Review of important new Busoni book

Post Date: 17 July 2017
Post Type: Piano Things


Ferruccio Busoni and his legacy
Erin E. Knyt
Indiana Press 2017
ISBN 976-0-253-02684-2

On reading, this freshly published scholarly and pioneering study of Busoni as composition teacher and mentor, a totally new perspective on his multi-faceted genius emerges. Personally, it has enriched my understanding of Busoni’s influence beyond measure, making it all too clear that there are still far too many undiscovered and neglected aspects to his art and legacy that remain for posterity to embrace.

Knyt brings detailed research and draws invaluable connections which conclude decisively that Busoni was unquestionably one of the most significant teachers of composition in the twentieth century. Knyt writes conclusively: 'The musical world was unalterably impacted by Busoni's ideas even as his disciples and his grand pupils 'passed the torch' and pioneered new musical ideals that contributed to major twentieth century strands of composition including electronic, textural, spectral and pluralistic styles of music. This nearly forgotten mentor left a lasting compositional legacy, the breadth of which is only now beginning to be comprehended'

Busoni emerges most strongly from this book as music's first 'post modernist', a figure who anticipated and prepared so much of what later leading composers have been involved with, particularly from the 1980s onwards. Busoni had no fear of mixing the old and new, of utilising all the stylistic possibilities available to him in order to muster maximum creative opportunities. His visionary calls in his writings (particularly in the 1907'sketch of a new aesthetic of music’) for electronic music and third tones (as opposed to quarter tones) makes him a Leonardo- like figure, an extraordinary Renaissance Man of modern times. Busoni's love of Mozart, his extraordinary ear for orchestration and timbre and his success in allowing his music to make its own structures comes over triumphantly and emphatically throughout. And it was primarily these features, along with an emphasis on melody, counterpoint and fastidious elegance, that marked not only Busoni's mature works, but also his values and emphasis in teaching. His students were diverse and contrasting in terms of approach, motivation and style, but Knyt is able to show common denominators based on the values and qualities that Busoni inspired and gave to them- as outlined above.

Though there is little in this substantial book on Busoni's most famous student from his final years, Kurt Weill, and though only passing reference is made to Busoni's support for Schoenberg, Percy Grainger and Bartok, its main part is devoted to detailed consideration of Busoni's influence over five of his students: Jean Sibelius (I did not even realise that Sibelius was a pupil of Busoni) as well as Louis Gruenberg, Edgar Varese, Otto Luening and Phillippe Jarnach. Knyt then goes even further in studying the influence Busoni had on others by finding connections between his music and compositional features evident in music written by students of Sibelius, Luening, Jarnach, Varese and Gruenberg. We therefore have something of a Busoni family- musical sons and musical grandchildren in an extended Busoni dynasty, along with other composers who have been indirectly influenced- Busoni’s cousins, great nephews and great nieces!
The Busoni family tree in its expanded format includes ‘grandsons' like john Corigliano and Ronald Stevenson as well as others who were influenced more indirectly. These latter figures include Peter Maxwell Davies, (via Sibelius) Michael Finnissy and Tristan Murail.

Clearly Knyt has not exhausted this fascinating and invaluable subject: there is still much more to be done on the influence via students who studied with Busoni in the 1920s in Berlin. But We have been left with an enormous amount of new connections, associations and bridges to visit, ponder over and reflect on. Here are some quotations from Busoni's students scattered throughout Knyt's book to close this brief summary of a truly invaluable contribution to research in twentieth century music:

'Over my desk is Eero's portrait of you, and when I received your very welcome letter, it was as though the picture had began to speak. It has been silent for many years now but it has always promoted me to work...I am so proud of the interest you show in me'
Letter from Sibelius to Busoni

'Personally, I know Busoni crystallised my half- formed ideas, stimulated my imagination, and determined, I believe, the future of my music'
Edgar Varese

'Ferruccio Busoni, the most noble human being and far-sighted artist I have encountered in my life'
Louis Gruenberg

Murray McLachlan