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Book Review

Adolf Busch

Adolf Busch: The Life of an Honest Musician

The Life of an Honest Musician
(Two Volume Set)

Tully Potter
Toccata Press, two volumes 702, 730 pp + two audio CDs containing 12 illustrative recordings – Busch the Performer; Busch the Composer
ISBN-10: 0907689507
ISBN-13: 9780907689508
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

Toccata Press is marketed and distributed by the ever-enterprising Boydell and Brewer. Toccata's website provides this background and rationale for the major publication, Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician: "As the sister company of the CD label Toccata Classics, Toccata Press is expressly dedicated to tackling important subjects that other publishers have failed to address." And so it does in this mammoth title, which was published in the middle of September 2010. Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician is the work of author – Scottish writer Tully Potter. Potter was born in 1942 has made a special study of performance practice and contributes widely to music publications – in the UK in particular.

Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician is the first full length study of the German violinist and composer Adolf Busch, who was born in 1891 and died in 1952 at the age of just 60. Considered the finest player of his instrument for much of the first half of the last century, he was also leader of the legendary Busch Quartet, and was a also a minor composer. This long study (at a grand total of over 1,400 pages, in two beautifully-produced hardback, volumes, with a correspondingly "handsome" price) traces Bush's life from child prodigy in Westphalia, through his understandably speedy rise to prominence and friendship with many equally eminent (German) composers, his successes with the Quartet, refusal to accede to Nazism in Germany, to his emigration to the United States and forging of a new musical life there.

Adolf Busch: The Life of an Honest Musician

For Potter, the defining experience in Bush's life was his courageous decision to abandon the following which he'd built up in Germany over many years – Busch was, rightly, described as a very German musician – with the advent of Nazism and his painfully accepted need make a new personal and professional life in the USA. Hence the appellation of "honest" in the book's title. But Potter succeeds admirably in conveying Busch's musical integrity in everything to which he turned his hand. Further, Busch's commitment to the music he played over and above any glory that might accrue to his involvement in it bespeaks another honesty that deserves our admiration. Similarly his talents in the other arts (notably painting, drawing and architecture: he made a point of visiting historic buildings in the locations in which he played) were not inconsiderable. Yet he was modest and unassuming; nor were his tastes conservative. Again an amalgam, a blend of tastes and skills which benefited from and flourished because of an unassuming honesty.

To call it a "labor of love" (on which Potter apparently worked for over a quarter of a century) is in no way to diminish the author's insight and scholarship. Although his admiration of, and commitment to, the varied work of Bush emerges consistently and unobtrusively at every turn, this is a scholarly edition. Assertions and sources are footnoted (conveniently at the bottom of the page on which they are needed); the indices are exhaustive, accurate – and very full, at 118 pages. Busch's compositions are enumerated, and further indexed. Twelve appendices occupy almost 400 pages. This means, in fact, that the narrative of Bush's life is "just" (!) 700 pages long. So Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician is as much an encyclopedia devoted to its subject as it is a conventional biography. The appendices examine such areas as repertoire and taste, Busch's reception as teacher, interpreter, interpreter on record, composer and violist. The various Busch ensembles are detailed, including the duo with Serkin. There are bibliographies both of books and journals, and a cross-indexed discography. Thorough, exhaustive and easy to use in the extreme. The biographical narrative reads well and contains well-balanced details, history, reflection and analysis.

There are over 200 apposite illustrations in Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician. Chapters range in length from just a dozen pages on Busch's family to nearly a hundred on Bush's periods spent in Vienna and the USA. It really is hard to imagine any aspect of the life and work of Busch that's not covered in this study. Musical illustrations and extracts from scores are present when they add something. But the narrative can easily be read without intimate or advanced knowledge of music theory. Potter is expert at interpreting technicalities and explaining their significances to us. This adds immeasurably to the positive impact of the two volumes. They are substantial and authoritative, yet accessible to the non-specialist, and to those otherwise unfamiliar with Busch's work and world.

Potter's style at times tends slightly to the florid, the colorful. But this is not a serious drawback. His use of ample quotations, examples, illustrations and anecdotes makes the text substantial, solid, reliable and robust. If you are looking for the definitive repository of material on Adolf Busch and/or a near-exemplary biography of a great musician that combines restrained interpretation and explanation with factual discourse so well-conceived and written that it's likely to become a classic, then this will fit the bill without reservations. As a contribution to musical scholarship in an area central to the development of twentieth century performance too, Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician is sure to succeed and earn a place at the top of the list. Recommended without hesitation.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Sealey.