After one of Ferruccio Busoni's piano recitals in Londaon, George Bernard Shaw wrote to the great musician: "You should compose under an assumed name. I heard you play and I said to myself: It is impossible that he should compose; there is not room enough in a single life for more than one supreme excellence."
But Shaw was wrong. There was, in Busoni's life, as there was at that same time in Rachmaninov's, "room enough for more than one supreme excellence." Of Busoni's supremacy as pianist, it is a pleasure to repeat a statement made to me some years ago by Harry Anderson, who lives in San Diego and who has as encyclopedic a knowledge of the great pianists of the past hundred years as any man alive today. Anderson told me. "i have heard three supremely great pianists. Paderewski, Rachmaninow and Busoni."
That opinion was echoed by historian Edward Dent, who said, "Those who never heard Busoni play during those last years (1919-1922) can have no conception of the prophetic inspiration and grandeur of his performance. His technical achievements in mere speed and strength must have far surpassed anything accomplished by liszt and Rubinstein."
It was as composer that Busoni wanted to be remembered, and it was on his composition that he spent increasing amounts of time in his later years. It is one of those unhappy facts of musical history, as in the cases of Bach, Mozart, Puccini and others that Busoni died while hea was at work on, but had not finished, his great work. "Doctor Faust." As we must foverever wonder about the final beauty, the ultimate greatness Bach would have wrought had he lived to finish The Art of Fague, Mozart his Requiem, and Puccini his "Turandot," we must wish, in vain, that Busoni had lived to complete his "Faust." Its final pages were filled in for him by his pupil and close friend, Spanish composer Philipp Jarnach, as, at almost the same time, Franco Alfano was writinf the closing pages of "Turandot" after the death of Puccini.
Busini, who was in Empoli, Italy, on April 1, 1866, died on July 27, 1924, in Berlin. During his relatively short lifetime, he visited the United States five times. the first of these was in 1891 when he moved to Boston to head the New England Consevatory, a post he found entirely unsympathetic and which he gave up after one year. From his earliest years, Busoni's musical horizons were broad. his mother, Anna, whose parents were German and Italian, taught him the piano, with special attention to Schumann and Mendelssohn. From his Italian, clarinaet-playing father, the yound prodigy learned to love Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, while for a time he chose Cherubini as his favorite model.
To the music of Bach, with which he eventually became intimately associated through his magnificient transcriptions, Busoni later added singular devotion to Mozart and Beethoven.His later mentors introduced him to the Berlioz orchestra, the titanic fire of Liszt and the italian genius of Verdi. It was these last six - and note that the music of Wagner is not among them - that had the strongest influence on Busoni's own composing.
Busoni's masterpiece. "Doktor Faust," will be given twice at Wolf Trap, on Aug. 5 and 7, in a production which is budgeted at over $300,000. As libretto, which Busoni himself wrote, is drawn not from Geothe or Mariove, but from old puppet plays on the Faust legend, of which Busoni had a remarkable collection. If its from is unlike that of other operas, its music is rich in sonorities, both orchestral and choral; its solo roles hold a wealth of opportunities for gifted singers, and its dramatic impact is startling.
This last element makes particularly attractive the presence of Frank Corsaro as stage director of the coming production at Wolf Trap, for Busoni has included various scenes that call for the utmos imagination if their staging is to come off successfully. The Cathedral Choral Society geve "Doctor faust" in concert from at the Kennedy Centre a year ago in January, but it is a work that cries out for the stage).
The opera, which is laid out in unorthodox fashion, opens with a spoken prologue in which Busoni states his Faustian philosophy in Nietzscbean language. The music begins with an Easter Symphony that leads into the first of two scenes called Preludes. An intermerzo follows, no mere orchestral passage, but another extended dcene, after which Busoni writes "The Main Play." This "play" is the famous scene at the palace of the Duke and Duchess of Parma. (Will Corsaro be able to carry out Bostoni's direction which says "The Duke and Duchess enter on hourseback?)
Faust's entrance a few moments later provides one of opera's rarest changes for exotic drama: "Faust approaches slowly. He is followed by a fantastic suite of young Moors or apes, bearing his train. His appearance is startling, but not that of a charlatan." Subsequently, Faust's initial conjurings, intended merely as crowd pleasers, produce swarms of little faun-like devils: he then chages day to night, complete with starry heavens.
The greatest wonders come, however, when Faust asks the Duches what she would like to see. She replies, "Let King Solomon but also the Queen of Sheba following them with Helen of Troy. Samson and Delilah, and family John the Baptist and Salome.
After theis melodrama, Busoni places a symphonic intermezzo in the form of a large sarabande which leads to a tarven that a famous quarrel breaks out between Catholic and Procestant students during which the divided chorus shouts its favourite hymns back and forth.
Busoni pulls an interesting switch in assigning voiced to Faust and Mephistopheles. Reversing the ranges which custom has alloted them, Busoni gives the Devil to a tenor while his Faust is a baritone. The one female role in the opera is that of the Duchess of Parma, but the score is enriched by notable assortment of minor roles and rand choral passages.
It is Dent's view that "Doctor Faust" is a "drama on a spiritual plane for removed from the normal operatic level." That opinion was written, however, before recent productions, if still infrequent, plus a memorable recording, could demonstrate the rickness of Busoni's thought and the magnetic power of his drama and music.
Wolf Trap has assembled a cast of high promise for its pair of performances. Singing under the baton of Cal Stewart Kellogg will be Kenneth Riegel as Mephistopheles, Richard Stilwell as Faust, John Lankston and Noelle Rogers as the Duke and Duchess of Parma and Donnie Ray Albert as Wagner.