Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) championed Frédéric Chopin’s music. Yet his performances often elicited responses of shock or amusement because they rebelled against the prevalent sentimental style of interpretation associated with an “effeminate” Chopin. Even some of his staunchest admirers had trouble appreciating his unprompted repeats of measures or structural wholes in the preludes or etudes, his registral alterations, and his overly intellectualized approach. Also unusual was his choice to program the preludes as a complete cycle.
Scholars have documented Busoni’s interpretive eccentricities, but the rationale behind them and their significance for the evolution of Chopin interpretation in the twentieth century remains largely unexplored. Through analyses of recordings, concert programs, recital reviews, and Busoni’s little-known and unpublished essay from 1908 titled “Chopin: Eine Ansicht über ihn,” I connect Busoni’s unconventional Chopin interpretations to an idiosyncratic perception of Chopin’s character. In the nineteenth century Chopin and his music were commonly viewed as effeminate, androgynous, childish, sickly, and “ethnically other.” Busoni’s essay indicates that he, too, considered Chopin’s music “poetic,” “feminine,” and “emotive.” But this was problematic for Busoni, who was obsessed with “manliness” in an age in which gender roles were gradually changing. He discovered “half-manly” and “half-dramatic” elements in the music and in Chopin’s character—that is, a heroic, monumental side. In striving to portray the “whole” of Chopin and his music while distancing himself from the gendered “halfness” of earlier writings, Busoni became a pioneer of bolder Chopin interpretation and of monumentalist programming. His portrait of Chopin reveals how cultural ideas inform the evolution of performers’ interpretations.
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