Donatoni: 1927-2000

Donatoni: 1927-2000

Franco Donatoni and Casa Ricordi began working together in July 1977, and that relationship continued until his death on August 17, 2000, at the age of 73. 

Interest in Donatoni’s music inspired many musicologists and critics to reflect upon his outstanding career. Donatoni himself left us with a number of his own written testimonies, published over the course of 18 years, which include Questo (Adelphi, 1970), Antecedente X. Sulle difficoltà del comporre (Adelphi, 1980), Il sigaro di Armando. Scritti 1964-1982, edited by Piero Santi (Spirali Edizioni, 1982), and In-Oltre (Edizioni L’Obliquo, 1988). 

We’d like to remember Franco Donatoni with these excerpts from a lengthy interview (Prima il pensiero, poi la musica – “First Thought, Then Music”) he did with Angelo Foletto for the magazine 'Musica Viva' in February 1985, in which he talks about the various influences and musicians that made their mark on his own artistic development.

Why music?
You’d have to go way back in time, farther than I myself would know, in order to say so. All I can tell you is that music, for me, in terms of a profession, was never anything that went beyond a family-type setting, where we were, in the simplest terms, in love with opera, from Rossini to Puccini, like so many other provincial middle-class families. […] My first encounter with music came before I was even born. In the winter of 1927, when my mother was pregnant with me, my parents had a friend who was the director of Teatro Nuovo. He would give them tickets for the season’s productions, all operettas. 

A Comfortable Background and a Crucial Encounter
After the war, I threw myself headlong into music. I went back and forth from Milano to Bologna to get my schooling. At last, in 1951, I met Goffredo Petrassi, who urged me to go and study in Rome…
We got along great from the start. He simply asked me to tell him about my life. Which I did. Then he offered me a cigarette, and told me about his. From the start, we hit it off in a big way, because we had a lot in common. After that, we saw a lot of each other, we were there for each other. In this, I owe him a lot for the example he set. We’d talk about music, and about a lot of other things, too. In all the time I spent in Rome, Petrassi’s humanity was like a breath of fresh air for me.  

Of all the musicians you’ve known over the years, who’s left the greatest mark on you? 
Bruno Maderna, no doubt. We met by chance, but that meeting proved decisive. Maderna had come to Verona during the winter of 1953-54, and we first met in the home of mutual friends. Our relationship grew deep, we had lots of long conversations. […] At that time, he was putting together his quartet. It was a process, he told me, without trying to teach me anything, without being too explicit in that sense. He was encouraging me to follow my own development, made up of my own intuitions and constructions. I owe a lot to him.

What about influences from other history-making musicians? 
Besides Petrassi and Maderna, there was also Bartók, who was like a blow to my gut. I clearly recall listening to his String Quartet No. 4 on the radio in the spring of 1949.  There was no basic cultural stimulus, which is to say that it didn’t inspire me to head to the library and study all of Bartók’s quartets. But it frightened me, in that I felt like it had subjugated me in an emotional sense. Without having consciously or analytically assimilated it, Bartók’s musical language had a great impact on my early works.  

What’s the driving force behind your compositions? Is there any element in particular?
It’s like it was back in the ’60s. I always start from something that needs to grow and be transformed. Of course, early on, I had to work at it in order to put myself on display, whereas today everything comes much more naturally. Back then, I had to flaunt a certain automatic response that went beyond any kind of free will with regard to my own input in terms of the process of composing music – i.e., “technique”.  Today I realize that I can’t just start out with an abstract idea and use my instincts to seek out the basic “material” necessary. To come up with something new, I need the initial determination, something akin to material […].

Donatoni e Cage 1979
What does “coming up with something new” really aim at?  
It’s inventiveness, and that goes beyond music. I think a lot of it involves the concept of play – like in a child’s imagination. An urgency, although I couldn’t tell you exactly where it comes from, even if I’m quite familiar with it, and it’s recognizable to me. […] All human activities depend on a coefficient of inventiveness if a given individual has this sort of calling. Of course, some activities have advantages over others.  

What does “inventing” something mean?
I think it’s giving form to something that wasn’t there before, or to something that didn’t exist on the outside. Because it already exists inside, and it just needs to be expressed, and projected in order to take on form. What’s behind musical invention is the search for a form.

What’s form, then?
It’s something you can grab hold of. It’s the inevitable conclusion of an inventive process, independent of the thing in itself, […] which stems from a core need. A finished work is no longer a product of invention – it’s just a product, like any other. Inventiveness is when the work does not yet exist, but it’s still a work in progress.   

In abstract terms, what do you think of the interpreters?
In worst-case scenarios, it’s best not to consider them. As far as the best artists are concerned, they’re the ones who win you over with their ability to re-create, and do so joyously. I always keep in mind Pierre Boulez’s performance of Tema, together with Ensemble Intercontemporain. I was simply enthralled by that. 

What music do you usually listen to?
Whatever music I happen to hear, depending on the concerts I go to. I have my own favorite composers, like Bach – I definitely make an effort to attend those performances whenever I can. But, generally speaking, I like listening to all kinds of music, nothing in particular.  

You’ve taught music for more than 30 years. How do you approach the problem of composition in terms of teaching?
It used to be that, as far as ideologies and poetics go, people thought contemporary music afforded us a glimpse of the future that was cloaked in humility and coherence. More recently, however, the ways we’ve come to consider music have become so many – a real explosion of approaches – that teaching music has been reduced to providing assistance to self-taught musicians. Today, teachers provide and transmit information that is exquisitely artisanal. That in itself constitutes a presence not to be taken lightly. Music teachers aren’t there just to take control of the situation, whether it’s from a personal or technical perspective. As musicians, music teachers have to show their students the way, and help them without going any farther than that. 

Beyond music, what are your literary interests? 
I did go through a “negative” period, when I was into various kinds of pessimist philosophy. Then I got into a bit of mysticism and Eastern stuff. Today I mostly read novels and poetry.   

Photos: © Roberto Masotti / Lelli e Masotti Archive