Ferruccio Busoni was an Italian-born composer, pianist, editor, writer, teacher and conductor. A musician of immense technical abilities, he performed each of the roles with distinction. It is to his credit and lasting legacy as a teacher that many of his students have achieved greatness of their own. His legacy also lies in his works as an editor and composer. As an editor, he is most famous for his works on compositions of Bach. He was the precursor to a transcendental shift in musical tastes of the 20th century. His concepts of ‘freedom of music’ and electronic music (he never employed its use), among others, influenced his students who went on to make path breaking contributions in their fields. Even as a composer and conductor, Busoni had a style and technicality that few could match up to. He assimilated different sounds in to his own compositions. By general consent his own work are difficult to understand and perform.
Ferruccio Busoni’s Childhood and Early Life
Ferruccio Busoni was born in Empoli, Tuscany, Italy on April 1, 1866 as the only child to a couple who were both professional musicians. His father, Ferdinando was a clarinetist while his mother, Anna was a pianist. Brought up in a musical atmosphere, it was not much of a surprise that Busoni would start early in the world of music. Busoni emerged as a child prodigy who made his debut appearance on stage along with his parents, at the age of seven. Two years later, he staged his own compositions. He studied for brief periods in Graz and Leipzig. He subsequently turned to teaching.
Career: Born to be a Musician
Within a span of six years, between 1888 and 1994, he held posts of teaching in Helsinki, Moscow and United States. Finally, in 1894, he decided to settle in Berlin. There he earned a name for himself as a pianist and a conductor. He continued with teaching and imparted to the students his philosophy on music. A promoter of contemporary music, he influenced many of his pupils and other musicians. The next major milestone in his life was his book ‘Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music’ in which he elucidated on his philosophy of music being free and how it would attain freedom. This philosophy of his influenced students like Percy Grainger who imbibed them in to his own works.
Busoni was against war and he publicly refused to perform in any countries that were in any way involved in war. He disagreed with war to the extent that during the time of the First World War he first moved to Bologna and then to Zurich. At Bologna, he joined the Conservatory. After the war was over, he returned to berlin in 1920 and resumed his teaching there. He gave classes in compositions. Sadly, he couldn’t reach there for long as he died of a kidney disease in the year 1924.
Music and Philosophy
Busoni was a virtuoso pianist and unsurprisingly, most of his compositions were intended for piano. His works were mostly done during a period of transition in the musical scene of Europe. There was a distinct change in the manner in which composers started looking at chromatic elements of music. The fillers of intervals et al were soon becoming part of the main structure of the compositions. Busoni’s philosophy of finding and creating music from any sound had very sympathetic listeners. While he himself preached a new philosophy, Busoni’s music had great influences of the old. The music of Bach and Liszt were two of the major influences on him. In fact, other than for his exceptional expertise on the piano, Busoni attained fame during his time through his editing of Bach’s works. In addition, Busoni’s largest and best-known piano work, Fantasia Contrappunistica’s first version was his fantasy version of an incomplete fugue of Bach. Other elements of influences on Busoni are works of former past and contemporary composers. He had been influenced by works including the Indian Fantasy, which is based on tribal melodies of the indigenous tribes of North America.
As a composer, Busoni’s works for piano are considered difficult to perform because of the physical demands it placed on the performer. Some of his piano solos are as long as 70 – 90 minutes long. His ‘Piano Concerto, op.39’ is one of the largest works ever written. Busoni also composed a few operas among which his most famous ‘Doktor Faust’ remained incomplete at the time of his death (it would later be completed by his student, Philip Jarnach). Busoni was not just a Jack-Of-All-Trades in music, he was also the master to a very great degree. It is believed that his philosophy of discovering the oneness of music through different variations and roles prompted him to try out his hand at such a variety of roles.
Busoni: the Constant Fighter
The one constant in Busoni’s life other than his marriage was the divided opinions he somehow managed to create in the music world. It is quite possible that he was a composer and a musician who was a little ahead of his times. His ideas on music had both takers and critics. His ideas appeared radical and disconcerting to his critics while his followers were encouraged to follow the unconventional themselves. His works, which obviously were an extension of his philosophy, had the same fate. His critics tore him apart. Even his Piano Concerto, Op.39, considered his masterpiece, suffered the same fate with a critic even describing it as ‘Pandemonium let loose’. The press, which reflected the conventional, was always at the forefront in tearing apart his works.
With his followers, it was always a different story. Throughout his life, Busoni had a group (very small) of very loyal followers. Even as he was criticized, Busoni found avid pupils in many emerging musicians. The very fact that many of his students became famous themselves gives strength to the argument that Busoni’s ideas belonged to the future. His followers appreciated him and his philosophy of musical freedom. His single-minded devotion to this philosophy meant that he did not care in the least for all the criticisms that were aimed at him. He continued his works with many emerging musicians who eventually helped him achieve his rightful place in the world of music. When viewed in this light, Busoni was a musician who strived hard and fought for what he stood.
Busoni married Gerda Sjostrand in the year 1890. In the 34 years (until Busoni’s death) that they were married, they had two sons.
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. Probably, his influence has been recognized of late, since starting from the 1980’s the attention on his works has been on the rise.
Awards and Recognitions
He won the Anton Rubenstein competition for his ‘Concert Piece for Piano and Orchestra, Op.31a’. The Ferruccio Busoni International Competition was instituted to commemorate his contributions to the world of music. A plaque at the site of his residence in Berlin also serves the same purpose.