UFPr Arts Department 
Electronic Musicological Review
Vol. 2.1/October 1997


Vânia Schittenhelm

This essay was presented at the TAGS Day for Music Postgraduates at the University of London, Royal Holloway, May 1997, and in June at the Postgraduate Study Day at the University of Surrey.

The role of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) in the music history of this century has often been misunderstood. At the same time that he is considered to be a visionary thinker, who foresaw the use of electronic instruments, advocated the expansion of the tonal language and the inclusion of microtonal procedures, some critics point out that Busoni's compositional oeuvre seems to contradict such innovative ideas. According to them, his works do not fulfil the potential for change implicit in his theoretical writings. This dichotomous view of such a fascinating musical personality as Busoni's only hinders our appreciation of the full implications of his output as a performer, composer and musical writer.

Nevertheless, it must be said that we can find in Busoni's life and work many divisions and contradictions that, if not seen in a wider context, seem to lend support to such reading. Indeed, many of Busoni's contemporaries were aware of the heterogeneity of his ideas, and frequently confused by it. They thought that Busoni's aesthetic should be the paradigm according to which his works should be judged, and were frankly unable to understand the discrepancies that arose from the comparison between both. Alois Hába (1983-1972) could not understand why Busoni, although advocating the use of microtones in his writings, never actually used this device in his compositions (1). Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) held a similar view. He recognised that many of Busoni's ideas about the future of music were closely linked to his own, and these shared ideals even prompted him to suggest to Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) that Busoni could contribute to a number of the Blaue Reiter. He wrote to Kandinsky in the beginning of February 1912: "Wouldn't you also like to ask for a contribution from Busoni? He is very closely connected with us. Read the 1 February issue of Pan on his New Aesthetics of Music [referring to Busoni's Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music]" (2). Although Busoni did not write for the Blaue Reiter, other articles published in it show a remarkable similarity to some of his ideas. An example is the manifest Die freie Musik, in which Nikolaj Kulbin, one of the Russian futurists, demanded the use of microtonal procedures, without being aware of Busoni's Sketch (3). But at the same time Schoenberg was concerned about the divergence between these beliefs and the 'traditional' means employed by Busoni in his compositions. In a letter from September 1910, he had asked Busoni to send him more of his compositions, and specified what kind of works he was interested in: "Those which actually put into practice what you have promised in your pamphlet" (4).

Even scholars attempting to defend Busoni's works from claims of they not being in accordance with his aesthetic ideals tend to fall into this trap. Their usual reply is that we should not necessarily be looking for the fulfilment of his beliefs in his own compositions, but that they would eventually come to be realised either in the work of other composers, as diverse as Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabdji (1892-1988), or in the increasing use of microtonality and the emergence of other forms of instruments in the period before and after Busoni's death. It is certainly true that it is possible to detect Busoni's influence in these later musical developments. However, this line of argumentation fails to convince me, mainly because it also embarks in the same kind of schizophrenic division of Busoni's ideas, as if he were oscillating, without apparent reason, between the cutting edge of musical experimentation and terribly backward-looking tendencies.

But instead of considering his oeuvre as incoherent, it is possible to interpret it as a particular response to many of the artistic issues of his time. The study of Busoni's reactions to these concerns can reveal a great deal about the changes that were taking place in his social and cultural milieu. Rather than just measuring his work against his own aesthetic beliefs, I intend to confront it with its wider context. Busoni's meaning can only be perceived if enough attention is given to the way he related to his cultural and political background. I am not claiming that it is possible to integrate all conflicting aspects of his work in a coherent and harmonic picture, but it seems to me that they are symptomatic not only of the cultural changes that were going on in the arts in that period, but they also point to many trends that would eventually become an integral part of our own contemporary music. The way Busoni dealt with different musical tendencies can tell us much about important aspects of early modernism itself, and also about other forms of artistic manifestations that are normally excluded from the modernist canon.

One general reason for the peripheral role given to Busoni in many music histories (or even his complete exclusion) may indeed be found in the way music historians, inheritors of the modernist orthodoxy, tended until very recently to give a higher value to musical styles that were concerned with what was considered to be 'progressive' musical languages, which placed emphasis on technical innovations and the wish to break with traditional music. In so doing, they disregarded or misjudged other musical developments that were still rooted in established compositional procedures, the result of this being that a considerable part of this century's musical output did not receive the same serious study and analysis that was given to works based on, say, serialism. This produced an unsatisfactory assessment of the artistic developments in the first part of the twentieth century.

The division between what was thought to be really progressive art, equated with an avant-garde attitude of rupture with the past, and other artistic manifestations that did not clearly conform with this ideal informs the attitude of not only musical historians, but can also be detected in the way critics judged the output of other artistic fields. In painting this can be seen in a tendency to attribute a greater value to a more abstract work, as, for instance, in the case of the paintings of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), in comparison with other forms of artistic manifestation that employed more traditional technical procedures, such as those found in the work of George Grosz (1893-1959), who used conventional painterly devices to enhance aspects of social criticism, or in the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali (1904-1989), which employed a very conservative technique. But this situation has been changing, and rightly so, because we cannot comprehend today's art if we leave aside these movements. These different movements should be treated as part of the many products generated by a modern culture, a culture that produced many different forms of representation and that can only be properly understood if the interconnection of these practices is kept in mind.

It is true that many of the most critically challenging developments in modern art emerged from modernist concerns about the exploration of "the conditions of ... [the work of art's] own medium, in order ... to give expression to its own nature", concerns that are clearly articulated in abstract art, or, in the case of music, in dodecaphonism (5). Nevertheless, although this view pervaded much of the aesthetic thinking of this century, the art produced in the twentieth century cannot be reduced to only these styles, which were certainly influential, but never the view of the majority.

In this scenario, it starts to become clearer the importance of the study of Busoni, for he represents an amalgamation of many of the concerns of this period. His work may in fact be regarded as the embodiment of the tension between the depiction of the ephemeral and the search for the eternal implicit in the concept of modernity. There is a tradition of considering the seminal writings of Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821-1867) as being the work where this tension, which is regarded as one of the characteristics of aesthetic modernity, was first expressed in a clear way. Analysing the concept of modernity, Jürgen Habermas, in "Modernity versus Postmodernity", subscribes to Baudelaire's ideas when he affirms that "The new value placed on the transitory, the elusive and the ephemeral, the very celebration of dynamism, discloses a longing for an ... immaculate and stable present" (6). Seen in this light, Busoni's work could allow us to better understand the relationship that exists between those different artistic practices.

I intend to investigate this relationship through the analysis of the main points outlined in Busoni's Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, as they appear again and again in the polemic caused by this book. Busoni's Sketch was first published by Carl Schmiedel in Trieste in 1907, and a revised edition appeared in 1916 in Leipzig. This 'little book', as Busoni used to call it, was at the centre of the controversy over the 'dangerous' issues raised by the new kind of music being composed at the beginning of the twentieth century, provoking the most diverse reactions. One of its chief opponents was Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949), who criticised Busoni's aesthetic ideas in an article published in 1917, entitled "The Danger of Futurism" (Futuristengefahr: bei Gelegenheit von Busonis Ästhetik).

In spite of this critique, a close reading of both texts reveals that Busoni and Pfitzner did in fact share a common basis, their aesthetic concerns being firmly rooted in the nineteenth-century tradition. This common ground has not always been taken into consideration. For instance, Peter Franklin, in a chapter from his book The Idea of Music: Schoenberg and Others entitled "Palestrina and the Dangerous Futurists", treats Pfitzner's and Busoni's ideas as if they were in complete opposition (7). Nevertheless, Busoni himself, in his "Open Letter to Hans Pfitzner", had declared that many of Pfitzner's accusations were unfounded, and that he subscribed to many of Pfitzner's beliefs (8).

It is fair to say that Pfitzner's reading of the Sketch is simplistic and that at times he completely misrepresents Busoni's ideas. Pfitzner accuses Busoni of being an advocate of the futurist movement, which is not true. Busoni knew many futurists artists and admired their work, but he never considered that his book could in any way be conceived as a kind of Futurist manifesto. Pfitzner maintains that Busoni despises all music that had been composed before, for it was based on imperfect means. He also emphasises the destructive aspect of Busoni's aesthetic, claiming that Busoni believed that the music based on the western tradition was without value, and that it would be able to fully develop only sometime in the future. Both affirmations find no substantiation in Busoni's writings. Busoni always considered that any musical innovation should be firmly grounded on the achievements of past composers, and fiercely opposed the employment of new means just for the sake of their novelty. Pfitzner insists that Busoni considers artistic rules as arbitrary, being only a hindrance to the musical development. He condemns Busoni's view of the future of music, for regarding new forms and new instruments as the only possibility for musical renewal. In reality, Busoni had only criticised the mediocre use of traditional forms and pointed to new possibilities of enriching the musical vocabulary. This general comparison shows that it seems that Busoni really had grounds to consider Pfitzner's critique as not properly addressing the issues he had explored in the Sketch.

However, that is not the main point of such an analysis. For I believe that what really matters in this discussion is not the accuracy of Pfitzner's reading of Busoni's ideas, but how Busoni's book served as a pretext for the discussion of contemporary artistic problems, acting as a catalyst for a debate in which the issues at stake are revealed in the alternative aesthetic positions of those involved. Among these issues was the analysis of how changing artistic practices were altering the concept of music, leading to an investigation of the situation of what was called 'modern music'.

In accordance with what the title of his article suggests, Pfitzner concentrates on attacking what he perceived as being the dangerous threats of futurism to the development of music. The term 'futurism' is employed as a generic label in order to refer to all artistic devices that seemed to negate the elements of western musical tradition. Pfitzner's use of the concept of futurism is equivalent to a particular conception of 'modernism' (9). This usage of the term fits in the recurrent practice of employing the word 'modernism' in a negative sense, as, for instance, Jonathan Swift did in the beginning of the eighteenth century (10). But was it appropriate to consider Busoni as one of those who were trying to destroy the western musical heritage, having just seen how much he valued this background?

In reality, this question cannot be put so simply. There has never been such a clear-cut division between what is 'traditional' and what is 'modern' in modern art, and there is a complex interplay between these two aspects. For instance, although Schoenberg and his followers emphasised the modernity of dodecaphonism, as expressed in its new way of organising the musical language, they never considered it as a break with the tradition of the past, only as a development of the possibilities implicit in tonality. It is true that the modernist ideal shows a commitment to experimentation and renewal of the artistic form, emphasising the unity and autonomy of the artwork, but this search produced both radical and conservative outcomes (11). There is a tendency to regard these different consequences as antithetical, which is clearly expressed in the many divisions between 'neo-classical' and 'modern' music, or 'figurative' and 'abstract' art. These divisions in fact articulate the tension that exists between various different ways of understanding what modern art is, and what its interests are.

Broadly speaking, theories of modern art consider works of art as unified and autonomous objects, which attempt to reconcile complex discontinuities and explore the conditions of their own medium, expressing their own true nature in this process. Artworks are considered to be finished and complete objects, and the artist should break with tradition, in order to "make it new", as Ezra Pound (1885-1972) put it (12). But the multiple artistic styles that were generated by these concerns cannot be reduced to these general attributes, and were characterised by rich diversity. As Raymond Williams points out, "Determining the process which fixed the moment of Modernism is a matter ... of identifying the machinery of selective tradition ..., 'modernism' [being] a highly selected version of the modern which then offers to appropriate the whole of modernity" (13).

In the 'Pfitzner versus Busoni' polemic, the former was happy to overlook their similar concerns with tradition because he wanted to defend music from what he considered to be the really dangerous threats to this artform, namely the expansion of tonality, the inclusion of microtonal procedures, and the development of new musical instruments, all of which, if employed, were bound to change music forever. Busoni was emphasising the need to transcend the narrowness of our tonal system, pointing out that the division of the octave into equidistant degrees is only a convention, which does not take into account that "Nature created an infinite gradation" (14). This criticism to "absolute aesthetic standards" would also inform the work of other contemporary composers, such as that of Schoenberg, who also believed, as Robert Wason points out, that "tonality is simply one possible type of musical organisation, [and] that the categories of consonance and dissonance may well prove to be inadequate for understanding the future evolution of harmonic technique" (15). Whether or not Busoni employed these procedures was in this case irrelevant, for the fact that the limits of the tonal system were being questioned opened the gates for new ways of looking at the concept of what was music, and how sound could be employed in new ways, which would lead eventually to Varèse's use of sirens in his compositions and to John Cage's 4'33''. So Pfitzner was probably right in recognising, and overstressing, what he saw as the 'dangers' implicit in Busoni's book.

Pfitzner's views on music were also linked to his political beliefs, for this music belonged to the great German tradition and was used to promote it. For instance, during the First World War, Pfitzner's opera "Palestrina" toured Switzerland, in a tour organised by the propaganda department of the German Foreign Ministry (16). This association of intellectual and political concerns is also shown in the work of Thomas Mann, who, incidentally, praised Pfitzner's music in his book Reflections of a Non Political Man. In spite of its title, this book was written as a direct result of the outbreak of the war, after which Mann allied himself with the patriotic conservatives. He thought that Germany's political defeat could represent the end of German culture, and considered it his intellectual duty to preserve this culture (17). So it comes as no surprise his choice of Pfitzner's music to illustrate his views.

The main difference between Busoni and Pfitzner is the way in which they relate to the possibilities opened to music by the new artistic developments that were taking place. While Pfitzner looks at the future musical possibilities in horror, and perceives them as a sure sign of decadence, Busoni embraces the possibilities offered by innovation. But this acceptance is not straightforward, as his output as a composer shows. Busoni tries to integrate the new to his sense of tradition, of stemming from a classical ground, a ground that was still the basis on which music should develop. In this attempt, he tries to overstretch the limits of convention and to unify the discontinuities characteristic of his own epoch. But his search for new forms must respond to an intrinsic need of the artistic work, and cannot be forced upon it. This point of view was common to many artists of the time. Kandinsky, in a text from 1914 discussing his artistic development towards a more abstract style, said that "nothing is more damaging and more sinful than to seek one's forms by force" (18). Busoni was true to this ideal and, although recognising the importance of styles that made a more distinctive break with tradition, never employed them only for the sake of their novelty.

This new cultural situation also informed the way he looked at the art of the past, and used it to serve to his own aesthetic purposes. A clear example of this is seen in Busoni's concept of transcription, based on his neo-platonic ideas. He considers that the performer, although having the duty to respect the main structure of these works, may, at the same time, have to alter the work in order to make it significant for its present audience. This is one of Busoni's contributions, the way he openly acknowledges that our experiences will necessarily alter our understanding of past works.

In his not always successful attempts to reconcile musical tradition and contemporary innovations in his theoretical and compositional oeuvre, Busoni explores many of the different paths that were available for modern art in the beginning of this century. He becomes, then, an example of the complexity of the artistic reactions fomented by modernist art, and the study of his work can help the overcoming of the clichès usually associated with this artistic movement.

Vânia Schittenhelm is a doctoral student doing research on Busoniís piano transcriptions at the University of Reading on a Capes fellowship. (back)


(1) ZELLER, Hans Rudolf. "Busoni und die musikalische Avantgarde um 1920". p. 101-4. (back)

(2) HAHL-KOCH, Jelena (ed.). Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky: Letters, Pictures and Documents. p. 45. (back)

(3) ZELLER, Hans Rudolf. Op. Cit. p. 99. (back)

(4) BUSONI, Ferruccio. Selected Letters. p. 408. (back)

(5) CONNOR, Steven. "Modernism and Postmodernism". p. 288. (back)

(6) HABERMAS, Jürgen. "Modernity versus Postmodernity". p. 5. (back)

(7) FRANKLIN, Peter. The Idea of Music: Schoenberg and Others. p. 117-38. (back)

(8) BUSONI, Ferruccio. The Essence of Music and Other Papers. p. 17-9. (back)

(9) FRANKLIN, Peter. Op. Cit. p. 124. (back)

(10) MAHAFFEY, Vicki. "Modernist Theory and Criticism". p. 512. (back)

(11) CONNOR, Steven. Op. Cit. p. 288. (back)

(12) Ibid. p. 288-91. (back)

(13) WILLIAMS, Raymond. "When Was Modernism?". p. 32-3. (back)

(14) BUSONI, Ferruccio. "Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music". p. 89. (back)

(15) WASON, Robert W. Viennese Harmonic Theory from Albrechtsberger to Schenker and Schoenberg. p. 135. (back)

(16) BUSONI, Ferruccio. Selected Letters. p. 268. (back)

(17) MORRIS, Walter D. "Translator's Introduction". p. viii-ix. (back)

(18) Quoted in Harrison and Wood. p. 95. (back)

Bibliographic References

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BUSONI, Ferruccio. "Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music", in Three Classics in the Aesthetics of Music: Monsieur Croche, the Dilettante Hater, Claude Debussy; Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, Ferruccio Busoni; and Essay Before a Sonata, Charles Ives. New York: Dover, 1962. pp.73-102.

BUSONI, Ferruccio. Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst, with annotations by Arnold Schoenberg and a epilogue by H. H. Stuckenschmidt. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974.

BUSONI, Ferruccio. Lo Sguardo Lieto: Tutti gli Scritti sulla musica e le arti. ed. Fedele d'Amico. Milan: Il Saggiatore, 1977.

BUSONI, Ferruccio. The Essence of Music and Other Papers. London: Rockliff, 1957.

BUSONI, Ferruccio. Letters to His Wife. London: Edward Arnold, 1938.

BUSONI, Ferruccio. Selected Letters. ed. Antony Beaumont. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.

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CONNOR, Steven. "Modernism and Postmodernism", in David E. Cooper (ed.), A Companion to Aesthetics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. pp. 288-93.

FRANKLIN, Peter. The Idea of Music: Schoenberg and Others. London: Macmillan, 1985.

FRASCINA, Francis, Nigel BLAKE, Briony FER, Tamar GARB and Charles HARRISON. Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Ninettenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with The Open University, 1993.

HABERMAS, Jürgen. "Modernity versus Postmodernity", trans. Seyla Ben-Habib, New German Critique, vol. 22 (Winter 1981):3-14. Reprinted as "Modernity - An Incomplete Project", in Hal Foster (ed.), Postmodern Culture. London: 1985. pp.3-15.

HAHL-KOCH, Jelena (ed.). Arnold Schoenberg, Wassily Kandinsky: Letters, Pictures and Documents. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.

HARRISON, Charles and Paul Wood (eds.). Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

KANDINSKY, Wassily. "The Cologne Lecture", in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995 (first published 1992). pp.94-98.

MAHAFFEY, Vicki. "Modernist Theory and Criticism", in Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (eds.), The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism. London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. pp.512-15.

MANN, Thomas. Reflections of a Non Political Man. trans. Walter D. Morris. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983 (first published as Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, Berlin, S. Fischer Verlag, 1918).

MORRIS, Walter D. "Translator's Introduction", in Thomas Mann, Reflections of a Non Political Man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983. pp.vii-xvi.

PFITZNER, Hans. "Pericolo Futurista", in Sergio Sablich Busoni. Torino: EDT/Musica, 1982. pp.279-302.

RAPAPORT, Paul. "Kaikhosru Shapurji Soraji and his Opus Clavicembalisticum", in Opus Est: Six Composers from Northern Europe. London: Kahn & Averril, 1978. pp.161-90.

WASON, Robert W. Viennese Harmonic Theory from Albrechtsberger to Schenker and Schoenberg. Ann Arbor: Michigan, UMI Research Press, 1985.

WATKINS, Glenn. Pyramids at the Louvre: Music, Culture, and Collage from Stravinsky to the Postmodernists. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994.

WILLIAMS, Raymond. "When Was Modernism?", in The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. London: Verso, 1989. pp.31-35.

ZELLER, Hans Rudolf. "Busoni und die musikalische Avantgarde um 1920", in Sergio Sablich and Rossana Dalmonte (eds.). Il Flusso del Tempo: Scritti su Ferruccio Busoni. Milan: Unicopli, 1986. pp.93-104.

copyright©1997 Electronic Musicological Review, vol. 2.1/October 1997