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The boundless genius of Ferruccio Busoni: between piano virtuosity and musical experimentation
The life and legacy of the great 20th century musician and thinker
Ferruccio Busoni, a Renaissance man who anticipated the future of music, was a multifaceted artist, who excelled as a composer, librettist, pianist, conductor, teacher, philosopher, esthete and critic. Despite his extraordinary career, Busoni is often overlooked, perhaps because his music does not tie into a specific national tradition like that of his contemporaries Sibelius and Nielsen. However, Busoni was a cosmopolitan who sought a personal voice at a time when the musical language was undergoing seismic changes, anticipating many future developments.

Ferruccio Busoni was born on 1 April 1866 in Empoli, in Tuscany, but his family moved to Trieste when he was still a baby, making him grow up in a cosmopolitan environment oriented towards German culture.

Busoni studied at the Vienna Conservatory starting in 1875, at the age of nine. Despite receiving encouragement from personalities such as Brahms and Hanslick, Busoni felt dissatisfied with teaching and left school after only two years. Subsequently, in 1881, Busoni began studying composition in Graz with Wilhelm Meyer, who encouraged his love of Mozart and his interest in mysticism and orientalism.

During his lifetime, Busoni held a number of teaching positions in various cities around the world, such as Helsinki, Moscow and New York. However, he spent most of his life in Berlin, with brief periods spent elsewhere, such as during World War I when he moved to New York, Bologna and Zurich. His music reflects a unique duality between the German and Italian traditions.

The lack of a clear national identity is just one of the many facets of Busoni's musical vision, which defies classification. Despite his traditional compositional training and repertoire ranging from chamber music to orchestral scores and piano works, Busoni is considered a product of his time.

There is more

Like Liszt, one of his idols, Busoni was known in the music world primarily as a brilliant pianist who captivated audiences with sublime readings of Beethoven's late music. He also followed his great predecessor in strong fondness for transcription, especially reconfiguring Bach's keyboard music to impressive effect. Listening to the magnificent cathedral of sound that is released in Busoni's wonderful arrangement of the Ciaccona for solo violin by the great master, one might think of him as a representative of late romanticism.

However, to define Busoni as a late romantic composer would be misleading. It is true that the 1904 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is an excessive work, lasting well over an hour and equaling the scale and extravagance of Mahler's Second and Third Symphony. Not only does it boast one of the most difficult piano parts in the repertoire, but in the fifth and final movement Busoni introduces a chorus of male voices intoning a mystical "Hymn to Allah" taken from Adam Oehlenschläger's 1805 opera Aladdin.

Alfred Brendel has dismissed the Concerto as “grossly overwritten”, but others contrast this thesis by emphasizing the effectiveness with which the piano is inserted into the orchestral texture. Furthermore, contrary to the idea that the Concerto's structure is sprawling and cumbersome, Busoni seems to have had a clear idea of its trajectory.

The cover of the published score is adorned with a vivid pictorial representation of his architectural design in which the first, third and fifth movements are depicted as three temples, while the second is an exotic bird and the fourth an erupting Vesuvius. This last movement, a fast and furious tarantella, contains the most startling and haunting musical material of all. Alex Ross aptly describes it as “perhaps the most purely kinetic music written between Rossini's retirement and Stravinsky's heyday” and like a movement that captures “the mood of a street festival gone violent".

Busoni strenuously defended the 1912 work, the Concerto for piano and orchestra, as the culmination of his early mature period, adding that “it does not indicate the future at all, but represents the present in its moment of birth”. For the composer, the future implied a restless search for new means of expression. In an age of profound changes in musical language, Busoni, like his friend Schoenberg, “he breathed the air of other planets".

In 1907 he completed the outline of a new musical aesthetic, a major book setting forth a number of ideas that anticipate subsequent musical developments in the 20th century. Among the most significant, the invitation to explore microtonal writing and the desire to develop electronic instruments to broaden the sound palette available to composers.

In this book, Busoni advocates unlimited creative freedom for artists, who should formulate stylistic principles corresponding to their individual vision rather than blindly accepting established musical laws. However, having applied those rules once, they should destroy them to avoid falling into creative repetition. This maxim influenced Busoni's musical development after the Concerto for piano and orchestra.

A significant stage in this journey is the Berceuse élégiaque for orchestra, completed in 1909, which represents an important departure from the previous period. This shadowy piece, with its subtle instrumental timbres and eerie collisions of major and minor keys, seems to inhabit a unique dream world. This elusive work was followed up by Busoni with the monumental and contrasting Contrapuntal Fantasia, originally conceived for solo piano, but also existing in an arrangement for two pianos.

Busoni was aware of the feverish modernist cultural environment of the pre-World War I years and, in response to Schoenberg's late works, wrote two of his most experimental compositions, the Sonatina seconda for piano and the Nocturne Symphonique for orchestra, both bold in their freedom harmonic and in unusual timbral colours. These pieces also reflect the composer's obsession with the occult and the acute state of anxiety that had engulfed European civilization at the time.

After leaving Germany in 1914 due to his aversion to war, Busoni took refuge in Switzerland where he directed the first performance of his one-act play Arlecchino, based on the adventures of the well-known character from the Commedia dell'arte. This work marks a turn towards a more objective musical style, labeled by Busoni as “Young Classicism”, reflecting the mastery, examination and exploitation of all the gains from previous musical experiments and their inclusion in solid and beautiful forms , a decisive departure from the theme and a return to the melody, and the removal of the “sensual” and the renunciation of subjectivity. Mozart becomes an increasingly important source of inspiration for Busoni, and his clarity and expressive economy are evident in the Concertino for clarinet and small orchestra (1918) and in the Divertimento for flute and small orchestra (1920).

At the end of the conflict Busoni was uncertain about his return to Berlin for a long time, also due to the political situation that was emerging. What prompted him to return was the offer of a composition class by Leo Kestenberg (his former piano student who then held an influential position among the intellectuals of the Weimar Republic) and the need to return to his home.

He returned in September 1920 and resumed composing (the toccata, the danced waltz, the scenes of the Duchess of Parma for Doktor Faust) and undertook tours abroad: London and Rome.

Until his death he resided in Berlin, in Viktoria-Luise-Platz 11, where a commemorative plaque remembers him as Musiker, Denker, Lehrer (musician, thinker, teacher).

Busoni died of kidney disease in 1924; his grave is in the Friedenau cemetery in Berlin.

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 since 1910, but at his death in 1924 it was not yet completely complete.

At the premiere the following year in Dresden, his pupil Philipp Jarnach completed the missing music. The Doktor Faust is a complex, semi-autobiographical work incorporating pre-existing pieces of music that Busoni had composed over the previous 15 years, woven into a musical texture of great harmonic refinement.

It is remarkable how respected the composer was if two such different musicians as Edgard Varèse, with his avant-garde music, and Kurt Weill, with his popular music, considered him the most important musical influence in their lives. Varèse first met Busoni in 1907 and was inspired by the older composer's bright and caustic personality, as well as his open ideas on the development of music which he sought to apply to his operas.

Weill's compositional study with Busoni in the early 1920s was equally significant in the formation of his musical language, which adopted many of his teacher's stylistic characteristics. In a touching testimony of gratitude to Busoni in 1925, Weill said: “When Busoni died a year ago, we lost not a man, but a standard. We have lost the consummate purity which constituted the primordial law of his life. It is strange enough that such a phenomenon has appeared in our time. Even in the past, there are few figures in which man and work are unified as in the case of Busoni”.

Photo In the image the first prototype of the famous Bösendorfer Imperial. It was built in 1909 according to a request by Ferruccio Busoni. He was working on a transcription of organ music by Bach and needed a piano with lower bass notes. As a result, the Imperial was created with 97 keys – eight full octaves.

Other information

Busoni is that in addition to being a great composer, he was also a highly regarded virtuoso pianist and a great lover of art and literature. In his lifetime he had amassed a large collection of books, works of art and ancient musical instruments. He was also known for his eccentric personality and bohemian lifestyle. In a letter to a friend, Busoni described himself as "a lonely wanderer in a world I don't understand".

A curiosity about Busoni: in addition to his activity as a composer, pianist and teacher, he was also a skilled piano restorer. Busoni had a thorough knowledge of the mechanisms and construction of pianos, and often restored ancient and precious instruments. He also developed some technical innovations for the piano, such as the "dynamophone" amplification system, which made it possible to increase the volume of the instrument's sound.

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