Who was Ferruccio Busoni?

Composer, librettist, pianist, conductor, teacher, philosopher, aesthetician and critic, Ferruccio Busoni was a Renaissance man. A visionary and idealist, he spent a lifetime striving for a personal voice at a time when musical language was undergoing seismic shifts in emphasis. Cosmopolitan and open-minded, he anticipated many of the subsequent developments in music that would take place years after his death.

For these reasons alone, it is difficult to understand the current neglect of a musician who was one of the towering figures in early 20th-century music.

Perhaps one factor that prevents him from being more widely acknowledged is that his immense achievement as a composer does not fit into a specific national tradition. Whereas the music of his contemporaries Sibelius and Nielsen seems inextricably linked to their homelands, Busoni was more a citizen of the world.

When and where was Ferruccio Busoni born?

Ferruccio Busoni was born in Empoli, Tuscany, Italy on 1 April. The family moves to Trieste when he is just a few months old, transplanting him into a cosmopolitan, German-orientated environment.

Who did Busoni study with?

In 1875 he entered the Vienna Conservatory at the age of nine. Though encouraged by Brahms and Hanslick, he is dissatisfied with the tuition, and leaves after just two years.

In 1881 Busoni begins composition lessons in Graz with Wilhelm Mayer who fosters his love of Mozart and his interest in mysticism and orientalism.

He then took up teaching posts in cities including Helsinki, Moscow and New York.

Thereafter he mainly resided in Berlin, only leaving the German capital temporarily during World War I for New York, Bologna and Zürich. In essence, Busoni’s musical makeup bestrides a German and Italian duality almost unique in music.

But lack of a clearly defined national identity is only one of many facets of Busoni’s musical outlook that defies classification. Given his traditional compositional training and the kind of music he wrote up to 1900, which covers most genres from ambitious orchestral scores and piano works to polished chamber music, he seems on the surface to have been a product of his time.

Busoni’s music

Like Liszt, who was one of his idols, he was best known in the musical world as a brilliant pianist who dazzled audiences with sublime readings of late Beethoven. He also followed his great predecessor in his strong predilection for transcription, reconfiguring in particular the keyboard music of Bach to impressive effect. Listening to the magnificent cathedral of sound that is unleashed in Busoni’s wonderful arrangement of the great master’s Chaconne for solo violin, you could be forgiven for thinking of him as a representative of late-Romanticism.

Yet to pigeonhole Busoni as a late-Romantic composer is misleading. True, the 1904 Piano Concerto is a work of excess. Lasting well over an hour in performance, it matches the scale and extravagance of Mahler’s Second and Third Symphonies. Not only does it boast one of the most difficult piano parts in the repertory, but in the fifth and final movement Busoni introduces a male-voice choir that intones a mystic ‘Hymn to Allah’ drawn from Adam Oehlenschläger’s 1805 play Aladdin.

Alfred Brendel dismissed the Concerto as ‘monstrously overwritten’, but others counter this argument pointing out how effectively the piano is embedded within the orchestral texture. Furthermore, contrary to the notion that the Concerto’s structure is sprawling and unwieldy, Busoni seems to have had a clear notion of its trajectory.

The front cover of the published score is adorned by a vivid pictorial representation of its architectural design in which the first, third and fifth movements are depicted as three temples, whereas the second is an exotic bird and the fourth an erupting Vesuvius. This latter movement, a fast and furious Tarantella, contains the most startling and disturbing musical material of all. Alex Ross aptly describes it as ‘perhaps the most purely kinetic music written between the retirement of Rossini and the heyday of Stravinsky’ and as a movement that captures the ‘mood of a street festival turned violent’.

Referring back to the Piano Concerto, Busoni stoutly defended the work in 1912 as the culmination of his first mature period, adding that ‘it does not indicate the future at all, but represents the present at its moment of birth’. As far as the composer was concerned, the future involved a restless search for new means of expression. In an age that witnessed profound changes in musical language, Busoni, like his friend Schoenberg, was now ‘breathing the air of other planets’. In 1907, he completed the sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, an important book that sets out a number of ideas that presage later 20th century musical developments. Among the most significant are his call to explore microtonal writing and a desire to develop electronic instruments to enable the widening of the sonic palette available to composers.

Yet perhaps the most revealing statement in this book concerns Busoni’s call for unbridled creative freedom. He stated that ‘No artist should blindly accept established musical laws. Rather they should work towards formulating stylistic principles that correspond to their own individual outlook. Yet after having applied such rules once, they should destroy them to avoid the potential creative sterility of lapsing into repetition with their next work.’ Such a maxim governed Busoni’s unpredictable musical development following the Piano Concerto.

An important departure from his earlier period, which represents a significant milestone in this journey, is the short Berceuse élégiaque for orchestra, completed in 1909. Premiered two years later by Mahler and the New York Philharmonic, this shadowy piece, with its subtle instrumental timbres and unsettling collisions between major and minor tonalities, seems to inhabit a unique dream-like world. But Busoni followed this elusive work with the starkly contrasting and monumental Fantasia contrappuntistica.

Originally conceived for solo piano, yet also existing in an arrangement for two pianos, this work is Busoni’s most important homage to JS Bach, its original inspiration deriving from the challenge of completing the unfinished final fugue in Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Whereas the Berceuse is an essay in harmonic ambiguity, the Fantasia contrappuntistica demonstrates Busoni’s capacity to utilise a dissonant musical language, yet also harness it to a logical polyphonic argument.

Busoni was aware of the febrile modernist cultural environment that existed in the years preceding World War I. Responding to the most recent works by Schoenberg, which he heard at a concert in Berlin in 1912, he wrote two of his most experimental compositions, the Sonatina seconda for piano and the Nocturne Symphonique for orchestra. Daring in their harmonic freedom and unusual timbral colours, both pieces are connected to the composer’s obsession with the occult, and reflect the acute state of anxiety that had engulfed European civilisation at this time.

Deciding to leave Germany after 1914 because of his abhorrence of war, Busoni took refuge in Switzerland where he conducted the first performance of his one-act opera Arlecchino, based on the adventures of the well-known Commedia dell’arte figure. In contrast to the spectral atmosphere of his pre-war works, Arlecchino is more brittle and sarcastic in tone. Constructed in the form of a number opera with clearly defined solos and duets, it pokes fun at the grandiloquence of Wagner and makes allusions to various 18th and 19th-century operatic styles.

Arlecchino marks a turning point towards a more objective musical style, labelled by Busoni as ‘Young Classicism’ which he explained to the critic Paul Bekker as the ‘mastery, examination, and exploitation of all the gains of previous musical experiments and their inclusion in solid and beautiful forms, a definite departure from the thematic and a return to melody, and the removal of the “sensual” and renunciation of subjectivity’. Increasingly Busoni turned to Mozart for inspiration, venerating him in equal measure to Bach. Mozartian clarity and economy of expression is evident in the Concertino for Clarinet and Small Orchestra (1918) and the Divertimento for Flute and Small Orchestra (1920).

When did Busoni die?

Returning to Berlin in 1920 to take up a teaching post in composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts, Busoni spent his final years working on his magnum opus, the opera Doktor Faust based on the 16th-century puppet play. The work had occupied Busoni ever since 1910, but was not fully complete at his death in 1924.

Busoni's legacy

At its premiere in Dresden the following year, his pupil Philipp Jarnach supplied the missing music. Doktor Faust is a complex semi-autobiographical work incorporating pre-existent pieces of music that Busoni had composed over the previous 15 years, woven into a musical fabric of great harmonic sophistication. The dramatic structure, conceived in abstract forms such as a dance suite, scherzo, chorale and fugue, parallels similar features adopted in Berg’s Wozzeck, first performed in the same year.

It’s a testament to the enormous esteem in which the composer was held that two such diametrically different musicians as the avant-garde Edgard Varèse and the populist Kurt Weill could each regard Busoni as the single most important musical influence on their lives. Varèse, who met Busoni first in 1907, was not only stimulated as never before by the older composer’s brilliant personality and caustic intelligence, but also concurred with his open-minded ideas on the development of music which he sought to realise in his own works.

Weill’s extensive compositional study with Busoni in the early 1920s was no less significant in shaping his musical language which adopts many stylistic fingerprints that are also characteristic of his teacher. Paying tribute to Busoni in 1925, Weill movingly expressed his gratitude: ‘When Busoni died a year ago, we did not lose a man but a standard. We lost the consummate purity which constituted the primal law of his life. It is strange enough that such a phenomenon appeared in our time. Even in the past, we find few figures in whom the man and work are thus unified as in the case of Busoni.’

Illustration: Risko


Erik LeviJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Erik Levi is a journalist and critic for BBC Music Magazine and a visiting professor in music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a leading authority on the music of the 20th century, and has written books on the topic of music in the Nazi era, including 'Music in the Third Reich' (1994) and 'Music and the Nazis' (2010). He is also a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 and is on the reviewing roster for International Piano Magazine.