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Busoni, Ferruccio (Dante Michelangiolo Benvenuto)

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Busoni, Ferruccio (Dante Michelangiolo Benvenuto) greatly admired Italian-German pianist, pedagogue, and composer; b. Empoli, near Florence, April 1, 1866; d. Berlin, July 27, 1924. Busoni grew up in an artistic atmosphere: his father played the clarinet and his mother, Anna Weiss, was an amateur pianist. He learned to play the piano as a child; at the age of 8, he played in public in Trieste. He gave a piano recital in Vienna when he was 10, and included in his program some of his own compositions. In 1877 the family moved to Graz, where Busoni took piano lessons with W. Mayer. He conducted his Stabat Mater in Graz at the age of 12. At 15 he was accepted as a member of the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna; he performed there his oratorio II sabato del villaggio in 1883. In 1886 he went to Leipzig and undertook a profound study of Bach’s music. In 1889 he was appointed a prof. of piano at the Helsinki Cons., where among his students was Sibelius (who was a few months older than his teacher). At that time, Busoni married Gerda Sjostrand, whose father was a celebrated Swedish sculptor; their 2 sons became well-known artists. In 1890 Busoni participated in the Rubinstein Competition in St. Petersburg, winning first prize with his Konzertstück for Piano and Orch. On the strength of this achievement, he was engaged to teach piano at the Moscow Cons. (1890–91). He then accepted the post of prof, at the New England Cons, of Music in Boston (1891–94); however, he had enough leisure to make several tours, maintaining his principal residence in Berlin. During the season of 1912-13, he made a triumphant tour of Russia. In 1913 he was appointed director of the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. The outbreak of the World War I in 1914 forced him to flee to the U.S.; after a tour of the country, he moved to neutral Switzerland. In 1923 he went to Paris, and then returned to Berlin, remaining there until his death. In various cities, at various times, he taught piano in music schools; among his students were Brailowsky, Ganz, Petri, Mitropoulos, and Grainger. Busoni also taught composition, numbering Weill, Jarnach, and Vogel among his pupils. He exercised great influence on Várese, who was living in Berlin when Busoni was there; Várese greatly prized Busoni’s advanced theories of composition.

Busoni was a philosopher of music who tried to formulate a universe of related arts; he issued grandiloquent manifestos urging a return to classical ideals in modern forms; he sought to establish a unifying link between architecture and composition; in his eds. of Bach’s works, he included drawings illustrating the architectonic plan of Bach’s fugues. He incorporated his innovations in his grandiose piano work Fantasia contrappuntistica, which opens with a prelude based on a Bach chorale and closes with a set of variations on Bach’s acronym, B-A-C-H (i.e., B-flat, A, C, B-natural). In his theoretical writings, he proposed a system of 113 different heptatonic modes, and also suggested the possibility of writing music in exotic scales and sub-chromatic intervals; he expounded those ideas in his influential essay Entwurf einer neuen Aesthetik der Tonkunst (Trieste, 1907; Eng. tr. by T. Baker, N.Y., 1911). Busoni’s other publications of significance were Von der Einheit der Musik (1923; in Italian, Florence, 1941; in Eng., London, 1957) and Über die Moglichkeiten der Oper (Leipzig, 1926). Despite Busoni’s great innovations in his own compositions and his theoretical writing, however, the Busoni legend is kept alive not through his music but mainly through his sovereign virtuosity as a pianist. In his performances, he introduced a concept of piano sonority as an orch. medium; indeed, some listeners reported having heard simulations of trumpets and French horns sounded at Busoni’s hands. The few extant recordings of his playing transmit a measure of the grandeur of his style, but they also betray a tendency, common to Busoni’s era, toward a free treatment of the musical text, surprisingly so, since Busoni preached an absolute fidelity to the written notes. On concert programs Busoni’s name appears most often as the author of magisterial and eloquent transcriptions of Bach’s works. His gothic transfiguration for piano of Bach’s Chaconne for Unaccompanied Violin became a perennial favorite of pianists all over the world.

Busoni was honored by many nations. In 1913 he received the order of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur from the French government, a title bestowed on only 2 Italians before him: Rossini and Verdi. In 1949 a Concorso Busoni was established. Another international award honoring the name of Busoni was announced by the Accademia di Santa Cecilia of Rome, with prizes given for the best contemporary compositions; at its opening session in 1950, the recipient was Stravinsky.

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