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Franco Donatoni
Franco Donatoni - Biography
Verona, 1927 - 2000
Spice (1990)
for clarinet, violin, cello and piano
Ex Novo ensemble

An Italian composer of singular originality and unimpeachable integrity, he was also at heart an artisan for whom "inspiration comes when I put myself on a chair to write". Yet, paradoxically, his journey towards maturity was periodically hindered by existential crises and stylistic false starts. Despite a career that spanned nearly fifty years, it is only his compositions of the last two decades or so that sing with his quirky, often radiant voice.
In common with many leading modernist composers, Franco Donatoni's early life followed a conventional path. Born in Verona in 1927, he studied violin as well as composition, graduated in general studies and accountancy, and taught at the Conservatories in Bologna and Turin. His earliest, neo-classical efforts at composition from the 1950s show the unsurprising influence of Bartók, a composer whose technical procedures (though not soundworld) continued to fascinate him.

Friendship with Bruno Maderna provided another vital stimulus, and led him to Darmstadt and an absorption in the serial music of Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio, the fruits of which, as exemplified by the Tre improvizationi for piano ('a bad copy of Boulez's Second Piano Sonata'), were assimilated into a compositional armoury of considerable sophistication.
More lasting and crucial, however, were the Zen-Buddhist ideas of John Cage, which haunted Donatoni's thinking in the 1960s. Compelled by his muse to banish the ego and its insatiable craving for self-expression from the creative act itself, he invented a complex set of 'codes' to replace the conscious spadework of creation. These rules of engagement were applied to pre-existing music, often that by other composers, such as Schoenberg (in Etwas ruhiger im Ausdruck) and Stockhausen (in Souvenir).

This increasing reliance on compositional systems proved Donatoni's ultimate downfall, however, torn as he was by a desire for authorial invisibility and for an equally pressing need to determine the overall shape of the musical objects kickstarted into existence. The new Donatoni who emerged in the mid-1970s drew on the old, but dysfunctional complexity was now eschewed. Basic material became simpler, rules were less rigorously applied and, more importantly, introspection yielded to joy.

Thereafter, from the mid 1970s, ensued a remarkable Indian summer. Swept along by 'almost euphoria' (as he put it), Donatoni managed to produce as many as ten pieces a year. His favoured media were the mixed chamber ensemble (preferably capped by high glittering sonorities), and the virtuoso soloist, although a number of fine orchestral essays - including a fifteen-minute BBC Symphony Orchestra commission, Prom (mistakenly destined for the Royal Albert Hall), which will be premiered at the Barbican Centre in May - testify to a keen ear for vibrant colour and an impressive command of large-scale rhetoric.

As Donatoni's success increased, his fame rapidly spread. He became a popular lecturer, notably in Siena where he taught - patisserie to hand - every summer, and at the Conservatory in Milan, the city in which he resided. Many of his ideas, articulated in several volumes of published writings, notably Questo (1970) and Il sigaro di Armando (1982), continue to resonate among the composing community.