Tully Potter examines the poise and humanity of the great Classical interpreter who placed artistic integrity above career development

Screenshot 2024-06-27 094128

Photo: Tully Potter Collection

Violinist Adolf Busch

Discover more Featured Stories like this in The Strad Playing Hub

This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Strad

A big man in every way, Adolf Busch was the epitome of Classicism, Europe’s busiest violin soloist and first choice for the Beethoven and Brahms concertos. In April 1933 he immolated the most lucrative part of his career rather than play for Hitler, who called him ‘our German violinist’.


1891 Born in Siegen, Westphalia

1902 Enters Cologne Conservatoire

1910 Start of solo career, Berlin debut

1912 Moves to Vienna, founds quartet

1918 Takes over Berlin Hochschule masterclass

1931 Tours with Toscanini in America

1933 Refuses to play in Hitler’s Germany

1935 Forms Busch Chamber Players

1939 Emigrates to America

1950 Founds Marlboro summer school, Vermont

1952 Dies in Guilford, Vermont


Adolf Georg Wilhelm Busch, born in Siegen, Westphalia, on 8 August 1891, began playing a violin made by his father when he was three and was virtually self-taught until the age of ten or eleven, when he had lessons from Wilhelm Grümmer (a pupil of Hans Sitt) and Heinrich Anders (a Gustav Holländer pupil). Entering the Cologne Conservatoire in 1902, he was taught for a year by Willy Hess, a Joachim protégé who favoured the oldfashioned low bow arm. He was then mentored for six years by another Joachim disciple, the Dutchman Bram Eldering, who handled the bow in a much freer fashion. But throughout his career Busch used the old German bow hold, which required tremendous strength in the right-hand fingers but enabled him to execute his legendary long bow strokes – colleagues attested that he could make both ends of the bow sound the same. Because he was regarded equally highly as composer and violinist – he often appeared in both guises in the same concert – Busch was allowed to develop naturally and did not graduate until 1909, by which time the slightly younger Joseph Szigeti had been on the circuit for four years.


At his peak, in roughly 1910–40, Busch was an exciting (even excitable) player who held the violin quite high and flat. While exhibiting hangovers from his self-taught childhood, such as a spiky staccato and an individual way of playing rapid runs ‘on the string’, he bowed with considerable finesse and his left hand delivered honest intonation: he never tuned sharp or flat for effect. He was a master of varying vibrato, sometimes using none, mostly employing a finely graded finger vibrato and widening it only for the most Romantic music, such as Schumann. Like many of his generation, he did not try to vibrate on every note in every fast passage. He liked fast movements to be very fast, slow movements very slow; and he had the means to achieve both extremes, although he was uninterested in technique for its own sake.


Busch made a big sound but it was the pure quality that mesmerised his listeners. He had such a clear mental vision of his objectives that he could freight a simple legato line with the most inward, spiritual feeling. His pianissimo was extraordinary. He often seemed possessed by an inner ecstasy that expressed itself solely in sound.


Exceptional rhythm, the hallmark of Busch’s playing, enabled him to exert control over the slowest tempo, while buoying up a faster tempo. Despite a contained, unshowy platform manner, he made direct communication with audiences, who sensed his deep humanity. Lively humour was at work even (or perhaps especially) when he played Beethoven. His singing portamento was instantly recognisable.


Those big, sausagy fingers sometimes got in a tangle, especially in Busch’s last decade, when heart trouble undermined his playing. Another generational trait was that he avoided the evennumbered positions – although he used the second position in his Bach editions – and therefore slid more than modern players. His portamento, a strength in Romantic music, came to be seen as a weakness in the Classical and Baroque fare he played so much.


Having started on instruments made by his father, Busch used Stradivari violins, first the 1716 instrument that now bears his name, then the 1732 ‘Wiener’, although he had two violins and a viola by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini at various times. For practising and hotter climates he used instruments by Fritz Baumgartner of Basel. He had two Tourte bows.


Renowned for Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Reger and Busoni, Busch played more Mozart than any rival. His Serenata notturna recording is the acme of Viennese style. He loved Italian music – he was wildly popular in Italy until he lost patience with Mussolini – and played four concertos by Viotti, whose duets he enjoyed. In Vivaldi’s A major Sonata he outplayed Heifetz and Milstein. He won acclaim in three Spohr concertos and in the massive Joachim ‘Hungarian’, Reger and Elgar. He liked the viola and was admired in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, usually using the 1731 ‘Paganini’ Stradivari. As a quartet leader he played a wide if conservative repertoire, likewise in his sonata duo with Rudolf Serkin. His Beethoven sonata and quartet cycles are still spoken of – the Busch Quartet recordings need no advertisement here. An early pioneer of the modern chamber orchestra, he had a regular ensemble from 1935. Repudiating Germany led to his recording few concertos, but live performances of the Beethoven, Brahms (solo and double concertos), Dvořák and Busoni have come to light; and we have all three Bach concertos as well as the Brandenburgs and Mozart’s A minor. Handel’s Concerti grossi have rarely sounded so convincing. Busch left several magnifi cent unaccompanied Bach recordings. He disliked virtuoso music, preferring pieces such as Schubert’s C major Fantasy which sounded less diffi cult than they were. The recording he and Serkin made of the Fantasy in 1931 still sets the standard. Their 1941 Beethoven ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata opens in mystery and ends in devilish glee; the 1932 Beethoven C minor Sonata is uniquely insightful; and the 1933 ‘Spring’ Sonata came top in BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library recommendations. They excelled in the first two Schumann sonatas and their two 1933 recordings of the Brahms Horn Trio with Aubrey Brain (the first only recently released) have yet to be equalled.


Busoni Violin Concerto DYNAMIC IDIS 334

Adolf Busch plays Bach: sonatas, Concerto BWV 1042 & Partita BWV 1004 DYNAMIC IDIS 6490/1

Beethoven Violin Concerto MUSIC & ARTS CD-1183

Brahms Violin Concerto MUSIC & ARTS CD-1107

Brahms ‘Double’ Concerto MUSIC & ARTS CD-1083

Busch-Serkin European Recordings APR 5541/3

Beethoven Violin sonatas NAXOS 8.110954

The Strad is offering customers the chance to purchase print magazines from its archives, while stocks last. Get your copy here before they’re all gone!

Best of Technique

In The Best of Technique you’ll discover the top playing tips of the world’s leading string players and teachers. It’s packed full of exercises for students, plus examples from the standard repertoire to show you how to integrate the technique into your playing.


The Strad’s Masterclass series brings together the finest string players with some of the greatest string works ever written. Always one of our most popular sections, Masterclass has been an invaluable aid to aspiring soloists, chamber musicians and string teachers since the 1990s.


American collector David L. Fulton amassed one of the 20th century’s finest collections of stringed instruments. This year’s calendar pays tribute to some of these priceless treasures, including Yehudi Menuhin’s celebrated ‘Lord Wilton’ Guarneri, the Carlo Bergonzi once played by Fritz Kreisler, and four instruments by Antonio Stradivari.