Ferruccio Busoni

1866 1924

Ferruccio Busoni



Ferruccio Busoni was an Italian composer, pianist, conductor, editor, writer and teacher. During his life he had contact with some of the world’s leading musicians, artists and literary figures of his time. His work as a teacher in piano/keyboard and teaching in composition was what gained him his most fame. Besides this he was also known as a virtuoso pianist throughout Europe and the United States. His writings about music were quite influential. It did not only cover the crafting of art, beauty and taste, but also the use of microtones and other innovative compositional tools. His music consists of many forms, including chamber, vocal, opera and orchestral. He also transcribed many works of others including works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In 1866, Busoni was born as Ferruccio Dante Michelangiolo Benvenuto. Musicality was running through the family line. Both of his parents were professional musicians. His father was a virtuoso clarinettist and his mother a pianist. His parents’ work led to a lot of travelling and touring during Busoni’s childhood. When Busoni was still very young, it became clear that he had a natural talent for music. His father was a harsh and demanding teacher, but soon Busoni was considered a child prodigy. By the age of seven, he made his debut at the piano. It would only take a couple of years for him to start performing his own compositions, which led to meetings with Liszt, Brahms and Rubinstein.

He went to Graz to study, but only stayed for a brief period of time. A while later he left for Leipzig and started teaching in several places like Helsinki and Moscow. In the meanwhile he also toured as a pianist. However, after meeting his wife Gerda Sjöstrand he thought it would be best to settle in Berlin. This was where he did a series of concerts as a pianist, but also started to work as a conductor. While doing this, he continued teaching he was strongly promoting contemporary music.

During the first World War, he lived in Bologna where he was director of the conservatory and later on would move to Zürich. He was anti-war and refused to play in countries that were involved. In 1920 he would return to Berlin to start giving masterclasses in composition. Several of his students would become famous in their own right. He taught Kurt Weill, Edgard Varese and Stefan Wolpe.

Most of his music is written for piano, an unsurprising fact, as he was a piano virtuoso himself. One particular aspect that made his work very interesting was his complex use of  counterpoint. In his compositions, several melodic lines dance and wind around each other. This became a trade mark of Busoni. His music is not entirely atonal, however there is not always a determined key. A lot of his ideas were perceived as controversial in his time. He also discussed electronic and microtonal music, neither of which had been thoroughly explored by that time. However, while his work and mindset were thought of as innovative, his work is mostly based on music of the past. He arranged several works of J.S. Bach for piano, including Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Chaconne from the D minor violin partita. As well as the Bach arrangements, he composed music of a similar vein based on the work of Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Schoenberg and Schumann. This defined him as an early proponent of neoclassicism in music. In 1910, his first version of Fantasia contrappuntisticawas released. It became his largest and best known work for solo piano. This was an extended fantasy on the incomplete fugue of Bach. All of his works for piano were difficult to perform. Busoni’s suite for orchestra,Turandot was a popular orchestral work and was expanded into his opera of the same name. In 1917 he completed 2 operas,Die Brautwahl and Arlechhino.He even started another one called Doktor Faust. Unfortunately he was not able to complete this. The piece was later finished by Philipp Harnach.

His composition Doktor Faust was left unfinished at the time of his death. Busoni died in Berlin when he was 58 years old. Busoni’s influence is most strongly felt by people who have studied the piano. In the years after the death of Busoni, he was regarded primarily as a great piano virtuoso, while his compositions were quite hard to comprehend for many. A lot of his work was neglected for many years besides his arrangements of J.S. Bach. Gradually his theoretical thoughts about how to approach music began to influence many composers, especially in the early 80s when composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman initiated a revival of his compositions.