Composer  Donald  Martino
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


During my career, it has been my privilege to interview most of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.  I do not go after them because they have won; it just happens that many of the men and women whom I have sought out have been recipients of that award.  Donald Martino won in 1974, and it is a conversation with him that is presented here.

Martino was born in 1931, and after studying at Syracuse and Princeton, he taught at Princeton, Yale and Tanglewood before settling in Boston with posts at the New England Conservatory, Brandeis and finally Harvard.  More details about him can be found in the obituary reprinted at the bottom of this webpage.

Several people have performed and recorded works by Martino.  One who has championed his piano music is David Holzman.  The publishing firm which Martino started, Dantalian, Inc, is still going strong and can be contacted about any and all materials from the composer.

Early in 1991, in anticipation of his upcoming 60th birthday, I requested a time and we chatted on the telephone.  He was pleased to speak with me and our talk ran smoothly from subject to subject.  I began by asking a big question . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Where is music going today?

martino Donald Martino:    Well, that’s a real problem.  It seems to be going ever downward.

BD:    Downward from where?

DM:    From its lofty beginnings.  [Sighs]  I’m sort of fond of saying that whatever you want, you can find on the concert stage these days.

BD:    And that is not a good thing?

DM:    I don’t think it’s a good thing, no.  I don’t know what it’s like in Chicago, but I know that I personally don’t like people coming to concerts in jeans and spending all their time opening candy wrappers, and chewing gum and making noise and walking out in the middle of concerts and walking in in the middle of concerts.  I don’t like pretty much what’s happening, not that there’s much I can do about it.

BD:    Is that really what’s happening with the music, or is that just the lack of discipline in the audience?

DM:    It’s a lack of discipline in the audience, but the fact that the kind of music that has crept onto the concert hall, which has sort of taken over, sort of encourages that.  A lot of music that’s captured the imagination of “audiences” is music that doesn’t seem to me to deserve to be on the same stage with Beethoven.  On the other hand, it does deserve to be somewhere.

BD:    Where is that somewhere?

DM:    On your pop music stations.  A lot of the music that’s played in concert halls seems to have a kind of popular quality about it.

BD:    Are we talking about new music, or just music in general?

DM:    New music.  I don’t want to get into name-calling, but there’s a whole collection of music that’s sort of easy-listening.  This is really not a topic that I’m terribly fond of because there’s nothing much I can do about it.  I don’t think about it much.  All I’m interested in doing is writing my own music and worrying about my own things.  My observation is that a whole collection of music that is fairly easy to understand, that demands very little of the listener — and that can’t be said of Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart, whatever — that a lot of this music has invaded the concert stage, and it’s an easy out for an audience to say, “Well, sure, I love modern music.”  For example, I wrote a piece called Fantasies and Impromptus.  It’s a piano piece, and in it there is a kind of gradual transition that takes place from what might be called my normal style to a couple of movements which are homages to Schumann and Chopin.  When pianists think to play that piece, if they’re not going to play the whole thing, they gravitate toward these two movements, which are written by a twentieth century composer but sound as though they come from the previous century.  And everybody’s happy.  They claim they played new music, whereas from my standpoint, those movements have meaning only in the context of a kind of an argument in which I was saying, “If you listen carefully, I will lead you from movement to movement to a point where you can begin to hear a relationship between what happened a hundred years ago and what I’m doing now.”  It’s different.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been a teacher of music and a composer for most of your professional life.  How do you divide your time between those two very demanding kinds of professions?  And do you get enough time, then, to compose?

martino DM:    If I divided my time just between teaching and composing, I would have enough time.  But I’ve undertaken various other things, such as music publishing, and that has taken a tremendous amount of time.  But just about anybody who’s engaged in teaching and is also composing, would probably feel that he finds enough time to compose.  Teaching is a rewarding profession.  Obviously it’s a profession that’s stimulating, and from which one learns a great deal just in dealing with students’ problems and trying to come up with answers to their problems.  Often times one comes up with an idea that’s fascinating and feeds your own work.

[Note: In the photo at right, it appears to be Gunther Schuller conducting.  To read my interviews with Gunther Schuller, click here.]

BD:    Then do you really look at all that you do as one big profession, rather than splitting it up?

DM:    No.  Many of us who teach would probably growl about it and say, “Gee, we’d like to be full-time composers.”  I sure would.  I’ve always thought I’d like to be a full-time composer, doing nothing but that, and my reaction to having to teach on a given day might be fairly negative.  But once I get started and get into it, I find it rewarding, and then I’m aware of the fact that I’ve profited from it a great deal.  And I hope the kids do, too.  From my own personal standpoint, having to look at the music of the past and present in a critical way, having to present it, having to try to figure out what there is about it that makes it valuable, how it relates to what I’m doing, and how it relates, hopefully, to what my students are doing — or should be doing — all of these are interesting questions.

BD:    What is it that your students should be doing?

DM:    They should be perfecting their craft.  They should be trying to figure out how they can build a language that says something very special about the way they perceive life.

BD:    Do you find that they are succeeding in this?

DM:    I think some are.  This is a lifelong process and you never know where somebody is at a given point in that process.  Some composers seem to find a voice very early on, and then lose it later on.  Others stumble around and imitate and go through a lot of misery until perhaps a little later in life they begin to develop that voice.  Even the process of trying to make a determination as to who should get into a graduate school is a difficult one to make because you never know what’s going to happen next year.  Someone who looks very talented might drop out, and someone who doesn’t look quite so promising may, within a year or two, given the right kind of atmosphere and the right kind of stimulus, turn into something quite remarkable.

BD:    So then you take your best guess?

DM:    You take your best guess.  [Sighs]  What can you do?  You can only accept a few students.  At Harvard we can only accept three composition students a year in graduate school. 

BD:    About how many apply?

DM:    Oh, anywhere between forty and sixty.

BD:    What happens to the other thirty-seven to fifty-seven?

DM:    Most of them usually find someplace to go.  I don’t really know.  I don’t keep track of what happens to the ones that don’t come here.  Some of them turn us down, obviously.  Some of them that we want we’re lucky enough to get.  It’s very different from when I went to graduate school.  I made applications and sat back and waited.  Kids today are going for interviews, looking the place over and looking us over trying to make a really informed determination as to where the best place is for them.

BD:    I would think that would give you better odds for the scholar.

DM:    It’s better for all of us when we get a chance to see more than what’s on the paper
the essays or the documentation that comes through in a kind of a cold way.  We get to meet them and get a better picture of their determination.  I really think that nine-tenths of success in anything is the will to do it, the determination.  Talent’s not that hard to come by, but the other talent, the talent of the willingness to really work hard, that’s a little rarer.  That’s more what I look forthe conviction, the commitment, determination.

BD:    All this is obviously true in studying.  Is this also true in the actual art of composition?

DM:    Oh, I think so, I really do.  There are very few Mozarts in the world.  There are very few real geniuses of that sort, people who are born creative people.  Most composers are made and have had to work at it.  I think this is true in just about every field.  As a matter of fact, I remember a number of years ago getting a questionnaire from the people who do Who’s Who in America, and they asked each person to write a little statement about the key to success.  I thought this was too embarrassing to do, so I didn’t bother to respond to it.  But when the volume came out, I eagerly looked through to see what people said, and what pleased me a great deal was that most people who are successful had the same observation
I’m not really very talented, but I’ve worked very hard.

BD:    In other words, you have to take whatever talent you have and then exploit it to its fullest?

DM:    Yes, and so often you find people who are enormously gifted who just don’t have the motivation to do it.  Often times it’s just too easy for them, and there’s no resistance!  I really think that that’s very important, that there be some kind of resistance, some struggle to make it interesting.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re composing a piece of music and you’ve got a lot of empty staffs on the paper, do you find that it’s a struggle for every note, or do you find that a few ideas come and then you can work with those ideas with relative ease?

score DM:    It’s a little hard to generalize on it, but it’s a process that involves a certain amount of what might be called improvisation, and a certain amount of inspection or analysis.  The entire piece doesn’t just come in a blaze of light, and neither is it only the product of hard labor.  It’s some sort of mixture.  Usually, for me, the initial idea is a kind of an improvised idea, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easily come by.  I might sit in this sort of vacuum of the study, where I am right now, with the project ahead of me.  I have to write such-and-such a piece for such-and-such an ensemble.  I begin to try to conjure up what that might mean to me at this moment in my life.  Take String Quartet, for example.  It meant something to me at twenty-three that it doesn’t mean to me at sixty.  I try to conjure up what that means.

BD:    You don’t disown the piece that you wrote when you were twenty-three, do you?

DM:    No, no, but I’ve changed, and my way of thinking about the instruments has changed, and the way of thinking about life has changed.  But how to direct that to that particular ensemble is the issue at hand.  I will perhaps start doing some sketching, and I might find that that the stuff isn’t very interesting to me.  A week later I might find that the things I thought about weren’t interesting if I just looked at them.  I might do a lot of sketching and toss all of it away.  Then all of a sudden something comes out, and that’s the material that sparks the whole piece.  It might be a couple of days or a week of despair before having found something that works well, that seems to lead someplace.  Before that, I have not been able to follow up the leads for a while.  So it’s sort of a back and forth process.  Usually at a certain moment
after this struggle — maybe a third of the way through the piece, or even as late as a half the way through the pieceit begins to feel like common language.  I can work with a kind of confidence and know completely where I’m going and how the story is going to end!  From that moment on, it’s a lot easier.

BD:    After that, are you ever surprised by where it goes?

DM:    Very seldom.  Sometimes I will be surprised.  Maybe a third of the way through I think I have a plan for it and I think it know what’s going to happen.  As an example, I’ll go back to String Quartet.  It’s a piece I wrote in ’83.  After I got into the middle of the first movement, I began to develop a master plan for the piece and I knew that there would be four movements.  I got to the second and third and fourth movements, and in the middle of the fourth movement I began to realize that I just didn’t know how to end it.  I had an idea how it was going to end, but that didn’t quite seem right at that moment.  The shape of the last movement then became re-formed.  So yes, a prediction that I had made four or five months earlier turned out not to be correct when the moment came to do it, and I had to make a change.  That does happen.

BD:    But in the end, you were satisfied?

DM:    Oh, yes!  Sometimes I have the feeling that the music is taking over and it dictates to you where you should go.

BD:    The pencil is controlling where your hand goes all over the page?

DM:    It’s almost like automatic writing sometimes.

BD:    Once you’ve got the notes down on the page and you’re tinkering with it, how do you know when to put the pencil down?

DM:    Do you mean on a given day, or when to put it down forever?

BD:    How do you know when you’re done with the piece?

DM:    Again, that’s an awfully difficult question.  When is the form filled, or when is the statement finished?  [Sighs]  I guess, simply it’s when I think it is.  Most pieces take some sort of course, follow some sort of argument, create a geometry, a form of some sort.  And when that’s over, it’s over.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise pieces after they’ve been performed or even published?

DM:    Not anymore.  Early on, when I was a teenager and maybe into my twenties and early thirties, I wrote very quickly.  At that time I was just so overwhelmed by the fact that I could come up with an idea that whatever idea I had I just put on the page and thought it was quite wonderful.  [Laughs]  Later on I would not find it quite so wonderful and then I’d start to revise.  I discovered that making revisions later on was extremely difficult because I had changed as a person, particularly in some cases when two or three or four years had gone by.  So the process for me has slowed up, and all I can say is I’m as careful as I can possibly be when I’m in the process of working.  So when it’s finished, I’ve beaten myself about as much as I can.  I’ve gone through every conceivable torture about whether it works or doesn’t work, how it could have gone, how it should go.  I might not have found the best answers to someone else’s taste, but I have found the best answers I can find.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m one hundred percent satisfied with every second in every piece that I write.  I’m not sure that that’s completely possible.  There are moments that I think are very strong and there are other moments that are less strong.  I’m not sure that one would really like a piece that was nothing but one chocolate cupcake after another.  [Both laugh]  There have to be some kind of dead spots in order to make the high spots seem higher.  There’s kind of a balance in the statement that’s being made.  But to try to answer the question, a piece that I might have written in my twenties that took six weeks, I will now certainly take six months to write.  And the revisions are made in the process of writing when I’m constantly going over it and re-evaluating and re-evaluating.  I’m working, often times, ten or twelve hours a day on a piece.

BD:    Are you then pleased with the end result?

DM:    Yes, I am.  I don’t know if I should have said that, but I am!

BD:    One hopes that that’s the answer!

DM:    Yes... well, one doesn’t want to sound pompous about it, either.  But as I said, I’m pleased in the sense that I think I’ve done the best that I can do.  It’s a thing that I want to do most
to write musicso I don’t let the piece out until it’s arrived where I want it to go.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s take this one step farther.  You get the piece completed and it is performed.  Have you generally been pleased with the performances you hear of your music?

cd DM:   Yes.  I’ve had some just fabulous performances!  This was not always true.  I first started composing in the forties, and then in college and out as a young professional, the performance situation was pretty terrible and performances were quite awful.  But beginning with the seventies, or maybe the late sixties, I began to get performances that were just phenomenal.  The performance that I got from Speculum Musicae in 1973 of my Notturno is, I think, just a spectacular performance.  It’s wonderful to be able to get a premiere like that, and they got it on disk immediately.  And my Triple Concerto in 1979 was also just a fantastic performance!  I went to the first rehearsal that I was invited to
after the ensemble had practiced for a few weeks, I guess — and I went with some fear, because it’s a difficult piece.  I had no idea what was up or what I would find, and I was just amazed!  They played so well that I wondered why I had committed myself to a week of rehearsals with them!  I wasn’t necessary, and that was to some extent because the players were so experienced and so good.  Also because of the conductor, Harvey Sollberger, who is just a wonderful interpreter of new music.

BD:    In that case, or in other cases, do the performers find things in your scores that you didn’t know you’d hidden there?

DM:    Often times they do.  Often times I will be steering people in a certain direction, and they have their own ideas.  I’ll listen to it and think that’s quite wonderful, and accept it.  But usually, if that’s what’s going to happen, it involves a major change in conception.   I have an idea about how a piece should go, and this is an idea that ranges over the entire piece.  If any particle of it is changed, it may well do damage to the message that piece can convey.  But if the entire interpretation changes, it may produce a result that’s consistently satisfying and that I can accept.  It’s like the difference
going back to my childhoodbetween Klemperer conducting Beethoven and Toscanini conducting Beethoven.  One was twice as fast as the other, but they both were extraordinary!

BD:    And both equally valid in their own ways?

DM:    I think so, yes.  Some of my pieces now have been around for quite a long time, and I’ve had the opportunity to hear German ensembles play them and Italian ensembles and American ensembles from the east coast and the west coast, and generations of people play them with different kinds of insight.  Some of them very slowly, some of them more quickly, some of them with a lot of nervous energy, some of them with a very laid-back way, and I think that as long as the interpretation has a kind of consistent personality, I can accept that.  That doesn’t mean that I’m not pretty critical of performances that don’t achieve that.

BD:    Now going one step even beyond performances are the recordings.  These have a little more permanence and a little more widespread notoriety, because they’re always around.  Have these basically been pleasing to you?

DM:    Yes.  Not everything that I have had recorded, I suppose.  Some of the earlier recordings suffer from mechanical problems.

BD:    Technical inadequacies in the disk, you mean?

DM:    Yes.  I can think of one that I won’t mention that has the rumbling of a subway throughout.  You listen to it, and you think there’s some rumble in your turntable, but in point of fact that’s there.  It was recorded in a studio where there was a subway underneath going through.  But also, techniques have changed so much, too.  My early Wind Quintet was recorded on tape.  The piece requires a lot of diversity in articulation, attack characteristics and in dynamics — a very wide range.  When they mastered it, they were unable to hold that on the disk, apparently, so everything got sort of neutralized into a constant mezzo forte.

BD:    Could they not now go back to the original tape?

signature DM:    Yes, sure, they could go back to the original tape and redo it, if anybody cared.  But that’s probably not going to happen, so it’ll remain in this version.

BD:    But now that things are being transferred to compact disk, perhaps this is the opportunity you have been waiting for.

DM:    It certainly would be if the project could be financed and if there were interest in hearing the piece.  But I’m not sure that there is such.  There’s not that kind of widespread interest in hearing a lot of new music.

BD:    Should there be?  How could we get more interest in hearing more new music?

DM:    I don’t want to get steered back to the original question you had, but part of the problem is that the audience for concert music has always been small.  Even in those large halls where orchestras play, my sense is that a very small number of the people who are there are really there to participate in the kind of séance that I know a musical experience can be.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t be doing all that coughing and wouldn’t be so inattentive.  They would be riveted to the message that Mahler or Beethoven is feeding them.

BD:    Or that Martino is feeding them?

DM:    Or perhaps, me.  I’d like to think that.  There’s a big difference between Symphony Hall in Boston on a Friday afternoon
which is nothing but end to end coughingand a concert at the New England Conservatory.  The hush at the Conservatory is deafening!  But you’re talking, often times, about an audience of very, very few people.  I went to a concert of new music in New York a month ago.  Because it’s my sixtieth year, a group is doing one of my pieces on each of its concerts.  They’re also doing a piece by David Diamond because David is seventy-five this year.  We had an audience of about twenty-five interested people.  What can I say about that?

BD:    Twenty-five people in the hall?

DM:    I wouldn’t say there were more than that.  And a lot of them were what I’d call professional audiences
other composers and performers.

BD:    People with vested professional interests.

cd DM:    Yes, and then, of course, you have that other audience.  Let’s say some new music group from New York or Boston
the Musica Viva or Collage, or some other music ensemblecome to Boston to do a concert in Sanders Theater at Harvard.  Maybe a couple hundred people would show up.  Fine!  That’s very nice.  If we have the Kronos Quartet come, you have to turn people away!  The Kronos plays Jimi Hendrix and stuff like this, which of course draws a kind of a crowd!  I have nothing against Jimi Hendrix.  I have nothing against popular music, which I spent most of my childhood doing, and still am very interested in!  I was a jazz clarinetist; I played all over Europe and this country.  I have a deep interest and commitment in popular music of all kinds.

BD:    Is it not a good thing for the Kronos to play the Jimi Hendrix piece that draws in the crowd, and then also play the Martino piece so that the Jimi Hendrix crowd can then experience the Martino?

DM:    If it works that way.  I’m not sure it’s working that way.

BD:    You get a whole pile of commissions.  How do you decide which ones you’ll accept and which ones you’ll turn aside?

DM:    I accept them more or less as they come in, and often times have to turn them down because I can only accept so many.  As I said, I work very slowly, and I would rest very uneasy if I had too many commissions in front of me.  I wouldn’t sleep nights.  I’ve been through that, so I will make commitments to commissions usually given a period of about five years.  And if something comes along in the meanwhile that looks good, I just have to turn it down, or I’ll say, “Look, I can finish the piece by 1995.”  People will say, “We can’t wait until then,” so that’s that.  I know that, too, but I have to do that.  I can’t just take on another piece because I’d like to.   When I was writing the Triple Concerto in the seventies, I got a call from Stanley Drucker.  This is a fun story.  Stanley asked me to write a clarinet concerto for him, and I said, “You know I’m writing a triple concerto for three clarinets.  I wish I could, because you’re a great clarinetist.”  I’ve known Stanley for a long time.  He said, “Well, it’s too bad you can’t write it.  I’ll have to find someone else.”  Of course, he found John Corigliano to write it.  [Both laugh]  And it was an enormous success!  So when I saw Stanley a couple of years later, he said, “Hey, I’m glad you turned that commission down.  We were nominated for a Grammy!”  So that’s just the way it goes!  You can’t take everything.

BD:    I’m sure it’s worked the other way, too, that somebody else turned them down so they went to you and were very pleased.

DM:    Perhaps, sure.  I’m not at all unhappy with the commissions that I have.  I have been commissioned by the Juilliard Quartet and the San Francisco Symphony.  I have a lot of nice projects, so I’m not upset by the ones that I have to turn down.  The important thing is that I am offered assignments that interest me and that fascinate me.  The String Quartet was an important commission for me because when I got it, I hadn’t written a string quartet in thirty years!  The last quartet I wrote was 1953; it’s my third string quartet.  What I discovered, after having written three quartets, was that new music ensembles or string quartets were simply not playing new quartets, and that the road to performance was ensembles.  If you wrote a piece for flute, cello, bassoon and viola, or something, you’d get it played.  But if you wrote for the standard ensembles
the piano quartet, the piano trio, or the string quartetthose groups were not particularly interested.  So for many years I stayed away from those kinds of ensembles.  But I’ve always loved the string quartet as a medium, so when I got the opportunity to write one, I was very excited about it!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What effect on you was winning the Pulitzer Prize?

DM:    It’s a very distinguished award.  It’s commercially very valuable; no question about this.  Winning any award or having any commission, having anybody say that they like what you do is a shot in the arm; it makes you feel awfully good.  On the other hand, the successes you have, the more there is to live up to and the more responsibility there is, and the more there is to worry about.

martino BD:    Is that more pressure?

DM:    More pressure, yes.  That’s inevitable.

BD:    Does it ever become too much pressure?

DM:    Sometimes it feels like a lot of pressure.  A lot of us just tend to get sort of over-extended.  There are so many things to be done, so many things that one wants to do.  In 1959 I had to make a very hard decision
that I would not play anymore.  I had gotten my first big teaching job at Yale, and I was putting in about seventy or eighty hours a week teaching, between the paper grading and the preparations, and so forth.  And I just didn’t have time to practice!  So I had to stop playing or accept what I sounded like if I didn’t practice!  [Both laugh]  And I’ve missed that tremendously!

BD:    If your life ever got a little less crowded, would you go back to it?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Samuel Baron, Gilbert Kalish, and Arthur Weisberg.]

DM:    Yes, if I could.  It’s hard when you let these things go; it’s hard to recover all these muscle responses.  I have gotten back in shape to do various projects here and there, but life is always somehow or other too full of other things to be able to keep doing it.  The last time was in ’84, when I was asked to write a piece for Petrassi’s eightieth birthday.  It was a nice opportunity.  My son was just nine years old at that time and had just started playing the cello.  I got the idea to write a piece that the two of us could play, and obviously the clarinet part would be much more difficult than the cello part.  We went over to Italy and premiered this piece.  He stood up before five hundred people and played — or rather sat down on the stage — and gave the premiere of this piece.  Actually, one of the movements ended up on an Italian record!  [Laughs]  So that’s very sweet, making his debut at nine.  But I had spent about three months getting in shape to do that.  When I came back, I said, “You know, I’m just going to stay in shape, that’s all!  I’m going to do it.”  For about three months, every night after dinner I came downstairs to the study, and I played an hour, and absolutely thought that I was going to get back.  I had all sorts of plans to play the Brahms Quartet and Mozart and all the wonderful pieces I love from the past.  And of course I began thinking about playing my own music and music of my colleagues, and really getting back into performance.

BD:    It would be the ultimate irony for you to play the Corigliano!

DM:    [Laughs] It would be wonderful!  I’d love to play it!  It’s a great piece, but there just isn’t the time.  Little by little, things come up and deadlines approach and pieces have to be written and the children have to be attended to.  And one has to even tend to one’s self!

BD:    Would you change any of it?

DM:    I suppose the way I’d like to change it would be to have forty-eight hour days!  [Both laugh]  Then I wouldn’t have stopped playing and I’d still be doing that, and I’ve plenty of time to play tennis and just about everything I love to do.

BD:    As you approach your sixtieth birthday, are you where you expected to be in your career and are you pleased where you are now in your career?

DM:    Oh, I’m very pleased.  I never, I think, expected to be right here.  I mean, I’m not successful in the sense that some composers achieve success.  I don’t write the kind of music that expects a grand popular success.  But if someone had asked me at twenty, “Where do you think you’ll be when you’re sixty?” I don’t think I would have thought that I’d be a professor at Harvard, that I would have won the Pulitzer Prize, that I would be a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so forth.  I don’t think I could possibly have imagined that I would have achieved as much as I have, and I’m very happy with it!  I feel perfectly comfortable.  I don’t know whether I should feel unhappy or what, but I feel fine!  [Laughs]

BD:    That’s probably the best of all possible worlds
to do something that you enjoy and be happy with where you are!

DM:    Yes.  I’ve had a lot of wonderful performances.  I had a performance of the Triple in Chicago a couple of years ago, with Ralph Shapey conducting and the clarinet section of the Chicago Symphony.  They are incredible players, all three of those guys!  And it was a wonderful performance.  I had a wonderful performance of the piece out in Los Angeles with L.A. Philharmonic players.  I feel that the level of performances is extremely high.  Just the other day I had a performance of a solo violin piece I wrote in 1963 by a student at Juilliard, and it was incredible!  It was just dynamite!  So if I’m feeling fairly negative about the concert situation, I’m feeling very positive about performance, very positive about what people can do and the insights that they can bring.  They’re much more sophisticated young people than we were.  It’s just remarkable!

BD:    I appreciate your spending some time with me this afternoon.

DM:    Well, I’m glad to have done it.  Thank you.

Donald Martino, 74, Pulitzer-winning composer, teacher at local colleges

Donald Martino, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who lived in Newton, died Thursday off the coast of Antigua while on a Caribbean cruise.

The cause of death was cardiac arrest following an attack of hyperglycemia. He was 74.

Mr. Martino was a prominent presence in Boston's musical life since he began teaching at New England Conservatory in 1969. In 1980, he took a post at Brandeis University, and from 1983 until his retirement from teaching in 1993 he taught at Harvard University.

A composer of meticulous craftsmanship, he used his prodigious technical skills and rigorous attention to detail to produce music that sounds spontaneous and emotionally immediate.

martino For a time Mr. Martino came under attack in the media as an ''academic serialist." He didn't like that characterization, although he was an academic and a serialist. In an interview with the Globe in 1980, he said, ''My music is not austere and academic. It is a fantasy that anyone writes academic music. People write music for other people; the intention is to warm the spirit. I write music for people to listen to, to react to; I want them to say, 'Hey, this is nice!' "

Mr. Martino loved many kinds of music -- jazz, Tin Pan Alley, opera, the great 19th-century virtuoso showpieces for clarinet, and the works of the composers of Second Viennese School, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and their Italian successor Luigi Dallapiccola, with whom he studied in Florence on a Fulbright Fellowship in the mid-1950s.

A listener can hear all of these influences in his work, but only Mr. Martino could have written his music, which is sensuous and serious, even when it is playful or even cheeky, as in ''Dr. Schoenberg's Magic Cabaret."

He composed industriously for six decades, and even in recent years, when he was dogged by poor health, he continued to write. He created a publishing company, Dantalian Music, to issue his own music. Dantalian's ''shipping department" is a plywood counter that folds down over the washer and dryer in the basement of his home.

Mr. Martino took a computer and a portable keyboard with him on the cruise and spent most of his last day working on a commission from the Tanglewood Music Center for a Concertino for Violin and 14 Instruments, said his wife, Lora (Harvey) yesterday.

''We've taken cruises for many years now; it was our vacation mode," said his wife. ''He liked to sit in a room writing music. I like to be out and active in the sunshine. On a cruise, we could do that. On his last day he worked until 4 p.m."

His last completed work was a Concerto for Orchestra, finished last summer.

Mr. Martino was born in Plainfield, N.J. His first instrument was the clarinet, which he played both in jazz groups and symphony orchestras; he also played oboe and saxophone. He wrote major works for piano, but according to his friend and fellow composer Yehudi Wyner, he played the instrument with three fingers -- two in the right hand, one in the left, for the bass. At the time of Mr. Martino's retirement, Wyner produced a short piano piece in tribute called, ''ThreeFingered Don."

''He was a relentless worker of the highest standard," said Wyner. ''He had a very catholic view of things and great personal generosity; he was able to appreciate the aesthetic positions of other composers."

Mr. Martino studied at Syracuse University and at Princeton, where his mentors included composers Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions. Mr. Martino taught at Princeton, Yale, and the Tanglewood Music Center before coming to Boston. Under the name ''Jimmy Vincent," he wrote several pop songs that never became popular.

''They were too original to become popular -- wayward, inventive, always interesting; you keep stubbing your toe," said Wyner.

Mr. Martino's largest work, composed on the scale of Mahler's ''Symphony of a Thousand," was ''Paradiso Choruses," an ecstatic setting of lines from the final section of Dante's ''Divine Comedy" premiered in 1975 at New England Conservatory. It calls for chorus, children's chorus, large orchestra, tape, and 14 soloists. The premiere was conducted by Lorna Cooke de Varon.

''For my 25th year at the Conservatory, I was given a present -- the opportunity to commission a new work," recalled de Varon yesterday. ''I asked Don for a small work for chorus and orchestra, and Donald came forth with this extraordinary thing. To prepare it was a fascinating and wonderful experience, and in a sense he stage-directed the whole performance, deciding where everyone would stand and sit. He was a perfectionist -- but not the kind that has a temper."

His 1974 Pulitzer Prize came for ''Notturno," a work for flute, clarinet, violin cello, and piano, a work of night moods, night fantasies.

In 1987 he wrote a Saxophone Concerto premiered by Kenneth Radnofsky.

''He was a man of uncompromising artistic integrity who heard every note he wrote; he was Brahms, working in a modern idiom," said Radnofsky yesterday.

Mr. Martino's most recent Boston premiere was early this year when conductor Gil Rose led clarinetist Ian Greitzer in the premiere of his luminous "Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra" at a concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project last season.

''His music lost none of its complexity but it became more straightforward -- a little like the man himself," said Rose. ''He took no prisoners when he was dealing with music, but he became more and more congenial in human relations as he aged. He always knew exactly what he wanted."

In addition to his wife, he leaves a daughter, Anna Maria of Branford, Conn., and a son, Christopher of Boston.

Plans for a memorial event are not complete.

Obituary from The Boston Globe (with links added)

© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on January 12, 1991.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in later that year and again in 1996.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.