- “A New Musical Reality”: Futurism, Modernism, and “The Art of Noises”
Away! Let us break out since we cannot much longer restrain our desire to create finally a new musical reality, with a generous distribution of resonant slaps in the face, discarding violins, pianos, double basses and plaintive organs. Let us break out!— Luigi Russolo
In 1917, four years after the appearance of Luigi Russolo’s Futurist manifesto “The Art of Noises,” and eight years after F. T. Marinetti’s founding manifesto, the ultra-conservative German composer Hans Pfitzner published a passionate, polemical essay entitled Futuristengefahr (Danger of Futurists), 1 directed not at the Italian Futurists but at the recently published second edition of Ferruccio Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music. 2 Pfitzner, deeply disturbed by the eminent composer’s vision of a freer music to come that would finally realize the art’s full—but as yet unattained—potential, took it as an unwarranted attack on the glorious achievements of music’s past, with only vague and uncertain proposals for its future offered in return.
Shortly afterwards, in a brief reply, Busoni remarked that Pfitzner’s title alone led the reader astray, “heaping on my name...all the weaknesses and faults with which you could possibly reproach a certain group of people—a group from which I am far removed. The word ‘Futurism’ is not used on any page of my little book. I have never attached myself to a [End Page 129] sect—Futurism, a movement of the present time, could have no connection with my arguments.” 3
Strictly speaking, Busoni was right: the first edition of his essay had appeared in 1906, three years before Marinetti’s first manifesto. Though it had originally had a small and limited circulation, attracting little attention even within the musical community, the somewhat enlarged 1916 edition to which Pfitzner responded was widely circulated and heatedly discussed; and by then the Futurist movement was firmly established, already near the end of its first and most productive phase. Busoni moreover had specific contacts with Futurism. He responded publicly to an unsigned 1912 Futurist music manifesto published in a Parisian newspaper, expressing approval of its positions and even claiming priority in advocating microtonal scale divisions. 4 He also had ties with Marinetti and the Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni, whose wellknown painting La città che sale (The city rises) he purchased in 1912 and who subsequently became a close personal friend. Shortly before his death in 1916, Boccioni vacationed with Busoni and his wife at their summer villa near Lake Maggiore while on leave from the Italian army. It was here that he painted his fine full-length portrait of the composer, one of his last and most impressive works. 5 After Boccioni’s death the grief-stricken composer wrote a moving tribute to the young painter. 6
Even if Pfitzner was unaware of these connections, the content of the New Aesthetic alone would have been sufficient to trigger associations with Futurism. 7 Despite a calm and reasoned manner, the essay is decidedly inflammatory in devaluing the art’s past and extolling its future, vigorously asserting music’s need to break away from inherited shackles—its restricted tonal system, exhausted forms, and outmoded instruments. Even such towering figures of the past as Bach and Beethoven are considered only beginnings rather than “unsurpassable finalities.” 8
Pfitzner responded sharply, even contemptuously: “Busoni places all his hopes for Western music in the future and understands the present and past as a faltering beginning, as the preparation. But what if it were otherwise? What if we find ourselves presently at a high point, or even that we have already passed beyond it?” 9 For Pfitzner, the idea that one should discard the past for an entirely new, unproven world of artistic expression and technical experimentation was both incomprehensible and inimical to all he stood for. His title, invoking guilt by association, simply castigates Busoni by linking him with the most recent, extreme, and ideologically colored manifestation of his own position: the Italian Futurist movement.
The Busoni-Pfitzner controversy reminds us that the moment of Italian Futurism, its first and most productive...