Ferruccio Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni

(1 April 1866, Empoli - 27 July 1924, Berlin)

Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto Busoni was an Italian composer, pianist, conductor, editor, writer and piano teacher. Born in a family of professional musicians, his father was a clarinetist and his mother was a pianist (Busoni's first teacher), he gave his first public debut on piano with his parents, at the age of 7. Two years later he staged his own compositions in Vienna where he heard Franz Liszt play. While in Vienna, besides Liszt, he also met Johannes Brahms and Anton Rubinstein.

He was considered a child prodigy, and his childhood was similar to Mozart's in that Busoni composed and went on concert tours throughout Austria and Italy, playing his own compositions for violin and piano. He studied for a brief period in Graz under Wilhelm Mayer and was also guided by Wilhelm Kienzl, who enabled him to conduct a performance of his own composition Stabat Mater when he was 12 years old. In 1886 Busoni left for Leipzig where he studied with Carl Reinecke (a former pupil of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann). 

Although Busoni's reputation as a piano virtuoso of the first rank was established in Europe by the end of the 1880s, he first made his mark as an editor of Bach's keyboard music. Today these editions are regarded as the most intrusive and heavily marked Bach scores ever made (the original keyboard Bach scores, composed for the harpsichord, didn't have notations due to the limitations of the instrument). Nevertheless, at that time, these comments influenced Bach scholars and composers for generations.

In 1890 he won the Anton Rubinstein Competition with his Concert Piece for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 31a. He taught in Moscow in 1890, and in the United States from 1891 to 1894 where he also toured as a virtuoso pianist. After this period, Busoni settled in Berlin in 1894 where he gave a series of concerts both as a pianist and conductor, his repertoire included mostly contemporary music. He was also very active as a teacher, giving a number of masterclasses at Weimar, Vienna and Basel; among his pupils were Egon Petri and Stanley Gradner.

Busoni's first mature composition emerged in 1896 in his Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 36b, which takes a theme from Bach and submits it to a complex series of variations. His philosophy was that music was born free and it shouldn't be confined in the traditional 12 degrees system (12 half steps or semitones). Following this philosophy, he penned his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (1907), which 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 the first World War, he directed the conservatory in Bologna, and later in Zürich, refusing to perform in any countries that were involved in the war. Having returned to Berlin (where he lived his last 4 years) in 1920, he continued his teaching activity giving masterclasses in composition. Among his composition students who became famous were:  Kurt Weill, Edgard Varèse, Friedrich Löwe, Aurelio Giorni and Stefan Wolpe. He only composed 4 operas, Die Brautwahl (1912), Arlecchino (1915), Turandot (1917), and Doktor Faust (1924).

His compositions were largely neglected for many years after his death, however, Busoni remained a peripheral figure in the world of music after his death; his legacy remained through the lives of his pupils. Many of these illustrious names went on to herald a new era of music that at some point could be traced back to Busoni. A truly long list of pupils who went on to leave their mark includes Egon Petri, Stanley Gardner, Kurt Weill, Edgard Varèse and Stefan Wolpe, Percy Grainger, Philipp Jarnach, Vladimir Vogel, Guido Guerrini and Woldemar Freeman, among numerous others. Around the 1980s there was a revival of interest in his work.

Ferruccio Busoni's music can be characterized as 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. 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.

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.

Here  you can find a list of Ferruccio Busoni's compositions.