty. Heart-rendingly beautiful, but not in an Apollonian way.

        • There is something here I think. Many performers stress in fact the ‘light and pretty’ of Mozart, but I don’t think they do him justice, since M’s ‘economy of means’ etc. is much more than ‘prettiness’ in my view.

          Even if we are on intangible grounds again, I agree with Busoni when he says that Mozart knew light and darkness, and that he could be tragic without losing his control and geometry.

          After all, Apollo, the god of Light, musical Harmony and Order, brought also Death with his arrows.

        • Here, in this transcription for 2 pianos of the Magic Flute Ouverture, Busoni gives fullness of colour to Mozart. Audio not always perfect.

  5. Let me put it in a culinary context. To me Beethoven is a very nice spanakopita, Wagner is a nice big juicy steak and Mozart is an exquisite dessert. Each service is excellent in itself and entirely satisfactory. Put together they are a feast. Add a bit of Vivaldi sparkling and it is complete.

    • I like your culinary (and musical) tastes, Paul.

    • A hosteler once approached Johannes Brahms with a fruity red vintage saying “I offer you the Brahms of wines.” “Take it back and bring me some Bach!!” said the composer. (I think the innkeeper poured him some nice hock or Riesling.)

      I can’t remember where I heard that.

      • Great story. I hadn’t heard that but I saw somewhere that he once referred to Bach as “my daily bread.”

        • Bach is in a league by himself and I would say that he is also a great mathematician. His compositions are orderly, and present perfect equations along a with a musicality rarely achieved by other composers.
          Could I say that he is the ambrosia and nectar of the gods?

          • Have you read Godel, Escher and Bach? It was very interesting but I didn’t understand a lot of the math. It’s quite old now but might deserve a relook.

            Hows this for meaningless data–I checked my iPod and I have 733 Bach “songs” 162 Wagner, 89 Brahms, 82 Beethoven and 62 Mozart.

          • ‘Godel, Escher and Bach’ I always wished to read but never dared due to my math incapacity.

      • @Sled
        Brahms knew too well that Bach was THE master of German Music. He much preferred Bach to Wagner. Bach is a titan but I would pay dear to listen to Mozart play Bach’s fugues (which he did, even if at his time Bach was forgotten).

    • @Paul

      Another of your gems, the culinary metaphor. Oh YES, we badly need feasts, the more sumptuous the better. Such a splendid eclecticism we’re living.

      As for math and music, also Baroque music (and Bach’s) was Pythagorean in some way, like any pre-romantic musical era. Romanticism instead got free from everything, also from math – a stupid statement maybe, but only to a certain extent maybe.

      Update. At the beginning of the last century Mozart and Bach were no longer appealing to the massess especially of central-eastern Europe (see an *article* here). Busoni, with his gorgeous & full coloured – tho strictly rigorous – transcriptions of Mozart and Bach made them appealing again. [Listen above to Mozart-Busoni].

      After all, after Wagner, people needed special effects and found stripped down purity boring [a bit like today].

      Below what Busoni thought about the Beethoven /romanticism thing vs the Mozart thing.

  6. He hosts a charming salon.

    (So denke ich über MoR.)

  7. @Readers

    I think music or any art is really a matter of personal taste.

    1) A British music connoisseur’s *confession* regarding Mozart I found honest. In my opinion Mozart’s apparent simplicity – no special effects etc. – hides a really hard-to-get beauty.

    2) From the *memoirs* of the American composer Otto Luening – who studied with Busoni and Philipp Jarnach in Zurich – a conversation between Busoni and Jarnach where Luening was present and where some ‘personal preferences’ were expressed:

    “Busoni had been enthusiastic about the transparent and transcendental or floating quality in Mozart’s music and commented that Andreae’s interpretation of the Haffner Symphony [by Mozart] was too heavy-handed and too Beethovenian. He then proceeded, again indirectly, to point out that Beethoven had held back the progress of musical composition by overemphasising the heroic and the forceful. He admitted the greatness of the last sonatas, particularly the «Hammerklavier» Sonata, the G Major and Emperor concerti, and the Eroica Symphony. But he stated that Beethoven’s followers had taken over the turgidity and heaviness of his works and that in doing so they had completely forgotten the superior musical virtues of lightness, transparency, and what I can only translate as a floating kind of transcendentalism that brought one into touch with a supernatural dimension, expressed fully in such works as Mozart’s «Zauberflöte», «Don Giovanni», and his G-and C-minor piano concerti.

    Jarnach defended the very power of Beethoven that Busoni was trying to decry. As the conversation went on they made allusions to Wagner, who served as a horrible example of nineteenth-century composing; to Berlioz, the real pathbreaker and to Richard Strauss, admired by Busoni for his intelligence but criticized for his overcomposing and his bombast.”

  8. Mozart was only 39 when he died. Had he lived to be an old man, how would his music have developed?

    Because Mozart, the infant prodigy, began composing so young, I suspect he would have stagnated as a composer had he lived longer. He would have burned out. When he died he may have completed musically all he was destined to do. His Requiem was his epitaph.

    Beethoven and Brahms on the other hand, were, musically, late developers. This may be why their music is thought to have more depth than Mozart’s.

    For me, though, Mozart will always be the King.

    • Happy to have you here Philippe.

      I’m absolutely with you when you say Mozart is the King. But it is only a question of personal preference. Yet I have to explain to myself why ‘divine Mozart’ sounds better than for example ‘divine Beethoven (or Bach)’. Perhaps because they are titanic, titans being inferior to gods?

      There is some irrational (mythical) element in me, I’ll admit: Mozart sounds to me so purely ancient and Pythagorean (and Busoni’s aphorisms are Pythagorean after all. I cite him in the post: “The baroque splendour has made the world insensitive to the pure lines of the ancients.”)

      Hard to predict what would have become of M had he lived longer. He ‘announced’ some Beethoven in his last works (like *here*.) Was he becoming less ‘divine’ and more ‘human’ with maturity?

      The answer is blowing in the wind … 🙂

  9. Pingback: How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly? « Man of Roma

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