Toccata Press has just issued Tully Potter's long-awaited biography of one of the 20th century's greatest violinists, and one of its least-appreciated composers: Adolf Busch - The life of an Honest Musician. Mr Potter generously forwarded a couple of chapters to me a few months ago when I was researching Busch's self-imposed German exile. The clarity of his narrative, and the depth and reach of his research heightened my impatience to read the complete account.
This is a massive work in two hefty volumes; the first covering Busch's life in Europe from 1891-1939, the second, his years in America and his role in the creation of the Marlboro Music School: 1939-1952. Vol. II also contains 12 appendices that feature a selection of tributes to, and discussions and observations about Busch's playing and teaching. Of inestimable value is a complete list of Busch's works (with commentary) and an exhaustive discography. Included with the biography are two fascinating CDs: one devoted to Busch the violinist, the other to a selection of his compositions. The books are copiously illustrated with scores of period photographs; one of my favorites: Rudolf Serkin playing the alto saxophone, an instrument not immediately associated with the legendary pianist who was Busch's son-in-law and longtime recital partner.
Tully Potter is an authority on the history of string playing and classical recording. He has been assembling material for this biography for some thirty years and much of the information is drawn from interviews with family-members and personalities who knew Busch intimately: Rudolf Serkin, Busch's widow Hedwig and his daughter Irene-Serkin Busch. And then there are the composers and musicians, Busch's friends, colleagues and students; Berthold Goldschmidt, Hans Gál, Louis Moyse, Philiip Naegele, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Eugene Istomin... the list is huge, as is the number of libraries and institutions Mr Potter consulted.
"The Break", the chapter that covers the context of Busch's self-imposed exile from Germany, is one of the most engaging accounts of pre-war musical life I have read. There is a particularly chilling section describing the Busch Quartet's arrival in Berlin on April 1st, 1933, the day on which the Nazis began an orchestrated and enforced boycott of Jewish-owned stores. Late that night, following the quartet's performance of Haydn's Seven Last Words at Berlin's Marienkirche, Busch called a meeting and resolved to cancel the rest of the Busch Quartet's German tour, as well as all his own concerto appearances and recital performances with Serkin. The events of spring 1933 marked the beginning of legislated racism and represented a fulcrum in the lives and allegiances of German artists. It is at this point that Busch's future was determined. His position as an an enemy of Nazism remained utterly uncompromising, despite several overtures from Goebbels and the Nazi state, amd it was not until 1949 that a German audience again heard his violin. Busch's decision – and, it must be said, that of his brother Fritz, one of Germany's finest conductors – set him apart from most of his colleagues.
This is a magisterial account of Busch's life and times, and it is impossible to imagine anything surpassing it. But this is only part of its substance. Tully Potter's substantial detours into the lives and attitudes of colleagues and contemporaries, are of equivalent value. There are fascinating discussions about Fürtwangler, Tovey, Serkin and Casals for example, which add an unusual and variegated richness. The detailed biographical portraits of Busch's family and colleagues in Volume II further augment this wealth of detail. Tully Potter's great achievement is his success in fusing the particularities of Busch's life with a nuanced and engaging musical history of the first half of the twentieth century.
While Busch as violinist and chamber musician is well-represented on disc (less so as a soloist) his compositions remain unexplored. One hopes that Tully Potter's extraordinary work will renew interest in an artist whose creative ability was as well-developed as his virtuosity and interpretive powers.