Obituary: Franco Donatoni

By Warnaby, John | Musical Opinion, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Obituary: Franco Donatoni


Warnaby, John, Musical Opinion


The death of Franco Donatoni on 17 August at the age of 73 means that only Luciano Berio remains of the triumvirate whom Bruno Maderna helped to nurture in the late 1940s to early 1950s, and who went on to become the mainstream of the post-war Italian avant-garde. Donatoni did not quite match the best of Luigi Nono or Berio, not least because his objectives were somewhat different, but in addition to the consistency of his achievement he established a significant link with an even more radical group of Italian composers led by Franco Evangelisti and Aldo Clementi. Beside their Maoist politics they sought to extend compositional and performance techniques to the absolute limit, and attempted to devise procedures which would produce the musical equivalent of automatic writing.

Donatoni was born in Verona on 9 June 1927 and studied at the Academia di S Cecilia in Rome with Ildebrando Pizzetti. He met Bruno Maderna in 1953 and was soon drawn towards modernism. He arrived at a crucial point in his creative life around 1960 with such works as For Grilly for Ensemble and the orchestral works Sezioni and Puppenspiel. It was the culmination of an extended phase, in which he experienced the discipline of Goff redo Petrassi's teaching and absorbed, successively, the influences of Bartok and Stravinsky; the Second Viennese School; and then the integral serialism of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Thereafter, he was increasingly seduced by the ideas of John Cage, which caused creative difficulties, ultimately precipitating a psychological crisis. Cage's chance procedures appeared to offer a more effective means of avoiding self-expression than total serialism, and Donatoni explored the potential of aleatoricism during the mid-1960s. His most renowned example was the Fourth String Quartet, entitled Zrcadlo.

Donatoni's application of Cage's methods coincided with a negative period in his output, which was reinforced by his literary preoccupations with Kafka, Beckett, and William Burroughs. In keeping with the latter's Collage and

Cut-up technique, Donatoni devised Zrcadlo as a game, based on newspaper headlines. The speed at which the music is played depends on the speed at which each player scans the syllables of a headline, so that once the first player has read the title he signals his colleagues to progress to the next of the Quartet's 42 sections.

Donatoni found ways of abdicating responsibility to the performers in several works, but soon experienced considerable difficulty in coming to terms with the negative aspects of Cage's legacy, feeling that they would destroy music in general and his own composing career in particular. Accordingly, he adopted an alternative approach, based on the systematic use of pre-existing material drawn from other composers. The first, and most celebrated example was Etwas ruhige im Ausdruck, for Small Ensemble, whose title was derived from an instruction accompanying a fragment of one of Arnold Schonberg's Opus 23 piano pieces, which Donatoni subjected to various transformations and distortions. Further pieces followed, such as Souvenir, for 15 instruments, and Orts, for Ensemble, based on material by other composers, notably Stockhausen, of whose emphasis on personal expression Donatoni disapproved. In essence, the technique Donatoni developed was based on the principle of Variations, but it also enabled him to achieve a greater degree of automatism than hitherto.

In some respects Donatoni's methods foreshadowed the tendency towards deconstruction which became a feature of post-modernism, but he retained his modernist credentials. The negative phase reached its culmination with Voci, for Orchestra, composed in 1972, a characteristically ambitious score in which Donatoni manipulated a fragment of Johann Sebastian Bach in every conceivable manner. The subsequent Duo por Bruno, for Orchestra, proved an even finer achievement, despite the fact that its composition was interrupted for a substantial period by a bout of clinical depression. …

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