Music of Donald Martino


Donald Martino (b. 1931)

A Set For Clarinet (1954) (9:15)

  1. 1. Allegro (3:25)

  2. 2. Adagio (3:40)

  3. 3. Allegro (2:10)

Michael Webster, clarinet

Quodlibets For Flute (1954) (7:58)

  1. I (4:10)

  2. II (1:39)

  3. III (2:09)

Samuel Baron, flute

  1. Trio For Violin, Clarinet and Piano (1959) (11:59)

Paul Zukofsky, violin

Arthur Bloom, Clarinet

Gilbert Kalish, piano

  1. Fantasy-Variations for Violin (1962) (13:20)

Paul Zukofsky, violin

  1. Concerto for Wind Quintet (1964) (16:09)

Contemporary Chamber Ensemble of Rutgers University

Arthur Weisberg, conductor

  1. Strata for Bass Clarinet (1966) (6:20)

Dennis Smylie, bass clarinet

Donald Martino is widely known as one of America's most consistently fascinating composers. He has received numerous honors and awards, including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in music. He is Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music Emeritus at Harvard University.

The importance of this CD lies not only in the fact that it brings together, in digitally re-mastered form, excellent performances of six of Donald Martino's compositions, but also in the manner in which it documents an important transitional decade during which he arrived at, and subsequently began to develop and explore his won unique, personal method of twelve-tone composition. Thus, it is hoped that in addition to serving as a compendium that will stimulate interest in these and other of his early compositions, the recording will help to shed new light on the larger, more widely-performed works which have, in recent years, unfortunately tended to eclipse those included here.

Many of the most distinctive characteristics of Martino's mature compositional style, particularly his incorporation of virtuosity “not just as a technical attribute but as an expressive component functioning as a metaphor for what might be called `the life struggle',” may be traced directly to experiences of his youth. Martino was born in Plainfield, NJ in 1931, and from an early age was deeply and completely immersed in musical activities of all sorts. Having learned to play the clarinet, saxophone, and oboe, he came foist to idolize Benny Goodman, then Charlie Parker, and his youthful exuberance and energy led him to compose pop tunes, short piano pieces, and dance band arrangements, and to perform on a daily basis in “Bands, orchestras, jazz combos, dance bands, feast bands, polka bands, whatever.” An important teacher during these formative years was an Italian bandsman named Frencesco Lieto, who, according to Martino, was “an incredible role model - a technician unsurpassed by any i have since heard. He would sit with me and with him in the lead we'd play in unison for hours. When I stumbled he would say, `Don't worry about it, Donnie, just practice and it will get better.” Lieto's infectious optimism, his apparently unshakable faith in the human capacity to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, had a tremendous, positive effect on Martino, and eventually served as the foundation for a fundamental compositional premise resting on the notion that “the degree of difficulty of the music, both technically and interpretively, is its drama.”

In 1948, Martino graduated from high school and, with the hope of becoming a concert clarinetist, accepted a scholarship from Syracuse University. Here he met Ernst Bacon, his first composition teacher, who exposed him not only to Beethoven sonatas and Schubert songs, but also the music of Bartok, in whose melodic and harmonic language Martino discerned a surprisingly close connection with that of be-boppers such as Parker and Gillespie. (For example, both Bartok's Fifth String Quartet and Parker's “Donna Lee” rely heavily on the “octatonic” or “diminished” scale, which consists of alternating half-and whole-steps.) fittingly, Bartok came to exert a strong influence on Martino's early, relatively off-the-cuff concert works.

After leaving Syracuse, Martino received a fellowship from Princeton University, where, having made the decision to focus on composition, he studied with Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions. While working with Sessions, he composed what he describes as “a huge cello concerto, sort of a transposition down an octave and a fifth of Bartok's Violin concerto.” As Martino puts it: “After the Concerto, I was worn out, so I wrote two solo pieces, A Set for Clarinet and Quodlibets, both still very much under the influence of Bartok. They were written very quickly, a couple of days of each piece,”: Given these circumstances, and given Martino's youthful propensity for intuitive, minimally-planned compositions, it's not at all surprising that both works turned out to be spontaneous-sounding romps.

The Set, a virtuosic show-piece which, despite its having caused somewhat of a stir early on, is now a staple of the modern clarinet repertoire, was composed over a period of three days in February of 1954, and is dedicated to Martino's “old pal and friendly rival clarinetist” Arthur Bloom who premiered the work in Princeton in May of that year. Theterm “set' refers not to atwelve-tone set - indeed, Martino was at the time largely unfamiliar with the music and theories of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg - but rather to the dance band set, which always consisted of three pieces played without pause. Echoes of jazz and pop music pervade all three without pause. Echoes of jazz and pop music pervade all three movements, the first of which (allegro, an ABA form with introduction and coda) was originally titled “Conservatory Stomp.” The second (Adagio, ABA with coda) “Blues in Eb.” And the third (Allegro, a medley with introduction and coda) “10th Avenue Shuffle.” These influences not withstanding, the work is, in essence, what Martino refers to as “an instance of classical virtuoso writing in the Italian tradition;” in fact, many of its technical challenges (such as the enormous wide-register leaps) derive directly from the etudes which the composer studied with Lieto.

Quodlibets, written in July of 1954, was, like the Set, composed very quickly. It shares many characteristics with its predecessor, ranging from a three-part formal layout - Studio (adagio-allegroetto); Arietta (larghetto); Burla (allegro) - to the use of rapid scales, large, sudden registral shifts, and twisting octatonic/chromatic melodies. An additional connection with the Set, one which offers a small glimpse of Martino's wry sense of humor, is the fact that both works were originally intended to be part of a collection entitled “Solo Pieces to by Played in Public, Hint!”

Having completed his degree, Martino left Princeton later that year, and, thanks to the first two consecutive Fulbriht grants, went off to Italy to study composition with Luigi Dallapiccola. While abroad, he began and intensive investigation into the working of the chromatic universe, and started composing what he describes as “primitive twelve-tone music.”

“I don't think it was so much the influence of Dallapiccola as it was simply the natural evolution of my technique. I was writing a String Trio. During the course of it, the weavings in and out of the octatonic scale caused the music to become completely chromatic… Thereafter, everything seemed to be leading me in the direction of chromaticism.”

Martino returned to the U.S. in 1956, and soon found a teaching job (for $2 an hour!) at the Third Street Music School Settlement in Manhattan. During the next few years, his interest in public performance continued to wane, although he occasionally played in jazz combos with his childhood friend Bill Evans. At the same time, however, he was hard at work on a series of compositions in which he gradually learned to allow his theoretical interests to reconcile themselves with his innate musicality. Those “painful, frustrating years” culminated I the brief Piano Fantasy of 1958; here, for the first time, Martino found a way to compositionally come to terms with his notion of the twelve-tone system as “a universe of interconnected tone roads,” in which “each piece could be imagined as but a different journey, on familiar paths, throughout that universe.”

In 1`959, Martino accepted a teaching position at Yale, where, immersed in various compositional and theoretical endeavors, he would remain until 1969. His next work, the Trio for violin, clarinet, and piano, is in many ways and embodiment of the sort of precarious balance sought by the composer: “It is at once rigorous - but sensuous, fragmentary - but possessing long lines of fragments. It contains all the seeming contradictions which I have so avidly pursued for most of the years thereafter.” Accordingly, an overriding concern throughout the Trio was “blending fundamentally disparate instrument colors. Toward this end I thought Ito deploy my notes in registers, at dynamic levels, and with attack and timbral characteristics tha would minimize the difference between the instruments.” The use of “long lines of fragments” is mirrored in the seven-part formal scheme. A B A'; C; A' B' A'”, in essence a set of rondo-variations. According to Martino:

“The A sections are permutations of each other, each section containing the same events reshuffled. Whereas the A sections are homophonic in texture, the B sections are contrapuntal and are related by retrogression, with B' completing the harmonic implications of B, C, also contrapuntal, is independent in design…[and] also presents the Trio's slowest music. It is the symmetric center of a tempo scheme in which A sections are moderate to fast and other sections are slow.”

As indicated by the title, Fantasy-Variations (1962) “combines variation technique… with the freedom and unpredictable character of the fantasy.” The former serving as “the process which directs the compositional technique,” the latter “the intrusive dictator of the expressive foreground.” The large-scale form is typically paradoxical, and is seemingly the byproduct of the composers' intense struggle to achieve a tenuous, provisional resolution between these contradictory impulses. While the work consists of a single continuous movement divided into smaller sections defined by contrasting tempi and character, the boundaries between the sections are frequently blurred due to the presence of invasive passages which seem bent on disrupting the predominant mood. (These interruptive, discretionary tactics would eventually lead to the “chaotic swirl” of later works such as Notturno, in which seemingly incompatible musics are juxtaposed and made to coexist.) Not surprisingly, extreme demands are placed on the performer, who, alone, is thrust into the challenging position of having somehow to contain and direct the work's clashing, volcanic energies.

The Concerto for Wind Quintet, commissioned by the Fromm Foundation and completed in 1964, derives its title from the composers desire to lead the five instruments here treated as five soloist, into virtuosic combat with one another. (In fact, the 13-part formal structure includes a “quintuple solo!”) The composition of the work was preceded by a systematic investigation of timbral characteristics of the instruments, heard alone and in all available combination. Beginning with the simple but profound realization that, in terms of tone color, the wind quintet consists of two duos (flute/clarinet and oboe/bassoon) plus the horn, which is unique. Martino was then able to extend and multiply the various timbral groups in an enormous variety of directions. At the same time, his ever deepening understanding of the twelve-tone system's structural implications helped him to both compose longer passages and control the succession of instrumental sub-groups in ways that were both illogical and musically interesting. (Martino even goes so far as to describe each note of the piece in terms of a sort of “eternal now:” “a multiplicity of functions is assigned to each note…each note represents not only what is, but what has been and what is about to be.”) These formal concerns, however, serve as rational underpinnings for flights of fancy, and neatly complement Martino's keen sense of drama and irrepressibly lyrical tendencies. The result is a work which, despite (or, more accurately, partly because of) its constructive wonders, is lively, elegant, and which demands repeated hearings.

Unlike the Concerto, Strata (1966) was composed very quickly (Martino refers to it as a “little improvisation”), a fact which is perhaps indicative of the degree to which the composer had succeeded, even so early on, in mastering the complexities of his twelve-tone universe. The title refers to the stratification of melodic fragments, a procedure which allowed Martino to fully exploit the timbral characteristics of the instrument's various registers. Techniques such as key clicks, slap-tongue, flutter-tongue, quarter-tone inflections, lip glissandi, and throat temoli are called for, and serve not as “special effects,” but as both vehicles of expressive nuance and articulatory mechanisms which help to clarify structural relationships. Strata's quiet, meditative conclusion was, according to the composer, a reaction to the passing of his “very dear buddy and and canine confidante, Muffin,” and serves as a lament and funeral march.

It is easy to view the solo and chamber works heard on this CD as springboards for Martino's far-reaching, expansive compositions of the mid to late 60s and 70s, such as the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1965), Mosaic for Grand Orchestra (1967), Pianissimo for solo piano (1970), the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1972), the Pulitzer-Prize-winning chamber work Notturno (1973) and Triple Concerto (1977). Many of the characteristics of Martino's mature music, such as the reliance upon virtuosity as an organic compositional determinant, and the coexistence of diverse emotional states in what the composer would later call a “counterpoint of sentiments,” find their origins here. But in striving for such historical perspective, we must not overlook the innate value of these early works. One hopes that this collection will enable and encourage a deeper appreciation of both their architectural marvels and sheer musical exuberance.

© 1995 James Boros. Quotes are excerpted from program notes and from James

Boros's interview, “A Conversation with Donald Martino,” published in Perspectives of New Music 29-2 (Summer 1991) (This issue features a 60 th -Birthday tribute to Martino, co-edited by Jaes Boros and Robert Morris.)