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Composed: 1898–1900

About this Piece

Though he has many champions seeking to bring his music and ideas from academic and connoisseur circles to greater celebration, Ferruccio   Busoni has always been something of a cult figure.  A child prodigy born to a clarinetist father and a pianist mother, Busoni gave his   first   public   performance on piano at age seven and was marketed by his parents leading him to later remark, “I never had a childhood.” Busoni started his studies at the Vienna Conservatory at age nine and matured into a widely respected virtuoso pianist.

Based for much of his life in Berlin, Busoni straddled the late Romantic and Modernist eras. As an intellectual, teacher, and author, he is credited with planting seeds of the 20th century, or at least accurately foretelling what was to come, in his 1907 book Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music. In it, Busoni predicted music would go beyond 12 tones, and he laid out his belief in “Young Classicism” that pointed away from Romantic sensibilities toward returning to and building upon classical forms.

Busoni’s treatise was widely read among figures such as Paul Hindemith, and he regularly exchanged letters with Arnold Schoenberg who would go on to shape the century Busoni’s writings predicted.  Further adding to his somewhat underground cult of influence and celebration, Busoni taught both Kurt Weill and Edgard Varèse who became some of his biggest advocates. Writing about his mentor after his death, Weill wrote, “We did not lose a human being, but a value.”

The most meaningful relationship with a fellow composer to Busoni, however, was not with any of his contemporaries but with Johann Sebastian Bach. Across three decades, Busoni published multiple volumes of arrangements of Bach’s organ and choral works for the piano. Well aware of the criticism he would receive for the liberties he took with Bach’s intentions, Busoni left a defiant note amid a 36-page essay on his approach to Bach that read, “Musical commoners still delight in decrying modern virtuosi as spoilers of the classics; and yet Liszt and his pupils have done things for spreading a general understanding for Bach and Beethoven beside which all theoretical-practical pedantry seems bungling, and all brow-puckering cogitations of stiffly solemn professors unfruitful.” Busoni’s Violin Sonata No. 2, both in the estimation of the composer and musicologists, represents an arrival of the composer’s ideas into his mature later style. Structurally owing to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30, Op. 109, and thematically channeling Bach, Busoni starts his three-movement sonata with a moody, slow piano introduction followed by two themes:  the first a wistful and pensive violin melody,  the second offering both more cheer and fire. The ensuing fast movement, which lasts only a few minutes, is a tarantella: a 6/8 folk dance from southern Italy.  In a letter to his wife, Busoni described the contrasting second movement as “like going into a thickly populated street on coming out of the Forum, or like a national festival in full swing in front of the Pantheon.”

Lasting almost twice as long as the previous two movements combined, the third and final movement is a theme and variations based on Bach’s “Wie wohl ist mir” chorale theme from the second notebook for Anna Magdalena. After the statement of the theme, Busoni transforms the material over the course of six wide-ranging variations.

Completed between 1898 and 1900, the sonata was dedicated to violinist and composer Ottokar Nováček who died shortly before its completion. In addition to being a milestone in Busoni’s own development, the sonata was immediately popular in its time and remains one of Busoni’s most celebrated, if still underperformed, works.

—Ricky O’Bannon