Dante Michaelangelo Benvenuto Ferruccio Busoni (April 1, 1866 - July 27, 1924) was an Italian composer, pianist, music teacher and conductor.
Busoni was born in Empoli in Italy, the only child of two professional musicians: his German mother a pianist, his Italian father a clarinettist. They were often touring during his childhood, and he was brought up in Trieste for the most part.
Busoni 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 him, Johannes Brahms and Anton Rubinstein. He became known as a child prodigy.
Busoni had a brief period of study in Graz before leaving to Leipzig in 1886. He subsequently held several teaching posts, the first in 1888 at Helsinki, where he met his wife, Gerda Sjöstrand. 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 he 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 masterclasses at Weimar, Vienna and Basel, Claudio Arrau and Egon Petri among his pupils.
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 which were involved in the war. He returned to Berlin in 1920 where he gave masterclasses in composition. He had several composition pupils who went on to become famous, including Kurt Weill, Edgar Varese and Stefan Wolpe.
Busoni died in Berlin from a kidney disease. He left a few recordings of his playing as well as a number of piano rolls. His compositions were largely neglected for many years after his death, instead being remembered as a great virtuoso and arranger of Bach for the piano. Around the 1980s there was a slight revivial of interest in his compositions. He is commemorated by a plaque at the site of his last residence in Berlin, Schöneberg, Viktoria-Luise -Platz 11.
Busoni's music is typically contrapuntally complex, with several melodic lines unwinding at once. Although his music is never entirely atonal (the Piano Sonatina No. 2 of 1912 comes closest) it is often difficult in his later works to determine what key his music is in. Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt are often identified as key influences, though some of his music has a neo-classical bent, and includes melodies resembling Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Many of his works are for piano.
Some idea of Busoni's mature attitude to composition can be gained from his 1907 manifesto, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, a publication somewhat controversial in its time. As well as discussing then little-explored areas such as electronic music and microtonal music (both techniques he never employed), he asserted that music should distill the essence of music of the past to make something new.
Many of Busoni's works are based on music of the past, especially on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He arranged several of Bach's works for the piano, including the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor (originally for organ) and the chaconne from the D minor violin partita. Thus some consider him an originator of neoclassisim in music.
The first version of Busoni's largest and best known solo piano work, Fantasia Contrappuntistica, was published in 1910. About half an hour in length, it is essentially an extended fantasy on the final incomplete fugue from Bach's The Art of Fugue. It uses several melodic figures found in Bach's work, most notably the BACH motif (B flat, A, C, B natural). Busoni revised the work a number of times and arranged it for two pianos. Versions have also been made for organ and for orchestra.
As well as Bach, Busoni used elements of other composer's works. The fourth movement of An die Jugend (1909), for instance, uses two of Niccolo Paganini's Caprices for solo violin (numbers 11 and 15), while the 1920 piece Piano Sonatina No. 6 (Fantasia da camera super Carmen) is based on themes from Georges Bizet's opera Carmen.
Busoni was a virtuoso pianist, and his works for piano are considered difficult to perform. The Piano Concerto (1904) is probably the largest such work ever written. It lasts for over an hour, requiring great stamina of the soloist, and is written for a large orchestra with a male voice choir in the last movement.
Busoni's suite for orchestra Turandot (1904), probably his most popular orchestral work, was expanded into his opera Turandot in 1917, and Busoni completed two other operas, Die Brautwahl (1911) and Arlecchino (1917). He began serious work on his best known opera, Doktor Faust, in 1916, leaving it incomplete at his death (it was finished by Philipp Jarnach).