By Rex Burgess

Ferruccio Busoni,1890-1900

“His ambivalent nature, striving to reconcile tradition with innovation, his gifts as a composer and the
profundity of his theoretical writings makes him one of the most interesting figures in the history of 20th century music”

So writes Helmut Worth of Ferruccio Busoni, whose attributes also included piano virtuoso, conductor, editor, teacher and mentor: was there ever a musician with a wider compass? Born near Florence in 1866, his German mother – virtually his only teacher – was a virtuoso pianist, while his Italian clarinetist father rigidly supervised his practice, making him repeat passages until they achieved an incredible level of perfection. It wasn’t until 1880, though, that a suitable composition teacher was found, whereupon he spent fifteen months in Gratz studying with Wilhelm Mayer.

Busoni had given his first concert in Vienna in 1875, when Hanslick had praised his great pianistic ability, also commending the six original pieces he had played for their seriousness and maturity. By the time he left Graz, he was regularly performing the most difficult works with ease and was considered a young genius wherever he went.

After periods in Vienna and Leipzig, in 1888 Busoni accepted a teaching post in Helsinki. There, he met Gerda Sjöstrand, the daughter of a Swedish sculptor. They married and had two sons, and despite his lengthy absences they maintained a close relationship right up to his death in Berlin in 1924.

It was in Hamburg in 1889 that he first performed his arrangement of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV532, heralding a project which occupied him for almost thirty years, comprising twenty-five copiously annotated volumes of Bach’s keyboard works and a further seven entitled The Bach-Busoni Collected Edition.

In 1893, during a financially successful but otherwise unsatisfying tour of America, Busoni experienced something of a crisis. Writing about it later, he said: “I had become so aware of imperfections and mistakes in my playing that I firmly resolved to begin studying the piano all over again on an entirely new basis. I took the works of Liszt as my guide and from them I learned a great deal about the finer points of his style.”

Ferruccio Busoni: a many-sided genius By Rex Burgess “His ambivalent nature, striving to reconcile tradition with innovation, his gifts as a composer and the profundity of his theoretical writings make him one of the most interesting figures in the history of twentieth Century music.” As Sacheverell Sitwell observes: “Liszt assumed such an importance in Busoni’s eyes that he placed him together with Bach as the two poles, the two centres of gravity of all music.” To which Louis Kentner later added: “Busoni is still a model worth following: his omnivorous catholicity of taste covered all music … with Liszt as some sort of lodestar.”

While for a time their paths ran in parallel, as a composer Busoni fundamentally was out of sympathy with Schoenberg’s ‘non-tonal’ music. For while his own was mainly tonal, he foresaw that music’s future might well be microtonal. To explore this, besides creating 113 versions of the tonal scale, he also had a piano built with three manuals. As his experiments failed, though, he was drawn back to classicism, observing that “futurism must wait for the moment.”

Joseph Machlis writes that, “in this he anticipated the most important development in musical aesthetics during the first quarter of the twentieth century. He moved away from the rich scoring of Wagner to an orchestral idiom based on counterpoint. He wrote for the orchestra as though for an assemblage of solo players, thereby reviving the concertante ideal of the age of Bach.”

Space is insufficient to delve deeply into Busoni’s theoretical writings, although the following may give an insight to his philosophy: “Busoni held the idea that a musical thought will lose its originality as soon as the composer has notated it. He deemed it the task of the performing artist to free a composition from the rigidity and lack of freedom caused by its notated form. With his ‘subjective interpretation’ Busoni did not want to deprive a composition of authenticity, but on the contrary, he wanted to restore it. He considered a composition a ‘work in progress,’ a temporary and relatively ‘open’ design, and not a definite and unassailable opus.” (Madge)

Two Australian pianists rank high amongst Busoni scholars. Firstly Larry Sitsky, who in 1965 received a grant enabling him to undertake major research and leading to publication of The Compleat Busoni, a three-volume treatise covering all aspects of his music.

The other is Adelaide-born Geoffrey Madge, who in 1987 released a six-CD set of Busoni’s piano works that remains the gold standard against which other performances are to be measured. His booklet notes also include Busoni’s twelve Maxims for Practice “formed from my own experience. “

Celebrating the anniversary of Busoni’s death on 27 July 1924, a month-long series of programmes of his music will be broadcast from 3 July onwards.