Bach-Busoni: the transcription delusion

Among the new scores I bought recently was Dover’s edition of some of Ferruccio Busoni’s Bach transcriptions. I remember playing some of the chorale preludes for fun when I was a grad student and thought I’d do those again, maybe learn a couple more.

Then over the weekend I played through the transcription of the organ Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552, known as “St. Anne”. It was addictively fun to play. There I was, on a Saturday morning, pulling this huge organ sound out of my upright piano. Now I’m in that mode of “must learn this piece” and so I’ve been alternating working on Feldman and Bach-Busoni. Talk about contrast!

Transcriptions are a guilty pleasure for me as a pianist. I think that it is natural for a performer to hear music in terms of “I’d like to play that” or “I don’t care to play that.” As a pianist, I think musically through my fingers, ears, as well as my mind and heart. Indeed, the whole reason for this blog is to explore music by examining the process of learning to play it. For a pianist, this self-referencing view is particularly dangerous, because theoretically at least you can play anything: not just piano music, but orchestral works, organ works, string quartets, operas, lieder, you name it. You just need to take the time to work up a transcription for piano. Too many notes to make a transcription work? No problem: just transcribe for piano four hands! It’s all a bit delusional and greedy, but I love this kind of thing and with the Bach-Busoni “St. Anne” I fell for it hard.

One thing that’s particularly enticing about this particular piece are all the huge chords that require wide spans throughout. Busoni notes that all chords must be played in a single attack and not rolled, but for many pianists that’s going to be near-impossible. Spans of tenths are an occasional appearance in piano music, but they are all over the place here, and more:  elevenths show up here and there, and lots of four-note and even five-note chords that span a tenth. These latter are the real challenge: one might be able to easily manage the outer notes, but also cleanly playing the inner ones may throw the hand position off. I have a very wide hand, so for the most part these are easy for me to manage, but there are still a couple that are (pardon the pun) a stretch for me. After working on this piece for awhile, my hands feel like they’ve been through a lovely workout, all stretched out and alive.

Everything about this piece is oversized like that. The fugue is a five-voice double fugue in multiple sections. As I faked my way through it on Saturday, I could tell that I’m going to need some time to pencil in my analysis of this, to pick out all the appearances of the themes, and plan how to handle the entrances. It’s a big-sounding piece, and I have to watch that I don’t just barrel along at triple-forte throughout, although with those meaty chords the urge is hard to resist. I’ll settle down after a few more days of practice on it, I’m sure.

As I read through it, I was laughing at certain points, partially from the joy of the Bach, partially from the joy of riding the waves of all those notes, and partially at the craziness of it all. For some reason it seemed like Busoni was being a bit insane, asking the impossible: making the piano sound like an organ, indeed! Then I got to the last page, where, at the very end, the fugue subject appears in the bass one last time, triple-forte. The first two notes here, an a-flat and a g-flat, are so low that they simply do not exist on the piano: truly impossible!

Then I recalled playing a Bösendorfer piano years ago in a showroom, one that had a few extra keys at the bottom. They were covered by a little wooden flap so that they wouldn’t be disorienting and throw your aim off when you made leaps in the bass (it’s amazing how much you rely on subtle cues like that without realizing it). I did some research online to confirm my memory and found that this was the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, which has 97, 9 more than the standard piano’s 88. And to bring it all full circle, I found out that it was Busoni himself who commissioned the creation of this monster: he needed those extra keys to play his transcriptions of Bach organ works! There’s not a chance that I could fit a nine-and-a-half-foot Imperial Grand into my house, so I’ll just have to fake those two low notes somehow. But I love the idea that Busoni’s transcription delusion about a piece would be so strong that he’d even remake the piano itself to be able to play it. It makes me feel a bit better about all those sixteenth-notes obsessively running through my head these days.

2 thoughts on “Bach-Busoni: the transcription delusion”

  1. I found your post through a google search (“busoni bach transcription four hand” to be precise) and was delighted to see you reference the Bosendorfer Imperial Grand. I didn’t even know they existed until an opera company for which I was part of the orchestra performed in the Kunsthalle in Bonn and there it was. One of my much more talented colleagues sat down and played through some Scriabin from memory. One of those musical moments in my life that I’ll never forget: the surprise of the piano (the exquisite tone, sensitivity AND the extra keys) and the execution of the Scriabin.

  2. I came across a reference to the Bach Busoni transcriptions in John Eliot Gardiner’s book which led me to this wonderful description and (I hope) on to a recorded performance. Thank you for such a lively and helpful account of your encounter.

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