Franco Donatoni

[See related articles on the passing of Franco Donatoni by Grant Chu Covell and Robert Kirzinger.]

Mike Silverton

[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]

In sorting thru old papers, I discovered something I’d filed and soon after forgot. The essay, from the May 1993 issue of The Musical Times, starts off lucidly enough but soon turns technical beyond this reader’s means. When we re-emerge from the thickets, we come upon this:

“In psychoanalytic terms, Donatoni continues to do today what he was doing all through the 60s — to suppress his ego. … [That] clarity of the division between intuition and rationality allows him to maintain a fragile thread between himself and the world [which] for Donatoni is often seen as a kind of elaborate playhouse in which one event will … trigger off another. … These elaborations, Donatoni says, are no more than [children’s games]. … But if they are children’s games, we should not ignore the fact that it is the most sophisticated, knowing kind of innocence. …”

It never occurred to me to respond to Donatoni’s music as an observer of the ego’s suppression. (To approve perhaps or disapprove? One likes to avoid thinking psychoanalytically. The headaches, the angst, the unfilfilled impulses….) For ego-suppression let’s substitute abstraction — the absence of emotive content — as a quality I cherish (among several) in Donatoni’s music. If I may be allowed a couple of approximate analogies, one hears jewelry’s sounding equal, all twinkling facets and cunningly wrought turns, or airborne mazes, fantastic and affectionate. As to this business of ego-suppression, I’d long since decided that John Cage’s better advertised adventures in self-imposed anonymity simply do not work. As a parlor game perhaps — Name That Composer — one has little difficulty in identifying the music of Cage, however aleatory its means of assembly. Cage and Donatoni, each has his “sound.” It’s the passive listener who assigns identity, in other words, ego: recognition residing in the ear of the beholder, if you will.

A memorial service chez Silverton begins by taking the Donatoni CDs down off the shelf. It had been some time since I played them, tho one always means to decompress between review stints. I don’t write “decompress” thoughtlessly: Donatoni stands for me among the most entertaining of serious modernists, largely, I suspect, because his mature work aims to levitate. In this regard, Donatoni’s good-natured wit reminds me of Paul Klee’s luminous contraptions which, with a stretch, one can hear twittering. I began my private service with a perfection rediscovered: Pierre Boulez conducting his Ensemble InterContemporaine in Donatoni’s Tema for 12 instruments (1982) and Cadeau for 11 instruments (1984). In this repertoire, few can match Boulez’s illustration of the music’s very nerve trails and capillaries. Transparency occurs when hardware and software conspire to counterfeit an idealized reality; for the music lover who happens also to value verisimilitude’s domestic deportment, a transparent reading transparently produced engages the ear as a miracle, i.e., that which happens all too seldom. The disc is Erato 2292-45366-2, released in ’90 and doubtless o/p. It’s interesting to note that the composer shares space with Ligeti, as if the label were unwilling to take the commercial risk of an all-Donatoni program. Rather foolish decision, if you ask me. To hear Boulez taking on other Donatoni scores, what a pleasure that would have been!

I also had the pleasure of playing a performance by an old friend who has since retired, the English soprano Dorothy Dorow. Etcetera KTC 1053, released in ’88, features Dorow in a work Donatoni wrote for her, De Près. Another gem, Refrain, the composer wrote for the group that performs it, the Nieuw Ensemble under Ed Spanjaard’s direction. Try to find if you can two Adda CDs, 581133 and 581143, both of which feature Paul Mefano’s excellent Ensemble 2E2M in all-Donatoni progarms. I’ve also a Dischi Ricordi, CRMCD 1013, in an all-Donatoni program that includes two works, Rima and Ala, which appear on none of the other discs I’ve mentioned. I don’t suggest that my collection is complete. If I’ve succeeded in piquing the quester’s curiosity, I count myself successful.

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Obituary by Ivan Hewett from The Guardian (UK), Tuesday, August 22, 2000

The Italian composer Franco Donatoni, who has died aged 73, came within a hair’s-breadth of failing in his chosen profession, not at the outset, but after years of effort.

By the mid-1970s, when he was nudging 50, he seemed to be defeated, driven to silence and clinical depression by a creative impasse. Then came a turning point, which was followed by an amazing late summer of creativity. By the mid-1980s, he had risen to a commanding status in the modernist wing of contemporary music, on a par with his great contemporary, Luciano Berio.

In the 1950s, while the young Turks of the musical avant-garde-men like Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio were investigating electronic music and total serialism, Donatoni was writing in a comparatively safe neo-classical style, with a strong flavour of Bartok. Up to that point, his training had been conventional, and he had shown no particular sign of the radical he was to become.

He first studied music in his home town of Verona, and later at the Verdi Conservatory, in Milan, and the Martini Conservatory, in Bologna. Then, in 1953, came a crucial meeting with Bruno Maderna, who introduced Donatoni to the music of Webern and the avant-garde. For a while, Donatoni moved in their direction, but he always had reservations, summed up in his remark about Stockhausen: “My distance from Stockhausen, despite my admiration, is that he is always perfecting his ego and his music, while I want to destroy both the one and the other.”

Donatoni’s hatred of the ego was not some mystical desire to merge with the infinite. It was more a keen, almost agonised, awareness that the unity of a work of art could no longer be equated with self-expression-because, in these post-Freudian times, the self had become a slippery and dubious thing. Self, society and works of art had, in the past, been mutually defining and reinforcing; now they had drifted apart.

As Donatoni put it, “One can no longer say ’le style c’est l’homme.’” So where was “style” to be found? At first, it seemed that total serialism would give music that hard, objective quality once bestowed by a style, and so be the key to escaping the self. But then a better route appeared to offer itself in the early 1960s, when Donatoni fell under the spell of John Cage.

Thus began his negative period, in which he pursued Cage’s ideas of chance and “abnegation of the will” to a kind of reductio ad absurdum. He bypassed the ego by the simple expedient of quarrying other pieces for musical material, and then subjecting it to a process of systematic distortion and transformation.

Sometimes, the effect can be curiously moving, as in Etwas Ruhiger In Ausdruck (“Somewhat More Peaceful In Expression”), based on a tiny fragment of a Schoenberg piano piece. Other works of this period are distressingly self-destructive, pursuing their processes of transformation to the point of chaotic overload. Donatoni was proving his own misgivings that the absence of form in Cage’s music “was putting music in great danger, so that its survival as an art was being put into doubt.”

By the mid-1970s, Donatoni had abandoned composition, and only relented when his wife pleaded with him to accept a commission for a new chamber piece. The composition that resulted was Spiri, for 10 instruments, and it unlocked the door to an unforeseen musical territory. The state of euphoria that its composition engendered can be heard in the wit and sparkling invention of the music. The arcane systems of codes (rules for transforming one kind of music into another) are not abandoned, but are here applied to genuine melodic lines, often of a brusque and startling simplicity.

New pieces followed at an astonishing rate; in 1983 alone, there were no fewer than 10. Donatoni preferred the medium of chamber music; he wrote many brilliantly inventive pieces for solo instruments — piccolo and double bass were favourites — and for novel chamber groupings. There was also a handful of fine orchestral pieces, with one still to come: a 15-minute piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, entitled Prom, to be premiered next May at the Barbican Centre. (The title is a wry reference to a misunderstanding; the composer assumed wrongly that the piece had been commissioned for the BBC promenade concerts.)

There were no operas, which points to a certain narrowness in the human dimension of Donatoni’s music — a narrowness shared by several other leading lights of postwar modernist music, notably Boulez and, until recently, Elliott Carter. But within its limits, Donatoni’s later music has a fiery dangerous intensity, coupled with an insouciant wit, which gives it a piquant and inimitable flavour.

It achieves the aim the composer set himself back in the 1960s-it is individual without being expressive, utterly personal and yet devoid of self. The mystery that it points to is encapsulated in Donatoni’s remarkably romantic, almost Wagnerian credo: “Composing is the place of a ritual in which the sacrifice of the artist redeems man.”

Donatoni is survived by his wife, Susan, whom he married in 1958, and their two sons, Roberto and Renato.