An Extraordinary Collaboration

Natalie Curtis, Ferruccio Busoni and Indigenous Americans

By Dr. Donna Coleman

Archaeology. Music. These two disciplines might seem to have nothing in common. So how is it that a concert pianist is passionately interested in archaeological research about Native American culture? It's about layers, geographical, geological, and chronological. Finding the pathway from the surface to the heart; finding the meaning in the matter. Preparation of a musical composition for performance is an excavation of time, place, and people, an extraordinary collaboration of elements.

A project that I embarked upon in 2019 for the Italian Institute of Culture in Melbourne, Australia, drew together a number of threads that, among many others, wove their way from the Native American pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico to Berlin, Germany, and ultimately to a bed and breakfast in downtown Santa Fe. All because of a young woman named Natalie Curtis. But let's travel back in time nearly 500 years to establish the context for her brilliant accomplishments.

In 1540, Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his army, looking for gold in the fabled "Seven Cities of Cibola," marched into the area now designated as Arizona and New Mexico, and the lives of the Indigenous peoples, whose relationship with the land in that region had evolved over millennia, were transformed for all time.

By 1890, the government of the United States of America, paving the way for the relentless expansion of its population west-ward, had annihilated the Native Americans' primary source of food, shelter, and garments, the bison, and had driven the tribes from the land they had lived on for thousands of years, onto "reservations" that exist to this day. A "Code of Indian Offenses," intended to "assimilate" the Native Americans by prohibiting their traditional songs, dances, and ceremonial and religious rituals, was implemented by the US government in 1883.

In 1891, the Italian composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni came to the United States for the first of four sojourns in this country. The New England Conservatory of Music engaged him to teach piano for the academic year 1891–1892, and he subsequently moved to New York City where he gave concerts and taught privately. In 1894, he returned to Europe, settling in Berlin. In 1893, an extraordinary young woman named Natalie Curtis came to the New York studio of Russian pianist Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Franz Liszt. Hoping to further her dream of a career as a concert pianist, she commenced a series of music lessons with Busoni.

Thus began the extraordinary collaboration that played out across the ensuing three decades and resulted in the set of four compositions created in 1915 by Busoni entitled Indianisches Tagebuch I (Indian Diary I).

Around 1900, by which time she had abandoned her dream of a concert career, Natalie joined her brother George in Arizona, where he had gone seeking respite from asthma. Sometime between then and 1903, they traveled to Los Angeles where they met Charles Fletcher Lummis, a classmate of Curtis family friend Theodore Roosevelt at Harvard and founder of the Sequoyah League dedicated to preserving the rights and culture of Native Americans. A performance by Navajo singers there may have been the final uncorking of Natalie's quest to transcribe and record the music of Native Americans, for by 1903, she and George were in Yuma, Arizona, with an Edison recorder in their baggage.

Natalie and George gained the trust of Native people living on reservations and in pueblos across the land. It is mind boggling to contemplate the fact that they traveled, often on horseback, from the Desert Southwest to the Pacific Northwest and across the continent to northeastern Maine in their quest to record this music.

But the Native Americans were frequently reluctant to share their music and stories because of the "Code of Indian Offenses" that prohibited such exercise of their culture. Natalie approached President Roosevelt directly with her request to preserve this music, and while he gave her the permission to do so, sadly, the "Code of Indian Offenses" remained in effect until 1933. The result of her passionate quest was more than 150 songs gathered from 18 different locations, published by Harper & Brothers in 1907 as The Indians' Book.

On May 10, 1910, Natalie was in New York for the US premiere of Busoni's Turandot Suite, opus 41, conducted by Gustav Mahler and attended by the composer, who had returned to the US on a concert tour. Natalie was in New York and joined him for the performance. She most likely gave him a copy of her book at this time. Busoni wrote to her the following year, in 1911, asking her to send him themes she thought would be suitable source material for a composition. Busoni was captivated by these melodies, and "between 1911 and 1916 he composed several works based on folksongs of the Amerindians, the suppression of whose culture he viewed as a crime against humanity."

When Busoni sailed back to Europe on April 11, 1911, on the ship Prater, he created a sketch based upon the Ha-Hea Katzina song material that became the heart of the third movement of Indianisches Tagebuch I, entitled Indianisches Ernte-lied: Erster Versuch einer Verwerthung für das Clavier (Indian Harvest Song: First Attempt at a Setting for Piano) and dedicated it to fellow passenger, the playwright Stefan Zweig. Also on board this ship was Gustav Mahler, suffering the fatal illness that would end his life barely five weeks later, and his beloved wife Alma.

Settled back in Berlin, Busoni composed first, a concerto for piano and orchestra based upon several melodies from The Indians' Book, the Indian-isches Fantasie, and from this large-scale work, he extracted passages for the solo Indianisches Tagebuch I set. Indianisches Tagebuch II again uses this material in the context of a small orchestra.

The four movements of Indianisches Tagebuch, Book I employ as source material the following tunes collected by Natalie: I: He-Hea Katzina Song (Hopi); II: Song of Victory II (Cheyenne); III: Blue-Bird Song (Pima); Corn-Grinding Song (Laguna); Passamaquoddy Dance Song II (Wabanakis); and IV: Passa-maquoddy Dance Song II (Wabanakis); He-Hea Katzina Song (Hopi).

The story of Natalie Curtis has a tragic ending with particular resonance for me living on the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1916, she met and fell in love with painter Paul Burlin. After their marriage in 1917 they decided to settle in Santa Fe where Paul had previously lived, and they purchased a small adobe house on the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and East Buena Vista Street. In May 1921, before sailing for Europe, they rented this house to the poet Witter Bynner. On Oct. 23, 1921, Natalie was killed by an auto-mobile as she disembarked from a tram while in Paris, and when Burlin returned to Santa Fe, he could not endure being in their home without her. He sold it to Bynner who, over time, substantially enlarged it into the property now known as The Inn of the Turquoise Bear.

Burlin's paintings are on view at Peyton Wright Gallery, 237 Palace Avenue in downtown Santa Fe, among many other prestigious galleries around the world.

The film that includes the above material, and concludes with a performance of the Indianisches Tagebuch I that I created for The Society for American Music's 2022 annual conference, can be viewed at:

Breckerman, Michael, "The Real Value of Yellow Journalism: James Creelman and Antonín Dvorák."

Bredenberg, Alfred R.,"Natalie Curtis Bur-lin." html

Curtis, Natalie, "American Indian Cradle-Songs."

Knyt, Erinn E., "Ferruccio Busoni and the New England Conservatory: Piano Peda-gogue in the Making."

Lim, Rira., "A Comparison of Ferruccio Busoni's Two Original Piano Compositions, Indianische Fantasie for Piano and Or-chestra, op. 44, and Indianisches Tagebuch Book I."

Patterson, Michelle Wick, Natalie Cur-tis Burlin: A Life in Native and African American Music. University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

Roberge, Marc-André, "Ferruccio Busoni in the United States." 2307/3052618

Sowa, Cora Angier, "Natalie Curtis, Buso-ni, and Grainger."



This article and image are from the Friends of Archaeology Newsletter November 2022.