Book Code:
STP - ISBN: 0-313-23671-2
423 pages, bibliography

Grenwood Press

Publication Date: June 18, 1986

«An exhaustive survey of all Busoni's piano works, published and unpublished... Each listing includes publication information and descriptive commentary, often with an analysis and musical examples. More than just listings, Sitsky addresses Busoni's position in music history, his philosophy, theory of notation, and compositional growth. Also included are a discography of Busoni's playing as well as others' performances of his music, a bibliography, and two indexes.... Sitsky's exhaustive treatment of the piano compositions is unique and will appeal to the larger and more specialized collections.... Highly recommended.»

Reviewer: Carlo Grante from Rome
Busoni and the piano is the sort of title a Busoni fan would fall for, especially if he or she is a pianist. So I did. But aside from the hunger of specific Busoni-piano related subjects and details, I found that the author of this book is an interpreter of Busoni's personality, writing as if Busoni had been an old friend or relative of his. I must say that a lot of what Sitsky says is very inspiring, and I am grateful that many words have been spent on Busoni "and" the piano, rather than Busoni "at" the piano or Busoni' work as a transcriber, etc. It is quite obvious that Busoni carries along a hidden, almost esoteric quality and there is also a great deal af collective memory of past artistic treasures and styles in his complex musical style and idiom. Busoni can strike for his classical (in the Greek-Roman sense) redondances as well as for his modernisms, but the all-embracing knowledge that underlies his creative work is something that can certainly make a change in the artistic and aesthetic sensitivities of those that love and understand his music. It appears that Sitsky does understand it in an authoritative manner, conveying also the humanistic nature of the composer. I wish Sitsky had gome more into that mysterious realm of Busoni's aesthetics, I don mean what was written in the well known writings, but rather what was "said", or "stated" in his sound world. Maybe he will, and I will be an enthusiastic admirer of his new work. "Busoni and the Piano" can also serve as a fairly detailed catalogue of Busoni's piano works. Maybe an updated edition of it could present new recordings of Busoni's music, why not?

«This volume is decidely a labor of love.... The work is not merely a catalog of all the piano compositions (solo, four hands, two pianos, piano and orchestra, arrangements, transcriptions, hybrid works, unpublished works) as the title might imply, but a vast descriptive, critical, and sometimes analytical essay. The splendid, many-faceted treatment was almost necessary if the author were to fulfill his aim to `throw some light on Busoni's thought processes as a composer and performer and to interest pianists in performing Busoni,' He thus treats many areas of the composer's work, such as his theory of notation, his compositional growth, etc. Essential for academic music collections.»

[pp. ix-x]

... musicians were in a minority and painters, writers, poets, architects, scientists, and a large number of miscellaneous intellectuals were all attracted by the fireworks of his fascinating soliloquy which would go on for an hour or more, before he retired ceremoniously to the inner sanctum, obviously to attend to his creative work proper. [Ernest Krenek]

This book may either be used as a reference volume, to look up information relating to a specific work, or be read right through as a complete survey of Ferruccio Busoni's piano music: solo, four hands, two piano, piano and orchestra, arrangements, transcriptions, hybrid works defying neat classification, and unpublished works. Some previously unpublished items are included in the Appendix. The recordings and rolls made by Busoni are discussed in another chapter.
I was extremely fortunate in having as my first piano teacher Winifred Burston (1889-1976) of the N.S.W State Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, Australia, herself a pupil of Busoni (she is mentioned in Busoni's letters to his wife), and then of Egon Petri, who, apart from his enormous stature as a pianist, was also a close friend and disciple of Busoni for about 30 years. After completing my studies with Burston, I went on to study with Petri himself in California and stayed with him for two years. Apart from the enormous benefits I gained generally from this experience, we spent many hours going through Busoni works and talking about Busoni. The true value of an oral tradition was thus driven home to me, and I have attempted to pass it along in this book.
The lack of appreciation and ignorance of Busoni, even among professional musicians, seemed to me both regrettable and unjust, and this work is a partial attempt to rectify this situation. It is my hope that some day another volume - not necessarily by me - will complete the survey of Busoni's music by dealing with all the vocal, instrumental, chamber, symphonic, and operatic compositions. Perhaps Busoni's unpublished but enormously readable letters also will be gathered into a collection by someone before they are lost.
Busoni's life and personality were so fascinating and magnetic that the majority of his commentators have succumbed to their lures. I have concerned myself exclusively with Busoni's music; the Bibliography will refer interested readers to studies of his life, an undoubted definitive work among them being Edward J. Dent's marvellously evocative biography. Critical and analytical studies on Busoni have been few and far between. There are, apart from Hans Stuckenschmidt's «Ferruccio Busoni: The Chronicle of a European», studies in German by Hanspeter Krellmann and Heinz Meyer which are referred to constantly in my text. These, however, each deal only with a specific area of the piano music. There are no Italian writings that I have seen that could be classed as technical by nature.
My orientation - as a pianist and composer - has been primarily practical. My aim has been, therefore, to throw some light on Busoni's thought processes as a composer and performer and to interest pianists in performing Busoni's music. My personal library contains every work for piano that Busoni ever wrote, and the comments to be found in the book are the result of either my concert performances or broadcasts or at the very least a reading at the keyboard of every composition.


The essential touchstone for me was Busoni's prophetic book, «Entwurf einer Neuen Aesthetik der Tonkunst». This predicts precisely what is happening today in music - that is, if you pass over the whole dodecaphonic development, which in my view represents a sort of hardening of the arteries. [Edgar Varèse]

The dangerous thing about cliches is that one tends to forget that so many of them are rooted in fact. If every writer on Busoni has indulged in the cliche about Busoni's tragic duality of character, this does not lessen the truth of such statements. Busoni was divided, and that was his tragedy; the divisions were in more areas than one and were more numerous than perhaps is commonly known.
There was his political duality. He was born an Italian but lived most of his creative life in Germany. The Italians regarded him as a deserter, the Germans as an interloper. During the First World War, he retired to a neutral country, which did not endear him to either of these countries. The strange thing is that his musical tastes followed his political duality - or was it the other way around? He was always attracted to the German school for its solidity, its sense of form, of organization, and of scholarship, yet he never lost his Latin love of melody. And whereas his earlier works were steeped in the German tradition and dedicated to Brahms, his last period of creativity was almost purely melodic and polyphonic and clearly closer to his Italian origin.
Even as a pianist he was torn between Italian and German styles. Audiences were shocked by his warm cantabile playing of the German Classic and Baroque masters; yet his sense of architecture was indisputable. He left only a small recorded legacy, although many accounts of his playing survive. His style, based on Anton Rubinstein rather than Franz Liszt, has, through pupils and auditors, left a lasting imprint on the history and progress of piano playing. This is a subject in itself, and the bibliography on it is imposing.
But Busoni's status as a pianist, incredibly high though it was, need no longer overshadow other considerations, and it is as a composer that he must now be judged. Whereas in the case of other composer-pianists one career was aided by the other as they vigorously promulgated their own music, in Busoni's case it turned out differently. He made his great pianistic reputation playing the standard repertoire; his own compositions he played less often, especially the more problematical post-1900 works. These he realized were for a later era and for a select audience. In any case, the audience and critics of the day made it amply clear to him that they were not going to take him seriously in a dual role. Bernard Shaw once advised him: "But you should compose under an assumed name. It is incredible that one man could do more than one thing well; and when I heard you play, I said 'It is impossible that he should compose: there is not room enough in a single life for more than one supreme excellence." His composing and pianistic careers, far from complementing each other, were in constant opposition.
Not content with dual excellence, Busoni's restless spirit spurred him into activity in other areas as well. As a conductor, years before any ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) or other similar bodies existed, Busoni presented series of concerts surveying a wide range of new music, often financed personally because he believed in "the cause". Many young composers owed much to him in their early years. Between 1902 and 1909, he conducted the music of Debussy, Bartòk, Elgar, Saint-Saëns, Sinding, Sibelius, Delius, Liszt (first performances), d'lndy, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Beethoven concertos (with Alkan cadenzas), Berlioz, Nielsen, Schenker, Novacek, Pfitzner, Ysaÿe, and Fauré. As an editor, Busoni was responsible for many editions of old music which, in their day, were unusual in their clarity of presentation. Always searching for musical unity in his manifold endeavors, Busoni's life was an almost classical case of dichotomy, of curious contradiction and ambivalence.
His date of birth was unfortunate. I do not speak now of 1 April 1866 when he first saw the light of day, but of the fact that Busoni straddled two centuries. Brought up in a strict tradition, he had to adapt himself to a totally new way of writing music, not because of fashion but from personal necessity and conviction: he thus became a sort of musical Janus, and hence the oft-heard criticism of his eclectic style. The fact that Busoni as a musical thinker had predicted, and even theoretically stipulated, many of the developments of this century in numerous writings, made little difference in the long run, for the discoveries and ideas he had hinted at or only partially developed were soon fully realized by many other composers. As an innovator, Busoni was simply outstripped, and in the race for novelty forgotten, together with the many individual qualities of his own music.
Yet as a theoretician and thinker, Busoni left his mark. Although most of his essays are now available in English, Italian, and German, there are still many letters in manuscript, and, until all his writings are collected from a wide variety of sources (including many contributions to newspapers and periodicals), a complete picture of his wide-ranging ideas will not be known. Even the essays by themselves, however, present an amazing case of musical prophecy and have been read widely all over the world since their publication. Some of the concepts found in these essays include predictions regarding electronic music: mention of the first electronic organ ever built; microtones, serial technique, liberation from dissonance, new notations, and the concept of Young Classicism This is not taking into account long and scholarly articles on music of the past, on his own music, on music contemporary to him, and on his libretti (created for him and for other composers).
Of his works, a host of transcriptions - the Bach-Busoni items that graced the programs of every travelling virtuoso - survived for a while. They are now viewed with disfavor, although they are, after Liszt, the highest example of the craft in the piano repertoire. Busoni continued and restored the dignity due to this art and raised it to a new level of achievement.
The many works either based on a fragment by another composer («Fantasia nach J. S. Bach», «Fantasia Contrappuntistica») or a transmutation of music by other composers («Kammer-Fantasie über Bizet's Carmen», «Duettino Concertante» after the Finale of the Concerto in F major, K. 459, of Mozart, «Albumblatt» No. 3 - «in the style of a Chorale Prelude» - and Schönberg Op. 11, No. 2 - a "concert interpretation") were never understood in their day. Busoni's ideas on the unity of music throw light on these works, but as a philosopher and musician he is known even less than as a composer. Busoni, of course, expected his listeners to know the fragments by other composers, to know the transcribed works in the original, and to be able to appreciate the same work seen through other eyes. In his operas he expected his audience to be able to follow the complex symbolism of the Faust legend and to be familiar with previous Faust dramas, to cope with the swift satire and musical quotations in Arlecchino - it may be safely said that he expected too much from his audience, and this, too, was part of his downfall.
But one can say, if these hybrid works are, for the sake of argument, discounted, what about the pure Busoni, the really original works? Here, another paradox confronts us because, at least in the other compositions, even if we objected to the idea of transcription or to the idea of mixing styles or to the writing of a new work around an old fragment by someone else, the very presence of another composer puts us on familiar ground. Busoni's works of early maturity are easy enough to comprehend («Violin Sonatas» Nos. 1 and 2, «Geharnischte Suite» for orchestra, Concertstück for piano and orchestra, and to a certain extent even the Piano Concerto Op. XXXIX), but when we arrive at the truly mature compositions («Elegies» and «Sonatinas» for piano, «Romanza e Scherzoso» for piano and orchestra, the opera «Dokctor Faust», «Nocturne symphonique», «Berceuse élégiaque» for orchestra, «Nuit de Noël» and «Toccata», both for piano, and so on), the ground slips away from us. These works seem to move on a plane divorced from reality, from everyday experience.
Busoni's music can be legitimately described as a record of a mystic journey, and as the journey comes to fruition, the message to be deciphered in the record demands an understanding of the mystic vision from the listener. This withdrawal from reality is without doubt the largest single obstacle to the popularization of Busoni's music: it seems conclusive that it can never, by its very nature, appeal to a mass audience.
Here again was dichotomy: the "outsider" type is essentially a lonely man who has to find his own way, yet Busoni, despite such leanings, loved company and indeed built up a brilliant intellectual circle of pupils, friends, and disciples. In his mature years he was not a teacher in the ordinary sense and did not have pupils in the normal way of things but rather disciples, who came to learn about the piano, about composition, or to simply drink in some of the aura of a great man. Whether disciple or friend, they were all influenced by Busoni's personality. He was always excited by the idea of youth, the idea of passing on the torch: the spoken lines in «Doktor Faust» make this desire explicit. Yet apparently he had the happy knack of developing the student's own talents and personality instead of submerging them in his own genius. As such, his monumental intellect has survived into more than one generation, for pupils of pupils continue to pass on the ideas and traditions, and find in them, as Busoni had so fervently hoped, possibilities and hopes for the future.
The more influential of his pupils include: Egon Petri, my own master, who must have taught hundreds of pianists and transmitted the pianistic ideas and an interest in Busoni's music; other pianists in countries all over the world: Natalie Curtis, Maud Allan (the famous dancer), Michael von Zadora, Augusta Cottlow, Leo Kestenberg, Gregor Beklemischeff, Leo Sirota, Edward Steuermann, Rudolf Ganz, Edward Weiss, Theophil Demetriescu, Dimitri Mitropulous, Theodor Szàntò, Gino Tagliapietra, and Gottfried Galston; composer-pupils, some of whom have become central figures in the history of twentieth century music: Edgar Varèse, Kurt Weill, Otto Luening, Gisella Selden-Goth, Louis Gruenberg, Stefan Wolpe, Philipp Jarnach, Vladimir Vogel, Guido Guerrini, and Robert Blum; and composers influenced by Busoni: Selim Palmgren, Hans Huber, Arnold Schönberg, Luigi Dallapiccola, Bernard van Dieren, and Dimitri Tiomkin (the film composer). Various performers cite Busoni as a major influence or at least a major inspiration: Joseph Szigeti, Albert Spaulding, Claudio Arrau, Arthur Rubinstein, Alexander Borovsky, Isidor Philipp, and Vianna da Motta. A complete list would be an impossibility; Busoni came into contact with hundreds of musicians. For example, Percy Grainger only studied with him for a few weeks, but regarded himself as a disciple; it is through the avenue of the composer-pupils that no doubt the most lasting effects are felt. The master classes and open house evenings in Berlin were types of powerhouses which left indelible marks upon those fortunate enough to attend such gatherings. No wonder that Busoni's biographers were fascinated with this rich fund of conflict and paradox, and, true as all this is, and important as it may be for the knowledge of the composer, it is symptomatic that Busoni is more often written and talked about than heard. More often than not, the writing is about the man rather than about the music.
Busoni's complete output for piano and piano with orchestra is discussed in comprehensive detail in this book; in consequence, so are his various styles of composition and compositional periods, his creative outlook and methods, and his transcriptions in theory and practice. It seemed appropriate, therefore, to begin this study with some general comments aimed at placing Busoni into perspective in the mainstream of music. The narrow nationalism that plagued Busoni's life is now surely a thing of the past, and we must recognize him as a truly international figure. Stefan Zweig described him during the First World War as "shadowed by sadness, haunted by the thought that his pupils were scattered all over the world: "Perhaps they are shooting at each other right now."
Finally, although the bulk of Busoni's compositions involve the piano, his contributions to chamber, vocal, and orchestral music, and especially the operatic repertoire cannot be ignored.