Donald Martino


by Bernard Rands

Kind, loyal, amusingly gregarious with his friends, those he respected and trusted; taciturn, blunt, and distant with those who did not inspire his confidence, Donald Martino was a complex man, a complex artist whose personality found appropriate expression in challenging multifaceted music.  His journey through the minefield of professional music making was rarely easy, never entirely comfortable, nor he content in his search for musical truths as he perceived them.  He did not tip-toe through the minefield, but his islands of refuge, safety, and nourishment were his family and his work.  From these emerged a composer and music of uncompromising fastidiousness, intellectual integrity and rigor, emotional power, and, above all, sonic elegance.

Martino was one of the mold of a few other notable composers whose creative endeavors followed a consistent, single-track, unswerving evolution—discovering, comprehending, developing, and blossoming along the way from juvenilia through maturity to mastery—but, at the end, no radical departures from the fundamental principles espoused at the beginning—always holding fast to a “developed, congenial language.”  It was always unmistakably the music of Donald Martino, and that has been described as music of “temperamental necessity.”  A remarkable, singular accomplishment that, however, did not prevent his appreciation of different, even contradictory, aesthetic positions of other composers.

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey on May 16, 1931 (just two years after the birth there of the great jazz pianist and composer, Bill Evans—the two of them played together from time to time in the early ’50’s),  Martino’s childhood musical studies began on clarinet, saxophone, and oboe, leading to the teenager playing in various bands and ensembles.  Recently heard recordings of the fourteen-year-old Martino playing jazz clarinet caused his lifelong friend Gunther Schuller to remark, “At fourteen, he played better than Artie Shaw, and I speak with authority.”  Indeed!

Princeton graduate study mentors were Sessions and Babbitt—the latter’s influence being the single most significant factor in the early formulation of Martino’s compositional processes.  The constructivist precision of numerical/mathematical relationships and twelve-tone serial procedures underpinning a lucid, fluent, almost improvisatory character of the heard music appealed to Martino, who was fascinated by the phenomenon of number and its predictable and serendipitous behaviors.  A never denied rumor tells of a young Martino frequenting the casinos of Las Vegas, attracted primarily by popular music performances by big bands and jazz combos.  However, his study and shrewd observation of the crap games led him to formulate a winning strategy sufficient to cause his ejection from the tables, and be identified as an unwelcome “marked man.”

A sojourn in Italy in the mid 1950’s not only revealed to Martino the significance of his ancestry, but through studies with the great Italian composer, Luigi Dallapiccola in Firenze, helped him develop a natural “Italianate” lyricism without compromising the underlying stringent formal structures and calculations of his music.  From that point onward, there is in all Martino’s compositions a cantabile line that sings through the densest of textures.  Meticulously notated in every parameter, his scores are saturated with performance directions aimed at “expressive nuance”—espressivo drammatico, espressivo dolce, leggiero, senza accento, misteriosa, ansiosa, con bravura, sempre legato, sorridente, carezzevole, capriccioso, a piacere … cascading, one after the other in fast juxtapositions.  All this at a time when twelve-tone/serial modernism had virtually expelled this explicit, “romantic” emotional range.

Having established a significant profile through works such as Pianississimo and his piano masterpiece Fantasies and Impromptus, the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, Paradiso Choruses, and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Martino composed Notturno for an ensemble of six players for which he was awarded the 1974 Pulitzer Prize.  One critic described the work as “Nocturnal theatre of the soul,” and Martino expressed his pleasure “with that poetic description.”

Shortly thereafter, Don took one of the most courageously defiant steps of his flourishing professional career.  He turned his back on the commercial publishing houses and with his wife Lora established Dantalian Company, a self-publishing enterprise.  This is how he described it:

If not the first, I am certainly very nearly the first composer to establish by himself, for himself, and without banding together with other composers, a fully commercial publishing house.  Founded in 1978 out of an overwhelming frustration with my commercial publishers in virtually every domain of what I had come to expect to be their historical responsibility.  My in-house motto was ‘there is no way we can do worse than they do.’  We have done it much better.  Our mission is to promote the composer first, make a profit second.  To obsessive types life myself, it brings enormous satisfaction that I have complete control over every aspect of my work product.  But, one has to be willing to be president, manager, treasurer, editor, photographer, graphic artist, book designer, proofreader, publicist, packer, shipper, gopher, and, when all is done, sweep the floors.  When do I find time to compose?  Luckily, I require very little sleep and have always found that the more excited I got about a project – composing, publishing, woodworking, playing tennis, practicing my clarinet – the less time is needed for sleeping.

For almost 30 years, a substantial area of Lora and Don’s home in Newton, Massachusetts has been dedicated to Dantalian Company—a viable, financially, and artistically successful enterprise with an extensive catalogue, including all Don’s music.

Though Martino held numerous appointments at academic institutions beginning at the 3rd Street Music Settlement, then Princeton, Yale, The New England Conservatory, Brandise, and finally retiring from Harvard in 1993.  The academic environment was not entirely Don’s métier.  A barely muffled mumble would signal his impatience with “long-on-talk, short-on-action” situations that absorbed precious time he felt would be better used in music-making.  Nevertheless, nobody who heard him discourse on a late Beethoven quartet, Brahms intermezzo, a Debussy image, a Webern bagatelle, a Schoenberg orchestral work could ever doubt his academic and formidable intellectual prowess.

“My music is not austere and academic,” he declared, continuing, “It’s a fantasy that anyone writes academic music.  People write music for other people; the intention is to warm the spirit.  I write music for people to listen to, to react to; I want them to say, ‘hey, this is nice.'”

Don and his wife Lora were on a cruise vacation in the Caribbean when he died on December 8, 2005 of complications following a valiant battle with the ravages of diabetes.  A tireless worker all his life, Don had brought along with him his electronic keyboard to work on a new concerto for violin and ensemble, commissioned by the Tanglewood Festival, and he worked until the late afternoon of his final day.

Donald Martino gave us the noble gift of music—a music that is delicate yet forceful, often mesmerizing, always challenging and sometimes baffling, but always uplifting by its deep humanity.  It does warm the spirit, and yes, it is often nice.  Very nice.  No matter how we accept his gift, it is a music which will always remind us what music can be beyond that which we, ourselves, are able to imagine.

Bravo e calmo, caro Don.

Read at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006.