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ClassicsOnline Home » BUSONI, F.: Turandot Suite / 2 Studies for Doktor Faust (Hong Kong Philharmonic, Samuel Wong)
By Michael Oliver
"The newly appointed director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic is such an interesting artist...The Turandot Suite and the musicality of Joseph Wong would draw me to the Naxos [recording]."
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
Dante Michelangeli Benvenuto Ferruccio Busoni was born at Empoli, near Florence, in 1866, the only child of an Italian clarinettist father and a pianist mother of German paternal ancestry. He made his debut as a pianist in Trieste in 1874, going to Vienna for study and performance the following year. On the advice of Brahms he moved to Berlin in 1886, studying with Carl Reinecke, before teaching spells at the conservatories in Helsinki and Moscow.
Performance occupied much of his attention until the turn of the new century, when composition began to assume a new importance, though never dominance, in his career. Apart from a period in Zurich during the First World War, he lived in Berlin from 1894 until his death.
The essence of Busoni's music lies in its synthesis of his Italian and German ancestry: emotion and intellect; the imaginative and the systematic. Despite acclaim from composer and performer colleagues, his music remained the preserve of an informed few. Neither inherently conservative nor aggressively radical, his harmonic and tonal innovations were bound up with an essentially re-creative approach to the musical past which has only gained wider currency in recent decades.
Composed in the summer of 1905, Busoni's Turandot Suite was written purely as a response to reading the play by Carlo Gozzi, whose centenary it was the following year. A production using Busoni's music did not take place until Max Reinhardt's staging in Berlin in 1911. Although the music is restricted to scene changes and places where it is dramatically relevant, the comic-fantastic essence of Gozzi's play is readily conveyed. There are nine movements:
Scene 1: The Execution, the City Gate and the Departure
An ominous opening in wind and percussion, depicts the spiked heads, over the city gates of Beijing, of the suitors who have failed to answer Princess Turandot's three riddles. Excitement mounts as Prince Calaf approaches, with the bold intention to win the Princess's hand or die.
Scene 2: Truffaldino's March
A bustling introduction on strings introduces us to Truffaldino, chief eunuch to the royal establishment. The Marcia grotesca for wind which follows is witty and amusing.
Scene 3: Altoum's March
A fanfare, derived from an ancient Persian melody, leads into dignified music for the old Emperor. The climax of the procession is one of noble splendour, offset by the return of the fanfare.
Scene 4: Turandot's March
Turandot's March is the longest movement and a representation of the Princess in all her cold, ruthless beauty. The music comes gradually and forbiddingly into focus, then the orchestra, playing an original Chinese melody, the Turandot theme, quietly portrays her veiled beauty. The lifting of her veil ends the movement with a passionate outburst.
Scene 5: Turandot's Chamber
Turandot's Chamber provides a brief interlude, scored mainly for flutes and harps, as Turandot is dressed and ornamented for her meeting with Calaf. The inclusion of the Elizabethan melody Greensleeves may be a flight of fancy on Busoni's part, or it may symbolize the sense of renewal that will be the play's outcome.
Scenes 5/6: Dance and Song
Performed by Turandot's servants after they have finished preparing her, the main melody of the Dance and Song is, Arabian in origin, and is heard against delicate, graceful orchestration. It can be sung by female voices to the following words:
Night turns to day
See, the room grows lighter.
Life weaves up and down
With rhythmic sway.
Maids, be joyous,
For soon the bridegroom comes
As life throbs in his arm.
Scene 7: Night Waltz
Calaf has solved Turandot's three riddles, but offers to forfeit his claim to her if she can guess his name and ancestry. Night Waltz opens with stern, even violent music as Calaf's father and friends are threatened by eunuchs, trying to discover his identity. To sinister, nocturnal music, Truffaldino steals into Calaf's chamber and tricks him into revealing who he is.
Scene 8: Quasi-Funeral March and Finale alIa Turca
Calaf and Turandot face each other, to the sound of the execution music from the beginning of the score. Her pretended sadness makes the Prince all the more shocked when she calls out his name. As he prepares to take his own life, however, she admits her love for him and her treachery. The outcome being resolved, the court unites in jubilation and the music closes in hectic triumph.
Two Studies for "Doktor Faust":
Sarabande and cortège
Begun in 1916 and left unfinished at his death in 1924, Doktor Faust was intended as Busoni's crowning work, in which his concepts of progress and renewal were to be realised most completely. Nearly all of the works composed independently during this time are related to the opera in some way; above all the Sarabande and Cortège, written during the autumn of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 respectively, and intended as studies for some of Doktor Faust's most important scenes.
Sarabande opens with a passacaglia rhythm with pizzicato strings and harp, before a noble and inward-looking theme emerges on strings. This will dominate the whole movement, though related themes are also heard, notably one which emerges briefly but radiantly on violins. The central section reduces the pulse of the music from three to two beats in the bar, allowing Busoni to evoke the mystery and magic that pervades the opera, in some of his most imaginatively scored music. When the initial rhythm returns, it is capped by a violin melody of restrained passion. This is short-lived, however, and as the passacaglia rhythm is repeated quietly on trombones, the movement dies away in a ghostly haze of trills and tam-tam strokes. In barely ten minutes, Busoni has presented a profound and absorbing evocation of transience and rebirth.
Cortège is formed from music heard at various points during the opera. In complete contrast, this is music of devilish swiftness and energy: an apt evocation of Mephistopheles to balance that of Faust in the Sarabande. The opening polonaise music moves quickly by, though a literal repeat enables listeners to savour Busoni's resourceful orchestration a second time. A solemn wind chorale does little to curtail the agitation, but the theme for strings which follows achieves some degree of repose. Even so, a scurrying coda heightens the movement's initial atmosphere, making the heavy closing C minor chords all the more unexpected and fatalistic.
Received with respect rather than enthusiasm at its premiere in 1919, Sarabande and Cortège has since come to be recognized as among Busoni's deepest and most representative works; music that draws its inspiration unashamedly from the past, while looking forward fearlessly to the future.
Berceuse élégiaque is Busoni's most rarified and perfectly realised musical vision. It began as a piano piece, written in June 1909 and pursuing the tonally ambiguous harmonic language worked out in the six piano Elegies two years before. The death of Busoni's mother in October 1909 affected him profoundly: as a cathartic manifestation of his grief, he reworked the piano Berceuse into a longer orchestral elegy; the description in the score - "The man's cradle song at his mother's bier" - bringing together the images of birth and death that give the music its profundity.
Formally, the piece evolves as a series of gentle, wave-like crescendos, the veiled yet fastidious orchestration given definition by the rocking (cradle) rhythm that controls the musical momentum from start to finish. Despite the restraint of dynamics, the harmonic density gives the impression of a much larger sound body than the 38 players - strings muted throughout - specified in the score. Of special note are three soft gong strokes that overlay the harp and celesta pattern at the close, resulting in an aural sensation that even the master orchestrator Richard Strauss found spellbinding.
Despite run throughs in London and Berlin, Berceuse élégiaque was not heard in public until February 1911, when Gustav Mahler performed it with the New York Philharmonic, in what was to prove the last concert he lived to conduct. Reaction was generally one of bafflement, and it was only when heard as part of an all-Busoni concert in Berlin during January 1912 that the work's achievement began to be recognized: a merging of form into feeling that has few parallels in the music of any era.
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