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Ferruccio Busoni and Doktor Faust


Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto Busoni (April 1, 1866 –July 27, 1924) was an Italian composer, pianist, conductor, editor, writer, and piano teacher who represented a remarkable synthesis of two differing attitudes to music at this time, while winning an outstanding reputation as a piano virtuoso. Busoni was born on April 1, 1866 in the Tuscan town of Empoli, Italy, the only child of two professional musicians. His Italian father, Ferdinando, was a clarinetist who was a harsh and demanding pedagogue.. His Italian/German mother, Anna, was a pianist from Trieste. They were often touring during his childhood, and he was brought up in Trieste for the most part.  Under the tutelage of his father, Busoni was a child prodigy. He made his public debut on the piano with his parents, at the age of seven. A couple of years later he played some of his own compositions in Vienna where he heard Franz Liszt play, and met Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and Anton Rubinstein.

Busoni had a brief period of study in Graz with Wilhelm Mayer and was also helped by Wilhelm Kienzl, who enabled him to conduct a performance of his own composition Stabat Mater when he was twelve years old, before leaving for Leipzig in 1886 where he studied with Carl Reinecke.  He began composing early, adding opus numbers to his works from the beginning. Reaching Opus 40 at age 17, Busoni decided go backward to number 31 and start over, causing no end of grief to scholars who attempted to edit his works later.  From an early age, Busoni pursued a serious interest in the music of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt and first made his mark as an editor of Bach’s keyboard music. Busoni subsequently held several teaching posts, the first in 1888 at Helsinki, where he met his wife, Gerda Sjöstrand, the daughter of Swedish sculptor Carl Eneas Sjöstrand, and began a lifelong friendship with Jean Sibelius. In 1890 he won the Anton Rubinstein Competition with his Concert Piece for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 31a. He taught in Moscow in 1890, and in the United States from 1891 to 1894 where he also toured as a virtuoso pianist.

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 master classes at Weimar, Vienna, and Basel.  Among his pupils were Egon Petri, Claudio Arrau, and Stanley Gardner.  In 1896, Busoni found his mature compositional voice in the Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 36b, which takes a theme of Bach and submits it to a complex series of variations.   He followed that in 1904 with his huge piano concerto which is cast in five movements, runs ninety minutes, and contains parts for a chorus. 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 twentieth century opening of music to all sound.  By 1912, Busoni had composed his first entirely non-key centered composition, the Sonatina seconda.  His major keyboard work is the Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1911-1922), a piece that concludes with a massive fugue built out of the unfinished Contrapunctus XXIV of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge.  In the years left to him, Busoni composed four operas, Die Brautwahl (1912), Arlecchino (1915), Turandot (1917), and Doktor Faust (1924).

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. He had several composition pupils who went on to become famous, including Kurt Weill, Friedrich Löwe, Aurelio Giorni, and Stefan Wolpe.  Other notable Busoni pupils included Alexander Brailowsky, Natalie Curtis, Maud Allan (the famous dancer), Michael von Zadora, Louis Gruenberg, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Beryl Rubinstein, Edward Steuermann, Dimitri Tiomkin, Rudolf Ganz, Lloyd Powell, Herbert Fryer, Augusta Cottlow, Leo Kestenberg, Gregor Beklemischeff, Leo Sirota, Edward Weiss, Theophil Demetriescu, Theodor Szántó, Gino Tagliapietra, Gottfried Galston, Otto Luening, Gisella Selden-Goth, Philipp Jarnach, Vladimir Vogel, Guido Guerrini, Woldemar Freeman, and Robert Blum.  Busoni died in Berlin on July 27, 1924, from a kidney disease.

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. Busoni also drew inspiration from non-European sources, including Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra. It was composed in 1913 and is based on North American indigenous tribal melodies drawn from the studies of this native music by ethnomusicologist, Natalie Curtis Burlin.   Busoni’s Turandot Suite (1905), probably his most popular orchestral work, was expanded into an opera.  He began serious work on his best known 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.  After his death, Busoni was regarded as a great piano virtuoso whose own music was seemingly incomprehensible. His compositions were largely neglected for many years after his death, but he was remembered as an arranger of Bach for the piano. Busoni’s thinking would have a more decisive impact on later composers, such as John Cage and Morton Feldman, and in the early 1980s, his music experienced a small-scale revival of interest.

My collection includes the following work by Ferruccio Busoni:

Two Studies for Doktor Faust: Cortege.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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