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The majority of Busoni's works are for the piano. Busoni's music is typically contrapuntally complex, with several melodic lines unwinding at once. Although his music is never entirely atonal in the Schoenbergian sense, his later works are often in indeterminate key. In the program notes for the premiere of his Sonatina seconda of 1912, Busoni calls the work senza tonalità (without tonality). Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt are often identified as key influences, though some of his music has a neo-classical bent, and includes melodies resembling Mozart's.
Some idea of Busoni's mature attitude to composition can be gained from his 1907 manifesto, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, a publication somewhat controversial in its time. As well as discussing then little-explored areas such as electronic music and microtonal music (both techniques he never employed), he asserted that music should distill the essence of music of the past to make something new.
Many of Busoni's works are based on music of the past, especially on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He arranged several of Bach's works for the piano, including the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (originally for organ) and the chaconne from the D minor violin partita. To create a viable work for Romantic piano from an original solo violin piece required a person of Busoni's boldness, inexorable feeling for musical geometry (which requires an in-depth knowledge of integrating chord structures together by parts), and distinctive sonority. Earlier Brahms had also made a transcription of the same chaconne, but for left hand only. Thus some consider him an originator of neoclassicism in music.
The first version of Busoni's largest and best known solo piano work, Fantasia Contrappuntistica, was published in 1910. About half an hour in length, it is essentially an extended fantasy on the final incomplete fugue from Bach's The Art of Fugue. It uses several melodic figures found in Bach's work, most notably the BACH motif (B flat, A, C, B natural). Busoni revised the work a number of times and arranged it for two pianos. Versions have also been made for organ and for orchestra.
Busoni used elements of other composers' works. The fourth movement of An die Jugend (1909), for instance, uses two of Niccolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin (numbers 11 and 15), while the 1920 piece Piano Sonatina No. 6 (Fantasia da camera super Carmen) is based on themes from Georges Bizet's opera Carmen.
Busoni was a virtuoso pianist, and his works for piano are difficult to perform. The Piano Concerto (1904) is probably the largest such work ever written. Performances generally last over seventy minutes, requiring great stamina from the soloist. The concerto is written for a large orchestra with a bass choir that is hidden from the audience's view in the last movement.
Busoni's suite for orchestra Turandot (1904), probably his most popular orchestral work, was expanded into his opera Turandot in 1917, and Busoni completed two other operas, Die Brautwahl (1911) and Arlecchino (1917). He began serious work on his best known opera, Doktor Faust, in 1916, leaving it incomplete at his death. It was then finished by his student Philipp Jarnach, who worked with Busoni's sketches as he knew of them, but in the 1980s Anthony Beaumont, the author of an important Busoni biography, created an expanded and improved completion by drawing on material that Jarnach did not have access to.
Busoni also edited music by other composers. The best known of these is his edition of the complete Bach solo keyboard works, which he edited with the assistance of his students Egon Petri and Bruno Mugellini. He adds tempo markings, articulation and phrase markings, dynamics and metronome markings to the original Bach, as well as extensive performance suggestions. In the Goldberg Variations, for example, he suggests cutting eight of the variations for a "concert performance", as well as substantially rewriting many sections. The edition remains controversial, but has recently been reprinted. Its world premiere recording was by David Buechner.
On a smaller scale, Busoni edited works by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, Liszt, Schoenberg and Schumann. The Busoni version of Liszt's La Campanella was championed by pianists such as Ignaz Friedman and Josef Lhevinne, and more recently by John Ogdon.
Busoni made a considerable number of piano rolls, and a small number of these have been re-recorded onto vinyl record or CD. His recorded output on gramophone record is much smaller and rarer - unfortunately many were destroyed when the Columbia factory burnt down. Originally, he had recorded a considerable number, including Liszt's Sonata in B minor and Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata. The following pieces (recorded for Columbia) survive from February 1922:
- Prelude & Fugue No. 1 (Bach)
- Etude Op. 25 No. 5 (Chopin)
- Chorale Prelude "Nun freut euch liebe Christen" (Bach-Busoni)
- Ecossaisen (Beethoven)
- Prelude Op. 28 No. 7 & Etude Op. 10 No. 5 (Chopin) the two works are connected by an improvisatory passage
- Etude Op. 10 No. 5 (Chopin)
- Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2 (Chopin)
- Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 (Liszt) this has substantial cuts, to fit it on two sides of a 78 record.
Busoni also mentions recording the Gounod-Liszt Faust Waltz in a letter to his wife in 1919. However, this recording was never released. Unfortunately for posterity, Busoni never recorded his original works.
The value of these recordings in ascertaining Busoni's performance style is a matter of some dispute. Many of his colleagues and students expressed disappointment with the recordings and felt they did not truly represent Busoni's pianism. His student Egon Petri was horrified by the piano roll recordings when they first appeared on LP and said that it was a travesty of Busoni's playing. Similarly, Petri's student Gunnar Johansen who had heard Busoni play on several occasions, remarked, "Of Busoni's piano rolls and recordings, only Feux follets (Liszt's 5th Transcendental Etude) is really something unique. The rest is curiously unconvincing. The recordings, especially of Chopin, are a plain misalliance". However, Kaikhosru Sorabji, a fervent admirer, found the records to be the best piano recordings ever made when they were released.
- List of Works From klassika.info (German)
- A page on Busoni's transcriptions of Bach's organ compositions
- Larry Sitsky, Busoni and the Piano. Published 1986 by Greenwood Press.
- Ferruccio Busoni String Quartet No.2, with short biography & soundbites
- The Piano Quarterly Issue No. 108 (Winter 1979-80) has Busoni as the feature composer. Interviews with Gunnar Johansen and Guido Agosti.
- Kunst der Fuge: Ferruccio Busoni - MIDI files