Donald Martino: Triple Concerto/Notturno



Donald Martino




Donald Martino, born in Plainfield, New Jersey, May 16, 1931, began music lessons at nine learning to play the clarinet, saxophone, and oboe and started composing at 15. He attended Syracuse and Princeton universities. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, his many awards include two Fulbright scholarships, three Guggenheim fellowships, grants from the Massachusetts Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in music for his chamber work Notturno, First Prize in the 1985 Kennedy Center Friedheim Competition for his String Quartet (1983), and most recently (1987) the Boston Symphony's Mark M. Horblit Award. He has taught at the Third Street Music School Settlement in New York, Princeton University, Yale University, the Yale Summer School of Music and Art, Tanglewood, the New England Conservatory of Music, where he was chairman of the composition department from 1969-79, Brandeis University, where he was Irving Fine Professor of Music, and Harvard University, where he is currently Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music Emeritus. Commissions for new works have come from, among others, the Paderewski Fund; the Fromm, Naumburg, Koussevitzky, and Coolidge foundations; the Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco Symphonies; and a number of musical societies and organizations. Elaine Barkin, Mr. Martino's biographer in the New Grove, says, "Martino's music has been characterized as expansive, dense, lucid, dramatic, romantic, all of which are applicable. But it is his abilityto conjure up for the listener a world of palpable presences and conceptionsthat seems most remarkable."








Notturno for piccolo/flute/alto flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello, percussion and piano was composed in 1973 on commission from the Naumburg Foundation for the virtuoso new-music ensemble Speculum Musicae. It received its premiere performance by that ensemble on May 15, 1973 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York, and the following year received the Pulitzer Prize for Music.




Notturno is cast in nineteen parts plus a codetta, whose sequence of reminiscences of things past emerges from the ever-sounding but ever-instrumentally mutating "tonic" note D. The parts group themselves into three larger sections, which one may regard as movements although my conception was of an uninterrupted continuity. At one level, Notturno is drama a drama played out by the personas of the self as portrayed by the performers of the ensemble. In this reading, perhaps the movements might be likened to acts in a play, or better still, because of their continuousness, to chapters in a novel.




The first and last movements each contain nine parts contrasting most noticeably in tempo, gesture, and range, but in other aspects as well. Here, ideas are presented in highly mercurial fashion, as if, metaphorically speaking, the self is nervously sorting through its life experiences during that dream-like state which often overcomes us at day's end. The central movement, on the other hand, slowly and gradually unveils a series of long melodious lines. It is a time for pause, for reflection, for supposition and suddenly, without warning, for a revelation (in the form of musical climax) which will initiate new understanding.




While the outer movements are in fact pitch permutations of each other, this technical artifice is meant not so much to be heard as felt. And the last movement on its surface is so much a variant of the first that it should seem quite new. It was my intention that the sense that it would balance the first, having been accomplished by the underpinning of harmonic identities, would make it similar to recapitulation in tonal music. Another critical difference between these movements lies in the fact that the first presents its parts (and ideas within the parts) disjunctly so that one listens to nine distinct and different "discussions," whereas, the last, as though influenced by the long narrative surface of the second movement, presents its parts conjunctly, so that the "discussions" now seem to be comparable and somehow related, blending each into the next.




My joy at having received the commission for Notturno was somewhat diminished by the requirement that I include percussion instruments in the traditionally intimate world of chamber music. How, I thought, could I possibly reconcile drums with violins? My initial working solution was to eschew most of that families' noise-makers and write for mallet instruments alone. But as the composing progressed, it became clear to me that the incisive attack characteristics even of these instruments were having a profound effect on my thinking that somehow they needed to be given real and special prominence. Hence, the genesis of the Second Movement.




Out of the silence that follows the opening movement, come faint but evocative noises, then an internalized quasi-melody: still more noise than pitch, then finally the pitched playing of a series of now externalized melodies. It is as though by being asked to listen intently to these faint and mysterious sounds within a measured time of silence, we are led to recognize those of their pitch qualities which in every day life, we usually ignore. We have the impression that pitch has been created out of noise; or metaphorically, that our thoughts and feelings (the melodies) have been evoked by the sounds of the still night. In its final moments the movement retraces its course now from pitch to noise, this time filling the silence between movements with delicately pitched noises which introduce and closely match the timbre of the first notes of the last movement.




As I was composing it, Notturno seemed to me to evoke, not so much the external sounds but rather, the feelings one might experience in the dark hours; and from this perception, rather late in the creative process, it got its name. One listener has described it as "Nocturnal Theater of the Soul." I am very pleased with that poetic description.




Donald Martino








Pianississimo is Donald Martino's exuberant celebration of pianistic possibilities. The bravura of 19th Century Romanticism is wedded to the more intricate and evanescent sounds of our own time to produce a complex web which Andrew Porter described as "an enchanted journey, through circles where transfigured shades of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel sometimes glimmer, in a realm at once welcoming and strange." The wealth of allusion and rhythmic byplay cannot be fully savored upon first hearing but the listener is swept in and left fulfilled by the swirl of colors and shades of emotions which coalesce in a vast four-part structure.




Martino's art centers around two coordinate traits. First is an intensely expressive line. Harmony and polyphony serve largely to enhance a central voice; and color (i.e. touch) serves structural and expressive ends as a backdrop or commentary upon this line. Even in the slow movement of Pianississimo, with its vast array of coloristic devices, there is nothing "impressionistic" about the music. He is always concerned to express a personal, often intimate, state via line. He never loses sight of himself a goal in Impressionism and much of today's newest music.




Complex rhythms (essentially written-out rubati) and widely-spaced leaps pervade much of the work. The Allegro proper, for instance, opens with a leap covering the entire keyboard and is instantly rebuked by the same two pitches reversed and in a (seemingly) unrelated speed. These twin challenges, for listener as well as performer, have helped to create the aura of forbidding difficulty which surrounds the music. However, much as with the tiny Impromptu for Roger (Albany Records, TROY169), when the complexities are mastered, a performer can give the work a richly expressive sense of endless melody in almost the same fashion as a Bach Chorale-Prelude, or, at times, a Chopin Nocturne.




Martino's love of the Romantics is evident throughout the work from its opening and closing Lisztian bravado to its climactic Schumannesque reverie. Characteristically, Martino transforms Liszt's triumphant octaves into more acerbic but equally dazzling parallel ninths. The filigree textures of the Finale in which voices (and hands) are enmeshed recall nothing so much as Schumann's Kreisleriana.




The coordinate trait of Martino's music, one central to his generation, is organic form again the antithesis of much of today's music in which sections are demarcated to the point where fluidity of motion is denied. Martino describes his works as "narratives" and, in a narrative, one seldom does more than pause for breath or to emphasize one's point. Martino wraps the pure sonata structure of Pianississimo in transitions (cadenzas, recitatives, metric modulations) as a means of achieving structural fluidity. Even the seemingly motion-stopping recollections of motivic fragments over vast amounts of musical space are largely means of softening still further transitions between the huge movements of this sonata. Thus, their essentially transitional function


is overwhelmed by the almost Proustian sense of remembrance conveyed by these brief and enigmatic utterances. Martino has acknowledged his inspiration from Liszt and no work from the past seems such a structural and pianistic forebear as the great Liszt Sonata.




Pianississimo was completed in 1970 and it should be noted that it represents the first major way station in Martino's search for self an intense period lasting the entire decade. The passion, fierce conviction, brilliance and emotional intensity of Pianississimo would evolve, a decade later into the warmth, lyricism and nostalgia of Fantasies and Impromptus (Albany Records, TROY169) only to transform itself once again a decade later in Twelve Preludes (Albany Records, TROY169) into introspective and quizzical reminiscences which can finally take both the beauty and the mundanity of the external world into its graceful embrace.




David Holzman




Triple Concerto




Triple Concerto (1977) for clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet with a chamber ensemble of sixteen players was composed to a commission from the Group for Contemporary Music and dedicated to Milton Babbitt on the occasion of his 60th birthday. This commission was made possible by a grant to the Group from the New York State council on the Arts and a grant to the American Music Center by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Further assistance was provided by a National Endowment for the Arts Category IV Fellowship Grant. Triple Concerto was given its premiere performance December 18, 1978, by the Group for contemporary Music, conducted by Harvey Sollberger, at Borden Auditorium, Manhattan School of Music, New York.




Since the Summer of 1973 I had been toying with the idea of presenting a clarinet concerto to Milton Babbitt on his forthcoming 60th birthday. When, the following year, Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger, co-directors of the Group for Contemporary Music, asked me to write a piece for the Group, my eager acceptance included a promise to compose such a concerto. I was only able to begin the project late in the spring of 1976. After some months of unproductive effort and frustration, I realized that I was being hindered by a conception of the work which prescribed, if not a full orchestra, at least a substantial string section. Since it was impractical to enlarge the ensemble, I decided to enlarge the soloist. Only then did the drama of the work reveal itself to me and its execution become clear. My plan was to transform the three separate clarinets into "Superclarinet," a six octave gargantuan who would use the concerto as a world in which to romp and play with the "Superfriends." I thought to effect this transformation not by altering the innate personalities of the elegant Soprano, the poetic Bass, or the obstreperous Contrabass instruments, but by sequentially bringing them together, even within the smallest phrase particle, in such fashion that the naturalness of their interaction would melt their differences.




The moods of Triple Concerto are manifold. And, as with all my works in large form, I have the sense when hearing it, that I have created an evolving narrative somewhat akin to the spiritual journey of one's life.




The three movements, connected by paraphrastic cadenzas and enclosed by a formal Introduction and Coda, proceed without pause. In tempo, these seven sections are roughly symmetric. But symmetry, though everywhere a monitor of the musical technique, remains the unheard graph upon which are traced an ever-changing fantastical and dramatic surface scenario.




One by one, the Introduction presents each of the instruments as individual actors, with the soloists as protagonists in the musical drama to follow. Each soloist is figuratively provoked by the opening explosive orchestral gesture to react in a uniquely personal way. Of the many descriptive words that may be found on the pages of the first movement, perhaps the most pervasive would be "ansioso" and "cantabile." And the most obviously unusual aspect of this sonata-allegro movement is the exclusion of a recapitulation: Exposition (A, B); Development; Coda.




The second movement begins with an idea that is sustained, suspended in time, evocative, and lyric. By way of contrast, its consequent is rhythmic, iterative, and "espressivo." The two musics conjoin to form the theme for variation and development, processes which by movement's end have melted all differences between the theme's two parts. The final development takes on the character of an accompanied cadenza from which the soloists briefly emerge to introduce the last movement: a Rondo. Here, the mood is lighter, less intense than before, the drama having climaxed with the preceding cadenza. The Coda, the conceptual retrograde of the Introduction, divorces the musical components, thereby permitting them to exit as they arrived separately.




Donald Martino




David Holzman has been described by Andrew Porter as a "master pianist" and has been lauded for his compelling interpretations of our century's keyboard masterpieces in his many recitals both here and in major festivals overseas. His recorded performances may be heard on Centaur, CRI and Albany (TROY169) records. Harvey Sollberger is one of our leading flutists and composers. As conductor he has done much to advance the cause of new music. Mr. Sollberger was co-founder and director of the Group for Contemporary Music and presently is Professor of Composition at the University of California, San Diego. Anand Devendra (soprano clarinet) and Dennis Smylie (bass clarinet) are prominent free-lance players in New York and at major music festivals. Each has long been associated with new music performance and each has participated in hundreds of premiers. Leslie Thimmig (contrabass clarinet) is a composer and low woodwind specialist equally adept in the performance of concert music and jazz. He is Professor of Music at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.






Notturno and Triple Concerto are licensed by permission of Elektra Entertainment, A Division of Warner Communications, Inc.






Notturno and Pianississimo are published by E.C. Schirmer Music Company. Triple Concerto is published by Dantalian, Inc. (BMI). Triple Concerto was recorded December 1978, and Notturno was recorded February, 1974. Marc J. Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz (Elite Recordings, Inc.) were engineers for these recordings. Pianississimo was recorded in 1991 at Paine Hall, Harvard University. Joel Gordon was the engineer for Pianississimo.




Photo of Donald Marino by Bachrach. Cover photo by Stephen M. Cleary.






Donald Martino








Liberamente (6:21)




Molto Lento (5:07)




Allegrettino (4:29)




Speculum Musicae · Daniel Shulman, conductor








Introduction · Allegro




Presto · Adagio Molto




Allegro ·Coda




David Holzman, piano




Time = 26:34




Triple Concerto




Tempo libero (13:08)




Larghetto (7:39)




Agitato (5:07)




The Group for Contemporary Music · Harvey Solberger, conductor




Anand Devendra, Dennis Smylie, Leslie Thimmig, clarinet soloists




Total Time = 68:34