Part 01: Chorale Prelude 'Allein Gott in der H÷h sei Ehr'
Part 02: Fugue I
Part 03: Fugue II
Part 04: Fugue III
Part 05: Intermezzo
Part 06: Variation I
Part 07: Variation II
Part 08: Variation III
Part 09: Cadenza
Part 10: Fugue IV
Part 11: Chorale
Part 12: Stretta
Bach’s The Art of Fugue, an uncompleted sequence of studies in fugal writing called Contrapuncti (‘his last and greatest work’, according to Busoni), is a compendium of contrapuntal skills at that summit of perfection to which the great master had taken them at the end of his life. Its final fugue, Contrapunctus XIV, was in Busoni’s words ‘planned on four fugue subjects, of which two are complete and the third commenced’. In the manuscript, a note thought to be in the hand of his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, states that ‘At this point where the theme B–A–C–H becomes the countersubject, the composer died’, although some scholars believe that the work was abandoned at an earlier date. In any event, a quadruple fugue is a fearsome event. In the first place the four themes must at some point combine, and the additional possibilities of interlocking countersubjects and their inversions become, as Busoni suggested, ‘as numerous as chess moves’. Conjecture as to the identity of the missing fourth subject was pursued by musicologists with the same fervour as mathematicians unravelling an unproven theorem. From his encounters with two German-born scholars then living in Chicago, Busoni was satisfied that the theme must be the opening subject of Contrapunctus I, which met all the requirements of compatibility and thus would ‘close the circle of the whole work’. He then set about completing Fugue III and composing Fugue IV, initially with a fairly vague idea of creating ‘something between a composition by C[ésar] Franck and the Hammerklavier Sonata’.
No sooner had his first version been published under the title Grosse Fuge, Busoni withdrew it and started work on the version heard here, which he named Fantasia contrappuntistica, edizione definitiva. Later two further versions appeared: a simplified and abbreviated Versio minore and a version for two pianos.
Where Bach had been constrained by the laws of harmony as they then existed (though stretching them to the limit), Busoni decided that he should honour Bach’s genius while pursuing each line according to its own integrity and logic thus creating new and viable harmonies for his own time. ‘But new harmony could only arise naturally from the foundation of an extremely cultivated polyphony and establish a right for its appearance; this requires strict tuition and a considerable mastery of melody.’ And it is sometimes startling to discover that the most jarring moments have their origin not far away in Bach. A case in point is the tumultuous pile-up in the final Stretta which emanates from Contrapunctus VIII.
Busoni devoted as much thought to the overall form as to the contrapuntal detail. He went so far as to add drawings to represent the architecture of his conception—a ship with five taut sails (‘moving over difficult waters’) superimposed on a cross (‘the form of a cathedral’) and a building whose doors represent the different ‘chapters’ of his narrative.
His most radical change from the Grosse Fuge (and an inspired one) was to begin the work with an evocative Prelude based on the ancient chorale ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’, not such a huge task since much of it existed already as one of his Elegies. In Fugues I, II and III, Busoni follows the plan of Contrapunctus XIV more or less exactly but adds his own voice in several ways, notably in the vastly extended compass and the chromatic modification of some voices to accord with his logical ‘modern’ vision of harmony, together with the insertion of references to a fifth theme of his own device which is first heard at the beginning of the piece. Another feature is the anchoring of Fugue I on a deep pedal D, causing it to emerge as if from a great depth, something we can observe in the distortions of old music ‘through a glass darkly’ of composers like Berio and Schnittke at the other end of the twentieth century. There follow an eerie Intermezzo (misticamente, visionario), three Variations of increasing complexity and a Cadenza before Fugue IV, which (of necessity) is entirely Busoni’s own composition. An ethereal reminiscence of the opening chorale presages the hectic Stretta before three imposing statements of the subject of Fugue I (two partial, one decisive) bring the huge edifice to a fittingly grand conclusion.
Easy listening it is certainly not, and it has been argued that the density of Busoni’s contrapuntal mesh makes it at times ‘unhearable’, even if it were played by a computer. This fear, in turn, has led some commentators and performers to adopt a disengaged rationality towards his music. All the evidence—and there is plenty of it including one pricelessly illuminating recording of Busoni playing a single Prelude and Fugue by Bach—leads to the conclusion that his goals were heightened expression through indefatigable work allied to unerring artistic instinct. The expression marks in the Fantasia contrappuntistica, although sparing, encompass both the practical (quasi trombe dolci, vivace misurato, continuando) and the emotional, even spiritual (gemendo, ansioso, misticamente).
Busoni believed that Bach and Mozart showed us that music can somehow reach beyond the realm of man and should not be overly concerned with the day to day struggles and sensations of existence. The Fantasia’s manifold inspirations multiply with repeated hearings when felicities can suddenly emerge that at first were buried in the welter of activity; so perhaps it is ideally suited to the modern recording medium. This said, Busoni can be credited with a real ‘music of the future’. Whether he achieved his other aim of creating ‘one of the most significant works of modern piano literature’ may remain eternally under debate but, since its fascination continues to intrigue after more a century, it was far more than an idle boast.
from notes by Hamish Milne ę 2008