Ferruccio Busoni was born in Empoli in Tuscany in Italy, the only child of two professional musicians. His father, Ferdinando, was a clarinetist and man-about-town. Though his mother, Anna, had a German surname (Weiss) she was an Italian from Trieste, and a pianist. They were often touring during his childhood, and he was brought up in Trieste for the most part.
In 1907, he penned his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, lamenting the traditional music "lawgivers", and predicting a future music that included the division of the octave into more than the traditional 12 degrees. His philosophy that "Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny," greatly influenced his students Percy Grainger and Edgard Varèse, both of whom played significant roles in the 20th century opening of music to all sound.
During World War I, Busoni lived first in Bologna, where he directed the conservatory, and later in Zürich. He refused to perform in any countries that were involved in the war. He returned to Berlin in 1920 where he gave master classes in composition. He had several composition pupils who went on to become famous, including Kurt Weill, Edgard Varèse and Stefan Wolpe.
Busoni died in Berlin from a kidney disease. He was interred in the Städtischen Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg, Stubenrauchstraße 43-45. He left a few recordings of his playing as well as a number of piano rolls. His compositions were largely neglected for many years after his death, but he was remembered as a great virtuoso and arranger of Bach for the piano. Around the 1980s there was a revival of interest in his work.
Most of Busoni's works are for the piano. Busoni's music is typically contrapuntally complex, with several melodic lines unwinding at once. Although his music is never entirely atonal in the Schoenbergian sense, his mature works, beginning with the Elegies, are often in indeterminate key. He was in contact with Schoenberg, and made a 'concert interpretation' of the latter's 'atonal' Piano Piece, Op. 11, No. 2 (BV B 97), in 1909. In the program notes for the premiere of his own Sonatina seconda of 1912, Busoni calls the work senza tonalità (without tonality). Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt were key influences, though late in his career much of his music has a neo-classical bent, and includes melodies resembling Mozart's.
Some idea of Busoni's mature attitude to composition can be gained from his 1907 manifesto, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, a publication somewhat controversial in its time. As well as discussing then little-explored areas such as electronic music and microtonal music (both techniques he never employed), he asserted that music should distill the essence of music of the past to make something new.
Many of Busoni's works are based on music of the past, especially on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (see below). The first version of Busoni's largest and best known solo piano work, Fantasia Contrappuntistica, was published in 1910. About half an hour in length, it is essentially an extended fantasy on the final incomplete fugue from Bach's The Art of Fugue. It uses several melodic figures found in Bach's work, most notably the BACH motif (B flat, A, C, B natural). Busoni revised the work a number of times and arranged it for two pianos. Versions have also been made for organ and for orchestra.
Busoni also drew inspiration from non-European sources, including Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra. It was composed in 1913 and is based on North American indigenous tribal melodies drawn from the studies of this native music by ethnomusicologist, Natalie Curtis Burlin.
Busoni was a virtuoso pianist, and his works for piano are difficult to perform. His Piano Concerto, Op. 39 (1904) is probably the largest such work ever written. Performances generally last over seventy minutes, requiring great stamina from the soloist. The concerto is written for a large orchestra with a male voice choir that is hidden from the audience's view in the last movement. British pianist John Ogdon, one of the champions of the work, called it "the longest and grandest piano concerto of all." (However, it was not the first piano concerto to include a chorus, as is often assumed; Daniel Steibelt wrote a similar work in 1820.)
Busoni's Turandot Suite (1905), probably his most popular orchestral work, was expanded into his operaTurandot in 1917, and Busoni completed two other operas, Die Brautwahl (1911) and Arlecchino (1917). He began serious work on his best known opera, Doktor Faust, in 1916, leaving it incomplete at his death. It was then finished by his student Philipp Jarnach, who worked with Busoni's sketches as he knew of them, but in the 1980s Antony Beaumont, the author of an important Busoni biography, created an expanded and improved completion by drawing on material that Jarnach did not have access to.
Busoni's music can be considered in the context of his three major aesthetic beliefs: essence, oneness and junge Klassizität (literally 'young classicism'). The essence of music suggests that music is free from any prescriptive labels; in other words, it is absolute. For example, Busoni asked us to question just what it was in a piece of instrumental church music, that was inherently 'church'. The oneness of music proposes that music is free from prescriptive devices, and that there are endless possibilities of composition. Finally, in his words, junge Klassizität (often mistaken for neo-classicism) included 'the mastery, the sifting and the turning to account of all the gains of previous experiments and their inclusion in strong and beautiful forms' (Busoni, 'Letter to Paul Bekker', 1920).
His music falls in that most fractious of periods, the fin de siècle, where chromatic elements became part of the structure of the music, rather than being decoration. By studying Busoni's aesthetic beliefs we can suggest that his music is metatonal - given that he sought to include the old with the new to create limitless compositions. This is not to suggest (as Pfitzner did, when he attacked The Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music by Busoni) that his music is without form, nor is it without any sense of tonality (a common mistake when one finds oneself between Classical and Serial music). This grey area of music history is more engaging because the traditional forms and pitch structures have taken a side road, a road that did not ultimately lead to serialism.
In order to understand Busoni's compositions one should take only what is given in the music, and interpret them through his aesthetic beliefs (though this is no easy task, and the everpresent binarism between what a composer says and what a composer does should be kept in mind). Busoni can be recognised as a man with a variety of musical abilities. He wrote compositions and libretti, performed as a concert pianist, transcribed pieces by other composers (such as Bach, Mozart and Liszt), taught master classes, and produced aesthetic writings. It is to this end that Busoni considered music a fusion of disciplines, or to use his words 'to recognise the whole phenomenon of music as 'oneness'. (Busoni, 'The Essence of Oneness of Music', 1921).
For more information on this see: Paul Fleet, Ferruccio Busoni: A Phenomenological Approach to his Music and Aesthetics (Lambert Academic Publishing, 2009).
Busoni edited and transcribed works by other composers, in particular those of Bach, Liszt, and Mozart.
The best known of these is his edition of the solo keyboard works of Bach, which he edited with the assistance of his students Egon Petri and Bruno Mugellini. He adds tempo markings, articulation and phrase markings, dynamics and metronome markings to the original Bach, as well as extensive performance suggestions. In the Goldberg Variations (BV B 35), for example, he suggests cutting eight of the variations for a "concert performance", as well as substantially rewriting many sections. The edition of the Goldberg Variations remains controversial, but has recently been reprinted. Its world premiere recording was by Sara Davis Buechner (aka David Buechner).
In the last seven years of his life Busoni worked sporadically on the Klavierübung, a compilation of exercises, transcriptions, and original compositions of his own, with which he hoped to pass on his accumulated knowledge of keyboard technique. It was issued in five parts between 1918 and 1922, and a second edition was published posthumously in 1925.
He had definite views on some composers. Franz Schubert he considered "a gifted amateur". He felt Beethoven did not have the technique to express his emotions. He ridiculed Robert Schumann's Carnaval. But he considered Felix Mendelssohn "a master of undisputed greatness" and "an heir of Mozart". He was planning to play some of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words in a series of recitals in London in the year of his death.
His recorded output on gramophone record was very limited, and unfortunately many of the original recordings were destroyed when the Columbia factory burnt down. The following pieces (recorded for Columbia) survive from February 1922:
Busoni also mentions recording the Gounod-Liszt Faust Waltz in a letter to his wife in 1919. However, this recording was never released. Originally, he had recorded a considerable number of other pieces, including Liszt's Sonata in B minor and Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata. Unfortunately for posterity, Busoni never recorded his original works. Kaikhosru Sorabji, a fervent admirer, found the records to be the best piano recordings ever made, when they were first released.
Busoni made a considerable number of piano rolls, and a small number of these have been re-recorded onto vinyl record or CD. The value of these recordings in ascertaining Busoni's performance style is a matter of some dispute. Many of his colleagues and students expressed disappointment with the recordings and felt they did not truly represent Busoni's pianism. His student Egon Petri was horrified by the piano roll recordings when they first appeared on LP and said that it was a travesty of Busoni's playing. Similarly, Petri's student Gunnar Johansen who had heard Busoni play on several occasions, remarked, "Of Busoni's piano rolls and recordings, only Feux follets (Liszt's 5th Transcendental Etude) is really something unique. The rest is curiously unconvincing. The recordings, especially of Chopin, are a plain misalliance".
^ Andrew Porter, Liner notes to the Walter Gieseking recording of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words, Angel 35428
Antony Beaumont. Busoni the Composer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Della Couling. Ferruccio Busoni: "A Musical Ishmael". Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005.
Judith Crispin. The esoteric musical tradition of Ferruccio Busoni and its reinvigoration in the music of Larry Sitsky : the operas Doktor Faust and The Golem / with a preface by Larry Sitsky Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, N.Y. : 2007
Edward J. Dent. Ferruccio Busoni: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933.
Jürgen Kindermann. Thematisch-chronologisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Ferruccio B. Busoni. Regensburg: Gustav Bosse Verlag, 1980.
Marc-André Roberge. Ferruccio Busoni: A Bio-Bibliography. New York, Westport, Conn., London: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Larry Sitsky. Busoni and the Piano: The Works, the Writings, and the Recordings. New York, Westport, Conn., London: Greenwood Press, 1986, 409 pp. Second edition published by Pendragon Press as no. 3 of its Distinguished Reprints series (2009), 414 pp.
The Piano Quarterly Issue No. 108 (Winter 1979-80) has Busoni as the feature composer. Interviews with Gunnar Johansen and Guido Agosti.