Franco Donatoni

1927 2000

Franco Donatoni



Another fateful, and eventually problematic, meeting during this early period was with the American experimental composerJohn Cage, whose concept of composition contrasted dramatically to that of the Darmstadt school. After his early serial works, Donatoni began finding himself stuck between the two contradictory philosophies espoused by Stockhausen and Cage. He famously remarked about Stockhausen: “My distance from Stockhausen, despite my admiration, is that he is always perfecting his ego and his own music, while I want to destroy both one and the other.” Simultaneously, while admiring Cage’s removal of the composer’s self from composition, he was uneasy with Cage’s concept of his works.

This tension is exemplified in the pieces of the 60s and 70s, in which Donatoni takes a fragment of one of his earlier compositions, or of a work by another composer, and subjects it to a series of obscure codes and filters, leaving the original deconstructed and unrecognizable, and, to a great degree, removing his own compositional self from the result. An early example of the process isSouvenir (1967) for ensemble. The germ of the work is a fragment of Stockhausen’s ownGruppen, but distorted and processed beyond recognition. The cacophonous fragments repeatedly explode and collapse into silence. It finally comes to an uneasy rest, ending on a simple but uncertain major chord. Donatoni said of the work: “It is simply a piece of waste with the same value as those souvenirs sold to American tourists in Italy.”

Although still utilizing the same compositional techniques of transforming pre-existing material, this newfound joy and expressivity in their usage prompted an outburst of productivity in the 1980’s. A major solo work, begun in 1983 and completed in 1996, are theFrancoise Variationen for piano. The work is constructed as 49 variations, broken into seven sets of seven variations each. Each variation implements a new filter or process, creating the effect of gradual distortion of the original material. The result is intricate and virtuosic, with hints of wit and even of the piano music of Bartok.

Donatoni’s final work came about as a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1998. Dedicated to the musical director of the time and former student,Esa-Pekka Salonen, the piece is entitled Esa (in cauda V). At the time of the commission Donatoni was too unwell to write, and the work was dictated to students in his hospital room; the score was not even delivered until months after his death. Filled with oscillating atmospheres and dialogues, the composition simply dissolves at the end, with greater silences between wildly contradictory gestures, before ending with a quiet, slightly humorous but inconclusive final gesture.

Renowned for his distinctive musical language and legacy as a pedagogue, Franco Donatoni remains one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic composers. As a sufferer of deep depression and self-doubt, prone to periodic breakdowns, both his life and music are a study in survival and re-invention.

Born in Verona, Donatoni began his music studies with the violin in high school. Following the Second World War he continued with studies in composition in Milan at the G. Verdi Conservatory with Ettore Desderi and then in Bologna at the G. B. Martini Conservatory with Lino Liviabella. In 1953, following a meeting with Bruno Maderna, who introduced Donatoni to the serial avant-garde of the era, Donatoni spent the first of four summers at the Darmstadt summer courses, where he worked withSchoenberg, Stockhausen, and Boulez. Bartok was an especially important early influence, primarily in terms of structure. Donatoni would later single out four important characteristics he found in Bartok’s work: “cellular exposition and organic growth… growth without development, conservation of the fragment… juxtaposition of organisms; mutation, not evolution… and stasis of pulsations, continuity of tone, ‘night atmosphere, noises, murmurings, vibrations like moving timbres in an immobile space.” These concepts continued to guide his musical language, even through his final works.

After finishing Duo per Bruno Donatoni gave up composing. He took a job as an editor at his publisher, Suvini Zerboni, and avoided teaching. After nearly two years, it was his wife who pushed him to tentatively resume composing. The work that fully marked Donatoni’s return, with what he remembered as “joy, almost euphoria”, wasSpiri (1977).  The chamber work for 10 instruments begins with a lighthearted, surprisingly melodic duo between the oboe and violin, before collapsing into a sparser, darker texture. The work evolves through contrasting sections before returning to the same instrumentation, with the rest of the ensemble adding interjections, until, at last, percussion silences the group. The work is exciting, intricate, and above all, hugely expressive.

One of the final works of this era was 1975’s orchestral work Duo per Bruno. The material for the work came fromLa Biondina in gondoletta, a Venetian drinking song earlier utilized by Maderna, who had died the year before. The structure is among Donatoni’s most intricate, with little trace left of the complex processes used in the composition. The work begins with swirling melodic lines being passed around the orchestra, juxtaposed with violent interjections and eerie sustained tones. Following the completion of the first half of the work, Donatoni was admitted to a mental institution. The second half, composed after he had returned home, ends ominously, with a single note in the strings punctuated with leering horns, violent strikes of the bass drum, and the funereal tolling of bells.

Donatoni left a remarkable legacy as a teacher, working for nearly fifty years in the conservatories of Bologna, Turin, Milan, and Rome, the Accademia Chigiana of Siena, and many shorter stays as lecturer or composer-in-residence around the world. His students included Giulio Castagnoli, Ivan Fedele, Fausto Romitelli, Esa-Pekka Salonen,Magnus Lindberg, and countless others. He was a member of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the Accademia Filharmonica Romana, and, in 1985, the French Ministry of Culture awarded him the title “Commandeur dans L’Ordre des Arts et des Letters.”

It perhaps must have taken a composer like Franco Donatoni to create music that so powerfully exposes the contradictions inherent in 20th century classical music. Because of his own self-doubt and uncertainty, he sensed acutely the widening gap between composition and technique, between the composer and his works. There is no resolution to be found in his music, but instead a constant balancing of these dichotomies, and a voice that does, after all, turn out to be a very intimate and honest portrait of the man.

Images courtesy of Sylvain Blassel, Hiroaki OOI and public domain