The Italian musician Ferruccio Benvenuto Busoni (1866-1924) was one of the most distinguished and versatile musicians of his time, active as a pianist, conductor, teacher, and composer. His speculations about future developments of music were prophetic.
Ferruccio Busoni, "Italian by birth and instinct, German by education and choice," was born in Empoli, near Florence, where his father was a professional clarinetist and his Italian-German mother was a pianist who gave Ferruccio his first lessons. He was a prodigy, and his childhood was similar to Mozart's in that Busoni composed and went on concert tours throughout Austria and Italy, playing his own compositions for both violin and piano. Although he was largely self-taught, he became one of the greatest pianists of his day and spent many years concertizing.
Busoni was professor of piano at the Helsinki Conservatory in 1889, then in Moscow, and in Boston at the New England Conservatory. He lived in Berlin from 1894 to 1913, when he was appointed director of the Liceo Musicale, a conservatory in Bologna, Italy. This post lasted only a year because Busoni was unhappy when he was unable to change the ultraconservative policies there. He spent the war years in Switzerland, returning to Berlin in 1920 to become professor of composition at the Academy of Arts, a position he held until his death in 1924.
Busoni's contemporaries thought of him primarily as a pianist. Because he lived before the era of effective recording, there is little actual evidence of the quality of his playing. From all accounts he had a prodigious technique and a big, "orchestral" style of playing. He specialized in large works and had no interest in the smaller salon pieces. He was an intellectual pianist and not a charmer. Throughout his life he taught piano. Among his best-known students was Egon Petri, who in turn was the teacher of many prominent pianists of the next generation.
Busoni thought of himself more as a composer than a pianist, but his compositions never became popular. Among the most important are a huge, five-movement Piano Concerto (the last movement with male chorus), the Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra, based on Native American melodies, and a Fantasia contrappuntistica for piano solo. He also wrote several operas; the unfinished last one, Dr. Faustus, is occasionally performed.
In his last years Busoni was an influential composition teacher who espoused neoclassic ideals counter to the expressionism that dominated German music of the time. He was always an original thinker. In The New Esthetic of Music (1907; trans. 1911) he urged the expansion of musical resources and the use of microtones such as third and sixth tones as well as synthetic scales. Such ideas were much ahead of their time, and in the 1960s, when many composers explored such resources, interest in Busoni revived.
Edgard Varèse, one of the pioneers of electronic music, knew Busoni in Berlin in 1907. In 1966 he wrote that his reading of Busoni's book was a "milestone in my musical development, and when I came upon 'Music is born free; and to win freedom is its destiny,' it was like hearing the echo of my thought."
One study of Busoni in English, Edward J. Dent, Ferruccio Busoni (1933), is very good. The chapter on Busoni in David Ewen, The World of Twentieth-Century Music (1968), deals mainly with the composer's piano music. Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961), contains a chapter discussing Busoni's classical orientation.
Dent, Edward Joseph, Ferruccio Busoni, a biography, London: Eulenburg Books, 1974.
Sablich, Sergio, Busoni, Torino: EDT/musica, 1982.
Stuckenschmidt, Hans Heinz, Ferruccio Busoni; chronicle of a European, New York, St. Martin's Press 1972, 1970. □