“Only those who look forward look happy.”
(F. Busoni, Doktor Faust, 1924-5)
Born in Empoli on April 1, 1866, into a family of musicians, Busoni spent his childhood in Trieste, studying piano under the guidance of his mother Anna Weiss. In 1875, his father Ferdinand made the decision to move to Vienna in order to allow his son to study at that city’s prestigious conservatory. The experience, which was rather negative from a pedagogical point of view but crucial to the discovery of new musical worlds, convinced the family to settle in Graz, where Busoni studied composition with W.A. Remy from 1878 to 1881. During a long concert tour with his parents in the winter of 1879, the twelve-year-old Busoni made a stop in Bolzano.
In a concert at the Palazzo Mercantile on January 31, 1879, Busoni began with Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, showing great virtuosity: “Benvenuto played Beethoven by heart, without a score on the music stand, with deep musical sensitivity, with a sureness of technique that would astound anyone who is knowledgeable about music,” according to a local critic of the day, who was also amazed at Busoni’s skill at improvising upon themes suggested by the audience.
At the age of 20, Busoni decided to shake off the heavy hand of his father’s artistic tutelage and left for Leipzig, one of the most active musical centres of the day, where he met Grieg, Delius, Tchaikovsky, Sinding and Mahler. He also became a close friend of the family of the violinist Henri Petri, father of Egon, future student and close friend. He began teaching in 1888. His first post was teaching piano at the Conservatory in Helsinki, where he made friends with Sibelius and met his future wife Gerda Sjöstrand; in 1890, he moved to Moscow and finally to Boston in 1891.
Busoni stopped teaching the following year, and, after the birth of his son Benvenuto, moved to New York, where he devoted himself to giving concerts. In 1894, he returned to Europe and settled permanently in Berlin, which became a special city to Busoni, vital to his intellectual work and composing. His second son, Raffaello, was born in 1900. In the following years—up until the autumn of 1915—he devoted himself completely to his career as a musician: he traveled all over the world and established his reputation as a virtuoso pianist.
In addition to performing, which afforded him an excellent lifestyle, Busoni taught in Weimar in 1900 and 1901, Vienna in 1906 and Basel in 1910. He also began conducting—the concerts in Berlin devoted to contemporary music remain memorable—and continued his philosophical musings on music, which culminated in Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetic der Tonkunst or Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music in 1906.
Busoni also wrote librettos and composed: in 1900, he wrote his Second Sonata for Violin and Piano, which he considered his true first opus. In 1904, he finished a concerto for piano, male choir and orchestra. He also composed the Elegies for piano (1907), which marked an important turning point in his artistic development, Berceuse élégiaque (1909) and Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1910). His eagerness for everything new came to its height in 1912, when he composed the bold Sonatina seconda, came into contact with the futurist movement—especially Boccioni—and strengthened his friendship with Schönberg. Busoni had been appointed director of the Musical Lyceum of Bologna in 1913, but resigned when the war broke out and, after having feverishly finished the libretto of the Doktor Faust, left for New York at the beginning of 1915. In the United States he held many triumphant recitals and composed the Rondò arlecchinesco and the Indianisches Tagebuch.
Realising that he was considered persona non grata in both Italy and Germany, he decided to request political asylum in Switzerland in the autumn of 1915. His five years in exile, which he spent in Zurich, were very hard psychologically yet very fruitful from an artistic point of view. In the Swiss city, he completed the monumental Bach-Busoni Edition, composed Turandot, Arlecchino, which premiered in 1917, and Doktor Faust. He also wrote some short pieces inspired by his concept of Junge Klassizität, which he explained in an important letter to Paul Bekker in 1920. His home in Zurich became a meeting place for artists of the day who saw him as a Kulturmensch, or illuminated man of culture, and one of the more open-minded spirits of the time. Busoni’s ended his exile in Switzerland after having received a doctorate honoris causa in philosophy from the University of Zurich and traveling extensively in England. In September of 1920, he returned to Berlin where he was appointed professor of composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts. Kurt Weil and Vladimir Vogel were among his students there. Having lost most of the fortune he had amassed in his many years as a concert artist due to the dreadful inflation of the period, Busoni had no choice but to begin performing again. In May of 1922, however, his declining health forced him to stop playing in public.
Ferruccio Busoni died in Berlin on July 27, 1924, without having completed his lifelong work Doktor Faust. His devoted student Philipp Jarnach finished the opera, which was premiered in Dresden in 1925. In 1985, the work was performed in Bologna with a new finale, redone by Antony Beaumont.