Ferruccio Busoni

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Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto Busoni (1 April 1866 – 27 July 1924) was an Italian composer, pianist, conductor, editor, writer, and piano teacher. He was born in Empoli, the son of professional musicians. Initially trained by his father, he later studied at the Vienna Conservatory and then with Wilhelm Mayer and Carl Reinecke. In the ensuing years, he devoted himself to composing, teaching, and touring as a virtuoso pianist. He settled in Berlin in 1894 but spent the years of World War I in Italy and Switzerland. Busoni died in Berlin at the age of 58. In addition to his piano works, he also composed four operas, the best known of which, Doktor Faust, was left unfinished at the time of his death.


Early career[edit]

Ferruccio Busoni in 1911

Busoni was born in the Tuscan town of Empoli, the only child of two professional musicians, Ferdinando, a clarinettist, and Anna (née Weiss), a pianist. The family shortly afterwards moved to Trieste. A child prodigy, largely taught by his father, he began performing and composing at the age of seven. He made his public debut as a pianist in a concert with his parents at the Schiller-Verein in Trieste on 24 November 1873 playing the first movement of Mozart's Sonata in C Major, and pieces by Schumann and Clementi. Commercially promoted by his parents in a series of further concerts, he was later to say "I never had a childhood."[1] In 1875 he made his concerto debut playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24.[2]

From the ages of nine to eleven, with the help of a patron, Busoni studied at the Vienna Conservatory. His first performances in Vienna were glowingly received by the critic Eduard Hanslick.[3] in 1877 he heard the playing of Franz Liszt, and was introduced to the composer who admired his playing.[4] Leaving Vienna he had a brief period of study in Graz with Wilhelm Mayer, and conducted a performance of his own composition Stabat Mater (Op. 55 in the composer's initial numbering sequence)[i] (now lost) in 1879. Others of his early pieces were published at this time, including settings of Ave Maria (Opp. 1 and 2) and some piano pieces.[3]

Busoni was elected in 1881 to the Accademia Filharmonica of Bologna. In the mid 1880s he was based in Vienna where he met with Karl Goldmark and helped to prepare the vocal score for the latter's 1886 opera, Merlin. He also met with Johannes Brahms, to whom he dedicated two sets of piano Etudes, and who recommended him to undertake study in Leipzig with Carl Reinecke.[3]

Helsingfors, Moscow, America 1888-1894[edit]

In 1888 the musicologist Hugo Riemann recommended Busoni to Martin Wegelius, director of the Institute of Music at Helsingfors, (now Helsinki, Finland, then part of the Russian Empire) for the vacant position of advanced piano instructor. This was Busoni's first permanent post.[7] Amongst his close colleagues and associates there were the conductor and composer Armas Järnefelt, the writer Adolf Paul, and the composer Jean Sibelius, with whom he struck up a continuing friendship.[8] Paul described Busoni at this time as "a small, slender Italian with chestnut beard, grey eyes, young and gay, with ... a small round cap perched proudly on his thick artist's curls".[9] Between 1888 and 1890 Busoni gave abouth thirty piano recitals and chamber concerts in Helsingfors;[10] amongst his compositions at this period were a set of Finnish folksongs for piano duet Op. 27.[11] In March 1899 he met his future wife, Gerda Sjöstrand, the daughter of Swedish sculptor Carl Eneas Sjöstrand, and proposed to her within a week. For her he composed Kultaselle (Finnish: To the beloved) for cello and piano, (published 1891 without opus number).[12]

In 1890 Busoni won the prize for composition, with his Konzertstück (Concert Piece) for piano and orchestra Op. 31a, at the first Anton Rubinstein Competition, initiated by Anton Rubinstein himself at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.[13] As a consequence he was invited to visit and teach at the Moscow Conservatoire. Gerda joined him in Moscow where they promptly married.[14] His first concert in Moscow, when he performed Beethoven's Emperor Concerto was warmly received. But living in Moscow did not suit the Busonis for both financial and professional reasons; he felt excluded by his nationalistically-inclined Russian colleagues. So when he received an approach from William Steinway to teach at the Boston New England Conservatory of Music he was happy to take the opportunity, particularly as the conductor at that time of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was Arthur Nikisch, whom he had known since 1876 (when they performed together at a concert in Vienna.[15]


Commemorative plaque at site of Busoni's apartment in Berlin

In 1894 Busoni 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 were Egon Petri and Stanley Gardner. 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 Percy Grainger and Edgard Varèse, both 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.

Busoni died in Berlin from a kidney disease. He had been planning to play some of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words in a series of recitals in London in the year of his death.[16] He was interred in the Städtischer Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg. He is commemorated by a plaque at the site of his last residence in Berlin-Schöneberg, Viktoria-Luise-Platz 11. The Ferruccio Busoni International Competition was initiated in his honour in 1949.



Busoni at the piano, c.1895

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 mature works, beginning with the Elegies, 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 (BV B 97), in 1909. 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 were key influences, though late in his career much 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. 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 distil the essence of music of the past to make something new.

Busoni was extremely interested in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, both as compositions and in performance. The first version of Busoni's largest 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. Busoni revised the work a number of times and arranged it for two pianos. Busoni's works sometimes feature incorporated elements of other composers' music. The fourth movement of An die Jugend (1909), for instance, uses two of 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. His Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra was composed in 1913 and is based on North American indigenous tribal melodies drawn from the studies of ethnomusicologist, Natalie Curtis Burlin.

Busoni's Piano Concerto, Op. 39 (1904) is one of the largest such works ever written. Performances generally last over seventy minutes, requiring great stamina from the soloist. The concerto is written for a large orchestra with, in the last movement a male voice choir that is hidden from the audience's view. The Britsih pianist John Ogdon, one of the champions of the work, called it "the longest and grandest piano concerto of all."[17]

Busoni's Turandot Suite (1905) 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 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 Antony Beaumont, the author of a Busoni biography, created an expanded and improved completion by drawing on material to which Jarnach did not have access.

Editions and transcriptions[edit]

Busoni edited and transcribed works by other composers, in particular those of Bach, Liszt, and Mozart.

The best known of these is his edition of the solo keyboard works of Bach, 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. Their influence on the history of Bach performance should not be underestimated, as Chiara Bertoglio has pointed out.[18] In the Goldberg Variations (BV B 35), for example, he suggests cutting eight of the variations for a "concert performance", as well as substantially rewriting many sections. The edition of the Goldberg Variations remains controversial, but has recently been reprinted. Its world premiere recording was by Sara Davis Buechner.

He created many other piano transcriptions of Bach works, including the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BV B 29, no. 2) (originally for organ) and the Chaconne (BV B 24) from the Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004. Busoni became so well known as a transcriber of Bach's pieces, that the name "Bach-Busoni" was sometimes mistaken for his surname, and on one occasion his wife was introduced to someone as "Mrs. Bach-Busoni".[19]

He edited three volumes of the 34-volume Franz Liszt Stiftung edition of Liszt's works, including most of the etudes. The Liszt edition was a scholarly endeavor and was faithful to the originals, but Busoni also prepared more freely adapted versions intended for concert performance, including transcriptions of the Liszt etudes based on works by Niccolò Paganini. Amongst these is La Campanella (BV B 68), which has featured in the recitals of pianists such as Ignaz Friedman, Josef Lhévinne, and John Ogdon. Another well-known transcription is his piano arrangement of Liszt's organ work Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" (BV B 59).

Busoni also made editions of works by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Schoenberg and Schumann.

In the last seven years of his life Busoni worked sporadically on his Klavierübung, a compilation of exercises, transcriptions, and original compositions of his own, with which he hoped to pass on his accumulated knowledge of keyboard technique. It was issued in five parts between 1918 and 1922, and a second edition was published posthumously in 1925.


Busoni had several composition pupils who went on to become famous, including Kurt Weill, Edgard Varèse, Friedrich Löwe, Aurelio Giorni and Stefan Wolpe.

Other notable Busoni pupils included Alexander Brailowsky, Natalie Curtis, Maud Allan, Michael von Zadora, Louis Gruenberg, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Beryl Rubinstein, Edward Steuermann, Dimitri Tiomkin, Rudolf Ganz, Lloyd Powell, Herbert Fryer, Augusta Cottlow, Leo Kestenberg (de), Gregor Beklemischeff, Leo Sirota, Edward Weiss, Theophil Demetriescu (ro), Theodor Szántó, Gino Tagliapietra (de), Florence Henri, Gottfried Galston (de), Otto Luening, Gisella Selden-Goth, Philipp Jarnach, Wladimir Vogel, Guido Guerrini, Woldemar Freeman, and Robert Blum.


Audio recordings[edit]

Busoni's recorded output on gramophone record, which was greatly admired by the composer and writer Kaikhosru Sorabji, was very limited, and many of the original recordings were destroyed when the Columbia factory burnt down. Busoni mentions recording the Gounod-Liszt Faust Waltz in a letter to his wife in 1919. However, this recording was never released. He never recorded any of his own works.

Piano rolls[edit]

Busoni made a considerable number of piano rolls, and a small number of these have been re-recorded onto vinyl record or CD. These include a 1950 recording by Columbia Records sourced from piano rolls made by Welte-Mignon including music of Chopin and transcriptions by Liszt. 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.[20] 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".[21]

Notes and References[edit]

  1. ^ Busoni gave many (but not all) of his works opus numbers; some have two such numbers (after the composer dropped some of his earlier works from his acknowledged corpus). Nor are the composers's numbers all in temporal order.[5] The musicologist Jürgen Kindermann has prepared a thematic catalogue of his works and transcriptions[6] which is also used (in the form of the letters BV followed by an identifier) to identify his compositions and transcriptions.
  1. ^ Couling (2005) pp. 14–16
  2. ^ Beaumont (2001) §1
  3. ^ a b c Wirth (1980), p. 508
  4. ^ Walker (1996), p. 367.
  5. ^ Dent (1933), p. 37.
  6. ^ Kindermann (1980)
  7. ^ Wis (1977), p. 251.
  8. ^ Wis (1977), p. 256.
  9. ^ Wis (1977), p. 255.
  10. ^ Wis (1977), pp. 267-269.
  11. ^ Wis (1977), p. 258.
  12. ^ Wis (1977), pp. 259—261.
  13. ^ Taylor (2007), p. 218.
  14. ^ Wis (1977), p. 264.
  15. ^ Couling (2005), p. 128.
  16. ^ Porter, Andrew (1956). Liner notes to the Walter Gieseking recording of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words, Angel 35428. OCLC 3537574
  17. ^ Ates Orga, Volume 72 of Philips' Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century series (set I on John Ogdon)
  18. ^ Chiara (2012)
  19. ^ Rye, Matthew (20 September 2008). "Review: Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica. Hamish Milne (piano)". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
  20. ^ Sitsky (1986) p. 329.
  21. ^ Johansen, Gunnar (1979). "Busoni the pianist – in Perspective". The Piano Quarterly, Vol. 28. pp. 46–47.


  • Beaumont, Anthony (2001). "Busoni, Ferruccio (Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto)". Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 9 February 2016.  (subscription required)
  • Bertoglio, Chiara (2012). Instructive Editions and Piano Performance Practice: A Case Study. Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing. ISBN 978-3-8473-2151-4
  • Couling, Della (2005). Ferruccio Busoni: "a Musical Ishmael". Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810851423
  • Dent, Edward J. (1933). Ferruccio Busoni: A Biography, London: Oxford University Press. (Reprint: London: Ernst Eulenberg, 1974) ISBN 0-903873-02-8
  • Hamilton, Kenneth (2008). After the Golden Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-517826-5. 
  • Kindermann, Jürgen (1980). Thematisch-chronologisches Verzeichnis der Werke von Ferruccio B. Busoni. Studien zur Musikgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts, vol. 19. Regensburg: Gustav Bosse Verlag. ISBN 3-7649-2033-5
  • Knyt, Erinn E. (2010). ""How I Compose": Ferruccio Busoni's Views about Invention, Quotation, and the Compositional Process". The Journal of Musicology 27 (2): 224–264. JSTOR 10.1525/jm.2010.27.2.224.  (subscription required)
  • Roberge, Marc-André (1996). "Ferruccio Busoni et la France". Revue de Musicologie 82 (2): 269–305. JSTOR 947129.  (subscription required)
  • Scholes, Percy A. (1947). The Mirror of Music 1844-1944. London: Novello and Company. OCLC 634410668. 
  • Sitsky, Larry (1986). Busoni and the Piano: The Works, the Writings, and the Recordings. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313236712
  • Stevenson, Ronald (1987). "Book review: Ferruccio Busoni -Selected Letters translated and edited by Antony Beaumont.". Tempo (New Series, 163): 27–29. JSTOR 945689.  (subscription required)
  • Taylor, Philip S. (2007). Anton Rubinstein: A Life in Music. Bloomingdale and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253348715. 
  • Vogel, Wladimir (1968). "Impressions of Ferruccio Busoni". Perspectives of New Music 6 (2): 167–173. JSTOR 832359.  (subscription required)
  • Walker, Alan (1996). Franz Liszt. Volume 3: The Final Years 1861-1880. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 9780394525426. 
  • Wirth, Helmut (1980). "Busoni, Ferruccio (Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto)". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 3. London: Macmillan. pp. 508–512. ISBN 0-333-23111-2. 
  • Wis, Roberto (1968). "Busoni and Finland". Acta Musicologica, 49 (2): 250–269. JSTOR 932592.  (subscription required)

Further reading[edit]

  • Beaumont, Antony. Busoni the Composer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
  • Bertoglio, Chiara. Instructive Editions and Piano Performance Practice: A Case Study. Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2012. ISBN 978-3-8473-2151-4.
  • Crispin, Judith. The Esoteric Musical Tradition of Ferruccio Busoni and Its Reinvigoration in the Music of Larry Sitsky: The Operas "Doktor Faust" and "The Golem". With a preface by Larry Sitsky. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press,2007.
  • Dent, Edward J. . Ferruccio Busoni: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933.
  • Kindermann, Jürgen . Thematisch-chronologisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Ferruccio B. Busoni. Studien zur Musikgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts, vol. 19. Regensburg: Gustav Bosse Verlag, 1980.
  • Leichtentritt, Hugo (January 1917)."Ferruccio Busoni as a Composer". The Musical Quarterly, Volume 3, pp. 69–97
  • Roberge, Marc-André. Ferruccio Busoni: A Bio-Bibliography. Bio-Bibliographies in Music, no. 34. New York, Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1991.
  • The Piano Quarterly, no. 108 (Winter 1979-80) is a special Busoni issue containing, among other articles, interviews with Gunnar Johansen and Guido Agosti.

External links[edit]

Music scores