Max Oppenheimer, „Ferruccio Busoni“, 1916

The Prophet of Viktoria-Luise-Platz


reading time: approx.  min

Ferruccio Busoni was a cosmopolitan, a lionized pianist, and a visionary with many interests. His Berlin apartment was frequented by the great names of the musical avant-garde. We talk to Thomas Ertelt about a man who did more than just help to stitch “the seam of the new music.”

The future of music took shape in New York in 1896, as a 200-ton monster fitted with cables, control panels, and generators. The Telharmonium or  Dynamophone, as it was known, played music twenty-four hours a day, generated by electrical impulses. If you wanted to listen to it, all you had to do was to pick up a telephone receiver. For Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), the piano virtuoso based in far-away Berlin, the news was a revelation. Busoni was never to hear the Dynamophone, let alone play it. Nevertheless, his vision – the liberation of music from all conventions – seemed to have come true in the infinite variety of sound emanating from the telephone.

Max Oppenheimer, „Ferruccio Busoni“, 1916
Max Oppenheimer, „Ferruccio Busoni“, 1916 © SMB, Nationalgalerie/J. P. Anders

A Cosmopolitan Networker

Born in Tuscany in 1866 to a German pianist and an Italian clarinetist, Ferruccio Busoni was attuned to perfection at an early age. He was only seven years old when he gave his first public performance. Widely celebrated as a virtuoso pianist, he was soon filling concert halls in Vienna, London, Paris, and New York. By the time he turned 28, he had left his mark as a teacher at conservatories in Helsinki, Moscow, and Boston. “Busoni's performances were major social events,” comments Thomas Ertelt, head of the Staatliche Institut für Musikforschung (State Institute for Music Research) in Berlin. “His mother collected every review and newspaper article about her son that she could find. The folder still exists – a gigantic compilation. By 1894, when Busoni settled in Berlin, he had built up a significant network for himself.” A list of the roughly 9,000 letters in Busoni's estate would read like an address book of modern music. He corresponded with the likes of Jean Sibelius, Béla Bartók, Arthur Schnabel, and Otto Klemperer, had long discussions with Arnold Schönberg, and was a close friend of Leo Kestenberg's.

As Ertelt sees it, Busoni's appeal lay “in his engaging personality, but also in his broad range of interests and his refusal to limit himself to a single area.” A polyglot and bibliophile who also dabbled in painting and poetry, Busoni collected works by Cervantes and E.T.A. Hoffmann among others. The private library in his home at Viktoria-Luise-Platz comprised nearly five thousand volumes. His delight in other branches of the arts was reflected in his circle of acquaintances. He enjoyed a long friendship with Stefan Zweig and was in contact with George Bernard Shaw, beside meeting up with the painter Max Oppenheimer in Zurich and the Futurist Umberto Boccioni at Lake Maggiore.

“Busoni's estate contains wonderful examples of his conviction that the arts should not be separated from each other,” Ertelt explains. “There are drafts for a lexicon, which Busoni intended to be a ‘polemical music lexicon.’ Some of its entries merge the arts in a way that would not be expected in a book of this kind. If we look up ‘experiment,’ for example, we find ‘Experiment, purpose of same, Picasso’.”

Caught between Stools

By 1898, Busoni had established a solid musical reputation in Berlin too. Although his nimble fingers had brought him the lifestyle of an international celebrity, he soon found the role of the acclaimed virtuoso too constraining. His goals were more ambitious: to compose music and to take the art of music into wholly new territory. To this end, he launched a concert series, paid for entirely out of his own pocket, with the aim of providing a platform for adventurous young composers. From 1902 to 1909, he received a growing number of requests to be featured at these Berlin evening concerts. The programs included previously unperformed pieces not just from Germany, but from all over Europe. The series failed, however, to win the hearts and minds of the Wilhelmine age’s music critics.

Busoni's own compositions received cautious applause – the audiences were simply too fond of the enigmatic virtuoso pianist as a performer. According to Thomas Ertelt, Busoni wanted to reach his audience emotionally, but not keep them spellbound: “This was a conscious decision. Unlike the late Romantic era, the audience was not meant to surrender unconditionally to the music. Busoni wanted alert listeners, not unconsidered empathy. Active participation was required. Even with his operas, listeners were not meant to be carried away by emotion, but to become aware that something is being performed to them.” Busoni's critique of illusion fascinated Kurt Weill, one of his pupils, while his reflections on atonality, extended tonal systems, and the use of new instruments caught the attention of the avant-garde.

Why should people only work in major and minor keys?

The Dynamophone was not forgotten among all these deliberations. Although it had long been disparaged as a useless producer of tonal distortion in the United States, it was mentioned in the second, highly acclaimed edition of Busoni's theoretical essay, “Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music” from 1916. The “transcendental tone generator,” as he refers to the instrument there, served him as a symbol of the liberated art of music. Ertelt explains: “He described an overly rigid set of rules as a corset and longed for music to break out of the strictures of scales. Why should people only work in major and minor keys? He investigated micro-intervals and considered introducing third tones and even sixth tones. In this, he prefigured later microtone techniques of composition. He refrained, however, from using such intervals in his own works.” Busoni wished “to stitch the seam of the new music,” as he wrote to his wife, Gerda. At the same time, he wanted to preserve the old within the new, giving Bach a twentieth-century make-over. “Busoni was revolutionary in his utopian aesthetics, but too tame in practice for some exponents of modern music,” says Ertelt.

„He is deservedly labeled a trailblazer.”

When his essay on aesthetics was published, Busoni was living in exile in Switzerland. With imperial Germany at war and nationalist sentiment boiling over, the cosmopolitan musician was ostracized on account of his foreign roots. Nevertheless, he returned to Berlin in 1919 to head the master class in composition at the Prussian Academy of Arts. He did not manage, however, to achieve his earlier level of success. His Bach transcriptions continued to be performed for a number of years after his death in 1924, but his own compositions disappeared almost completely from the concert repertoire for decades.”  

Thomas Ertelt believes that this is due partly to Busoni's insistence on emotional distance: “Maybe Busoni simply didn't appeal to later musical tastes, which favored sweeping, passionate gestures. His most enduring influence – which is still felt today – was probably that on his students. It is because of them that he is deservedly labeled a trailblazer.” Busoni's master classes attracted young composers such as Edgard Varèse and Otto Luening: the one a lifelong advocate of dissonant sound complexes, the other a pioneer of electroacoustic music. In 1981, Luening commented: “Busoni was a bridge into the twentieth century and into the present day. Some of his quite prophetic statements seem to be coming true right now.” This reveals the core of Busoni's legacy: his thinking opened doors that others would later pass through.

Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung

Das Staatliche Institut für Musikforschung ist das größte außeruniversitäre Forschungszentrum für Musikwissenschaft in Deutschland. Es widmet sich der historisch-theoretischen Reflexion über Musik und deren lebendiger Vermittlung. Hierfür präsentiert es in seinem Musikinstrumenten-Museum die Entwicklung der europäischen Kunstmusik vom 16. bis zum 21. Jahrhundert für ein breites Publikum. Bereits 1888 gegründet, besitzt das Museum über 3.000 historische Musikinstrumente und bietet vielfältige Veranstaltungen – vom wissenschaftlichen Symposion über Gesprächs-Konzerte auf historischen Instrumenten bis hin zu interaktiven Klanginstallationen.