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Ferruccio Busoni was the son of an Italian clarinet virtuoso who was a harsh and demanding pedagogue. Under the thumb of his father, Busoni developed a virtuoso keyboard technique that is in itself the stuff of legend. He began composing early, adding opus numbers to his works from the beginning. Reaching Opus 40 at age 17, Busoni decided go backward to number 31 and start over, causing no end of grief to scholars who attempted to edit his works later.
From an early age, Busoni pursued a serious interest in the music of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. Although Busoni's reputation as a piano virtuoso of the first rank was established in Europe by the end of the 1880s, he first made his mark as an editor of Bach's keyboard music. While today these editions are regarded as among the most intrusive and heavily marked Bach scores ever made, Busoni's marginal remarks about Bach's thought processes and the analytic value of these comments influenced Bach scholars and composers for generations.
In 1896, Busoni found his mature compositional voice in the Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 36b, which takes a theme of Bach and submits it to a complex series of variations. In 1904, Busoni followed that with his huge piano concerto. Cast in five movements, it runs 90 minutes and contains parts for a chorus. In 1907, Busoni published a series of writings as Sketch for a New Esthetic of Music. This book proposes a wide variety of new compositional techniques then relatively uninvestigated in Western music, such as microtonal scales and electronics. By 1912, Busoni had composed his first entirely non-key centered composition, the Sonatina seconda. The basis for his definitive style is to be found here; it is neither wholly tonal nor completely atonal, but is placed in a sort of harmonic netherworld in between. In the years left to him, Busoni composed four operas, Die Brautwahl (1912), Arlecchino (1915), Turandot (1917), and Doktor Faust (1924). His major keyboard work is the Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1911-1922), a piece that concludes with a massive fugue built out of the unfinished Contrapunctus XXIV of Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge.
Busoni conducted master classes in composition and taught piano. Among his composition students, Kurt Weill made perhaps the most masterly use of Busoni's Apollonian approach to opera and his quirky sense of harmony. Another Busoni pupil, Otto Luening, helped pioneer the use of electronics in music. As a piano teacher, Busoni also started off an international school of super-virtuosos. Claudio Arrau and Egon Petri are good examples of what Busoni wrought in terms of pianists. As to Busoni's own playing, there are some phonograph records of him made in 1919 and an enormous number of piano rolls. The records only hint at what his playing might've sounded like, but some of the better rolls offer a more generous sample of his artistry at the keyboard.
After his death, Busoni was regarded as a great piano virtuoso whose own music was seemingly incomprehensible. Busoni's thinking would have a more decisive impact on later composers, such as John Cage and Morton Feldman, and in the early '80s, his music experienced a small-scale revival of interest. There is little reason to be afraid of Busoni, as his best music is tremendously exciting, accessible, and endlessly thought-provoking.
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