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Busoni, Ferruccio (1866-1924)
© Amadeus Schwarzkopf, Zurich
Ferruccio Busoni, between 1916 and 1919

Ferruccio Busoni

born: 1 April 1866
died: 27 July 1924
country: Italy

Born in Empoli, near Florence, Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) was the only child of the clarinettist Ferdinando Busoni and the pianist Anna Weiss. A prodigy whose precocious career fortunately went beyond a brief flash, he gave his first recital and wrote his first composition at the age of seven, and published his first work when ten. He completed his private studies in composition (in Graz) while still a fifteen-year-old teenager and, two years later, he began contributing reviews and articles to a Trieste newspaper. He later became aware that he had written too much music and published several works prematurely. Jürgen Kindermann’s thematic catalogue has 303 numbers for the original works and 115 for the cadenzas, arrangements and editions. Busoni considered that his Sonata in E minor for violin and piano, completed in late 1898, was his actual ‘opus 1’.

Busoni’s career as a highly respected piano teacher started in 1888 with one- or two-year appointments in Helsinki, Moscow and Boston. After a short period of activity as a freelance pianist based in New York, he settled in 1894 in Berlin, whence he managed his career as one of the most esteemed pianists of his time. In addition to Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart, he championed Liszt and Alkan. Several of his private pupils, including Rudolph Ganz, Mark Hambourg, Eduard Steuermann, Theodor Szántó and Gino Tagliapietra, made a successful career. Returning to Berlin in 1920, after almost five years of self-imposed exile in Zurich, he taught composition to a small group of advanced students among whom was Kurt Weill. A highly cultivated person and a passionate collector of first editions, he kept an open house for musicians and intellectuals of various disciplines who sought his advice and enjoyed his brilliant conversation.

Like Liszt, Busoni devoted a large part of his production to the piano and became an acknowledged master of the transcription. This played against his reputation as a composer (which was what really mattered for him) until at least the centenary of his birth in 1966, if not the 1980s, because his name, for many, was associated solely with his Bach arrangements. Yet his output also comprises several works for chamber ensembles and for orchestra (including concertos), as well as songs and operas. His massive Piano Concerto of 1904 (recorded by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion CDA67143), whose fifth and final movement calls for a male chorus, with which he stylistically bid farewell to the past, and the Fantasia contrappuntistica (recorded by Hamish Milne on Hyperion CDA67677), a completion of the final fugue from Bach’s Art of Fugue within a large-scale original structure, written in 1910, have become much better known and admired over the last thirty years or so. This is also true of his four operas, especially Doktor Faust (1916–23), the final masterpiece that sums up his mature years as a composer.

from notes by Marc-André Roberge © 2013

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