(Edizione definitiva, 1910)
by Kenneth Derus
There can be no question that Busoni had one of the most prodigious
intellects in the history of European art. In the faculty of sheer intellectual grasp he excelled other composers with the exception of Mozart. At an age when most composers are gingerly making their first tentative jottings, he had a complete and exhaustive command of traditional technique, had realized the inadequacy of such a technique for a contemporary composer, and was already formulating the ideas on which his later and characteristic work was to be based. He was perfectly conscious of his powers: he paid homage to the past by embracing it in the gigantic sweep of his intellect and he saluted the future through his consciousness of his own moral and intellectual superiority - a consciousness that was compatible with true dignity and humility.
That as a man Busoni was a colossus, one of the very greatest
personalities of our time, cannot, after evidence of all the intelligent and cultivated men who knew him, be seriously questioned. By musicians and artists, by intimate friends and acquaintances, his personality has repeatedly been described as "god-like". The electric atmosphere that his mere presence on the concert platform produced was merely one manifestation of that tremendous and indefinable energy which emanated from him in all his activities. [...] He hardly even realized that his destiny was "tragic". As Van Dieren remarks, it was left to his biographers to discover that for him. [Wilfred Mellers]
Bach didn't live to finish Contrapunctus XIX of his "Art of Fugue",
which stops at a point where three subjects of what was surely meant to be an imposing quadruple fugue first come together. The fourth subject of the fugue was to be the theme of the entire work (announced in Contrapunctus I) - at any rate Gustav Nottebohm demonstrated that this was a possibility in the 1880's - and Donald Tovey published a highly regarded completion of the fugue along these lines, very much in Bach's own style, in 1931. Busoni started thinking about completing the fugue very early in 1910, as he traveled to America to give concerts and worked on his critical editions of Bach. Bernhard Ziehn, a German-born music theorist based in Chicago, galvanized Busoni's thinking with a sheet of music examples, showing how all four subjects of Bach's unfinished fugue could be combined according to the principles of thorough-going symmetrical inversion.
(Ziehn used transpositions and inversions to combine Bach's lines
in an absolutely symmetrical way, at all times preserving their intervals, with no regard for the very un-Bach-like harmonies that resulted. This way of working - of choosing apt combinations of lines from an almost unlimited realm of possibilities, rather than searching for combinations consistent with pre-existing rules of harmony - foreshadows the methods of row manipulation. Many composers were influenced by Ziehn's ideas and employed his methods, e.g. Bartók in the opening fugue of his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta.)
By March Busoni had completed his "Grosse Fuge" - the first and
(in his words) "most corseted" of his completions of Bach's fugue - and by June he had truncated but also elaborated his fugal writing and prefaced the result with variations on Bach's chorale "Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr'" (composed three years earlier). This is the so-called "Edizione definitiva" of the "Fantasia contrappuntistica".
(There would also be an "Edizione minore" in 1912 - a "study edition"
with expanded but simplified fugal writing and different variations on the same chorale - and a version of the "Fantasia" for two pianos in 1921. The somewhat further chromaticized two-piano version integrates both sets of chorale variations and clarifies but also abbreviates Bach's underlying fugal arguments.)
The "Edizione definitiva" consists of twelve connected sections: a set
of chorale-variations, three fugues, an intermezzo, three variations, a cadenza, a fourth fugue, a reminiscence of the chorale theme, and a stretta.
Fuga I introduces the first subject of Contrapunctus XIX (itself a
nearly exact inversion of "Allein Gott") from out of strettos on the inversion of the BACH motto. Tension builds in Bach, but builds and then relaxes in Busoni's version. Fuga II introduces the second subject of Contrapunctus XIX, together with recollections of the chorale and anticipations of BACH. Fuga III brings in the BACH motto (the third subject of the Contrapunctus) just as Bach's writing ends. There is a poignant slowing of tempo just before Bach's last notes; then Busoni proceeds to use the methods of symmetrical inversion to combine all three subjects. This is the most abstract, closely argued, and harmonically remarkable section of work; but it is also tremendously exciting, with tension building right to the end. (The notion of a transition - from Bach to Busoni - is misleading. Busoni blurs the distinction right from the beginning. Fuga I remains relatively diatonic, but is nevertheless filled with chromatic alterations, false relations, octave doublings and octave transpositions.) The Intermezzo features symmetric combinations of BACH, marked misticamente. Variato I maintains this mood in the form of a two- to four-part invention beginning in no specific tonality. Variato II introduces a variation on BACH (which will become a fifth fugue subject in Fuga IV); it imitates the triplet figures of Bach's Canon alla decima. Variato III transforms the triplets into something like the second subject, and also combines the first and third subjects. (The three variations do not relate to the three fugues in a one-to-one sense.) The arpeggiated chords of the Cadenza conceal the inversion of BACH and suggest the arpeggios of the chorale-variations. (The only time in a chord progression repeats, in the entire work, is at the end of the Cadenza.) Fugue IV looks in the direction of Contrapunctus I by employing material from Contrapunctus II; then the primary theme of the "Art of Fugue" is introduced as the fourth subject of what began as Contrapunctus XIX (a footnote in the score credits Ziehn) and the fugue ends with powerful and almost unplayable strettos in six-part counterpoint. An ostinato on BACH re-introduces the chorale theme and there is a final Stretta on the ending of Contrapunctus XI (Fuga a 3 soggetti). The penultimate chord points to the rising third which begins the piece.
The uncompromising nature of Busoni's counterpoint fails to make
the "Fantasia contrappuntistica" utopian in the vulgar sense. The work does contain some intentional pianistic impossibilities, e.g. a notorious trilled left hand octave in Fuga III (a trilled octave, not a tremolo), but the most serious difficulties of Fuga IV are relegated to to a 43-bar appendix and are no longer even an option when Fuga IV is played by twenty fingers. (Carlo Grante reinstates the appendicular material, much to the structural and dramatic advantage of the work as a whole.)
A charge of wishful thinking of a very different sort has been leveled
at the "Fantasia"; viz. that it is literally "unhearable", except perhaps by professional musicians armed with annotated scores. The idea that listeners need to consciously recognize Bach's fugue subjects and Busoni's treatment of them, in order to enjoy the "Fantasia" is rather simple-minded (the now-fashionable disciplines of "naive physics" and folk psychology are reminders of how little people can know and still get by); but it is interesting to note that Busoni avoids the retrograde and retrograde-inverted forms of Bach's fugue subjects because he feels that these forms and their combinations are unintelligible to the ear. (His notes to Fugue VIII in his edition of Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier are a history of symmetrical inversion from Bach's variations on "Vom Himmel hoch" to Ziehn's "Canonical Studies". He says that forms relate to their inversions in space in a natural way, as when reflected in water; that forms do not relate naturally to their inversions in time; that a fugue subject is spatially related to its I-form but temporally related to its R-form; and that only an abnormal ear hears the word ORGANISMUS in SUMSINAGRO without at least a moment of intervening thought.) In fact, however, the presence or absence of R- and RI- forms seems to have little to do with why Sorabji is more or less hearable and Babbitt is more or less not.
Several musicians, including Frederick Stock, Antony Beaumont,
and Larry Sitsky, have orchestrated the "Fantasia" in whole or part. Conductors should prefer the version of Denis ApIvor. [Program note by Kenneth Derus]