Busoni was a child prodigy. He made his public debut on the piano with his parents, at the age of seven. A couple of years later he played some of his own compositions in Vienna where he heard Franz Liszt play, and met Liszt, Johannes Brahms and Anton Rubinstein.
Busoni had a brief period of study in Graz with Wilhelm Mayer (who used the pseudonym of W. A. Rémy and also taught Felix Weingartner) and was also helped by Wilhelm Kienzl, who enabled him to conduct a performance of his own composition 'Stabat Mater' when he was twelve years old, before leaving for Leipzig in 1886. He subsequently held several teaching posts, the first in 1888 at Helsinki, where he met his wife, Gerda Sjöstrand, the daughter of Swedish sculptor Carl Eneas Sjöstrand, and began a lifelong friendship with Sibelius. In 1890 he won the Anton Rubinstein Competition with his Concert Piece for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 31a. He taught in Moscow in 1890, and in the United States from 1891 to 1894 where he also toured as a virtuoso pianist.
In 1894 he settled in Berlin, giving a series of concerts there both as pianist and conductor. He particularly promoted contemporary music. He also continued to teach in a number of masterclasses at Weimar, Vienna and Basel, among his pupils being Egon Petri. His piano playing and philosophy of music influenced Claudio Arrau.
In 1907, he penned his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, lamenting the traditional music "lawgivers", and predicting a future music that included the division of the octave into more than the traditional 12 degrees. His philosophy that "Music was born free; and to win freedom is its destiny," greatly influenced his students Luigi Russolo, Percy Grainger and Edgard Varèse, all of whom played significant roles in the 20th century opening of music to all sound.
During World War I, Busoni lived first in Bologna, where he directed the conservatory, and later in Zürich. He refused to perform in any countries that were involved in the war. He returned to Berlin in 1920 where he gave master classes in composition. He had several composition pupils who went on to become famous, including Kurt Weill, Edgard Varèse and Stefan Wolpe.
Busoni died in Berlin from a kidney disease. He was interred in the Städtischen Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg, Stubenrauchstraße 43-45. He left a few recordings of his playing as well as a number of piano rolls. His compositions were largely neglected for many years after his death, but he was remembered as a great virtuoso and arranger of Bach for the piano. Around the 1980s there was a revival of interest in his work.
He is commemorated by a plaque at the site of his last residence in Berlin-Schöneberg, Viktoria-Luise-Platz 11, and by the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition.
Most of Busoni's works are for the piano. Busoni's music is typically contrapuntally complex, with several melodic lines unwinding at once. Although his music is never entirely atonal in the Schoenbergian sense, his later works are often in indeterminate key. He was in contact with Schoenberg, and made a 'concert interpretation' of the latter's 'atonal' Piano Piece op. 11 no. 2 in 1910. In the program notes for the premiere of his own Sonatina seconda of 1912, Busoni calls the work senza tonalità (without tonality). Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Liszt are often identified as key influences, though some of his music has a neo-classical bent, and includes melodies resembling Mozart's.
Some idea of Busoni's mature attitude to composition can be gained from his 1907 manifesto, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, a publication somewhat controversial in its time. As well as discussing then little-explored areas such as electronic music and microtonal music (both techniques he never employed), he asserted that music should distill the essence of music of the past to make something new.
Many of Busoni's works are based on music of the past, especially on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He arranged several of Bach's works for the piano, including the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (originally for organ) and the chaconne from the D minor violin partita. Earlier Brahms had also made a transcription of the same chaconne, but for left hand only. Thus some consider him an originator of neoclassicism in music. Busoni went on to transcribe other composers works as well. An archetypal example would be his piano arrangement of Franz Liszt's Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.
The first version of Busoni's largest and best known solo piano work, Fantasia Contrappuntistica, was published in 1910. About half an hour in length, it is essentially an extended fantasy on the final incomplete fugue from Bach's The Art of Fugue. It uses several melodic figures found in Bach's work, most notably the BACH motif (B flat, A, C, B natural). Busoni revised the work a number of times and arranged it for two pianos. Versions have also been made for organ and for orchestra.
Busoni used elements of other composers' works. The fourth movement of An die Jugend (1909), for instance, uses two of Niccolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin (numbers 11 and 15), while the 1920 piece Piano Sonatina No. 6 (Fantasia da camera super Carmen) is based on themes from Georges Bizet's opera Carmen.
Busoni also drew inspiration from non-European sources, including Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra. It was composed in 1913 and is based on North American indigenous tribal melodies drawn from the studies of this native music by ethnomusicologist, Natalie Curtis Burlin.
Busoni was a virtuoso pianist, and his works for piano are difficult to perform. The Piano Concerto op.39 (1904) is probably the largest such work ever written. Performances generally last over seventy minutes, requiring great stamina from the soloist. The concerto is written for a large orchestra with a male voice choir that is hidden from the audience's view in the last movement. British pianist John Ogdon, one of the champions of the work, called it "the longest and grandest piano concerto of all.
Busoni's suite for orchestra Turandot (1904), probably his most popular orchestral work, was expanded into his opera Turandot in 1917, and Busoni completed two other operas, Die Brautwahl (1911) and Arlecchino (1917). He began serious work on his best known opera, Doktor Faust, in 1916, leaving it incomplete at his death. It was then finished by his student Philipp Jarnach, who worked with Busoni's sketches as he knew of them, but in the 1980s Anthony Beaumont, the author of an important Busoni biography, created an expanded and improved completion by drawing on material that Jarnach did not have access to.
His music falls in that most fractious of periods, the fin de siècle, where chromatic elements became part of the structure of the music, rather than being decoration. By studying Busoni's aesthetic beliefs we can suggest that his music is metatonal - given that he sought to include the old with the new to create limitless compositions. This is not to suggest that his music is without form (a mistake that Pfitzner made when he attacked The Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music by Busoni), nor is it without any sense of tonality (a common mistake when one finds oneself between Classical and Serial music). This grey area of music history is more engaging because the traditional forms and pitch structures have taken a side road, a road that did not ultimately lead to serialism.
In order to understand Busoni's compositions one should take only what is given in the music, and interpret them through his aesthetic beliefs (though this is no easy task, and the everpresent binarism between what a composer says and what a composer does should be kept in mind). Busoni can be recognised as a man with a variety of musical abilities. He wrote compositions and libretti, performed as a concert pianist, transcribed pieces by other composers (such as Bach, Mozart and Liszt), taught master classes, and produced aesthetic writings. It is to this end that Busoni considered music a fusion of disciplines, or to use his words 'to recognise the whole phenomenon of music as 'oneness'. (Busoni, 'The Essence of Oneness of Music', 1921).
On a smaller scale, Busoni edited works by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, Liszt, Schoenberg and Schumann. The Busoni version of Liszt's La Campanella was championed by pianists such as Ignaz Friedman and Josef Lhevinne, and more recently by John Ogdon.
Busoni also mentions recording the Gounod-Liszt Faust Waltz in a letter to his wife in 1919. However, this recording was never released. Unfortunately for posterity, Busoni never recorded his original works.
The value of these recordings in ascertaining Busoni's performance style is a matter of some dispute. Many of his colleagues and students expressed disappointment with the recordings and felt they did not truly represent Busoni's pianism. His student Egon Petri was horrified by the piano roll recordings when they first appeared on LP and said that it was a travesty of Busoni's playing. Similarly, Petri's student Gunnar Johansen who had heard Busoni play on several occasions, remarked, "Of Busoni's piano rolls and recordings, only Feux follets (Liszt's 5th Transcendental Etude) is really something unique. The rest is curiously unconvincing. The recordings, especially of Chopin, are a plain misalliance". However, Kaikhosru Sorabji, a fervent admirer, found the records to be the best piano recordings ever made when they were released.