Spanish composer Javier Busto

Javier BustoThe May 2016 ACDA Choral Journal features an entertaining, far-ranging interview with Spanish composer and conductor Javier Busto. Chorale will present two Busto motets, Ave Maria and O magnum mysterium, (works which Busto includes in a Top Ten list of his own compositions) at our June 11 concert; so I eagerly read the article when the magazine arrived the other day. Busto has lived his entire life in Hondarribia, in the Basque region of Spain, where he was (until his recent retirement) a family medical doctor. He claims to be self-taught as a musician: “When I was eighteen years old, I created the first rock band here called the Troublemakers. It was really what I wanted from my musical life. The important thing to say is that I have never studied music: neither solfeggio, nor harmony, nor counterpoint, absolutely nothing!” Despite this, though, and despite his very active medical life, he has been remarkably successful in his avocation, publishing 419 choral compositions, several of which have received worldwide fame and popularity. He has also founded his own choir, Aqua Lauda, an ensemble of sixteen women.

Busto’s style is, by his own admission, Romantic, emotional, accessible. Describing his composition Ave Maria (which Chorale will perform), he says, “In 1985, I presented my Ave Maria at the Tolosa Competition. It was discarded because the jury thought it was too Romantic. According to them, my Ave Maria was a vulgarity. The jury was only composers, not conductors, and was very modern in its approach. I must say to you with modesty that Ave Maria, the same one that was discarded at the competition, is one of the most famous compositions in the entire history of choral music in Spain. It is the one that has sold the most copies, over 120,000. For me, Ave Maria is very important….after that, I decided not to present my works anymore in a composition competition. So, what I believe is important to the judges at composition competitions is that you make the jury think you are presenting something ground-breaking or something that will make someone think. It is not so important that you are writing something beautiful.”

Further on in the interview he states, “I always try to emote, for I believe it’s the most important thing. I don’t particularly like mathematical compositions that are too structured, those that are not going to move me or say anything to me. I work to compose things that possess emotion… my goal is to move people—to move myself, to move the singers, to move the conductor who is going to interpret the piece, and to move the audience. I believe this is my life.”

Don't assume from the above, that Busto’s works are easy to perform well. Many performances are featured on Youtube, and most of these performances are not very good-- they stress the accessible, sentimental side of Busto’s musical personality, but lack the technical underpinning, the clarity and precision required for successful performances. They end up sounding muddy, cluttered, out of focus.  Focus and clarity are hard. Chorale is working hard to clarify his dense harmonic textures, and to free his rhythmic movement from ponderousness, to release his melodic arch and let it soar -- to capture the modest, understated crystalline quality of his voice, which is indeed very compelling. It is delicate, sensual music, and requires great care in preparation.

The article’s author tells us that Busto’s works were very popular in the United States during the mid-nineties, when many of them were programmed and recorded by leading choirs. But he slipped out of fashion (right about the time Morton Lauridsen and Eric Whittaker shot to prominence), and one rarely hears his works here anymore, though they continue to be popular in the rest of the world. I find them to be valuable and appealing, and am excited to present them in the context of our spring repertoire, which also includes weightier, more intellectually challenging repertoire. I expect you will like them; I hope you come to hear them!