Adolf Busch, violinist


For all too many years, there was little biographical material devoted to Adolf Busch. And, in the days before compact discs and music downloads, it was also hard to find recordings made by Busch, unless one were lucky enough to live in Japan or otherwise have access to the LPs issued in that country by Toshiba EMI and CBS/Sony.

In an effort to locate and hear as many of these remarkable recordings as I could, I set out to create a discography of them -- a amateur effort that, fortunately, led me to link up with Tully Potter. He is a U.K.-based music journalist who has now been prolifically active for more than three decades: This is a wonderful thing since he has the knack of evoking the particular characteristics of a musician verbally, something that is surprisingly difficult to do.

Potter's knowledge about the history of classical music recordings goes far beyond anyone employed in the industry itself -- not that this should amaze anyone who is familiar with its current state. His advocacy has brought about the reissue (or first-time issue) of many performances that never would have been available to the public.

Those who, like myself, collect historical string or chamber music recordings will find that there is at least a fifty percent chance that any compact disc reissue comes with booklet notes that were written by Tully (a fortunate thing indeed). It appears that he now maintains a classical music photo library as well.

In 1986, Potter wrote a slim volume called Adolf Busch: The Life of an Honest Man (cover pictured above right), with assistance from myself as regards the discography and typesetting. (It was in fact merciful that the book was brief, since at the time it had to be formatted using rudimentary software, and printing the original involved more than 12 hours' churning on the part of a dot-matrix printer hidden in an attic to muffle the noise.)

Since that time, my work has taken me in the much less rewarding direction of tech journalism, while Tully's Busch obsession has become what it would be fair to call his life's work -- if only he hadn't done so much else! That original 1986 volume grew into a massive, more-than-1400-page volume, the similarly titled Adolf Busch: The Life of an Honest Musician.

Reviewers have hailed this book (published in August 2010) as a labor of love that leaves no corner of Busch's life unilluminated. Knowing Tully as I do, however, I'm confident there's already plenty of material he'd like to add to a second edition when one becomes possible!

Meanwhile, various shorter sources of information about Busch are available on the internet, including a brief Wikipedia article. I have also reproduced below the liner notes from the 1974 CBS LP reissue of the Busch Quartet's famous recording of Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 130. You should find these a useful introduction, though I've also put them here for sentimental reasons, because the essay was not only my first introduction to many facts about Busch, but also my introduction to Tully Potter.

Finally, an earlier version of this website offered the opportunity to hear the Busch recording of Op. 130 streamed online. I no longer feel that is necessary because in the years that have intervened other Internet sources have made it easy to sample Busch's playing for free, as well as to buy his recordings. For example, some Busch recordings may be heard via YouTube. They can also be streamed via the Spotify music servers and, of course, purchased in physical format (or in some cases, MP3 downloads), via Amazon. (U.K. readers may also still have access to record shops where physical CDs may be purchased; since I am based in the U.S., no such luck.)

In addition, at the time of writing a blog called Neal's Historical Classical Recordings Corner offers MP3 downloads of many key Busch recordings. Neal, whose surname, I could not find, has a well-presented Adolf Busch page that also contains some interesting photographs.

-- Jonathan Angel

Adolf Busch and the Busch Quartet
by Tully Potter, from 1974 LP

There is a 1906 photograph of Joachim, two members of his quartet and Dohnanyi playing chamber music in Bonn, with the 15-year-old Adolf Busch turning the pages for Dohnanyi at the piano. That picture, taken in Beethoven's home town, unites his greatest interpreter of the 19th century with his greatest interpreter of the 20th century.

Adolf Busch, born in Siegen, Westphalia, in 1891, absorbed the Joachim tradition directly through hearing the Joachim Quartet play Beethoven -- and indirectly through his teachers at the Cologne Conservatoire, Willy Hess and Bram Elderling. He studied composition and conducting with Fritz Steinbach and composition with Hugo Grüters. An early influence on both Adolf and his conductor brother Fritz was the composer Max Reger -- an influence which is clear in Adolf's own compositions.

By 1912 Busch had already formed the Vienna Konzertvereins Quartet. Its members were the string section principals of the orchestra of that name and they included the violist Karl Doktor and the cellist Paul Grümmer. Grümmer was fond of telling how his first meeting wtih Adolf and Fritz Busch in 1911 developed into a musical session lasting from 4 in the afternoon until 4 in the morning -- they ran through virtually the entire piano trio literature.

This quartet was broken up by the onset of World War I but in 1918 the first Busch Quartet was formed, with Grümmer as cellist. By 1921 Doktor had returned and the second violinist was Gõsta Andreasson, a Swedish pupil of Adolf Busch. For a quarter of a century this was the essential shape of the quartet, though in 1930 Grümmer handed over to his pupil Hermann Busch, Adolf's younger brother.

The fifth member of the Busch circle was Rudolf Serkin, who became Busch's duo partner in 1920 when he was only 15 and later married his daughter. Serkin and the quartet became the nucleus of the Busch Chamber Players, forerunner of the small orchestras which are so common today.

In 1933 Adolf and Fritz Busch and their associates decided they could not temporise with the Hitler regime. They gave up everything, with the total honesty which marked all their actions, and left Germany. Adolf settled first at Basle in Switzerland, then, with the outbreak of World War II, in Vermont in the USA.

Shortly before his death in 1952, Adolf Busch became co-founder, with Serkin and Marcel Moyse, of the Marlboro School of Music in Vermont. This has continued to this day and has influenced a whole generation of American musicians.

The Busch Quartet were renowned interpreters of Brahms, Schubert and, above all, of Beethoven, During the 1930s they made a famous series of recordings which included most of these composers' major chamber works. The only late Beethoven quartet not recorded was the B Flat, Op. 130, which had already been done by the Budapest Quartet. This omission was put right in 1941 when the Busch Quartet made its first recordings for CBS in America.

These recordings, with their remarkably silent surfaces, were the culmination of two decades of musicmaking -- and the last mementoes of the classic Busch Quartet. In 1945 the quartet was disbanded, due to Doktor's illness and Andreasson's other commitments and the post-war Busch Quartet with its new second violinist and violist made relatively few recordings.

With the LP issue in 1974 of this 1941 recording of the great B Flat quartet, British listeners (had) their first chance to hear one of the Busch Quartet's finest recorded interpretations. The original 78 rpm records were never issued (in Britain), presumably because of wartime restrictions.

Though all the members of the quartet were musicians of exceptional talent and profundity, the guiding spirit of the ensemble was Adolf Busch, a leader in the true sprit of the word. His remarkable violin tone runs through the quartet's recordings like a thread of gold -- and the spirituality of his vision raises all his colleages to new heights of inspiration.

A Busch performance had a quality compounded of tonal beauty, rhythmic subtlety, architectural unity -- and a gentle sense of humour which informed everything he did. A sense of humour is an essential ingredient in interpreting Beethoven but it is surprising how often it is overlooked.

Busch never confused being serious with being solemn. He started with an attitude of complete fidelity to the score, but this was only the beginning. A Busch journey through the great Bach solo violin chaconne, or the fugue of Beethoven's C Sharp Minor quartet, would become a search, a pilgrimage in which the music emerged as if it were being composed on the spot. He saw, with complete honesty and directness, right into the heart of Beethoven's musical intentions. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the B flat quartet, with its kaleidoscopic changes of mood ranging from the angry to the fantastical, from the humorous to the sublime.

Adolf Busch was not only a great interpreter, he was a great violinist. His haunting tone was completely individual, even in the early days when he played on instruments made by his father -- from the 1920s he played a Stradivarius. In his prime he had a superb technique, with a fluent bowing arm and a left hand which found the exact note unerringly. He cultivated a singing legato which was as well founded on breath control as the tone of a great singer. He used the portamento of his time, but never excessively; his vibrato was always tastefully controlled. His whole art was one which did not draw attention to itself. Yet when he wanted to, he could emulate any of the more obviously charming players of his time. There is a 1930s recording of the Mozart Serenata Notturna with the Busch Chamber Players, in which Adolf Busch gives a perfect lesson in the Viennse style. His recordings of Bach and Handel, on the other hand, are object lessons in rhythmic vitality and still sound remarkably "modern" in style.

If Busch and his colleagues ever sound strained on their instruments, this is invariably because they are pushing themselves to the limit. The tempo is always chosen to suit the music, not the performers. The Busch Quartet had the courage to adopt -- and sustain -- a true adagio in Beethoven's slow movements, and to follow the composer's indications in fast movements to the letter. When quartet technique has advanced in so many ways since the war, it is surprising that so few modern groups are able to take Beethoven at his word.

Busch's influence can be heard in many spheres today -- in the interpretations of such great ensembles as the Smetana Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano, in the proliferation of small orchestras and violinist-conductors, in the ideals and achievements of the Marlboro Festival.

Perhaps the greatest lesson he can teach us, however, is that music is not an escape from life -- it is a part of life, reflecting life in all its diversity and demanding the same standards. Only one facet of life is missing from a Busch performance -- dullness.

String Quartet in B flat Major, Opus 130

This quartet was one of three on which Beethoven worked in 1825 and 1826. It was completed just after the A Minor quartet Op. 132 and just before the C Sharp Minor quartet Op. 131. It is his most diverse work and poses the greatest problems of characterisation for the performers. These problems begin even before they sit down to play the quartet. A major decision has to be made: which finale should they play?

Beethoven originally crowned this six-movement work with a massive, demonic fugue which perplexed and horrified his friends. They prevailed on him to write a new finale on a smaller scale and the Great Fugue was published separately as Op. 133. The new finale was Beethoven's last quartet movement, completed in October 1826 after the F Major quartet Op. 135.

Some modern ensembles -- notably the Smetana Quartet and LaSalle Quartet -- believe that Beethoven was traduced from his true intentions and that Op. 130 must finish with the Great Fugue. Both these ensembles have proved capable of playing the work in this form without fading with fatigue during the Fugue.

The argument against including the Fugue, apart from its difficulty, is that it tends to overshadow the divine Cavatina -- which many people see as the core of the work. Some modern quartets have recorded Op. 130 with both finales, which is one way of hedging their bets. It has even been suggested that the second finale could be played after the fugue, as a seventh movement. This, however, would surely have the effect of downgrading the work to the level of a serenade. Though there are elements of the serenade in the B Flat quartet, it is a serenade on a scale never attempted before or since.

No, the decision should be faced, since the interpretation of the entire quartet will depend on which finale is played. The Busch Quartet come down in favour of Beethoven's last thoughts and they make a very convincing case for the substitute finale. This emerges as a substantial piece in its own right, not the flimsy piece of nonsense it is often accused of being.

When Beethoven was asked what he was trying to express in his piano sonata Op. 31 No. 2, he replied "read Shakespeare's Tempest." He might have said the same of his Op. 130. This quartet inhabits the same world of magic and fantasy as The Tempest: The lifetime's wisdom, tinged with regret, of Prospero; the elgin irresonsibility of Ariel; even the brute frustration of Caliban. The rhythm of the dance, light and airy or heavy and clumping, is never far away.

The first movement, Adagio ma non troppo alternating with Allegro, sums up all these qualities, beginning with a hint of sadness but soon moving into an excited dance. The sad opening is never quite forgotten, in fact it returns several times, but the main mood of the movement is one of fantasy. Themes crowd upon one another and there is a barcarolle-like episode of unforgettable beauty. Even Beethoven never wrote a movement of greater variety.

The second movement is a scurrying Presto, full of humorous comings and goings and cross rhythms. The third movement, Andante con moto, ma non troppo, is a swinging contrast to this, with characterful use of pizzicato to offset its lyrical flow. Then comes the German dance, Alla danza tedesca (Allegro assai), which is complicated by the haunting nature of its theme and the bittersweet harmonies hinting of sadness to come.

The Cavatina (Adagio molto espressivo) brings the sadness in a slow song, not unbearably sad, but seeming to call from another world. As in all Beethoven's great slow movements, time stands still as we listen.

The finale, Allegro, is a release from sorrow, with its fantastic fairy dance theme which trips away, promising an ending that is all lightness and grace. This being Beethoven's world, things are not so simple; before the rondo has run its course we have been dragged below the surface several times. More weighty sections wrestle with the rondo theme, before it reasserts itself in an optimistic ending.

Copyright 1974, 1977, 2011 by Tully Potter