Ferruccio Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni

Ferruccio Dante Michelangiolo Benvenuto Busoni (April 1, 1866 – July 27, 1924) was an Italian composer, pianist, musical educator, and conductor.


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.

Busoni was a child prodigy. He made his public debut on the piano with his parents, at the age of seven. A couple of years later he played some of his own compositions in Vienna where he heard Franz Liszt play, and met Liszt, Johannes Brahms and Anton Rubinstein.

Busoni had a brief period of study in Graz with Wilhelm Mayer (who used the pseudonym of W. A. Rémy and also taught Felix Weingartner) and was also helped by Wilhelm Kienzl, who enabled him to conduct a performance of his own composition 'Stabat Mater' when he was twelve years old, before leaving for Leipzig in 1886. He subsequently held several teaching posts, the first in 1888 at Helsinki, where he met his wife, Gerda Sjöstrand, the daughter of Swedish sculptor Carl Eneas Sjöstrand, and began a lifelong friendship with Sibelius. 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.

In 1894 he settled in Berlin, giving a series of concerts there both as pianist and conductor. He particularly promoted contemporary music. He also continued to teach in a number of masterclasses at Weimar, Vienna and Basel, among his pupils being Egon Petri. His piano playing and philosophy of music influenced Claudio Arrau.

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 Luigi Russolo, Percy Grainger and Edgard Varèse, all 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.

He is commemorated by a plaque at the site of his last residence in Berlin-Schöneberg, Viktoria-Luise-Platz 11, and by the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition.


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 later works 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 in 1910. 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 are often identified as key influences, though some 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. He arranged several of Bach's works for the piano, including the famous "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" (originally for organ) and the chaconne from the D minor violin partita. Earlier Brahms had also made a transcription of the same chaconne, but for left hand only. Thus some consider him an originator of neoclassicism in music. Busoni went on to transcribe other composers works as well. An archetypal example would be his piano arrangement of Franz Liszt's Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.

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 used elements of other composers' works. The fourth movement of "An die Jugend" (1909), for instance, uses two of Niccolò Paganini's "Caprices" for solo violin (numbers 11 and 15), while the 1920 piece "Piano Sonatina No. 6" ("Fantasia da camera super Carmen") is based on themes from Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen".

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. The "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." [Ates Orga, Volume 72 of Philips' Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century series (set I on John Ogdon)]

Busoni's suite for orchestra "Turandot" (1904), probably his most popular orchestral work, was expanded into his opera "Turandot" 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 Anthony 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 that his music is without form (a mistake that Pfitzner made when he attacked "The Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music" by Busoni), 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).


Busoni also edited music by other composers. The best known of these is his edition of the complete Bach solo keyboard works, 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", for example, he suggests cutting eight of the variations for a "concert performance", as well as substantially rewriting many sections. The edition remains controversial, but has recently been reprinted. Its world premiere recording was by Sara Davis Buechner (aka David Buechner).

On a smaller scale, Busoni edited works by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, Liszt, Schoenberg and Schumann. The Busoni version of Liszt's "La Campanella" was championed by pianists such as Ignaz Friedman and Josef Lhevinne, and more recently by John Ogdon.


Busoni made a considerable number of piano rolls, and a small number of these have been re-recorded onto vinyl record or CD. His recorded output on gramophone record is much smaller and rarer - unfortunately many were destroyed when the Columbia factory burnt down. Originally, he had recorded a considerable number, including Liszt's "Sonata in B minor" and Beethoven's "Hammerklavier Sonata". The following pieces (recorded for Columbia) survive from February 1922:

* Prelude & Fugue No. 1 (Bach)
* Etude Op. 25 No. 5 (Chopin)
* Chorale Prelude "Nun freut euch liebe Christen" (Bach-Busoni)
* La Campanella (Liszt)
* Ecossaisen (Beethoven)
* Prelude Op. 28 No. 7 & Etude Op. 10 No. 5 (Chopin) the two works are connected by an improvisatory passage
* Etude Op. 10 No. 5 (Chopin)
* Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2 (Chopin)
* Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 (Liszt) this has substantial cuts, to fit it on two sides of a 78 record.

Busoni also mentions recording the Gounod-Liszt "Faust Waltz" in a letter to his wife in 1919. However, this recording was never released. Unfortunately for posterity, Busoni never recorded his original works.

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". However, Kaikhosru Sorabji, a fervent admirer, found the records to be the best piano recordings ever made when they were released.

ee also

*Fantasie on Two Motives from Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro"


All the media files below are transcriptions of works by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Further reading

* Antony Beaumont. "Busoni the Composer". Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
* Della Couling. "Ferruccio Busoni: "A Musical Ishmael". Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005.
* 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. A second edition will be published by Pendragon Press as no. 3 of its Distinguished Reprints series.
* "The Piano Quarterly" Issue No. 108 (Winter 1979-80) has Busoni as the feature composer. Interviews with Gunnar Johansen and Guido Agosti.


External links

* [http://www.michaelsayers.com/ferrucciobusoni.html Ferruccio Busoni website featuring pre-WWII materials]
* [http://www.infography.com/content/447715279854.html The Infography about Ferruccio Busoni]
* [http://www.klassika.info/Komponisten/Busoni/wv_gattung.html List of Works] From klassika.info (German)
* [http://my.dreamwiz.com/fischer/Bach-Busoni/Bach-BusoniE.htm A page on Busoni's transcriptions of Bach's organ compositions]
* An english translation of [http://www.archive.org/details/sketchofanewesth000125mbp "Sketch Of A New Esthetic Of Music"] from 1911 at archive.org

Music scores

* [http://hdl.handle.net/1802/3202 4 Poesie liriche Op.40 for chorus] Score from Sibley Music Library Digital Scores Collection

Recordings and MIDI files

* [http://www.jmc.co.il//music/10-1.mp3 Recording of Busoni's transcription of Bach's "Chaconne in D minor" by Boris Giltburg] in MP3 format
* [http://www.editionsilvertrust.com/busoni-string-quartet-2.htm Ferruccio Busoni String Quartet No.2, with short biography & soundbites]
* Kunst der Fuge: [http://www.kunstderfuge.com/busoni.htm Ferruccio Busoni - MIDI files]

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