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Work

Ferruccio Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni Composer

Sonatina super Carmen No.6, KiV 284

Performances: 11
Tracks: 11
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Musicology:
  • Sonatina super Carmen No.6, KiV 284
    Year: 1920
    Genre: Other Keyboard
    Pr. Instrument: Piano
Composed between 1910 and 1918, the first five of Busoni's sonatinas are signal items in the esoteric endeavor of fashioning a new, Faustian musical language that parallels the similar path of Schoenberg. Capping the series with an old-fashioned Lisztian operatic fantasy in the Sonatina super Carmen has, therefore, struck critics and commentators as incongruous. But heard against the backdrop of its era, rife with virulent political jostling reflected in swift aesthetic crosscurrents, it looms as a musical manifesto, a validation of Nietzsche's anti-Wagnerian admiration for Bizet's Carmen and a realization of the philosopher's call to "Mediterraneanize music."

Born in Italy, Busoni was justly proud of his heritage, yet he lived in Berlin for 30 years and wrote his stage works and songs in German. In this fiercely chauvinistic milieu, he never ceased to be an outsider. Typically, while on tour in New York in 1915, with the exuberantly begun Great War turning grim, news that he had been seen chatting with Saint-Saëns during a performance of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera provoked a scandal in Berlin. His cosmopolitanism could only be viewed as disloyalty. To his "disciple" Egon Petri, he wrote: "The German is the greatest sufferer from Heimweh: he loves to make poems about it. Art is at home everywhere. The German is bourgeois, art is aristocratic." A visit to Paris in March 1920 he described as "like a homecoming for me...to find life on the grand scale again...." And under this stimulus he composed the Sonatina super Carmen there in the same month.

The best of Liszt's operatic fantasies touch upon a few salient moments in a grand pianistic design with the effect of a dramatic distillation or summary. Seizing upon four high points from Bellini's opera and working them with ever greater magniloquence to a whelming conclusion, Liszt's Norma Fantasy (of which Busoni was a compelling interpreter) provides the archetype and richest example. Busoni follows this model; but where Liszt is expansive, flamboyant, and luxuriant, Busoni's utterance is rapid, concentrated, and allusive. Sparkling octaves and thirds evoke the opening of Act Four—the crowd, the vendors, the anticipation—to segue into Don José's "Flower Song," heard in the piano's middle register, garlanded in scintillant arpeggios ranging over the entire keyboard, and cunningly combined with the Fate motif as it sinks to a murmur before Carmen's teasing Habañera. Beginning dolce, vagamente, the dance intensifies to a spinning seduction before dissolving suddenly into the entrance of the toreadors, brilliantly conjured with astounding economy. This, too, dissolves—into an andante visionario in which the Fate motif looms, strangely muted. Petri's classic 1936 recording of the Sonatina super Carmen plays just under six-and-a-half minutes.

Busoni gave the work its premiere in London's Wigmore Hall on June 22, 1920. Critic and composer Kaikhosru Sorabji was in the audience and commented: "The vulgar commonplace Bizet tunes lose all their own identity, although not rhythmically distorted, and are for the time being 'controlled' by Busoni in a way that recalls the control of a psychic sensitive by some powerful discarnate entity.... It was amusing to feel the audience at the Wigmore a little horrified and frightened by something the likes of which they had certainly never known before." That, too, is Faustian.

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