Ferruccio Busoni


* The Essay in the first edition of Busoni "Von der Einheit der Musik" originally bore the tide "Entwurf eines Vorwortes zur Partitur des Doktor Faust, enthaltend einige Betrachtungen über die Möglichkeit der Oper", written in Berlin, August 1921. The Preface to "The Score of Doktor Faust" was first published at the end of this essay (left out in the text here) and was written in July 1922. Both works appeared together later as a separate book with the title "Concerning the Possibilities of the Opera and Concerning the Score of Doktor Faust" ( Breitkopf & Härtel, 1926). The change in the title should make clear the special problem of the essay. The work about the score of Doktor Faust is to be found elsewhere in this Website.

The Essence of Music: And Other Papers - Book by Ferruccio Busoni, translation: Rosamond Ley; Philosophical Library, 1957

Il curatore di questo sito, avendo acquistato a Londra l'intero Archivio di Rosamond Ley, detiene il Copyright su tutto quel che l'allieva di Busoni ha scritto sul suo Maestro.

The time has come to recognise the whole phenomenon of music as a "oneness" and no longer to split it up according to its purpose, form, and sound-medium. It should be recognised from two premises exclusively, that of its content and that of its quality.

By purpose, I mean one of the three realms of opera, Church and concert, and by form, the song, dance, fugue, or sonata; by sound-medium I mean the choice of human voices or instruments, and amongst these are included the orchestra, quartet and pianoforte, or the manifold combinations of all those mentioned.

Music remains, wherever and in whatever form it appears, exclusively music and nothing else, and it only passes over into a special category through the description given to it by the title and the superscription, or the text to which it is put, and the situation in which one places it. Therefore, there is no music which can be stamped and recognised as being Church music, and I am certain that no one listening to some pieces out of Mozart's Requiem or Beethoven's Great Mass would feel and define these works as sacred if title and text were kept a secret from the listener. The Gregorian Chant, with its lapidary unisons and complete absence of harmony, is absolutely bound up with the Church in our conception and we feel it as Church music, just as much as we feel it in the style of Palestrina, yet love-songs in the time of Palestrina seem so very like an Offertorium that they could easily be mistaken for such and only the text and the occasion distinguish one from the other.

At the time of the formal establishment of the ritual chant by Pope Gregory there was no other kind of music, and it is to be supposed that a romance from this epoch would not sound very different from what we believe today to be truly authentic Church music. Our feeling about "theatre music" is just the same for, through a bad habit, a certain convention has been adopted generally, which we accept as being "theatrical" because we know that this convention comes from the opera. But it is just this opera convention which is the formula that least concerns the music; it is mostly a trick, which, like others originating in the theatre, is imitated by all and used as a concession to the singers, often used in a perplexity in order to compensate for a lack of higher expression or in order to find a skilful mode of transition.

In Konzert Musik - and wherever music exists as a living art - from Haydn downwards we find reminiscences of the theatre. At times in the more cheerful moments of the "smaller" Beethoven whole long stretches follow the opera buffa in expression and movement.

Recognising this does not minimise the worth of these passages. Art is a transmission of life, and the theatre does this more comprehensively than the other arts; therefore it is natural that living music should be allied to the theatre.

This Oneness, which I advance as a first principle, exists already and is sustained almost uninterruptedly in the works of Bach and Mozart; these two are still the strongest and most enduring musical personalities in our present - day art of music - and this fact in the end must also be recognised. Amongst Bach's works the little deviations in expression and style are most frequently to be traced back to the instrument which executes the music assigned to it. There is little difference to be found between an organ piece and a piece for clavecin - allowances being made for the instrument and the player -but we hear the same Bach with the one as with the other. The instinct of "Oneness" made Bach use the same music as a work for choir or for an organ piece, and he continually carries his ideas from one instrument to another, from "Church" music to "chamber" music. If the Evangelist from the St. Matthew Passion were put on the stage, one would be so flabbergasted one would be obliged to admit that nothing more theatrical had ever been conceived than this strictly religious music. But every one of Mozart's operas is a pure symphonic score and there is something of an opera scene in each quartet. The gifted theorist Momigny made the experiment of putting words in the style of an aria in opera seria to the first movement of Mozart's D minor Quartet; through this experiment, when listening to the piece thus newly interpreted (and otherwise not changed by a note) we experience the effect of being thrown suddenly into the middle of a Mozart opera.

It is astonishing how little music has to do with human conventions (can one speak seriously of "court" music?) and thanks to its neutrality, how it fits and adapts itself everywhere. This makes it possible and understandable that Beethoven should have taken a movement originally written for a Court Cantata, making use of it later in the Finale of Fidelio, and extracted from the theme of an antiquated wind octet (a weak early work) the joyful strains which, also in Fidelio, celebrate the release of the prisoners. Through convention, the march, the dance, the Protestant chorale remain more unconditionally assigned to their purpose. In spite of this, in a symphony or sonata, marches and dances are not objected to, and are even passed over with approval, and in chamber music the chorale is separated from its original destiny and used with artistic effect. In opera, the chorale appears chiefly as a quotation or symbol; although nothing in its "musical" nature (a leading part in minims and a pure four-part movement) points demonstrably to "religion". Therefore the differences of kind and class take place only in the preconceived idea of those concerned with the music.

It is, on the contrary, the content and the quality which make the music in itself different.

Invention and atmosphere compose the content, form and shape the quality. A piece may be easy or difficult, stirring or sustained, clear or obscure, full of artistic device or simple (the essential ability and the mastery of ideas and atmosphere are pre-supposed), but all this does not in the least prevent its being used as Church, theatre, or chamber music, although on the other hand, it is included in each one of these categories.

Hand in hand with the splitting up of music into types, there is also a scale in the valuation of music under apparently antagonistic headings, rather like a music tariff. Thus, in Germany, the symphony passes as the highest form and appearance in music, whilst the opera is a little despised. As if, in the Magic Flute both the men in armour's music was not more beautiful and more important than any grey string quartet from the second half of the nineteenth century! By this, I mean that it depends on the quality and not on the grade and class--and again, on how alive it is, on its vividness and power for new life and vigour. Music is surely an art of movement!

Having thus arrived at the recognition of the Oneness of music we have consciously looked at what was lasting or effective in the past. But our attitude is different from what it was before, and we can now see the possibilities in a new light, and rule and manage them differently and carry them still further. Not only do I believe that no inferior kind of music need be brought to mind by the opera, and that it will enjoy equal rights with other kinds of music (whereby its class will take a higher rank but above all its particular class would be established) but - and I come to this conclusion without any hesitation at all - I expect that in the future the opera will be the chief, that is to say the universal and one form of musical expression and content. Music, which makes the unspoken eloquent and lifts human disturbances out of the depths in order to transport them to the imagination, finds in the opera primarily the creative space for its own expansion, but it will not portray outward incidents and visible occurrences. The outward incidents appeal to our eyes, the inner ones to our ears. Sight and hearing mutually complete, support, and illustrate one another, if the directing hand of the artist is able to hold them apart successfully, and to unite them. What, however, turns the scales in favour of my conclusion is the fact that opera conceals, united in itself, all the means and forms which otherwise only come into practice singly in music. It allows them and requires them. It gives the opportunity for making use of them collectively or in groups. The domain of the opera extends over the simple song, march, and dance tunes, to the most complicated counterpoint, from the song to the orchestra, from the "worldly" to the "spiritual"- and still further -the unlimited space over which it disposes qualifies it to take in every kind and style of music and to reflect every mood.

In addition to this the tasks are increased by the theatre. It demands more intensive expression, a more tensely strung bow, a more powerful diction than is enough for music in other cases.

Beethoven, who surely had at his disposal a strong and supremely good symphonic ability, composed four versions of his overture to Fidelio. For use in the theatre, the sovereign composer of symphonies was only satisfied with the last one of these settings. In point of fact the so-called "third" Leonora Overture surpasses all the first movements of his symphonies, with the exception perhaps, of the Ninth. And even in this final and inspired setting, the episode of human passion formed from the Florestan Aria would in the theatre have been able to stream forth in a still wider spirit if it had been written for the theatre; which objection--raised against Beethoven--is no hasty criticism but a lawful challenge.

Undoubtedly, the theatre increases the difficulty. A choral fugue in an oratorio, for example, can extend as far as the execution and contrapuntal skill of the composer reach. On the stage, with equally capable construction it must at the same time suit the theatrical situation without the one acquisition doing harm to the others. For--and this seems to me to be essential--an opera score, whilst fitting the action, should show detached from it a complete musical picture; comparable to a suit of armour which, intended for the envelopment of human bodies, in itself exhibits a gratifying picture, a valuable work in material, form and artistic execution. In fact - and it may sound paradoxical! - the composition of opera leads us back to purer and more absolute music because, by means of the suggested future and banishment of everything illustrative, only those elements which are organically suitable to music attain their own rights: the content, feeling, and the form, synonymous with spirit, heart, and understanding. In the same measure that the theatre demands the heightened expression, it has the power to subdue harshnesses. Therefore, a series of dissonances that is almost unbearable on the pianoforte, is already intelligible in the orchestra, but in the theatre it becomes merely a characteristic nuance which is put up with and passes without opposition. The demand for accents, increased by the stage, is so very much stronger. As a natural consequence, through the intensified qualities and the universality gained by the opera, a decrease in productiveness must follow because - as a final conclusion - a composer, a creator, brings to a single opera all that moves him, all that swims before his eyes, all that is within his powers to achieve: he is a musical Dante, a musical Divine Comedy.

The objection will be made that the theatre coarsens the expression and cripples the form. To overcome this objection it is enough to put Figaro's Hochzeit against it; as rules should not be deduced from imperfect but from perfect examples. But by this it should not be "vinta la causa" (as happens in Figaro); on the contrary, in order to exhaust the case, some considerations and reasons must still be brought forward and this I shall do as follows.

Above all, the opera should not be identified with the spoken drama. More than this, they should be distinguished from one another like man and wife. It is, with the opera, a question of "a musical work of the combined arts" as against the Bayreuth conception of it as "a work of the combined arts" (if Wagner is to be brought forward now and for ever, in order to set the mind of the 1921 reader at rest by naming the standard on which he places reliance). To me, the all-important condition seems to be the choice of the libretto. While for the drama there are almost boundless possibilities of material, it seems that for the opera the only suitable subjects are such as could not exist or reach complete expression without music - which demand music and only become complete through it. Therefore, the choice of subject matter for opera is strictly limited, according to my view of the musical stage of the future as something finer than we have yet known. To achieve this aim it is imperative that the public, which it also concerns, should allow itself to be educated and should educate itself. It should first of all free itself from the ideas and conditions of the spoken drama as from things opposed to the opera: it must also free itself from the idea of the performance of a cheap amusement and from the demand for and expectation of a sensational drama, the intrigues of which while they are mentally exciting can yet be experienced by the public without danger from the stalls. Sensual or sexual music (which consists in a kind of persistence in the intoxication of sound and thus plays on the keyboard of the nerves) is obviously out of place owing to the very nature of this art, which is purely abstract. Yet unfortunately today such music must still be pointed out as particularly absurd and unworthy. It should be cleared of all traditional theatre routine and be apart from business interests as also from social conventions. In order to follow on from old mystery plays, the opera should be made into a rare half-religious and elevating ceremony which is at the same time stimulating and entertaining, just as the service of God amongst many of the oldest and most primitive people found expression in the dance, and just as the Catholic Church still goes some way towards making spectacle out of homage to the Deity and so can make good use of music, costume, choreography and theatrical mysticism --often with the finest taste.

The Magic Flute comes nearest to this ideal. It unites instruction and entertainment with a solemn spectacle to which entrancing music is added, or rather permeates all this and holds it together. The Magic Flute, to my mind, is "absolute" opera and it is surprising that, in Germany especially, it has not been set up as a sign-post for the opera. Eckermann informs us that "Goethe, who made a continuation of it but found no composer who could treat the subject suitably, admits that the first part (of Mozart's opera) is full of improbabilities and jests which not everyone can interpret and value, but in any case it must be admitted that the composer understood in a high degree the art of contrast and how to convey big theatrical effects thereby". But this fine praise from an eminent man is not exhaustive. Shickaneder produced a libretto which contains music in itself and which positively demands its appearance. The magic flute and the magic chimes are already musical elements destined for sound. Besides this how cleverly the three women's voices and the three boys' voices are arranged in the libretto, and how the "miracle" calls forth the music, and how the "trial by fire and water" relies on the evocative magic of music. The two armoured watchmen too in front of the "trial" gateway both make their admonishments in the rhythm of a very old choral melody. Drama, morality and action join hands here in order to set this seal of their alliance on the music.

Goethe had thought of his second Faust half "operatically". He wished (it would seem from his own communications) that the choruses should be sung throughout, and he expressed the opinion that it would be very difficult to perform Helena's part because it required a "tragic actress" as well as a prima donna. If this plan had been realised in one of the poems of equal rank in form, we should have had a second model for what I am here trying to pave the way. For in the "Second Faust" music is needed everywhere, it is indispensable, the poem cannot do without it, and it must come to the help of the performance of the play as light helps the inspection of a picture. (This proves the helplessness of theatre directors, and the inadequacy of most of the Faust music.)

Let us take, as an opposite example, a "drama" like La Dame aux Camélias or La Tosca. In a play written originally as pure drama, we are not seized with a longing for the missing music, the piece (good or bad) is, in itself, understandable and complete without music, so much so that one forgets that there is such a thing as music in or out of the theatre. One can judge from this what an enormity was committed in wishing to make operas out of these plays! If mysticism were in the blood of the Latin people as much as the theatre is, in the future they might be unrivalled "operists" (this word formation is perhaps permissible as it serves the sense.) But there, where they live, the sun is too clear and the twilight calls them to occupations which in those lands are destitute of all mysticism. They demand Life from the stage, as with justice it is demanded everywhere, but they demand the life that they lead themselves. Only they commit the error of also putting it to music. Even the greatest succumb to this error. Verdi also succumbs to it, though his genius for climaxes, his pathos, and his choice of speed frequently succeed in making the music break through this confinement, even in the opera of intrigues.*


-9-Pathos, like sound, is already nearer to music than any cadence made to sound like it; rhetoric and declamation are half song. In a drama which is unfavourable to music Verdi's sure instinct knew how to prevent the music being completely stifled, and in Otello, for example, he intersperses a drinking song, a mandoline solo, an evening prayer, and a romance (that of the willow), as musical numbers and cleverly turns them to the best advantage. Through these "insertions" Otello becomes almost an opera. A similar contrivance so that the musical lyric shall not be lost, is the "love-duet" (the love-duet of the Italian opera) but I condemn it unconditionally. A love-duet on the public stage is not only shameless but absolutely untrue, not untrue in the beautiful and right feeling of artistic transmission, but altogether wrong and fictitious besides being ridiculous. A situation is shown in the frame of the opera which in any other costume or century or any other surroundings displays the same well-known physiognomy (such is love!) which interests no one, least of all the lovers themselves who can feel nothing because their own experiences teach them something quite different. There is nothing worse to see and to hear than a small man and a large lady raving together melodiously and holding each other's hands. What felicity and judgment Goethe showed in his circumnavigation of this rock, in the conversation between Faust and Gretchen. Domestic information and: "How dost thou stand with regard to religion?" When action begins words cease. Eroticism is no subject for art but a concern of life. Those who feel the inclination should experience it; but not represent it or read a representation of it and least of all set it to music. Anyone who has made a third in the company of lovers will have felt this to be painful. It is to a whole audience that this happens during a love duet.

In the older operas there is no love-duet.

The old composers had still got taste, in the same way that they still had measure and proportion and knew how to make use of them at the right time. In Cimarosa, Mozart, Rossini, this balance amazes us because we have almost completely unlearnt it and to a certain extent it grew out of the nature and form of the libretto. A theatrical composition which was meant for the opera was planned throughout quite differently from one intended as spoken drama. In the action which the recitative (musically inconspicuous) knit together, the music (for the sake of which the arrangement was made) was conceded "stages", resting points which summed up the situation reached and at which it could widen out into arias and ensemble movements. The text for these stages was generally made up of two quatrains, so that it was entrusted to the composer according to inspiration and mood to work out either a short or a long piece of music from these two quatrains. After which, the interrupted action again took its course. How unnatural! Certainly, very unnatural! What can and shall the opera be other than something unnatural? What could produce a "natural" effect in opera? When developing the opera we must start consciously from these premises which constitute the basis of every dramatic composition. So what I desire from an opera text is not only that it conjures up music, but that it allows room for it to expand. The word allows music to cease, but on the other hand it does not compel it to expand unnecessarily in its service, if the music has had its say.

By means of the catchword (abridgment) it is possible for opera to obviate this inconvenience. The Schlagwort in the opera takes the place of the tirade in the drama. To make this clear, here is a constructed example:

In Drama or in Music Drama

THE OLD MAN Where are you going?

THE YOUNG MAN To the rocky gorge.

THE OLD MAN Oh, be warned, many go there but never come back; evil spirits lurk behind the rocks to set snares for the unwary traveller: evil men, perhaps, who knows? They say tall Kaspar has been seen there surrounded by a good dozen despairing faces whom he seems to rule. And have you not heard of old Barbel, the witch who lights her fire at midnight so that all around the rocks glow with a blood-red light? Wild animals also live there: crawling poison on which your foot steps unintentionally, and which will revenge itself on your young blood.

The young man expresses his fearlessness with corresponding minuteness and with no fewer embellishments than in the foregoing speech and he adorns all this with long tales about the bold pranks of the born adventurer.

In place of this in Opera

O. MAN Where are you going?

Y. MAN To the rocky gorge.

O. MAN [Horrified] To the rocky gorge? Go not!

Y. MAN I fear nothing.

O. MAN I tell thee, go not. Danger threatens thee there.

Y. MAN Let me go [Drawing away]

O. MAN [To himself] Shall I ever see him again?

Just as the abridgment can sum up the inner part of the text of an opera, it can be transferred in a changed form to the action in general. In relation to the music it serves to create a situation rather than to give the reasons for it logically. An abridgment in the action might be, for example, in the entrance of the Rival. The onlooker simply recognises the Rival in the figure appearing. By this the situation is created. No matter from whence he comes or who he is. Anything else can be effected by costume and conduct. If the Rival appears in knight's attire we know at once that this second suitor is a nobleman; his possible advantages and his prerogatives in the competition become evident through his rank. I should call this the "optical" abridgment. After all, the sets are really nothing but a scenic abridgment. Forest, Church, Knight's Hall. And in this case (without our missing it) there is no connecting context. We do not see the path which leads through the town to the church and on to the forest and up to the castle into whose knightly hall we step. Those are the tasks and crafts of the cinematograph and in no way belong to the opera.

The abridgment, therefore, is an invaluable tool for the opera because there the audience is burdened with the task of looking, thinking and hearing at the same time. An average audience however-and the public, in gross, presents itself as such - only has the capacity to follow one of these three at a time. Therefore this counterpoint of attention which is demanded should be simplified by allowing speech and music to retire where action has the chief rôle (a duel, for example); by putting music and action in the background when a thought is being communicated; by action and speech both being unassuming when music spins its threads. The opera is play, poem and music in one. Sounds and pictures maintain their position in it, to such an extent that this characteristic already separates it sharply from the spoken drama, which exists without any spectacle and without music. This reason alone makes the limitation of the poem a condition.

But there is yet another reason: that of proportion. One reckons that the text when set to music fills nearly three times as much time as when it is spoken. For this reason an opera text should be planned so as to be about two-thirds shorter than the text of a play. Once again, I maintain that a good opera score, independently of the text, should be able to establish itself musically and the poem should further this aim in every way. (The theatre all too quickly swallows the nourishment which makes it capable of living, and is always greedy for new food. Only the soundness and cleanness of the score is able, after its short existence on the stage is over, to preserve an opera as an artistic monument for posterity. Many an opera which passed for dead, has been brought to light again by the excellence of the score.) On this account much may be prescribed by the composer to the poet, but almost nothing by the poet to the composer. In the end an ideal union is found only in the solution that a composer should be his own poet. In this way he will be granted, without opposition, the right to shorten, to supplement, or to arrange the words and the scenes, just as the musical circumstances demand during the course of the composition. Because of this, I am obliged to smile when unknown writers offer me their libretti with a preamble something like this: "I hear that you favour oriental fairy stories. My text treats of such and I hope you will put it to music." Think, it is as if somebody had written to me: "I do not know you but have heard that you are considering marriage and that you favour fair women. I send you my daughter, she is fair and I hope she will become your wife."

I should like also to establish the fact that the opera as a musical composition always consisted in a series of short, concise pieces and that it will never be able to exist in any other form. Neither human conception nor reception lasts long enough for threads to be spun uninterruptedly for three or four hours on end. This cutting up into smaller pieces was shown quite openly by the old composers, the new vainly hide it under the mask of rejecting "full closes", thereby losing the rhythmic structures, and the rhythmic structure is an organic condition of the musical structure, as breathing is to human beings and animals. ("More air!" a Goethe of music would have exclaimed.) It is indeed not by accident that separate numbers can be taken from the "endless chain" of the Ring and used in the concert hall--Waldweben, Walkürenritt, Feuerzauber, and so on. We can notice in this constellation how Wagner's musical instinct caught hold of those "stages" which in earlier operas, as Aria and Ensemble, denoted that the drama was taking breath. But in this case it happens that they are produced by what is instrumental and not by what is vocal. I have spoken in another place about the countless conditions and forces which are drawn in and put into activity in the performance of an opera. With regard to this question--by way of comparison--Goethe writes in his preface to Farbenlehre: "For as really scarcely half of a good play can be put on paper, and by far the greater part of it must be left to the glamour of the stage, the personality of the actor, the power of his voice, the characteristics of his movements, indeed to the mind and good mood of the audience; so..." I cannot do otherwise here than oppose a completely contrary view to that of my deeply honoured Master. For my part I think that the performance can help a weak play very much and that with good luck complete justice may be done to a good play. But every expectation and hope of seeing an unusual and exceptional play performed exhaustively, must be renounced. "The mind and good mood of the spectators" may be influenced by the temperature of one single evening, indeed decide it. The positive value of a work cannot be changed in the least by the mind or mood or by any other view or criticism - and a serious discussion about the public in this connection does not seem to me to be admissible. No, as soon as one wishes to work seriously, it is advisable not to join in any compromise with the stage. The opera which stands for everything improbable, unbelievable and impossible, may claim the right to do so on the surest and best of grounds.

With my three fundamental theories, the three-part division of whole tones, "Young Classicism", and the transformation of the opera through the perception of the inherent Oneness of music, important material has been collected for further action. To the youngest I cry: Build up! But do not content yourselves any longer with self-complacent experiments and the glory of the success of the season, which flares up quickly; but turn towards the perfection of the work seriously and joyfully. "Only he who looks towards the future looks cheerfully."

* The Allgemeine Musikalische Anzeiger (a weekly paper published by Tobias Haslinger) in 1839 quotes the following sentences from an article in April 1803: The Marriage of Figaro. To arrange a play of intrigue as an opera is certainly not a happy idea, indeed one may say that in its nature it is completely opposed to opera. Beaumarchais in his comedy La folle journée uses some pleasing bons mots and ambiguous witticisms to set off some scenically effective and dramatically attractive situations; but for music he has done nothing; on the contrary he has practically barred the way to it by building up the material to a thoroughly clear and equivocally satirical conclusion which is utterly unconnected with music. Perhaps Mozart only took this subject because there happened to be no other at hand which bore the stamp of celebrity and he could unashamedly attempt it since genius such as his does not easily admit impossibility.
I first heard these opinions and the expression "play of intrigue" as applied to opera when I had already sent my present study to the printer. That these views written in the year 1803 should coincide so perfectly with what I have written has moved me to incorporate them here to illustrate my point.
Contemporary voices are also raised in inevitable demands. Dr. Massino Zanotti of Rome wrote lately (in Melos, August 1921): "I believe in the possibility of an artificial Italian Theatre where the action is limited to a minimum of what is necessary for the intensification of lyrical feeling [he means "what is necessary for an unfolding of the musical content']. I believe in a theatre where the action will itself constitute the lyrical intensification so that the music will always remain free, free music, music in the true sense of the word."
I must also refer to a very stimulating article by Herman Kessers in the periodical Feuer (also August 1921) which, in its way, sheds a light in advance on much that I have written here.