Busoni: music is free.

When you want to set Music free, why do words get in the way? I had a discussion over the mail with S. Melillo, he stated that:“You can’t defy nature” AND “It’s all waves.” AND (my own twist on a remark) “When you can describe it with words, why bother write Music?”

Together with our former writings about the use of words, wondering what is modern music and why my composition got stuck, I started looking for answers researching where, when and why we got into this ‘modern-music-avant-garde thing’ which I don’t understand to be music. I tracked down an essay from Busoni: ‘A new esthetic for music’, written in 1907. The period when Schoenberg started developing his atonal experiment.

My eye fell upon this part:

Music may scarcely be allowed to leap when it were its joy to follow the line of the rainbow, and to break sunbeams with the clouds.

I think that since Busoni wrote this quote, not much has changed. We got ‘atonal’ and ‘avantgard’ music as a modern twist in music. But no large audiences enjoy learning about it.

This music is not free, it’s not joyfully following the line of the rainbow. I think that, considering all I read about Schoenberg, studying his books, he knew everything about harmony, but had a completely torn personality that needed the safety of structured music to stay sane. This music is the end of the absolute music rainbow, but there is no pot of gold to be found here.

As far as I can understand it, modern classial music is a musical heritage from the Vienna 1900 period, where people tried to work from the newly discovered self-centered sub-consiousness and this music developed further into modernist avantgarde after the Wars, as a sign of Europe’s mental illness and overall mental depression. I think a depressed mind can only handle rational music, structures of that sort, not the Music that comes from the heart.

These modern muscial structures became the goal of music themselves and music ended up in an overly structured atonal or subconsciously unstructured, but defenitely chaotic sounding unversum. It was believed that modern man would develop to like and understand it. In a time where technical rebuilding of countries, repressing emotions and dogmatic conservative relligions were key, this type of music must have felt modern and fit to the times.

But maybe composers weren’t able to mourn, had unresolved issues, depressions. Probobably they couldn’t feel and write from their hearts. Think about the anti-sematic environment Schoenberg lived in and how the Jewish school in Vienna got burned to the ground. How Holy Scriptures were thrown in the waste pit.

There is no beauty in war. Maybe not even in heroism. Maybe there was no beauty in music, because of lack of honest deep feeling in the lives of composers.

Minimalistic music was probably a reaction on this atonal chaos: It supplied total control and rigid patterns for P.T.S.S. -troubled brains after the traumatic discovery of what we and our (grand)-parents did during the wars or what was done to us/them. It’s been researched that the brain likes these patterns when it’s damaged with PTSS or depressed. It might be a logical explanation of this musical style.

Back to Vienna 1900

Busoni and Schoenberg knew each other, they wrote and visited concerts of their music. Busoni was a pianist, who aspired as a composer, but I think he was more busy explaning music than producing music. I think that Busoni had a more whole-some perception of Music than Schoenberg. A perception that is shared with many composers all over the globe:

Busoni on Music:

This child, it floats on air. It touches not the earth with its feet. It knows no law of gravitation. It is wellnigh incorporeal. Its material is transparent. It is sonorous air. It is almost Nature herself. It is free.

Personally I find Forms in music very restrictive, even boring. Some structures help set boundaries, so you can be creative without getting lost. But other structures are ‘rules’, dogma’s, habits, routines. Even though the first use of these Forms was creative, repeating them is not a creative act per se. Following established forms out of familiarity with them, doesn’t evoke the question ‘Is this the Form of my Music?’ It doesn’t set Music free to begin with.


But freedom is something that mankind have never wholly comprehended, never realized to the full. They can neither recognize nor acknowledge it.They disavow the mission of this child; they hang weights upon it. This buoyant creature must walk decently, like anybody else. It may scarcely be allowed to leap when it were its joy to follow the line of the rainbow, and to break sunbeams with the clouds. Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny. It will become the most complete of all reflexes of Nature by reason of its untrammeled immateriality.

Then I remembered Stephen writing about the use of words, when I read this:

Even the poetic word ranks lower in point of incorporealness. … Music realizes a temperament, without describing it, with the mobility of the soul, with the swiftness of consecutive moments. … Therefore, representation and description are not the nature of music.

I concluded that my work got stuck because the words are in the way: they describe what I wanted the music to make me see, rather than write down the Music that I feel. The music under the words was of poorer quality, than the music without words.

Busoni takes this one step further and states that this (music being non-descriptive) proves the invalidity of program-music. In an interesting turn he describes how absolute music on the other hand also confines Music by setting rules, Forms and routines:

In reality, program-music is precisely as one-sided and limited as that which is called absolute. In place of architectonic and symmetric formulas, instead of the relation of Tonic to Dominant, it has bound itself in the stays of a connecting poetic sometimes even philosophic program.

In other words, on the one hand: programmatic music is too literal, it’s not Nature, it’s not the freedom of Waves. On the other hand: Absolute music is too structured, rigid, it’s more of a routine, a form of reproduction of ancient architecture. What I like about this thought, is that Busoni ends with the idea that there should be a FORM that combines these two ideas into something Greater:

Programmatic music has been set up as a contrast to so-called absolute music, and these concepts have become so petrified that even persons of intelligence hold one or the other dogma, without recognition for a third possibility beyond and above the other two.

I think that the FORM, as I work with now, is an attempt to design music in a way to have an Architecture to keep the creative forces into places, but that this Architecture is still so flexible that the Music stays free. I choose measure-structure-numberings from the 34-matrix and fill that with Fibonacci numbered explorations of the motiv, or rather: the DNA.

This FORM is not rigid, never a literal repetition of itself. Where the traditional forms can get you stuck within the 4-bar sections, this system frees the composer again and again, without loosing the central idea (DNA). The 4-bar system is a part of this whole FORM.

I learned working with DNA (3 notes and a rhythm) within this FORM from Stephen Melillo. Now, read Busoni on motives:

Every motive so it seems to me contains, like a seed, its life-germ within itself. Different plant-seeds grow different families of plants, dissimilar in form, foliage, blossom, fruit, growth and color. Even each individual plant belonging to one and the same species assumes, in size, form and strength, a growth peculiar to itself. And so, in each motive, there lies the embryo of its fully developed form; each one must unfold itself differently, yet each obediently follows the law of eternal harmony. This form is imperishable, though each be unlike every other.

Let us take thought, how music may be restored to its primitive, natural essence; let us free it from architectonic, acoustic and esthetic dogmas; let it be pure invention and sentiment? in harmonies, in forms, in tone-colors (for invention and sentiment are not the prerogative of melody alone).

Let Music follow the line of the rainbow and vie with the clouds in breaking sunbeams; let Music be naught else than Nature mirrored by and reflected from the human breast; for it is sounding air and floats above and beyond the air ; within Man himself as universally and absolutely as in Creation entire; for it can gather together and disperse without losing in intensity.

When thinking again of the Vienna 1900 period and how Busoni experienced Music during this time, he must have been very different from his pears. They were experimenting with Freud, the subconscious, self-absorbed. The World Wars started, dividing Europe, initiating non-natural, non-emotional and non-free music. The highlight being the 12-tone system. But Busoni had a different idea, he foresaw the synthesizer (1906) and he thought that (recall that Vienna was a trade-spot connecting East and West):

There would be a super-European Music, that asserts itself even amid the tawny sunsets of the desert, whose soul is alfied with the palm-tree, and can consort and prowl with great, beautiful, lonely beasts of prey.

I could imagine a music whose rarest charm should consist in its complete divorce from the Good and the Bad; only that its surface might be ruffled, as it were, by a longing as of a sailor for home, by variable golden shadows and tenter frailties: an Art which should see fleeing toward It, from afar off; the hues of a perishing moral world become wellnigh incomprehensible, and which should be hospitable and profound enough to harbor such belated fugitives.

And Tolstoi transmutes a landscape-impression into a musical impression, when he writes: ‘Neither on the lake, nor on the mountains, nor in the sides, a single straight line, a single unmixed color, a single point of repose; everywhere movement, irregularity, caprice, variety an incessant interplay of shades and lines, and in It all the reposefulness, softness, harmony and inevitableness of Beauty.’

I like the music of Rodion Shchedrin, it’s new in a sense, but still music. THe composer is still alive, I think he is the thread I am looking for, the thread from Russian, France, tradition into the future.

We lost track of this way of thinking because we thought that programmatic music could not be sophisticated, but developing absolute music to it’s extreme did not give of a satisfying emotional experience.

I agree with Busoni, that there might be a better type of music that combines or stands above programmatic and absolute music: A type of music that combines the beauty of story and form within one piece of music.

Which again helps us remind that Music isn’t a programmatic nor an absolute Form. It’s something different, something Greater than that. It’s not Good nor Bad, it doesn’t describe, it doesn’t express moral.

Reminding myself of Stephen Melillo: It’s all Waves, and adding a little Busoni: It’s all Waves that touch the human heart in a Natural way. You can’t defy Nature.

What does this mean in a practical way? How do I now improve my work?Music isn’t about words, it’s non-descriptive. Let Nature help you sound better:

  • Keys that fit the dominant instrument group.
  • Let people play in a range where there instruments sound good.
  • Orchestrate elegantly: nobody should struggle for being heard within their octave: either the instruments mix for a sound-color or they play solo in their own SPACE.
  • Divide SPACE into range-groups.
  • Waves that interfere correctly, cones versus tubes.
  • Chord constructions that support over and undertones.
  • In tune playing: help avoid difficult tuned notes on instruments.
  • Exact changes of chords or not: open clear sound versus troubled thick sounds
  • Silences are part of the Music. It’s what you choose NOT to write.
  • Starting with the first inspiration, the first idea’s of orchestration. Music and Orchestration are connected. Different orchestration makes a new composition. So arranging an original is not a good idea. You can write variations on a theme, but not orchestrations of a theme.

By Anneloes Wolters


%d bloggers like this: