Natalie Curtis Burlin Center for American Culture Studies

Home

  1. Introduction

  2. Preserving Indian Culture

  3. Angel DeCora and Indian Art

  4. Arizona With Roosevelt

  5. Busoni's Indian Fantasy

  6. African-
    American Music

  7. Defending American Folk Music

  8. Natalie's Legacy

  9. Endnotes

  10. Readings

Ferruccio Busoni
and the Indian Fantasy

The Indian themes Curtis published caught the attention of other musicians and composers interested in folk music, including Percy Grainger, Kurt Schindler, and Ferruccio Busoni. Grainger and Curtis became good friends, and Grainger continued to use Curtis's arrangements in his concerts and lectures throughout his career. In Europe as a teenager, Curtis had studied briefly with Busoni, and he had continued to follow her work. In 1911, Busoni asked Curtis to send him a selection of Indian melodies that might serve as suitable themes for an experimental composition. He used the melodies she sent as themes for his Indian Fantasy.

Curtis heard this piece performed for the first time in 1915 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, with Busoni himself at the piano. Sitting with Curtis there at the initial rehearsal at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia was Percy Grainger. Busoni, Grainger, and Curtis were all interested in the use of folk themes in composition. "With the first bars of the orchestral introduction ...," wrote Curtis, "the walls melted away, and I was in the West, filled again with that awing sense of vastness, of solitude, of immensity." At least two themes Curtis recorded in The Indians' Book are readily discerned in the Indian Fantasy -- The Pima "Bluebird Song" and one of the Cheyenne "Hand-Game" songs.

Curtis called the Indian Fantasy "... by far the most important effort ever yet made in any use of our native musical material." Busoni made sure to retain the character of the original music. "Indian music," Curtis explained, "... compels its own treatment, remaining unalterably Indian, standing out with its own sharp rhythmic and melodic outline on the background of the composer's thought like sculptured bas-relief." She praised Busoni for his skillful use of native themes. "Before he put pen to paper he said that he would not overlay the Indian themes with any feeling of European culture nor 'develop' them according to the usual standards of composition."12 Curtis hoped that Busoni's Indian Fantasy would have an enduring impact on music and advance the cause of Indian culture. The piece, however, has proved to be one of Busoni's lesser-known works, although it has been performed and recorded occasionally.

 
Left-to-right: George Curtis, High Chief, and Natalie Curtis, playing the Hand Game

 

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