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Busoni, Kandinsky, Schoenberg — Instinct at the Cusp

It’s a truism that, as aesthetic movements go, the visual arts get there first. Think of Impressionism, which didn’t begin to inflect music until Debussy and Ravel – decades after Monet.

Expressionism is another matter: the synchrony is amazing. I am thinking of 1910: the year of Wassily Kandinsky’s first non-representational painting. Non-tonal music was simultaneously conceived by Arnold Schoenberg and with the same goal: capturing instinct at the cusp. What is more, Kandinsky and Schoenberg recognized their kinship. And they corresponded about it: an imperishable sequence of letters. (Schoenberg singled out Kandinsky’s “Romantic Landscape” [1911], reproduced above, as a personal favorite.)

There is also a third participant: Ferruccio Busoni, one of the most magical figures in the history of Western music. Busoni and Schoenberg also corresponded: an even more amazing written exchange. The moment I discovered it I knew it had to be animated in performance. The opportunity materialized two weeks ago in the form of a PostClassical Ensemble Concert at The Phillips Collection in DC: “The Re-Invention of Arnold Schoenberg.”

The Busoni/Schoenberg correspondence is not only acute; it is hilarious – and at our concert William Sharp, enacting both parts, had the audience in stitches. Schoenberg’s impassioned self-exhortations to “express myself directly,” to renounce acquired knowledge in favor of “that which is inborn, instinctive” can sound like a tangled Monty Python script:

“This is my vision which I am unable to force upon myself: to wait until a piece comes out of its own accord in the way I have envisaged. My only intention is to have no intentions!”

Busoni is the adult in this exchange. But he is also a serene provocateur. When Schoenberg sends him a pair of non-tonal piano pieces (Op. 11 – composed in 1909), he is full of admiration. He then imperturbably adds:

“My impression as a pianist, which I cannot overlook, is otherwise. My first qualification of your music ‘as a piano piece’ is the limited range of the textures. As I fear I might be misunderstood, I am taking the liberty, in my own defense, of appending a small illustration.”

Busoni here takes a measure of Schoenbeg’s piano writing, and “enhances” it. He continues:

“But this is neither intended as judgment nor as criticism – to neither of which I would presume, but simply a record of the impression made and of my opinion as a pianist.”


“I have considered your reservations about my piano style at length. It seems to me that particularly these two pieces, whose somber, compressed colors are a constituent feature, would not stand a texture whose effect on one’s tonal palate was all too flattering.”


“I have occupied myself further with your pieces, and the one in 12/8 time [No. 2] appealed to me more and more. I believe I have grasped it completely — although the form of expressing it on the piano has remained inadequate to me. To complete my confession, let me tell you that I have (with total lack of modesty) rescored your piece. Although this remains my own business, I should not fail to inform you, even at the risk of your being annoyed with me.”

Schoenberg was a connoisseur at taking offense. My favorite Schoenberg sentence was written to the conductor Otto Klemperer. They were colleagues in Los Angeles. Klemperer performed Schoenberg with his LA Philharmonic – but would not broach his non-tonal works. Schoenberg wrote: “The fact that you have become estranged from my music has not caused me to feel insulted, though it has certainly estranged me.”

And here is Schoenberg’s response to Busoni in 1909:

“Above all, you are certainly doing me an injustice. But my trust absolutely cannot be shaken by this divergence. On the contrary, it has increased since I personally came in contact with you. The intuition I already had about the nature of your personality has been confirmed. And now I have formed a fairly clear picture. I can perceive a facet of your personality that is infinitely valuable to me: the endeavor to be just! And I value this endeavor higher than justice itself. Therefore, even if you are in fact doing me an injustice, nothing in the world could give me greater pleasure than the way in which you do so. But, as I said: I believe in actual fact that you are wrong.”


“Your last letter is an interesting document, which I value very highly. . . . Happily we have struck an attitude of frankness to one another, and I would ask: to what extent to you realize these intentions? And how much is instinctive, and how much is deliberate?”

Busoni thereupon proposed that both versions of Op. 11, No. 2, be published in tandem.


“You must consider the following : it is impossible for me to publish my piece together with a transcription which shows how I could have done it better. Which thus indicates that my piece is imperfect. And it is impossible to try to make the public believe that my piece is good, if I simultaneously indicate that it is not good.”

Busoni closed the exchange:

“For various reasons, I am unable to give my formal assent to play your pieces, but I shall always be on your side.”

At our concert, Alexander Shtarkman illustrated at the piano how Busoni made Schoenberg’s keyboard writing more “pianistic.” And he performed Op. 11, No. 2 (as Schoenberg composed it). We also sampled the Schoenberg/Kandinsky exchange accompanied by paintings by both  Kandinsky and . . . Schoenberg (“Perhaps you do not know that I also paint”). But the evening’s main events were a pair of torrential musical compositions.

In 1907 – one year before Schoenberg’s first non-tonal compositions; two years before his Op. 11; three years before Kandinsky’s canvases turned wholly abstract – Busoni published a prophetic manifesto: Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music. Schoenberg read it with admiration. He also recommended it to Kandinsky. A key passage explicates the notion of “Ur-Musik” – a primal “absolute music” or “infinite music” privileging spontaneity and instinct:

“Is it not singular, to demand of a composer originality in all things, and to forbid it as regards form? No wonder that, once he becomes original, he is accused of “formlessness.’ . . . Such lust for liberation filled Beethoven that he ascended one short step on the way leading music back to its loftier self – He did not quite reach absolute music; but in certain moments he divined it, as in the introduction to the fugue of the Hammerklavier Sonata. Indeed all composers have drawn nearest the true nature of music in preparatory and intermediary passages, where they felt at liberty to disregard symmetrical proportions, and unconsciously drew free breath.

The famous notes-in-a-void Hammerklavier passage — which Shtarkman performed for us at our concert – says it all. Next to Beethoven, Busoni continues, Bach comes closest to “infinite music.” He also cites examples in Brahms and Schumann. In Busoni’s own solo piano output, a prime specimen of Ur-Musik is his Sonatina seconda from 1912. This ten-minute, one-movement musical tornado, in which motivic shards ride the storm or recede into ghostly clouds, is known (if at all) by reputation rather than experience. So I asked Alexander Shtarkman to learn it and play it for us. He magnificently obliged; here it is.

After the horrors of World War I, the moment for unrestrained Expressionism was over. Busoni opted for a “New Classicism.” Schoenberg opted for an insane 12-tone theory that would organize his non-tonal onslaughts. He also fled Hitler’s Germany for – an incongruous destination – Los Angeles (he liked the weather). There his output included a twentieth century patriotic masterpiece: the Ode to Napoleon – a work I have long presented and written about. It closed our concert in a blaze of exaltation.

In William Sharp’s electrifying performance, with Angel Gil-Ordonez conducting and Alexander Shtarkman at the piano, Schoenberg’s closing apostrophe to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (here symbolized by Lord Byron’s George Washington) sounded like this.

Kandinsky, Busoni, and Schoenberg followed a demanding muse. Schoenberg even said: “I do not think about the public.” But the Ode to Napoleon invariably ignites an ovation – and so it did at the Phillips Collection.


  1. Thanks, Joe. Fine piece.

  2. Jazz gets there first.

  3. William Wolfram says

    Thank you for this interesting piece. Ive recently played the Opus 11 on Recitals preceded by Liszt Nuages Gris.
    The Liszt and the 2nd and 3rd Schoenberg movements were choreographed and danced to by my daughter and a male dancer from Carolina Ballet.

  4. Andre Liigand says

    Interesting they both were exploring new forms, but certainly searching for new sounds and expressions, Puccini and Rachmaninofff are performed more than any other composers,nowadays, why?, it connects emotionally and melodically, these guys tried, nothing wrong with that, but their music didn’t connect to audiences as most people like heart, melody and romance, in music, and the human quality , that’s the way it is, but it’s interesting to hear these guys, geniuses, but maybe they were too much in to structure, Chopin use to say, ” listen to the great singers, bel canto ,the long line, and melody is the essence of music ” . No right or wrong, it’s a choice,

  5. Andre brings up some viable points. Romantic melody (in the “traditional” sense) connects with listeners more often, and in greater numbers, than abstract genius. I like both, and lean one way or the other, depending on what I’m in the mood for. But I understand the bigger picture, when it comes to our civilization, and what goes over best, most of the time. Jazz went through a similar thing in the 1960’s, when it reached its own peak of Avant-Garde expression. To this day, most folks would rather listen to Duke Ellington than Albert Ayler.

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