Adolf Busch: The Violinist Who Stood Up to Fascism

German violinist, Adolf Busch (1891-1952)
German violinist Adolf Busch (1891-1952)

Tully Potter’s collection of books and CD’s, Adolf Busch- The Life of an Honest Musician, published in 2010, tells the remarkable story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Adolf Busch toured Europe as an exponent of the classic German style of violin playing, which had been associated with Joseph Joachim. The leader of the Busch Quartet, as well as a chamber orchestra, Busch’s approach to violin playing favored musicianship over dazzling displays of virtuosity.

The rise of Hitler in the late 1920s tested the eternally political and backbiting classical music profession. Musicians such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss reportedly didn’t approve of the Third Reich (neither joined the Nazi Party), but both tolerated Hitler, motivated by career preservation. As Potter’s book recounts, the Busch Quartet arrived in Berlin on April 1, 1933, the day the Nazis began a targeted assault on Jewish businesses. Following the evening’s concert, Busch, who was not Jewish, cancelled his entire German tour. He settled in Switzerland and watched as fascism spread throughout Europe. Hitler’s efforts to lure back “the world’s greatest German violinist” fell on deaf ears. 

Eventually, Busch emigrated to the United States. He never regained the reputation he had enjoyed in Europe. American audiences were enthralled with younger, flashier artists such as Jascha Heifetz and Busch’s style of playing may have seemed out of date. Listening now, it’s easier to recognize Busch’s artistry. The recording below showcases a deep and mature musicianship, a straightforward and honest sense of timing and a beautifully pure sound.

Yehudi Menuhin hinted at similar attributes as he remembered lessons with Adolf Busch:

Busch’s teaching was…musical rather than violinistic. If he didn’t have Enesco’s flair or glamour, as a musician he was extremely serious and deep, a passionate fundamentalist who ate, breathed, and slept Bach and Beethoven. He played the violin cleanly and beautifully, if with no Russian or Gypsy touch.*

Here is a 1930s recording of Busch and pianist Rudolf Serkin playing Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100. The duo founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival in 1951.

Here are the second and third movements. Also listen to the Busch Quartet’s dramatic and fiery reading of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet. 

Adolf Busch was also active as a composer. Listen to his Violin Concerto here. Read this review and watch this video to learn more.

*Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz (pg. 327)

Next Stop, Berlin For Noah Bendix-Balgley

Noah Bendix-Balgley
Noah Bendix-Balgley

Last Friday we learned that Noah Bendix-Balgley, concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, won an audition for the position of first concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic. The news shows just how global the classical music world has become. Over the last decade, English conductor Simon Rattle has brought a fresh new approach to tradition-bound Berlin. When Rattle leaves in 2018, it will be interesting to see how the organization again attempts to balance tradition with innovation.

Here is an impressive clip of Noah Bendix-Balgley playing the virtuosic concertmaster solo from Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It’s hard to imagine anyone playing it better:

And here he is playing the Romanian Dances by Bela Bartok with pianist David Allen Wehr:

Bendix-Balgley plays a 1732 Bergonzi violin which he talks about here.

Tilting at Windmills

tilting at windmillsThis week my orchestra, the Richmond Symphony, returns to work after a holiday hiatus with Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Don Quixote, Op. 35. Strauss wrote some of the most virtuosic and technically demanding orchestra repertoire and this program is a great way to get back into the swing of the season.

Richard Strauss was a master of programatic tone poems, music inspired by a story. In Don Quixote, a series of variations depict scenes from Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la ManchaA solo cello represents the delusional Don Quixote who inhabits a world of knights and chivalry, hundreds of years after their existence, and fights noble but imaginary battles against giants and windmills. In his visions, Don Quixote defends the honor and earns the love of the beautiful Dulcinea. The solo viola, tenor tuba and bass clarinet depict Don Quixote’s comic sidekick, Sancho Panza.

Don Quixote is a powerful and fascinating character partly because of his mixture of delusion and nobility. He would seem pathetic if it were not for his earnestness and transcendent idealism. Strauss’s music captures these paradoxes.

Let’s listen to a great recording by David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich. Can you hear Don Quixote’s good-natured insanity in the opening? Musically, a sense of mental instability is reflected in phrases which suddenly and happily end in new and distant keys (0:27). Trumpet fanfares (around 1:58, and later in the fatal duel in Variation X) suggest medieval exploits. Notice sound effects, such as brass flutter tonguing (11:12), suggesting a flock of sheep which Don Quixote sees as an advancing army. The dissonances we hear in moments like this anticipate the sound world of twentieth century music. In the third variation, the dialogue between the cello (Don Quixote) and the viola (Sancho) is almost like an opera without words. At 15:43 Don Quixote angrily interrupts Sancho’s mindless chatter and changes the subject to the glories of knighthood (16:10).

Throughout the piece, listen to Strauss’s dense and complex layers of counterpoint (melodic material occurring simultaneously). At times, such as Variation VII, layers of background sound, including a wind machine in the percussion, combine to create strange new and unexpected sonorities.

  1. Introduction: “Don Quixote loses his sanity after reading novels about knights, and decides to become a knight-errant” (0:00)
  2. Theme: “Don Quixote, knight of the sorrowful countenance.” (6:06)
  3. “Sancho Panza” (7:11)
  4. Variation I: “Adventure at the Windmills” (8:11)
  5. Variation II: “The victorious struggle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfaron”) [actually a flock of sheep] (10:51)
  6. Variation III: “Dialogue between Knight and Squire” (12:29)
  7. Variation IV: “Unhappy adventure with a procession of pilgrims” (20:14)
  8. Variation V: “The knight’s vigil” (22:00)
  9. Variation VI: “The Meeting with Dulcinea” (26:05)
  10. Variation VII: “The Ride through the Air” (27:11)
  11. Variation VIII: “The unhappy voyage in the enchanted boat” (28:26)
  12.  Variation IX: “Battle with the magicians” (30:11)
  13. Variation X: “Duel with the knight of the bright moon” (31:18)
  14. Finale: “Coming to his senses again” – Death of Don Quixote (35:30)

As an orchestral showpiece, Don Quixote demonstrates the wide ranging color palate of a full orchestra. The emotional impact of Strauss’s programatic music comes not as much from the literal representation of the plot as from metaphor and a range of feelings which cannot be put into words. Leonard Bernstein makes this point, discussing Don Quixote in his New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert, What Does Music Mean? 

For me, one of the most extraordinary moments comes at the end of the piece when Don Quixote draws his last breath (the downward cello glissando at 40:35). The final two chords which follow are dominated by the bright, sparkly sounds of the upper woodwinds. The eternal spirit of Don Quixote, perfectly summed up in these two chords, has the final word.

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Musical Beginnings

Unknown-30Think about the way your favorite piece begins. From the ferocious opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which form the DNA for the entire symphony that follows, to the quiet, mysterious tremolos of Bruckner’s symphonies, to the attention grabbing (and audience quieting) opening fanfares of Rossini’s opera overtures, the way a piece starts tells us a lot about what will follow. As you jump, grudgingly tip toe or stride boldly into 2014, listen to three pieces with uniquely interesting openings:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4[/typography]

It’s hard to imagine a more powerful or majestic opening than the beginning of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069. The first movement is a popular Baroque musical form known as a French overture in which slow, stately music is contrasted with a faster section. This is an opening which demands that you listen. It emphatically celebrates D major, building tension and expectation as it develops. The other movements are rooted in Baroque dances. As you listen enjoy the way the music flows. This would have been popular music in Bach’s time-joyful, sparkling and fun:

  1. Ouverture 0:00
  2. Bourree 8:45
  3. Gavotte 11:29
  4. Menuet I/II 13:31
  5. Réjouissance 17:15

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Symphony that Starts With a Question[/typography]

You may hear the influence of Beethoven’s teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn in Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. At the same time, the young Beethoven’s individual voice is evident. This symphony begins with a question. Listen to the first chord. It seems to be saying, “Where am I?” Can you tell where the music is going next? The chord resolves, but we still feel lost. When and how does the music confidently move forward?

Beethoven starts the last movement with a similar musical joke up his sleeve. After a dramatic opening octave played by the entire orchestra, the music seems as if it isn’t sure what to do next. Beethoven gives us a tentative series of notes…then tries again, adding another…then another…a scale is forming…Then he says, “Oh yes, now I know!” What follows is one of the most enjoyable musical romps ever conceived:

  1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio 0:00
  2. Andante cantabile con moto 8:26
  3. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace 14:50
  4. Finale: Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace 16:15

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Also sprach Zarathustra’s Unresolved Ending[/typography]

Our final “musical beginning” may be the most famous of all. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra) in 1896. The tone poem was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise. The opening depicts a musical sunrise. We not only hear but feel the pitch C, first as a deep, quietly ominous rumble in organ, basses, and contrabassoon and then expanding to other pitches built on the harmonic series (natural overtones). C, the purest key, with no sharps or flats is fixed in our ears, representing nature throughout Zarathustra. B with its five sharps (as far away from C as you can get, in terms of key relationships) represents the aspirations of man. The rest of the piece is a battle between C and B. Listen carefully at the end. Can you tell which key triumphs?

Here is a great recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony:

Did you hear the conflict at the end between B major in the highest instruments and C in the lowest? Nature has the last word, but in the end there is no satisfying resolution. In fact with Zarathustra, Strauss wrote a piece which ends in two keys at the same time. It’s a shocking and almost frightening ending, especially at a time (the late nineteenth century) when tonal relationships were beginning to slip away. In the twentieth century, after being pushed to the breaking point by composers such as Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, tonality would dissolve into the twelve tone rows of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and others. In twelve tone music there would be no hierarchical relationship between pitches.

Leonard Bernstein made a reference to the end of Zarathustra in the final chords of West Side Story. In contrast to Zarathustra, in West Side Story light wins out over darkness in the form of a major triad.

Conductor Marin Alsop offers additional thoughts about Zarathustra’s powerful opening here. Program notes for the entire piece are here.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What’s Your Favorite Musical Beginning?[/typography]

Now it’s your turn. Do you have a favorite “musical beginning?” Tell us about it in the comment thread below.

[quote]Life without music would be a mistake. -Friedrich Nietzsche[/quote]

Waltzing into a New Year

The Vienna Philharmonic began its tradition of performing an annual New Year’s Concert in 1939. Ever since, New Year’s Day and Strauss waltzes have become intertwined in popular imagination. In celebration of a new year, here is Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube from last year’s concert, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Austrian conductor Welser-Möst is currently the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. You may notice that in the Viennese style of playing waltzes the second beat comes slightly early and is stretched (One,TWO-three):

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Shaping a Film to Its Score[/typography]

If you’re a film fan, The Blue Danube probably brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a work he described as “a mythological documentary” and “a controlled dream.” The film delves into issues of technology and human evolution. In one scene a tribe of early hominids discovers that an animal bone can be used as a weapon as well as a tool. It’s a crucial moment of uniquely human ingenuity. An ape-man throws the bone into the air and it suddenly turns into a Pan-Am spaceplane, cruising to a space station which is orbiting earth millions of years later. Both the bone and the spaceplane represent technology. Have we really come so far?

Typically, composers write film scores after a movie has been made. 2001: A Space Odyssey may be a rare example of a film which was influenced by its music. Kubrick began working on the film with a “temporary track” of existing classical music. Meanwhile, the respected Hollywood composer Alex North began working on the score. It wasn’t until late in the process that North realized, to his disappointment and frustration, that Kubrick had abandoned the entire original score in favor of existing music, which included Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and music by twentieth century composer György Ligeti. You can get a sense of what the movie would have been like with North’s unused score here and here.

In Kubrick’s film the grace and elegance of Strauss’s waltz accompanies spinning satellites:

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Like other aspects of 2001, there are many contrasting interpretations regarding how the music is functioning in the film. Clearly, Kubrick was looking for something more than background music. In many scenes dialogue takes a back seat to music and image. For a complete analysis of the role of music in the film, read David W. Patterson’s Music, Structure and Metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

[quote]Music in Kubrick’s films is used inventively and narratively and flamboyantly, causing the viewer to listen so that he can see. -Vivian Sobchak[/quote]