Ferruccio Busoni: Works for solo piano

Ferruccio Busoni

Works for solo piano

Liner notes.

Empoli, central Italy, April 1st, 1866. A baby boy is born to Ferdinando Busoni, a noted clarinettist, and his half German wife Anna Weiss, a pianist of repute who often accompanies her husband in recital. It is a fervent time. The epic campaigns of Garibaldi and the shrewd maneuvering of Cavour have unified Italy just five years previously. The new country is emerging from centuries of fratricidal tension, civil war, corruption, and scandal; the looming presence of the Pope in the Vatican City still holds considerable influence and temporal power. For the first time in history, the people of Italy are united and intent on building a bright future for the common good. In this climate, the Busoni’s christen their child with a name full of expectation and promise. It reads, no less, Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto! The boy quickly develops an interest in the world of sound, and the age of four he can play the piano and the violin fluently. At six he begins to compose simple piano pieces and more ambitious chamber music works for clarinet and piano. His first public performances are met with rapturous success, and by the age of twelve Ferruccio Busoni is a veteran of the concert stages of Europe, an acclaimed and determined wunderkind with an illustrious accolade of supporters the includes Anton Rubinštejn and Liszt; the latter declares to have nothing to teach him, prophetically asserting that such a genius should be left to develop freely. Despite such promising beginnings, the domineering figure of Ferdinando, a ruthless disciplinarian who forces Ferruccio to endless hours of daily practice and tries relentlessly to exploit the boy’s talent for financial gain, make for a very unhappy adolescence. Busoni seeks refuge in Literature, Philosophy, and languages, becoming fluent in most European idioms. The stage is now set for one of the most remarkable adventures in the entire history of music, an adventure that will propel its protagonist to some of the highest pinnacles of musical creation.

One of the greatest pianists who ever lived, Busoni was a man of genius torn between extremes and obsessions. Although enamored with his native Italy, he could not tolerate the country’s provincial mentality and never lived there, preferring instead the more organized and intellectually advanced German society. Financial difficulties forced him to teach, an activity he disliked profoundly. The life of a concert pianist he found unsatisfactory also, and only composing seemed to give him the intellectual satisfaction he craved. Endowed with supernatural mental capabilities (he was the proud owner of a library comprising more than five thousand volumes, and could recall the contents of each at random), Busoni entertained diverse activities, notably writing. He collaborated with the Italian newspaper Indipendente, sending portraits of famous pianists he had had occasion to hear during his travels (of Vladimir de Pachmann he wrote that his facial expressions and grimacing were such to make music accessible to a multitude of deaf!). In 1889 he married Gerda Sjöstrand, who would become his lifelong companion and trusted soul-mate. Gerda was the only topic in Ferruccio’s life that was not open to discussion, his anchor and supporter. Their correspondence offers a deep insight into Busoni’s tribulations and bear testament to Gerda’s devotion to her illustrious and problematic husband.

In 1906, Busoni published a seminal work, the Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music). It was a scant pamphlet packed with musical wisdom and visionary intuition. Within these few pages, Busoni pointed the way towards the future, setting the principles that would animate the musical avant-garde for much of the Twentieth Century and illuminating such advanced concepts as bi-tonality and quarter-tone harmonies. He put his novel conceptions to the test with a series of six pieces, the Elegien of 1907. “My entire personal vision I put down at last and for the first time in the Elegies,” he wrote to Egon Petri. Indeed, these mercurial miniatures signalled a break with anything Busoni had written previously, and created a bit of a furore since their publication (by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1908) and first public performance (by Busoni, on the 12th of March 1909 at the Beethovensaal in Berlin). Busoni’s treatment of harmony, and his tendency to switch between major and minor mode within the same musical phrase, created a shimmering play of light and shade that, deployed in its full force, generated a luminous and, at first hearing, disorienting effect. He was well aware of the difficulties of his newly-found musical language, but plunged ahead with more public performances in the conviction that he had found the right path, adding to the series the hypnotic Berceuse (later to become the masterful Berceuse Elegiacque for orchestra) in 1909. The thus enlarged collection was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1910 with the subtitle Seven new piano pieces. The Elegies begin with a pensive reflection, Nach der wendung (‘after the turning point’), that serves as a prelude to the series. The second piece, All’Italia! is subtitled  in modo Napolitano. It is a gloomy barcarolle that changes into a spirited tarantella and back Based on material from the gargantuan Piano Concerto of 1904, this is the most extrovertly virtuosic piece of the collection, displaying some truly magnificent piano writing. Next comes a vast chorale prelude, Meine Seele, bangt und hofft Zu Dir (My Soul Trembles and Hopes of Thee), written in the style of Bach’s organ chorale preludes and complete with a quotation of the Lutheran chorale Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr’ (Glory to The Lord in Heaven). The Fourth Elegy, Turandots Frauengemacht, is a concert transcription of the fifth movement of an orchestral suite Busoni had written in 1905 after Carlo Gozzi’s Chinese fable Turandot. The theme is the famous Greensleeves (but Busoni believed it to be a Chinese melody); here it is embroidered with zesty dissonances and pianistic flair, making it the most accessible and popular of the Elegies. The fifth piece, Die Nächtlichen, also comes from the Turandot Suite (the Seventh movement); it is a ‘nocturnal waltz’ of mephistophelian character, a brief excursion into the ethereal nature of nocturnal mystery and bewilderment. The same fascination with the the tenebrae animates the sixth piece, Erscheinung (notturno). Busoni was particularly fond of this creation, confessing to Egon Petri that “the structure and proportions of the Erscheinung seem exemplary,” and later using it in the first act of his opera Die Brautwahl (The Bridal Choice). The Berceuse that closes the series is a trance-like reverie, where the concepts of bitonality are once again explioted to the full and call for an advanced, truly ‘contemporary’ use of the sustaining pedal.

Ever the restless spirit, Busoni continued to tour extensively, teach reluctantly, and dream of having enough time to compose. In 1909 he wrote to Gerda: “I must make a great effort to practice the piano, and yet I cannot do without it! […] Composing, on the other hand, is like a road, now beautiful, now difficult, but one on which we can travel ever longer distances; we can reach and surpass an ever growing number of places, but its ultimate destination remains unknown and unreachable.”

The year 1910 saw Busoni in the United States for a particularly gruelling concert tour. While in Boston, Bernhard Ziehn and Wilhelm Middelschulte suggested that the maestro complete the three-subject fugue that Bach had left unfinished in his ethereal masterpiece, Die Kunst der Fuge. Busoni showed immediate interest in the project and set to work with unusual alacrity, as attested by the flurry of correspondence with Gerda. January 20th: “I am studying counterpoint again […] It is a beautiful weapon which one must be able to handle”; February 19th: “I have altered the plan for the Fantasia contrappuntistica […] I shall not begin with a Fantasy, but bring into the fugue itself everything in the nature of fantasy. It will sound like something between a composition by Franck and the Hammerklavier sonata, with an individual nuance”; February 22nd: “the Fugue is becoming monumental”; March the 1st: “I had intended to finish this monster fugue in February, and I have succeeded, but I shall never undertake such a thing again!”; March 3rd: “the Fugue is my most important piano work […] its plan is not common, but every note ‘fits'”. The ‘Fugue’ was published by Schirmer of New York in 1910 as Große Fuge, in a limited, numbered edition, dedicated to ‘Wilhelm Middelschulte, Meister des Kontrapunktes’. Busoni, however, had second thoughts. He wrote to Gerda on April 18th: “I thought I would arrange the great fugue for orchestra. Transcribe the Choral Prelude (Meine Seele bangt und hofft zu dir – the third Elegy) as an Introduction to it and let this recur as a reminiscence just before the Stretta in the fugue. It would be a great work!” Busoni carried out his plan half-way: he did not produce an orchestral version of the piece, but did add the Choral Prelude. Breitkopf & Härtel of Leipzig published the revised, ‘definitive’ version in June of the same year under the title Fantasia contrappuntistica. It was, and is, one of the most impressive works in the entire piano literature, a monumental undertaking that stretched the possibilities of composer, instrument and performer to the limit. Its breadth and proportions were set on an epic scale and articulated in twelve sections: 1. Choral prelude; 2. Fuga I; 3. Fuga II; 4. Fuga III; 5. Intermezzo; 6. Variation I; 7. Variation II; 8. Variation III; 9. Cadenza; 10. Fuga IV; 11. Choral; 12. Stretta. Busoni, who was also a talented draughtsman, produced a drawing of a classical building representing the imposing structure of the work: three tall, symmetrical edifices formed the main body of the architecture (respectively assigned to the first three fugues, the three variations, and the fourth fugue), resting on a lower construction that embodied and interlinked them (comprising the other parts of the composition, depicted as transitional passages). Busoni’s mastery of counterpoint is in evidence at every step of the way, displaying his apparent delight with mixing subjects in every fashion imaginable. Moreover, he increased the texture of each fugue by combining its thematic material with that of its predecessor, producing some spectacular combinations. The third fugue, based on the BACH theme (B flat, A, C and B natural), is thus a labyrinth of melodic convergence. The three variations that follow offer a brief respite from the stern laws of counterpoint, whilst the Cadenza fluctuates among esoteric harmonies before plunging into the fourth and final fugue. This is the apex of the work, a massive six voice architecture where one can hear all the thematic material presented so far: each of the three fugues’ subjects, plus of course the theme of the fourth fugue itself. A restatement of the Chorale leads to a final Stretta, which closes the work in splendid grandeur. Busoni intended this as ‘pure’ music, its destination for the piano being just a by-product of its composer’s mastery at the instrument, and the Fantasia contrappuntistica is indeed a pinnacle of musical expression, a work of mystical allure and visionary genius.

During World War I, Ferruccio Busoni took refuge in Switzerland, giving there a number of epoch-making recitals (notably, an all-Liszt cycle comprising no less than eighty works) and working on several of his own compositions. After the end of the hostilities, he returned to Berlin and resumed his discontinuous and chaotic life, but always troubled by self-doubt and creative torment. He never got the recognition he craved and deserved as a composer, despite the fact that much of his original work is indeed beautiful and ground-breaking, a quality that was to become a prerequisite during the Twentieth Century. While working on the opera Doktor Faust, his physician advised Busoni to cut down on tobacco and champagne. He did not. Ferruccio Busoni died of renal failure in Berlin on July 27th, 1924. He was fifty-eight years old.

Sandro Ivo Bartoli, 2011