Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto (named by his father for various eminent Tuscan artists), was born in Empoli, Italy, April 1, 1866. A titanic pianist, an intrepid conductor, and a first rate musical thinker, Busoni remains isolated and enigmatic as a composer, for all the lip service done his music. Much has been made of his Latin-Teutonic genetic and cultural polarities, but it does little to explain the monolithic quality of his masterpieces or their failure really to be accepted.
Busoni's father Ferdinando, a handsome, bibulous, womanizing fellow whose ancestors probably came from Corsica, was a virtuoso (and peripatetic) clarinetist. In 1865 in Trieste he found himself on the stage with a twenty-two-year-old half-German pianist, Anna Weiss, who decided then and there to marry him and did so soon after, over implacable opposition from her father. The following spring in Empoli she produced, with considerable difficulty, their only child. Eight months later the parents took to the road. In the late 1860s they contemplated settling in Paris, but war clouds drove them back across the Alps. Anna and Ferruccio took refuge in her father's home in Trieste; Ferdinando, still non grata there, went his way. Under his mother's eye, Ferruccio learned his letters and the keyboard. A chance encounter at a puppet show in the winter of 1872-73 reunited the parents, who thereupon took rooms in Trieste. Ferdinando, seeing his son a potential Mozart, made him practice four sequential hours every day (surprisingly feeding him Bach and other German composers) and had already presented him twice in concert by the time he turned eight.
In 1875, feeling the prodigy ready for the Big Time, Ferdinando took him off to Vienna where, short of funds, he sometimes had to beg. But he got the boy an audition with Anton Rubinstein and early in 1876 a concert engagement in which he not only played a man-sized program but also demonstrated his brilliant improvisatory ability. It was a huge success and won young Busoni the public approval of Eduard Hanslick, Vienna's most influential critic, and the patronage of the Baroness Todesco. Anna joined her husband and son the following winter. In the fall of 1877, on Rubinstein's advice, the family moved to Graz, where Ferruccio took up study with W.A.Rémy (né Wilhelm Mayer), who also taught (Richard) Heuberger, (Wilhelm) Kienzl, (Emil von) Reznicek and (Felix) Weingartner, among others. (Rémy's antipathy to Wagner and devotion to Berlioz and Cherubini undoubtedly left their mark on his pupil.) Busoni, who had been composing since he was ten or so, made unusually rapid progress. In 1881 he "graduated" with a concert that included several pieces of his own. Less than a year later, still only fifteen, he was inducted into the Reale Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna (which had similarly honored his father eighteen years before).
In 1883 father and son took on Vienna again, but the Vienna Philharmonic, after a read through of his Symphonic Suite, rejected it for performance (by one vote of the players). Two years later in Leipzig, however, his first string quartet was played in concert by the Petri Quartet (whose leader's son, Egon Petri, was to become Busoni's most famous pupil, and one of his life-long confidantes). That November the young composer broke away from his father and returned to Leipzig, where he came to know (Frederick) Delius, (Edvard) Grieg, (Gustav) Mahler, (Christian) Sinding, and (Peter llyich) Tchaikovsky.
He kept busy concertizing, composing (now for publication), and in the current fashion of young intellectuals, attending socialist meetings. Then in 1888, Carl Reinecke recommended him to the newly founded Helsinki Conservatory in Finland as a piano teacher. Busoni took the job. Meanwhile he had turned from a lumpy and brooding child into a darkly handsome, bearded young man, and no sooner had he arrived than he attracted the attention of a young pianist, Gerda Sjöstrand, the daughter of a Swedish sculptor. After several encounters, Busoni invited her to a concert of his in March 1889 and a couple of evenings later, he proposed. Gerda accepted, her father acquiesced, and Busoni sealed the engagement with a gift of the Brockhaus Encyclopedia (which his fiancée said he wanted at least as much as she did.)
In 1890 Busoni's Konzertstück for piano and orchestra took top prize in Anton Rubinstein's first international competition in the amount of 5,000 francs. Busoni proceeded to Moscow to teach at the conservatory there. Gerda followed in September for the wedding ceremony and the couple settled down in modest accommodations. But, as he so often did, Busoni found his surroundings not to his liking and the following year accepted a post at the New England Conservatory in Boston. That city did not please him either, and in May, shortly after the birth of Benvenuto, the first of his two sons, he moved to New York City. There he began to have idyllic memories of a visit to Berlin, and in 1894 he settled there with his family, his second son Raffaello (later a noted artist) being born there the next spring.
From then on, save for a wartime hiatus in Switzerland, Busoni was a resident af Berlin. But the fact is that much of the rest of his life was spent on the road, both in Europe and abroad, as a pianist and conductor. In 1900 and again in 1901 he gave master classes in Weimar. In 1907 he accepted an offer from the Vienna Conservatory to spend 280 hours there over the next ten months doing the same sort of thing. But owing to other commitments and a growing distaste for the work, he fell far behind and was therefore dismissed in the spring. In 1913 he took over the directorship of the Liceo Musicale in Bologna but resigned at the end ot his first term. Finally in 1919 he inaugurated a series of master classes at the Prussian Academy in Berlin, which he kept up for the rest of his life. Among the pupils who attended them were Kurt Weill, the American Louis Gruenberg, and Philipp Jarnach, who completed Busoni's unfinished opera Doktor Faustus.
Meanwhile, in 1902, as both impresario and conductor, Busoni had begun a seven-year series of Berlin Philharmonic concerts devoted both to new music and older works that were being neglected. Representatives of modernity included not only such relatively accepted figures as (Claude) Debussy, (Jean) Sibelius, but also exemplars of the avant-garde such as (Béla) Bártok and (Arnold) Schoenberg. Busoni had his doubts about the directions the latter musicians were taking but engaged in a lengthy series of letters with Schoenberg, discussing his theories and assessing his piano pieces. There is, however, no record of Busoni's ever having played Schoenberg's music in concert.
At a 1904 concert he played his own vast piano concerto under Karl Muck's baton. Later, perhaps taking his cue from Rubinstein, he toured with a series of historically conceived piano concerts. Around 1907, the year in which he published his Entwurf einer neuen Asthetik der Tonkunst (Outline for a New Esthetics of Music), he disowned the whole body of his earlier composition--the songs, most of the chamber music, over half of the piano pieces, the early opera Sigune, the 1897 Concerto for Violin, the Konzertstück, etc. as immature and romantic. In 1911 he wrote incidental music for Carlo Gozzi's fantastic play Turandot; this spawned several other Turandot pieces, and eventually, in 1917, an opera.
Busoni several times made long concert tours of North America. On the last ot them, in 1915, Benvenuto, exercising his birthright. chose to remain as a United States citizen. (He served in the American military in World War I and later lived in seclusion in Berlin.) The elder Busonis, whom Ferruccio had long supported, both died in 1909. In 1915, at odds with the war, he found asylum in Zurich, where in the spring of 1916 he completed his third opera, Arlecchino, a one-act commedia dell' arte piece to his own libretto. The second, Die Brautwahl (The Bridal Lottery) after E.T.A. Hoffmann, had been premiered in Hamburg four years before. He returned to Berlin in 1920 to find his home, his library, and his art collection intact.
But soon afterward a kidney ailment began to sap his health, and he aged rapidly. Moreover the postwar inflation ruined him in terms of accessible money. He did not live to complete his masterwork, a monumental operatic treatment of the Faust legend based more on the old Faustbuch than on Goethe's play. After Busoni died on July 27, 1924, Gerda had to sell most of their belongings to meet expenses; ill and blind, she moved to Sweden in 1943 and died there at ninety-one. The Berlin house was destroyed by a bombing in World War ll.
We are honored to be able to include in our consideration of the life and times of the great Italian/German keyboard master, this recent assessment of his work, from an American author/translater/commentator, Robert Rimm of Rimm Studios, Philadelphia, PA. We are recommending it to those interested in further detail of Busoni's compositions and theoretical writing, as a supplement to our well-regarded Busoni Tribute. Click here to read or download this article in pdf. Additionally, we've provided yet another version in pdf which is not as graphically rich, which translates into a smaller file. You can find it here