Publication of Busoni’s

In Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music, Ferruccio Busoni was among the first to articulate a rational foundation for the dramatic changes in musical style that took place in the early years of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Ferruccio Busoni was recognized as one of the world’s leading pianists, a composer of substance, and a prolific writer whose ideas reflected the dissatisfaction with prevailing musical styles shared by most of his contemporaries among the musical intelligentsia. His Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst (1907; Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music, 1911) was not so much a treatise on aesthetics as a presentation of a melange of musical principles reflecting Busoni’s own concerns for the present state of music and offering carefully considered ways of freeing music from lasting traditions that he regarded as redundant. Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music (Busoni)
[kw]Publication of Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music (1907)
[kw]Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music, Publication of (1907)[Busonis Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music, Publication of (1907)]
[kw]Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music, Publication of Busoni’s (1907)
[kw]Music, Publication of Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aesthetic of (1907)
Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music (Busoni)
[g]Germany;1907: Publication of Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music[01840]
[c]Music;1907: Publication of Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music[01840]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1907: Publication of Busoni’s Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music[01840]
Busoni, Ferruccio
Pfitzner, Hans
Schoenberg, Arnold

Busoni maintained that the spirit of a musical artwork is ageless, its essence remaining the same throughout many years. Thus, he wrote, there is nothing properly old or new, only expressions of an enduring idea that have come into being earlier or later. The performance of music cast in the mold of another age is inherently inconsistent, for if the musical idea is indeed the enduring factor, the imposition of stereotypical forms or procedures brings forth nothing new, only a refurbishment of statements already achieved. The function of the creative artist lies in the formation of new laws rather than in following laws already made; the true creator seeks after the perfection of a musical expression that achieves a rapprochement between the natural qualities of the basic musical idea and the composer’s own individuality. A musical work is to be shaped by the natural qualities of the underlying idea (however that may be defined) and its most natural expression as perceived by the creative artist.

Busoni regarded established musical forms as strictures that impede natural expression. In the history of music, form has served as an element of consistency, establishing an element of balance and order and allowing the imagination free rein. Over time, however, form came to be an end in itself; Busoni argued that fidelity to traditional forms should be set aside in favor of the expression that is the most natural to any given musical material. He pointed out the inconsistency of expecting overall originality of a composer and yet expecting conventionality in matters of form. Program music, he wrote, was equally faulty in that a story or series of events replaced form and imposed on music a framework extraneous to the seeds of expansion inherent in each motive.

According to Busoni, musical notation, Musical notation too, needed to be reconsidered. Notation had developed as an expedient means of preserving a fleeting inspiration for the purpose of later exploration and reinterpretation. Musical lawgivers, however, had required the interpreters of written music to reproduce the fixed connotations of the written symbols, confusing notation with music itself. The limitation of notation is closely allied with the instruments for which it is intended; for Busoni, the implied tonal color, range, and pitch system around which modern instruments were built imposed additional limitations on natural musical expression. Anything written for a specific instrument necessarily remains committed to a certain timbre or color. A possible solution to such difficulties might be offered by electronic tone production, and Busoni was quite interested in reports of Thaddeus Cahill’s invention of the dynamophone, one of the earliest electronic musical instruments.

Ferruccio Busoni.

(Library of Congress)

Busoni’s concern for expanding what he considered a narrow tonal range led to a series of scales intended to replace the traditional major-minor system. The new scales were derived from a process wherein subsequent tones within the octave were systematically lowered within each permutation; Busoni’s manuscript copy illustrated the 113 scales to which he referred in his text, but a logical extension of his procedure would produce at least 148 scales. These concerns led him to a refined gradation of the acoustic octave in which he described a tripartite tone (third of a tone) in place of the usual semitone, leading to a scale of eighteen pitches. Transposing this same plan to the next set of traditional tones produced another tripartite set of eighteen, or an acoustic octave encompassing a total of thirty-six pitches. For all these, he proposed an appropriate system of new musical notation.

The new scales and more minutely defined pitch materials were among the most widely discussed of Busoni’s theses. He was drawn into an extended dialogue with contemporaries, during the course of which he came to be recognized as one of the leading musical intellectuals of the time. An attempt to clarify his ideas in a second, expanded edition of Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music drew more commentary than the initial publication. Arnold Schoenberg, a prominent composer and music theorist, declared much sympathy with the substance of Busoni’s writing if not with all of its applications. In contrast, German composer Hans Pfitzner attacked Busoni’s work in Futuristengefahr (1917; Futuristengefahr (Pfitzner) the danger of futurism). Pfitzner defended the nineteenth century value system of feeling and inspiration against what he perceived to be calculating intellectual processes, expressive paralysis, and a threat to the values of German music. The last charge caught the attention of German nationalists immersed in the heat of World War I. Busoni, the son of an Italian farmer and a German mother, had spent all of his adult life in Germany, but his Italian surname cast suspicion on him as a foreigner and, for those inclined to such beliefs, lent some credence to Pfitzner’s charges.

Busoni’s works before 1907 followed in the tradition of late nineteenth century Romanticism and, to a lesser degree, Impressionism. Starting with the Six Elegies (1908), Six Elegies (Busoni) however, his own style of composing turned toward a more sparse and pervasively contrapuntal texture, colored by progressive harmonies. There is no clear evidence of either the scales or the tripartite tones described in Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music.

Among pianists, Busoni’s name will always be linked with his transcriptions of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and others. Although some purists have derided these as musical transgressions, the process is very much in keeping with Busoni’s premise that basic musical ideas endure and can be expressed in many ways without substantive loss, and that any notation represents but one of many ways of defining any given material.


At a time of great ferment in the musical world, Busoni’s essay Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music was among the first attempts to present a rational defense for many of the extraordinary changes taking place in music during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The exchanges generated by Busoni’s ideas marked the beginning of literary explanations and justifications for new music that continued until well past midcentury. Those who saw music in a state of decadence could, with an open mind, find in Busoni reasons for and order behind what some described as cacophony. The emancipation of dissonance, a premise generally attributed to Schoenberg, found its first widely circulated expression in Busoni’s work; Busoni, with some success, defined the difference between atonality and cacophony as a matter of the listener’s comprehension.

The systematic approach to the creation of the 113 scales provided a point of departure for similar efforts later in the century. The scale structures of Josef Hauer and Olivier Messiaen, although not direct extensions of Busoni’s plan, reflect his influence in their rational, instead of acoustical, approach to the arrangement of pitch materials; many other names could be added to such a list.

The new notation Busoni proposed to accommodate his tripartite pitch series saw no direct imitators, but it did introduce the concept of new signs for new sounds. The manifestations of this approach led to many different procedures, particularly after the middle of the century. The fundamental concept is Busoni’s premise that a musical idea exists on its own and can be expressed through any pattern of notation appropriate to the material, an approach reflected in the scores of Messiaen and Krzysztof Penderecki, among others. The search for a source of more plastic and more finely graduated pitch material has been mirrored in the efforts of many composers to expand their tonal resources, not only in matters of pitch but in timbre and color as well. Edgard Varèse, Varèse, Edgard who achieved much in both percussion ensembles and electronic music, stressed his allegiance to Busoni in several lectures as well as in the very substance of his works such as Amériques (pr. 1926) and Poème électronique (pr. 1958).

Several years after the appearance of Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music, Busoni referred to his ideas, in the most comprehensive vein, as junge Klassizität, a term that has been widely mistranslated as “young classicism” and, in that context, frequently misunderstood. In a letter to his son, Busoni made it clear that he had coined the term around 1919 and that he wished to distinguish between classicality and classicism as it is conventionally understood. In later attempts to clarify “young classicality,” Young classicality he described it as an assimilation of all earlier experiments and their inclusion in new musical forms of greater strength. Busoni’s idea has often been confused with neoclassicism as it was represented in the works of Igor Stravinsky during the decades following World War I and has been largely forgotten in the prevailing currency of the latter term. Young classicality is best viewed as a comprehensive aesthetic of music that may include a variety of styles and techniques; neoclassicism stands as one of those many styles. Busoni’s concept, represented by the term “young classicality,” thus anticipated, or at least described, the multistylistic quality of most twentieth century music. Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music (Busoni)

Further Reading

  • Beaumont, Antony. Busoni the Composer. London: Faber & Faber, 1985. A thorough and comprehensive study of Busoni’s work. Supplemented with abundant photographic plates, musical illustrations, biographical and creative chronologies, a catalog of transcriptions and cadenzas, and a select bibliography. Valuable for its attention to detail and comprehensive treatment of the subject.
  • Busoni, Ferruccio. The Essence of Music and Other Papers. Translated by Rosamond Ley. London: Rockliff, 1957. A panoply of Busoni’s writings. Some address his concepts of music of the future and young classicality; others discuss the composers who were central to his pianistic repertory, his piano playing, and a miscellany of his musical interests. A valuable collection reflecting Busoni’s intellectual fecundity.
  • _______. Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music. Translated by Th. Baker. New York: G. Schirmer, 1911. The original American version of Busoni’s work. (Also available in Contemplating Music: Source Readings in the Aesthetics of Music, edited by Ruth Katz and Carl Dahlhaus. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 1988.)
  • Couling, Della. Ferruccio Busoni: A Musical Ishmael. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. Full-length biography contains material not available to earlier biographers. Draws extensively on Busoni’s correspondence with family members and friends. Includes a selected list of compositions, bibliography, and index.
  • Dent, Edward J. Ferruccio Busoni: A Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1933. Early study of Busoni and his works by a personal acquaintance. Valuable for personal insights and minutiae of biography, but dated in its treatment of Busoni’s creative work.
  • Mason, Robert M. “Enumeration of Synthetic Musical Scales by Matrix Algebra and a Catalogue of Busoni Scales.” Journal of Music Theory 14 (Spring, 1970): 92-126. A technical, systematic exploration of the scale system proposed by Busoni. Copiously illustrated with charts and diagrams exploring possible applications of Busoni’s fundamental concept in matters of pitch organization.
  • Morgan, Robert P. Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Presents one of the most succinct summaries available of Busoni’s ideas on music in the modern age and offers examples of important composers who may have come under his influence.
  • Raessler, Daniel M. “The ’113’ Scales of Ferruccio Busoni.” Music Review 43 (February, 1982): 51-56. Devoted to a study of Busoni’s proposed scale system and its musical applications, this publication is most valuable for its musical illustrations of the scales as they appear in Busoni’s manuscript copy. The author expands the system to its logical conclusion of 147 scales.
  • _______. “Schoenberg and Busoni: Aspects of Their Relationship.” Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute 7 (June, 1983): 6-27. Based on letters exchanged between Busoni and Schoenberg between 1903 and 1919. The correspondence makes clear that these innovators shared a mutual respect and a conviction that the course of music had to change, but neither completely understood the other’s view of what the new direction should be.
  • Rimm, Robert. The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and the Eight. Pompton Plains, N.J.: Amadeus Press, 2003. Discusses the work of eight legendary composer-pianists, including Busoni, and the interpretation of their work by pianist Marc-André Hamelin. Explores the relationships among the composers in their music, their ideas, and their lives.
  • Roberge, Marc-André. Ferruccio Busoni: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. A bibliographic reference tool more than a substantive exploration of Busoni’s ideas or compositions. The annotated bibliography, one of the most extensive available, is valuable for its listing of published works by and about Busoni.
  • Stuckenschmidt, Hans H. Ferruccio Busoni. Translated by Sandra Morris. London: Calder and Boyars, 1970. An overview of Busoni’s ideas and influences by one of the principal commentators on modern music. Generally deals with description more than with analysis or evaluation; most useful for its perspective of Busoni within the context of twentieth century musical styles.

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