The 100-year-old radical music manifesto that’s still essential reading today

Adam Harper introduces Ferruccio Busoni's 'Sketch Of A New Aesthetic Of Music', in this exclusive extract from a new translation of this revolutionary argument for the freedom of music.


Words by: Charlie Jones

In 1906, an Italian composer called Ferruccio Busoni sat down to write an essay about music. Printed at the height of modernism’s earliest flourish, it was seven year before the out-break of World War I, 27 years a college drop-out called John Cage took up music and nearly a century before the release of Night Slugs’s first 12”. Entitled Sketch Of A New Aesthetic Of Music, and written in the most thrilling prose, it stands as one of the most incendiary manifestos for the creation of new music and the impetus of musicians to create beautiful sound act free from dogma, rules and hangups. Check this lovely quote out:

Musical art is like a child that has learned to walk, but still has to be led… We have formulated rules, defined principles, laid down laws – laws conceived for an adult, but applied to a child that does not yet know the meaning of responsibility. Young as this child is, it already possesses one radiant quality that distinguishes it from its older sisters. The law-makers are reluctant to recognise this wonderful attribute, as it overturns all their rules. This child – it floats on air! Its feet do not touch the ground. It knows no law of gravitation. It is practically incorporeal. Its material is transparent. It is sonorous air. It is almost Nature itself. It is free.

It’s essential reading, and astoundingly relevant to today’s world. A new translation is out on London press Precinct and carries an introduction written Dummy contributor Adam Harper, an extract of which is below. Londoners are encouraged to pop down to the Hackney bookshop X Marks The Bökship, and all are encouraged to snap up a copy from Precinct direct.

The contribution of Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924) to the life and philosophy of twentieth-century music is both incalculable and unrecognised. Sadly his name rarely reaches far beyond the deepest institutional cores of classical music culture today, unlike those of the century’s subsequent avant-gardists – such as Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Russolo, Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, all of whose most radical musical ventures Busoni’s Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music predates. In his time, however, Busoni was a highly respected figure in European music and an early friend of its freer thinkers… He even organised one of the first performances of Schoenberg’s ground-breaking song-cycle Pierrot Lunaire at his Berlin apartment in 1913, with many members of the city’s thriving salon culture in attendance.

…As well as becoming a dazzling concert pianist, Busoni would also become an influential composer, teacher, conductor and writer by the time he started his daringly progressive essay Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music in 1906. …Suffused with organicist and essentialist metaphors (‘in each motif there lies the embryo of its fully developed form’), teleological promises (‘music… one day will regain its freedom – that is its destiny’), and glowing with a cosmic optimism, the prolonged nineteenth-century of the New Aesthetic sets up a parallel universe for musical modernism distinct from the one we’re more familiar with – the one where an anxious, expressionistic harmonic collapse was instigated by Schoenberg, who then succeeded it with a sober formalism… Despite its ornate fin-de-siècle language, the extreme outpourings of a dying age, the ambition of Busoni’s essay extends beyond his already avant-garde milieu to that of the generation after Schoenberg, glimpsing the radically expansive musical cosmos of Varèse, Cage and Stockhausen – one inhabited, perhaps, by countless generations of composers to come.

Busoni’s New Aesthetic is both exquisitely, manneristically ‘of its time’ and way ahead of it. It’s like reading a Latin treatise on black holes written by Isaac Newton, or finding an ink sketch of a jet engine among the papers of the Wright Brothers… It addresses the prevalent turn-of-the-century despair about the decline of a tradition of great (classical) music – a despair that, in the twenty-first century, is not only alive and well but has spread to many other music-making traditions too. He is very keen to stress that musical composition is not an old and dying art whose greatest successes – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – lay in the past, never again to be outdone. Busoni’s radical response to this zeitgeist is to cast music as a child that is only just beginning to find its feet, even if it has been doing so for hundreds of years. Proportionally, then, he projects his hopes into a musical golden age that extends for several millennia at least, with the best yet to come…

In railing against the ‘law-makers’ and rejecting any and all of their shackles on free musical creativity, Busoni creates a space for a conception of music so vast that it can only really be matched by John Cage (1912-1992) fifty years later. Busoni’s reduction of [the history of classical music] to a tiny pinpoint in an enormous musical universe is the same iconoclastic manoeuvre Cage made with 4’33”, when he opened up the concert hall to the unmediated production of sound (and silence) itself…

Busoni was enthusiastic about the potential of new technologies to offer a much finer control of musical variety long before Varèse’s and Cage’s similar eagerness led them into the field of tape and electronic music, which only became possible over twenty years after Busoni’s death. In A New Aesthetic he hails Thaddeus Cahill’s ‘Dynamophone’, an early ancestor of the synthesiser first built in 1897, for its ability to produce an infinite variety of pitches . Busoni’s emphasis on the limiting actualisations of notation and the ultimate indeterminacy of the musical performance also seem to prefigure the experimental musics of the mid-twentieth century, while his bold call for intervals narrower than the semitone (now called ‘microtones’) would only be answered by composers as brave (or as crazy) as Charles Ives (1874-1954), Jörg Mager (1880-1939, who studied under Busoni in 1918), Harry Partch (1901-1974) and György Ligeti (1923-2006).

…The New Aesthetic’s vivid prose proved popular with one of the giants of twentieth-century German-language poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke. It was he who recommended Busoni’s essay to the Insel-bücherei series of paperbacks for a second edition, which appeared in 1916 dedicated to Rilke, the ‘musician of words’. The critical culture of Europe in the early twentieth century as represented by Insel-bücherei – pamphlets and essays stirring the flux of ideas surrounding contemporary art, writing, music and aesthetics – is an inspiration to Precinct, who have prepared this new English edition in the hope that Busoni’s passion for the eternally new freedoms of musical creativity might not only refresh the way we encounter twentieth-century music, but might inspire twenty-first century musicians and listeners to rediscover the deepest questions in musical philosophy and resume the constant struggle for the music of the future.

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