Busoni was born in Italy in 1866 and lived until 1924. Busoni studied with his mother and thereafter was virtually self-taught. Egon Petri reported that his “music became dematerialized . . . it had a mystical quality.” Nadia Boulanger sensed a unity in his interpretations, that he played with an air of composing as he played. According to contemporaries, his articulation was perfect, and came from evenness of technique, and a “prodigious” sense of rhythm.
Busoni once remarked “Take it for granted that everything is possible on the piano.” The potential effects of keyboard pedaling, he wrote, are unexhausted because they have remained the slave of a narrow-minded and senseless harmonic theory. Composer Luening wrote in his autobiography:
“His pedaling was unique and set him apart from any other pianist I have ever heard. He sometimes used two or three pedals at the same time, setting sonority patterns that were somewhat veiled but within which he played with great, bell-like clarity. At times he would raise or lower a pedal with great rapidity, even on a single note or chord, creating myriad tone colors and strange vibrations. His touch and attacks were always related to the pedaling he was using so that he could transform the piano sounds at will from a vaguely harpsichord resonance to a modern resonating box on which he could simulate singing and orchestral instruments. Busoni avoided strict metrical playing. His performance of the Chopin Ballades went beyond brilliant piano playing. Sometimes he made the instrument sound like an Aeolian harp . . . with no relationship to hammered-string sound.”
His Liszt playing was beyond virtuostic. The glittering scales and arpeggios became what Liszt intended them to be – a dimly suggested background – while the themes in massive chords or singing melodies stood out clear.
He was a tireless worker with high standards. He advised, for instance, to practice first the passage with the most difficult fingering; when that was mastered play the passage again with the easiest first. Three distinct systems informed his intellect and compositions: Bachian polyphony, Germanic Romanticism, and his own devised theories of music, which he published as Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music. His 1910 Fantasia contrappuntistic based on Bach’s The Art of Fugue of the Baroque period continues to fascinate pianists of intellectual bent and physical endurance. Others, like Yates, see it as “a phatasmagoria of styles and devices.” Some say such a work was needed, however, for Busoni to purge himself of his own nineteenth century Classicism, which brought liberation for many composers still in the grips of a stale nineteenth century Romanticism.
Among his most successful works is the Sonata No. 2 ranging from sensitive neo-Classicism to expressionist searching and free polyphony. Sonata No. 6 entertains themes from Bizet’s Carmen using Lisztian methods. In the final analysis, many pianists continue to play his mostly magnificent transcriptions of Bach.