Donald Martino, 74, Creator of Atonal Musical Works, Dies
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: December 12, 2005
Donald Martino, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer
widely respected for atonal works that combine intellectual rigor
with expressive freedom, died on Thursday aboard a cruise ship
in the Caribbean en route to Antigua. He was 74.
The cause was cardiac arrest following complications of diabetes,
said Lora Martino, his wife of 36 years, who was vacationing
with him. Mr. Martino lived in Newton, Mass.
A student of Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt, he was an
unapologetic Modernist steeped in 12-tone techniques. His works,
typically, were dense and formidably complex. A skilled craftsman
and comprehensive musician, he believed in challenging listeners.
In moments of frustration, he attributed the difficulties his
music had in winning mainstream acceptance to concert promoters
who cultivated a "potty-trained audience," as he put it in an
interview for his 60th birthday.
Yet many of his works had arresting qualities that even
nonspecialist audiences often found alluring: rhapsodic freedom,
Romantic expressivity, vividly dramatic mood shifts, fetching
instrumental colorings and, despite the busyness of his pieces,
remarkably lucid textures. His 1981 "Fantasies and Impromptus,"
for example, a 30-minute work for piano in nine movements, is
exhilarating in its improvisatory fervor, moving from ruminative
passages in a bittersweet atonal harmonic language to fits of
impetuosity. Called a "landmark of American piano music" by the
critic Andrew Porter in The New Yorker, it is like a 20th-century
descendant of Schumann's fantastical "Kreisleriana."
Similarly, there is "Notturno," a 20-minute chamber work awarded
the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. In this viscerally dramatic score,
moments of swirling chaos give way to pensive musings; rhythmically
kinetic outbursts alternate with intricate webs of counterpoint.
The critic Michael Steinberg, writing in The Boston Globe, called
the work "nocturnal theater of the soul."
Mr. Martino seemed dismayed by the labels used to describe his
music. "If anyone writes program notes and says I am a Serial
or a 12-tone composer, I am infuriated," he told an interviewer
for The New York Times in 1997. "I don't want to prejudice people
For all the cerebral integrity of Mr. Martino's works, there was
often an improvisatory energy in his music, stemming from his
early days of playing jazz. Born on May 16, 1931, in Plainfield,
N.J., he began studying music at 9, first learning the clarinet,
saxophone and oboe. By 15 he was composing actively. He attended
Syracuse University and completed a Master of Fine Arts degree
at Princeton in 1954. For the next two years he studied on a
Fulbright fellowship in Italy with the Modernist master Luigi
Mr. Martino's teaching career began at the Third Street Music
School Settlement in New York in the late 1950's. After successful
teaching stints at Princeton, Yale, the New England Conservatory
in Boston (as chairman of the composition department) and Brandeis,
he joined the faculty at Harvard in 1983. He retired 10 years
later at 62 so he could devote himself to composition.
In 1978 he founded Dantalian Inc., a publishing house, thus
placing himself in the vanguard of American composers who have
embraced self-publishing as a means to disseminate their music.
Ms. Martino was his partner in this endeavor. "I ran the business,
he wrote the music," she said on Saturday.
Mr. Martino produced a large and varied catalog, including
symphonic works, concertos, vocal music and pieces for jazz
ensemble. In addition to his wife, his survivors include their
son, Christopher, of Boston, and Donald Martino's daughter from
an earlier marriage, Anna Maria Martino of Branford, Conn.
Mr. Martino was to be honored with a concert at Harvard on Feb.
5 by the Lumen Contemporary Music Ensemble celebrating a year
of 75th birthdays for Mr. Martino and a composer colleague,
Lora Martino said that her husband had taken his laptop and
electric keyboard on the cruise so that he could work on a
commission from the Tanglewood Festival. "As I did my thing,
walking and swimming and exploring," she said, "he spent a good
part of the vacation writing music very happily."