JOHN ALLITT ; Art Historian and Donizetti Scholar

Article excerpt

John Allitt played a significant part in the cultural life of Britain in three distinct fields: as a lecturer at the Central School of Art (now Central St Martins)inLondon,asaninternational expert on the music of Gaetano Donizetti, and as a leading contributor to the work of the Temenos Academy.

His early years were turbulent. Born in 1934 at Calais of English parents, he fled with his mother before the German armies at the age of six, diving behind a sugarbeet pile when machine-gunned from the air. Between the ages of eight and 12 he was seriously ill. In 1946 the family moved to Milan, and Allitt had a vivid memory of being taken by his father to the shed in which Mussolini had been shot by partisans.

At school in Switzerland he heard his first Donizetti opera, Don Pasquale - a defining moment. In Milan he drank in performances at La Scala while still a boy, standing at the back of a box and peering through the heads and hats at the stage below. Later, he studied Art History and Italian Literature at Leeds University. A failed marriage in Italy left him a struggling single parent, until his second marriage in 1970 and the birth of twin daughters proved a source of lasting happiness.

From 1964 Allitt taught at the Central School of Art in London. As Senior Lecturer in Art History, he joined the painter Cecil Collins in presenting a very different view from that officially sanctioned. Both viewed the increasingly dated Modernism - hard- edged abstraction was then in vogue - as empty of meaning and hostile to real creativity: "a world where the soul wanders unadopted, confused - dying", as Allitt wrote. They emphasised the importance of the representative element in art as a vehicle for the expression of the inner life, and a generation of students, many of whom are painting today, responded with enthusiasm.

During these same years Allitt was exploring the music of Donizetti, travelling to the composer's home town of Bergamo whenever possible. He discovered the neglected early compositions of Donizetti and the importance of his teacher, J.S. Mayr, a significant composer and theorist who was the link between German music and Italian Romantic opera.

In 1973 Allitt became Founding Chairman of the Donizetti Society and the first modern performances of forgotten works by Mayr and Donizetti followed, at St John's, Smith Square, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. …