Faceless Europe’s Forgotten Master

Ferruccio Busoni’s music embodied European unity yet the anniversary of his birth passed without notice

Norman Lebrecht

Disenchantment with European union starts with its founding fathers. Where the United States rallied around George Washington’s austere morality and the Soviet Union upon Lenin’s lofty rhetoric, none of the EU’s so-called visionaries — Monnet, Schumann, Spaak, Bech, Beyen and the rest — could summon half a cheer if they stripped off and ran stark naked across the Stade de France singing the Hallelujah Chorus. These makers of modern Europe were party politicians of inimitable dullness who bored a continent into submissive bureaucracy.

Their want of charisma may have been regarded as a post-Hitler virtue, but the absence of a defining idea articulated by an independent thinker with no regard for personal comfort is the broken hinge in the whole European project, one that may cause doors to fall off this summer. Who, or what, is a European in these confused times? The question was first tested in 1915, when Romain Rolland and Stefan Zweig cobbled together a literary peace plan. It failed for want of a compelling figurehead. Yet there was no dearth of lions in 1915 who might have personified continental unity.

The one who springs to mind is Ferruccio Busoni, born 150 years ago last month and one of the most famous faces of his time. His leonine head led to him being often mistaken for Beethoven, while his hands made light work of Liszt. Busoni was a fearless pianist, a formidable thinker and a composer overstocked with good ideas. His character was so fascinating that Gustav Mahler, never a man to waste time on soloists, craved his rare visits to Vienna. Arnold Schoenberg (no fan of anyone but Mahler) craved his personal approval. Busoni was the teacher and mentor of Kurt Weill. In the early Weimar Republic, he moulded its culture. Busoni is a lost titan of European civilisation.

A child of working musicians, born in the Tuscan town of Empoli, he was burdened at the baptismal font with the names of Ferruccio, Dante and Michelangelo, too much for one boy to bear. His father spoke Italian, his mother German; Ferruccio mastered eight languages. After studies in Vienna, where he played for Liszt and Brahms, he went to teach in Helsinki, falling in love with Gerda Sjöstrand, a Swedish Catholic, whom he married in Moscow. By his late twenties, he was at home in half of Europe and gaining American fame in Boston and New York.

Transnational to a fault, he sought identity in creative unity. Busoni worked towards a style that was beyond Italian and German, neither retrograde nor experimental but, as he termed it, “young classical” — a route to European regeneration. It took a while to perfect. In 1900, aged 34, he disowned every score he had written, designating his second sonata for violin and piano as his first mature work. He went on to compose a phenomenal concerto for piano, orchestra and male chorus, followed by a widely-read monograph entitled A New Aesthetic of Music.

He was a headline attraction. In Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto he would play a knuckle-popping cadenza by the French eccentric Alkan. He rolled out his own elaborations on sacred Bach chorales and befriended Schoenberg when no one else would give him the time of day. He composed a Turandot a decade ahead of Puccini’s and spent years working on Doktor Faustus, dependent less on Goethe’s German classic than on Christopher Marlowe’s English drama. Thick as his scores might look, his music was always lucid, enticing, lyrical. His restless mind was resourced by the entire continental spectrum.

One of Busoni’s treasurable habits was to add an extra day to his schedule when he played in big cities, purely for the purpose of browsing in bookshops. London was a favourite haunt. “Ah, these ‘cheap’ books in England,” he wrote to Gerda. “This sigh comes from my heart: I saw three days ago for the first time a real object of value, a monumental edition of Don Quixote, nine thick volumes in Folio, the original illustrations, sketches, acquarelles . . . The price: 2,400 marks. Well, I guess I’ll never own it.” Gerda allowed him 100 marks a month to spend on books. “I gave myself a little reward for last night’s concert,” he’d confess. “70 marks spent on Gulliver. First edition. The first I’ve ever seen.”

He amassed a library of 5,000 volumes — including 47 editions of Don Quixote, lots of Dickens, Byron and Carlisle, treatises on native Americans, a cause close to his heart — only to leave it all behind when he could no longer bear the belligerence of wartime Berlin. After five years of Swiss self-exile, he returned in 1920 and found himself elevated to the status of oracle at the Prussian Academy of Arts, the artist to whom students and government ministers alike turned for guidance. He spoke for the importance of art as no one has done in Berlin until, perhaps, Daniel Barenboim. 

But years of slow travel, bad diet and dank bookshops took their toll. Busoni’s kidneys packed in and he fought against the clock to finish Doktor Faustus before his soul was called in. At his death in July 1924, Busoni was just 58. Faustus was completed the following year by his pupil Philipp Jarnach. It is not often revived. English National Opera’s 1986 staging showed up the disparity between the composer’s seriousness of purpose and the art-form’s need to please the short and fickle attention span of a large audience. The Doktor is best visited in concert.

Although Busoni had champions down the years — John Ogdon bludgeoned EMI into recording the piano concerto and others from Horowitz to Hélène Grimaud used his Bach fantasies as limpid encores — his fame soon faded into legend, confined to pianophiles. Few events are scheduled for his anniversary: nothing at the Salzburg Festival or on the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic websites. Italy tacked his name onto a piano competition. The unifier of European music is all but erased from memory.

Which, in referendum terms, offers grounds for gloom. No musician ever embodied the European idea more completely than Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Busoni. None is more deserving of a Brussels project, if only to start a conversation about art in a post-national continent. Busoni was the ultimate European artist. Faceless Europe has fatally forgotten him. For shame, for shame.

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