He was an all-round musical talent: a pianist, composer, conductor, writer and teacher. Born in Empoli near Florence in 1866 as the son of an Italian family of musicians, Ferruccio Busoni was brought up into the life of a travelling artist from the very outset. His parents encouraged his outstanding piano and compositional talent, and he gave his first public concert at the age of seven. Over the years, Busoni became one of the leading pianists of his generation, regarded by some as the most outstanding since Franz Liszt. Added to this was Busoni’s desire to succeed as a conductor and composer, plus his exploration in his writings of the aesthetics of modern musical art.
An Italian in Berlin
In 1894, Ferruccio Busoni, an artist with international appeal, settled in Berlin, the city which remained his main residence until his death in 1924. Opening on 4 September 2016, the Berlin Staatsbibliothek is holding an exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of the versatile artist's birth as part of Musikfest Berlin. However, his work is closely linked not only with Berlin, but also with the Berliner Philharmoniker: On 28 January 1895, Busoni made his first appearance in a concert with the orchestra as the soloist in Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 under the direction of Richard Strauss. This was the beginning of a both intensive and fruitful association with the orchestra. But he didn't only appear as a pianist: on 8 October 1897, the Italian also made his first appearance with the Philharmoniker as a conductor of his own works. The programme included his Lustspiel-Ouvertüre, a symphonic tone poem, his Violin Concerto and the Geharnischte Suite. “Unfortunate cacophonies, disquieting, illogical harmonic sequences, noisy orchestration, angular melodic lines: this is the impression that I and probably all listeners with good taste left with,” wrote the critic of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.
A special education programme
Undaunted and prepared to takes risks, Busoni was an advocate for unusual concert formats. In October and November 1898, he traced the development of the piano concerto from Johann Sebastian Bach to modern times in a four-part cycle, and from 1902, together with the Philharmoniker, he introduced what were called “Novitäten” concerts in which works by contemporary colleagues were programmed – “without the aim of material advantages,” as he wrote in the press. Although it was often discussed in condescending terms by music critics, it was thanks to this series that composers such as Edward Elgar and Jean Sibelius were first included in concert programmes of the Berliner Philharmoniker. After a five year absence between 1915-1920, Ferruccio Busoni, whose health had been weakened by the rigours of travel and the uncertainty of the war years, lived out his final years in Berlin. He conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker for the last time in April 1922 as a stand-in for Bruno Walter. A month later, he appeared again as the soloist in Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto for the gala concert celebrating the orchestra’s 40th anniversary. On 27 July1924, Ferruccio Busoni died at his home at Viktoria-Luise-Platz in Berlin.