Ferruccio Busoni – Lone Wolf of Opera


This feature celebrates the centenary of Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni’s death and is produced by Jon Tolansky.

“The sung word will always remain a convention on the stage, and a hindrance to any semblance of truth; to overcome this deadlock with any success a plot would have to be made in which the singers act what is incredible, fictitious, and improbable from the very start, so that one impossibility supports the other and both become possible and acceptable”.

Ferruccio Busoni’s iconoclastic words were written in a section called “The Future of Opera” that he included in his complex and radical treatise Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Sketch of a New Aesthetics of Musical Art), first published in 1907.  They led him to proclaim further on in the treatise that “It is within the realm of opera to seize the supernatural or the unnatural….and in doing so create a world of illusion that reflects life either in a magic mirror or in a laughter mirror….the magic mirror for serious opera, the laughter mirror for comic opera.”

He was true to his word.  He was to compose three operas that he called “comic-fantastical” in the unnatural laughter mirror – Die Brautwahl (1911), and the commedia dell’arte double bill of Arlecchino and Turandot (1917) – and one profoundly philosophically searching opera delving in to the supernatural in the serious, magic mirror: Doktor Faust. The latter was unfinished at his death in 1924 after he had laboured intensively for some time on its closing scene, and it was premiered in 1925 in a completion made by his pupil and protégé Philipp Jarnach, who incorporated some of Busoni’s sketches. A further alternative and strikingly different completion was published in 1984 by the Busoni scholar and biographer Anthony Beaumont after he discovered additional previously unseen sketches.

None of the Busoni operas, each one of which has a libretto written by himself, can be related in any way – musically and dramaturgically – to any other composer’s operas before or since, and maybe partly because of their misfit natures in the heritage of the genre and partly because of Busoni’s elusively illusionary musical language, 100 years after his death they remain infrequently performed, although in recent years Doktor Faust has been gaining a modicum of attention in some theatres.

To his avid admirers, including this writer, the neglect is a serious public loss, as Ferrucio Busoni was ingeniously inventive in ways that grip his followers and compel and inspire the artists who love to perform his operas. Among them are the highly distinguished and critically acclaimed speaking contributors to this commemorative Busoni feature: baritones Thomas Hampson and Sir Thomas Allen, soprano Sandra Trattnig, tenor Gregory Kunde, and conductors Kent Nagano and Sir Mark Elder. 

Their discussions, focusing on Arlecchino and Doktor Faust, are illustrated by music extracts from two sources: Warner Classics’ complete studio recordings of the two operas, including both completions of Doktor Faust and all conducted by Kent Nagano, and a Youtube posting of a performance of Doktor Faust given by the Zürich Opera with Thomas Hampson, Gregory Kunde, and Sandra Trattnig. Details of all the commentaries and the music extracts accompany the audio files following below.

On Busoni, and on Arlecchino (etc.)



4. ARLECCHINO, PART ONE, SCENE ONE (Virgin Classics recording)

Part One, Scene One SYNOPSIS:  The curtain rises to reveal a meandering and hilly street in the upper city. It is just before evening.  Matteo, the tailor, sits in front of his house sewing and silently reading. He becomes more animated and begins to read aloud in Italian the story of the illicit love of Paolo and Francesca from the Fifth Canto of Dante’s Inferno. Ironically, through a window above, Arlecchino can be seen making love to Matteo’s beautiful young wife, Annunziata. Matteo thinks of Don Juan as he contemplates the prospect of the two lovers being condemned to hell, and the orchestra softly quotes the “Champagne Aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Finishing with Annunziata, Arlecchino leaps from the window, landing in front of Matteo, and recites the next line from Dante’s Inferno: Quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avanti (“We read no more that day”). He quickly tells the confused tailor, that war has broken out, and the barbarians are at the gate.   Grabbing the tailor’s scissors to hoist his coat as a banner, Arlecchino filches the house key from a pocket, and hustling Matteo inside, he locks the door. Soon after he departs, from off-stage, we hear him singing an extended and defiant “la-la-le-ra!”

On Doktor Faust (General Comments & Opening Scene, etc.)

On Doktor Faust (Vorspiel 1 & Second Prologue, Opening Scene, etc.)



Vorspiel 1 SYNOPSIS: Faust is Rector Magnificus of the University of Wittenberg.  His assistant Wagner has told him that three students from Cracow have come, unannounced, to offer him a copy of a rare book on black magic: Clavis Astartis Magica (The Key to the Magic of Astarte).  Faust receives them – and in reply to his question to them “What do you demand in return?”, they say “Later”.  They give Faust the book, a key, and a Deed of Possession.  After they have departed, when Wagner enters and Faust asks him “Did you not see the students go?” he replies “I saw nobody”.  “Ah – now I know who these men were” Faust cries out, and the crucible on the hearth where he had been working on a chemical process suddenly boils over with a loud hissing and crackling.


14. – DOKTOR FAUST – SECOND PROLOGUE – OPENING SCENE (Warner Classics recording)


Second Prologue, Opening Scene SYNOPSIS: At midnight, Faust opens the book on black magic and follows its directions.  He makes a circle on the floor, steps into it and calls on Lucifer to appear.  A pale light appears around the room, and unseen voices are heard.  Faust then wishes, as his Will, for spirits to come at his beck and call.

On Doktor Faust (Mephistophele, etc.)



Faust and the Entrance of Mephistopheles SYNOPSIS: Five spirits in the forms of flames, all servants of Lucifer, have appeared one after another but Faust has not been impressed by their claims of speed.  He is about to abandon his quest – but then the shrill high voice of the sixth flame, calling out “FAUST……” strongly compels him: and Lucifer himself, in the guise of Mephistopheles appears.  He claims “I am as swift as the thoughts of man”.  In response to Faust’s question “Will you serve me?”Mephistopheles replies “That depends….in what way?”



Intermezzo SYNOPSIS: Faust has forfeited his soul by signing a pact in blood with Mephistopheles, who will serve him on Earth, but Faust will serve Mephistopheles to eternity after death.  After seducing Gretchen, Faust has tired of her and abandoned her, and as her soldier brother is seeking vengeance, Faust has ordered Mephistopheles to get rid of him in such a way that his own hands are not soiled.  In a Romanesque chapel of a cathedral, where the brother is praying for God’s help, Mephistopheles disguises himself as a monk and oversees that several soldiers and their Lieutenant looking for a man who murdered their commanding officer burst in and mistake that person for the brother, thereby killing him in error.  “Here on holy ground – you are the devil’s men” screams Mephistopheles” and after the Lieutenant shouts out “The monk is mad – let him babble on”, he and the soldiers leave.  “First Sacrilege” gloats Mephistopheles. “Brother and soldier planning murder, killed, and Faust the wise has it on his conscience.  Three rats in one trap”.

On Doktor Faust (The Duchess of Parma, etc.)



First Scene, First Extract SYNOPSIS: The renowned magician Doktor Faust has entered the Duke and Duchess of Parma’s wedding ceremony with his herald Mephistopheles, and after conjuring up miraculous scenic feats he says in an aside to the Duchess, who has been powerfully smitten with him, “Come with me – I’ll be your guide in the Universe that knows no measure – You’ll Come – You’ll Come”.  Despite being greatly tempted she resists, and after the Duke, seconded by Mephistopheles, declares the magic show concluded and announces supper, inviting Faust as his guest but turning his back on him, she departs to the dining room with her husband and the guests follow.


First Scene, Second Extract SYNOPSIS: Mephistopheles has warned Faust not to go to the supper, as his food is poisoned by the offended Duke.  After the two of them leave, the Duchess returns to the empty hall as if in a daze.  She is going to follow Faust – “He calls me – with a thousand voices – draws me to him with a thousand arms.  And every moment seems to me a thousand……….”.




Final Scene, First Extract SYNOPSIS: After taking the Duchess away from her husband, Faust has tired of her, and Mephistopheles, telling him that she has died, has thrown at his feet the dead body of their baby that he was supposed to be watching over.  After transforming it into straw, Mephistopheles has set it alight, and in the flames Faust has seen his ideal image of feminine beauty personified by Helen of Troy, who though has vanished, eluding his desires and fantasies.  Gripped by hallucinations, Faust has been unable to return the Clavis Astartis Magica book with the key and the Deed of Possession to the Cracow students when they returned to collect it, and they have informed him he will die at midnight that night.  In the final scene, as a chorus in a church sing how those who have done evil are condemned to everlasting death, outside the church Faust sees a beggar woman, whom he recognises as the dead Duchess, and she gives him their dead child, at the same time urging him to complete his work by midnight.  Taking the child, Faust tries to enter the church to pray, but the dead soldier brother of Gretchen appears and bars the way, while the chorus sing that God will not hear Faust’s prayer.  Finally the soldier vanishes and Faust, holding the baby, drags himself to the crucifix.

On Doktor Faust (Completion & Versions, etc.)





Final Scene, Second Extract (Jarnach Version) SYNOPSIS: Faust resolves to complete his work.  Impelled to breathe his soul into the dead boy, he sets him down on the ground, covers him with his cloak and steps into the magic circle.  He declares that the child will make straight what Faust built crooked, and as midnight strikes he dies.  In the distance Mephistopheles, disguised in this final scene as a Night-Watchman, announces that the weather is changing, and frost is in the air.   As he does so, arising from the dead child’s remains is a young man who, living in Faust’s spirit, proceeds to walk slowly towards the town of Wittenberg.  When he has gone, Mephistopheles comes on stage, and holding his lantern over the dead Faust’s body, he pronounces: “Has this man, so it would seem, met with a misfortune?”

Final Scene, Second Extract (Beaumont Version) SYNOPSIS: Faust resolves to complete his work.  He proclaims that with his new discovered freedom his final action will rise above both God and the Devil, who thereby will no longer exist as the known forces of good and evil.  Impelled to breathe his soul into the dead boy, he sets him down on the ground, covers him with his cloak and steps into the magic circle.  He declares that the child will make straight what Faust built crooked, and as midnight strikes he dies.  In the distance Mephistopheles, disguised in this final scene as a Night-Watchman, announces that the weather is changing, and frost is in the air.   In due course he comes on stage, and holding his lantern over the dead Faust’s body, he sings: “Has this man, so it would seem, met with a misfortune?”  As he leaves the stage, bells sound in a New Year and a new era while invisible off stage voices repeat Faust’s very final words “I, Faust, one eternal will”.

Related Resources


Thomas Hampson Interview on Hugo Wolf and His Time (2003)

Part of

Singers on Singing: Great Artists in Conversation