Entertainment Music

Monday 19 August 2019

Ferruccio Busoni - a renaissance man of music

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Busoni: part of the Leskovites
Busoni: part of the Leskovites

The name Ferruccio Busoni may not leap off the page. He's one of those whose misfortune has been to become consigned to the historical footnotes after being a towering figure in his time.

He was born in Tuscany in 1866, the son of professional musicians, an Italian clarinettist father and a pianist mother whose roots were in Germany.

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Ferruccio's talents were obvious from early on, and he developed as a formidable pianist himself.

By way of studies in Vienna and Leipzig, he earned himself a teaching job in Helsinki at the age of only 23.

In Finland, he met and became great friends with a young Jean Sibelius, just four months older than himself.

They became part of a little artistic circle along with another composer, Armas Järnefelt, his brother Eero, a painter, and writer Adolf Paul.

Busoni had a dog - a big black Newfoundland called Lesko. Wherever Busoni went, Lesko would go, too.

Because the dog was always there, it wasn't long before Busoni and his pals become known as the Leskovites.

In tribute to them, he composed a four-parter for orchestra, dedicating one movement to each.

For music that's obviously been inspired by happy times, it has an odd title - the Geharnischte Suite, a suite "in armour".

The Leskovites didn't last long - Busoni got married and moved to Berlin - but he remained firm friends with Sibelius.

There's a story told of how, in February 1921, the pair were in London together to share a concert platform.

Sibelius was to conduct his Fourth Symphony, Busoni to perform as the soloist in his Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra.

The Finnish composer had a well-documented fondness for a tipple or two, and Busoni was a willing companion.

The organisers had to arrange minders for them to make sure not only that they turned up on time, but that they were in a fit state to function.

That Indian Fantasy had a most interesting genesis.

Busoni had spent time teaching in the United States. One of his pupils there had been a young woman called Natalie Curtis.

She would abandon her aspirations to be a concert pianist when she discovered the music of Native Americans, and decided instead to devote herself to it.

Back in New York at a Gustav Mahler concert, Busoni bumped into his former pupil. Her story inspired him to investigate further. The Indian Fantasy was the result.

After hearing it performed in 1915, with Busoni at the piano, and Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, Curtis declared it "by far the most important effort yet made in any use of our native musical material".

That was entirely in keeping with Busoni's musical world view - ever inquiring, ever investigating.

Though his orchestral pieces do still occasionally find their way on to a concert programme, it's as a pianist analyst that he's remembered now.

From Bach to Liszt, Busoni would take the music, seeking out its inner essence, then transcribe it, "teasing out new ideas, new arguments, new questions and, finally, new consolations".

Those words come from today's entry in Clemency Burton-Hill's book A Year of Wonder (Headline), referring specifically to Busoni's piano version of Bach's Chaconne for solo violin, "the ultimate musical benchmark" as the author puts it.

In later life, one of Busoni's pupils was the Berlin composer and social satirist Kurt Weill (best known for The Threepenny Opera).

When Busoni died on this date in 1924, Weill paid tribute to this Renaissance man of music calling him a "spiritual European of the future".

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