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The Berceuse élégiaque was a landmark in Ferruccio Busoni‘s career. Writing in 1912, he rejoiced ‘for the first time in creating an individual sound’. Indeed the scoring is peculiarly restricted: Busoni does not use bassoons, trumpets or trombones, and conventional virtuosity is absent. Moreover, the work’s unique sound—its harmonic richness and emotional intensity—can be traced to agonizing circumstances.
The year 1909 was a painful year for Busoni. In May, his father died after protracted illness; five months later, his mother also died—a loss that Busoni described as ‘the most profound event in my life’. This duet of death is telling of what became a feature of Busoni’s output: dualism. The Fantasia after J.S. Bach, written in memory of his father, opens in ominous F minor, and the Berceuse élégiaque, written in memory of his mother, unravels sonorous harmonies of F major. Its orchestral version was subtitled ‘Des Mannes Wiegenlied am Sarge seiner Mutter’ (‘The man’s cradle song at his mother’s coffin’) and truly is an epitaph in sound.
The Berceuse was so different from anything that Busoni had tried before, that he decided not to publish it until he had heard it in performance. So whilst Busoni completed the work in October 1909, the Berceuse did not receive its premiere until February the following year. Conducted by Mahler at Carnegie Hall, the work was deemed a triumph. However, its success was overshadowed by further unfortunate circumstances. The concert, due to be repeated a few days later, was cancelled as Mahler fell ill. This was to be the last concert that Mahler conducted, dying three months later in Vienna.
In a work that is so surrounded by death, it is notable that the Berceuse élégiaque is crafted from wholly original material. Known for his transcriptions of works by other composers, such as J.S. Bach, Liszt and Mozart, Busoni’s primary methods of creation were by resurrecting ‘the dead’. Indeed, his transcriptions of J.S. Bach were so prevalent and admired that his surname was mistaken for ‘Bach-Busoni’ on multiple occasions. This fluidity of what constituted the musical work, skating a blurry line between arrangement, transcription and Nachdichtung, illustrates the constant regeneration of musical ideas, or as Busoni simply remarked, ‘every notation is the transcription of an idea’.
from notes by Mark Seow © 2014