ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
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
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
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."