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Ferruccio Busoni: Transnational to a fault

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.

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