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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Donald Martino

Donald Martino/

Major influences?" Composer Donald Martino knitted his brow as he contemplated the personalities who have most shaped his musical and esthetic sensibilities. Now, almost 40 years after our first meeting as classmates at Princeton University's graduate school, we were chatting over a leisurely lunch and reviewing the state of music generally, and the Pulitzer Prize winner's role in it in particular.

"The strongest influence in my life, the composer I still love most" Martino said with his usual quiet conviction after a long reflective pause, "has been Beethoven. Not Schoenberg. Not Hindemith. Not the people of my century, my contemporaries. No, Beethoven and Brahms. Theirs is the music from which I've learned the most. It's all there, and it's expressive. But as a naive kid from a small town, I found remarkable things in everybody — all those musicians who were so dedicated and so good at what they did and so intolerant of everything but the best that they just became models for me."

Donald Martino celebrated his 60th birthday in May. Hearing him muse on his life, one is immediately aware of his seeming polarities: the seasoned professional still attuned to the very young; the senior Harvard professor still a tennis-committed jock; the composer who's always been a performer; the author of the most difficult, occasionally abstruse music who's had equal experience with pop and jazz; the serious, sometimes cynical observer and analyst whose ironic wit and soft, sinus — filtered delivery can double people up with laughter. Throughout it all, one notes again and again his total commitment, his unbounded enthusiasm for the art of music-every so often tinged with just a note of sadness that these qualities are not always equally present in students and musicians he has known.

Martino speaks fondly of his Plainfield, New Jersey upbringing, the only child in a family that was consistently supportive of his talents and enthusiasms. He began playing clarinet at the age of nine and soon became proficient enough to participate in all the music-making groups around: concert bands, Italian feasts, symphony orchestras, jazz and dance bands. In doing so, he rubbed shoulders with a large number of local musicians, and since Plainfield is a short and easy ride to New York City, he had already developed an astonishing professional orbit by the time he was in his teens. One of his earliest mentors was the clarinetist Harwood Simmons, a teacher at Columbia and Juilliard after a long and busy career as an active player. Martino had been about to enroll at Columbia when Simmons took a position at Syracuse University and young Donald decided to go along.

Syracuse proved to be a musical spawning ground for him. While he had been writing music for a long time, Martino now found himself studying with such eminent personalities as composer Ernst Bacon (who showed him the essentials of the art and also touched on musical folklore), violinist Louis Krasner (who would make sure that everything Martino wrote would get performed), and of course Simmons (who turned him on to Bartók). By the time he graduated, he could boast an impressive catalogue of compositions that had been played. It was at Syracuse that he also met his first wife, a violinist who participated in performances of his string quartets. Upon graduation from Syracuse, he went to Princeton where he worked with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt before going to Italy on a Fulbright grant to study with Luigi Dallapiccola. And all this time, he continued to write pop songs and jingles under the assumed name of Jimmie Vincent.

It was in Florence that certain aspects of his perceptions and sensibilities started to change. The chromaticism of his music demanded a new ordering that led him to free himself of his Bartók dependency. At the same time, he began to intuit that the over-simplifications of the 12-tone system, as it was then practiced by many composers, were not suited to his musicality. ("One of the problems with some 12-tone composers," he has often told his students, "is that they really believe that inversions make music. But that isn't true.") He experimented with new ways of making pitch connections within the set so that certain tones would immediately stand out in the listener's ear. It was during this stage of Martino's development that he first began to ask himself how he could "make a piece sing and think, too." His late 20s marked an intense and prolonged transitional period for him. On the personal front, this turbulent and often difficult phase of his life culminated in the end of his first marriage.

Returning to America in the mid-fifties, Martino taught for a year at the Third Street Settlement School in New York City, spent a year as an instructor at Princeton, a decade on the Yale music faculty, another decade at the New England Conservatory (where he served as chairman of the composition department), and a three-year stint as Irving Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis University before becoming a professor at Harvard University in 1983. During his productive career, he has garnered many awards and distinctions including three Guggenheim fellowships, the Classical Critics Citation, and membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His 1973 Naumburg Award led to his composing Notturno, the chamber work that won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Music and which brought his art to the attention of a wider public.

His music — Martino's output is substantial and includes orchestral, vocal, and choral pieces as well as a canon of chamber works — began to take on a highly individual profile. It can sound ruggedly uncompromising, but it is never doctrinaire; it is often extremely lyrical and rhapsodic, but it is never a rehashing of bygone styles. It is this self-plotted course that has on occasion gotten him in trouble, some traditionalist critics dismissing him as just another Babbitt disciple — his music actually bears no resemblance to Milton Babbitt's — while the strict serialists resent his clear refusal to join their ranks. "If, later on, anyone will ever bother to look and listen to my music, they will judge that it's really pretty old-fashioned and traditional stuff. I used to bridle at that realization, but I've come to view it tenderly of late. When I listen to a Brahms Intermezzo or the C minor Piano Quartet, I don't analyze it. I sit and weep. That's what I'd like my audience to do. It just doesn't want to do it. But I have put my deepest feelings and senses, even my jokes and sometimes bitter parody into that music." But if some audiences have appeared puzzled, some performers have been loyal and devoted supporters of his music. One of the reasons behind their enthusiasm is the fact that Martino writes so idiomatically for instruments, often extending their normal range and timbral qualities to new and other-worldly dimensions.

His sonant fantasies may be his only extraterrestrial realm. Martino is unusually aware of and attuned to the many necessary steps 'twixt composition and listening. To begin with, the music has to be notated clearly and legibly, so that the composer's intentions are communicated to the performer as understandably as possible. While some (most?) composers require professional (and expensive) copyists and computer engravers to fulfill this task, Martino has been a skilled and highly practiced autographer from his earliest days of setting music to paper. Next, it is obviously not enough to put a double bar on a new composition and consign it to a shelf to begin on the next. Performance is the immediate objective of all composers, and this involves the recruitment of, first, performers, and then, presenters. By his mid-twenties, Martino had evolved a cadre of the former and, being unusually endowed with both inquisitiveness and initiative, had begun to make his mark in and around the business of music.

Having placed his early works with a publishing company, he waited for things to happen. When nothing did, he appealed to the firm's management, offering what he thought eminently practical advice. But when all his suggestions were dismissed or ignored, he decided to take matters in his own hands. Together with his wife Lora — the two had met at Tanglewood in the mid-sixties — he founded Dantalian,Inc., a publishing concern solely created for the production, promotion, and distribution of the works of Donald Martino. (The word "Dantalian," by the way has nothing to do with either Dante or Italian, but is a medieval talisman that Martino stumbled across in the ' 60s. It appealed to him visually and he was also struck by what seemed to him its many hidden meanings, and when he established his own company, he had a readymade name and logo.) In the thirteen years of its existence, it has put out 34 items for sale, all of his own composition except for his edition of the Bach Chorales.

Writes Martino: "For most of its thirteen years, I alone have been editor, copywriter, artist, engraver, promoter, distributor, stock boy, file clerk, purchasing agent, cleaning person... you name it." But, in a pensive moment, he also says: "There are probably a lot of people who think of me as a person who is never satisfied with anybody or anything, and maybe that's true. At a certain point, I became dissatisfied with the way my tennis rackets were being strung, so I bought a stringer and string my own rackets. That's just my personality, the way I deal with life. The only way I can solve problems is by myself. That's both positive and negative. It's negative when it gets to the point that there are more problems to solve than time in which to solve them." (Besides addressing problems, he tries to get enough time for his extramusical passions, his family — he and Lora have a sixteen-year-old son, and there is a 28-year-old daughter from his first marriage — and, of course, his lifelong love of tennis.)

Perhaps it is the discovery that so many of the students he has encountered over the years seem to lack the lust for learning that most surprises and disappoints him. Education, he says, is a lifelong, ongoing process and he feels fortunate at having had models who instilled in him his ceaseless drive for making connections, for immersing himself in the totality of his art, from how it is made to how it is disseminated. But he keeps encouraging his students and urging their involvement in everything. "`Apply, apply, apply for everything and keep applying,"' he says. "`If you don't win, at least some prominent people in the field will get to know your name. It doesn't make any difference how good you are. One of these days, you'll win. Just find out what you really want to do, and pursue it.' But at the same time, I do not believe that it's our responsibility to get jobs for students or to teach them how to cope in the outside world. Our only responsibility is 'to teach them religion,' so to speak, the love of music, the appreciation of what a great work is, and to settle for nothing less than the best that they can produce."

Having spent the last 35 years of his life teaching at several of this country's most prestigious institutions of higher learning, Martino was unequivocal in his comments about the composer in academia. "It's no place to be," he says. "If I could get out, I would do so immediately. It's become an obsession over the last ten years. All I want to do is write music, and that's all I've ever wanted to do. But if I must teach to make a living, then at least let it be where rooms are filled with music rather than words, and where the atmosphere is inviting and more conducive to music-making."

Reviewing his creative life, he says — not without a trace of sadness — "I am what I am now, and there's no turning back from it. I don't claim that what I do is better than what another composer does. But I am a captive of what I've become, and that's all I can do. Every composer must follow his own star. The only answer in life, it seems to me, is to find something that fills your days happily. That's what I think education is about, to get us to find that. And the lost souls are the ones who haven't."

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