The second edition naming the two composers, Bach · Busoni, on the cover is going to appear shortly in the Henle catalogue. Busoni’s famous arrangement of the no less famous Bach chaconne has already been available here for some time. To follow now are the 10 chorale preludes.

We must almost say 11½ chorale preludes, for added in our edition to the well-known 10 organ arrangements is, on the one hand, a second version of no. 1 (“Komm, Gott, Schöpfer”), now being made available for the first time since it was originally published in 1916; this second version, only part of which is a truly new music text, may count as “half” of a new chorale prelude. The transcription of the organ chorale prelude “Aus tiefer Not schrei’ ich zu dir” is, on the other hand, a completely new work. Our editors discovered the piece in Busoni’s estate (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin · Preußischer Kulturbesitz). The source can meanwhile be viewed digitalized; the work is now appearing, though, for the first time in an Urtext edition.

Busoni seems in fact to have planned originally to publish this arrangement. An explicit nota bene, “for the engraver” (at the top right on the first page of the manuscript) suggests this. But it never went to press. Why? Was Busoni not satisfied with piano writing? He himself conceded in the footnote on the first page: “Playing a polyphonic, six-part texture is more or less at the most extreme limit of what can be achieved on the piano.” We would have to agree with the composer. The piano writing is extremely dense. We might well doubt that it is at all possible to manage this quantity of notes with ten fingers. I attempted it, and it went amazingly well – but six parts can certainly be better presented on the organ than on the piano. The 10 chorale preludes arranged presumably 4 years later – and then also published – are in any case clearly designed more for the piano. Perhaps “Aus tiefer Not” was a technical exercise in transcription for the fingers, a preliminary stage that Busoni had outgrown with the published chorale preludes. Busoni may even have still had at the back of his mind this “transcription attempt” (thus, the title) when he wrote in the preface of 1898 to the first edition of the 10 chorale preludes:

“That which induced the editor to arrange a selection of Bach’s Chorale-Preludes for the pianoforte was not so much to furnish a sample of his capabilities as an arranger as the desire to interest a larger section of the public in these compositions which are so rich in art, feeling and fantasy and thereby to gradually awaken in music-loving circles a desire to become acquainted with the remaining works of this class – of which over one hundred are in existence.

This style of arrangement which we take leave to describe as “in Chamber-Music-Style” as in contradistinction to “Concert-Arrangements” rarely requires the highest skill of the player, with the exception only of the art of pianoforte-touch which must certainly be at the player’s command in performing these Chorale-Preludes.”

In our Urtext edition “Aus tiefer Not” appears in the appendix – now pianists may wish to compare no. 11 with the other 10½ pieces and consider the reasons why Busoni never had the piece printed.

In closing, a small text problem, still, that shows how difficult it is to deal with editions of arrangements. In m. 20 Busoni writes an f in the middle staff (1st note):

Every pianist is presumably appalled at the harsh sound of the note. Did Busoni make a mistake?

In order to find out we had to consult the sources of the Bach model. The authorized first print of 1739 actually writes f; in several copies – but not in all – this f was later corrected to f sharp. But Busoni presumably did not use Bach’s original print for his arrangement, using instead either the edition by Griepenkerl/Roitzsch (1847) or the old Bach Edition (1853). The f is in Griepenkerl, the old Bach Edition writes f sharp. This source situation poses some questions that can hardly be answered. It is simply obvious that Busoni apparently oriented himself on Griepenkerl. In adopting f did he thereby err? Did Busoni consciously or rather “unreflectively” write f without questioning the note? And on another level: Does Bach’s original (its reading, though, isn’t entirely clear) prevail or does the autograph of the Busoni arrangement? Who is decisive for the correct text of the transcription: the composer of the original or the arranger?

Finally, here still – for your relaxation – is my personal favorite recording of one the best-known Bach/Busoni chorale preludes, no. 3, “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland” with Vladimir Horowitz:


This entry was posted in Bach, Johann Sebastian, Busoni, Ferruccio, Chorale Preludes (Johann Sebastian Bach), Monday Postings, piano solo, transcription, variant reading, Vladimir Horowitz and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to »“… more or less at the most extreme limit of what can be achieved on the piano”: Busoni arranges Bach«

  1. David Palmer says:

    I once played the Horowitz Piano when it
    traveled through Minneapolis. It was an
    unforgettable moment. Thank you for the
    footage of Horowitz playing the Bach Chorale
    on that very piano. What nonchalant mastery
    he had of that and all piano works
    This is my first encounter with the Henle Blog.
    I have always counted Henle as the best.
    I especially enjoy the mystery of the F/F#. Thank you.

  2. AndreasP says:

    I think Busoni’s foreword to his chorale preludes collection is one of the meanest texts in music history. He goes on and on how easy they are to play… And then you go to the first page, and he writes something in three staffs, and I just never can figure out what he means me to do, and I go back to my organ console…

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