Italy was the cradle of Western music, the place at which historical studies of the aural art must begin. In a very small nutshell, the story goes this way. In the fourth century, Pope Gregory in Rome was the guiding force in the revision of plainchant, a reorganization that affected the Western Church for the correct performance of musical liturgy. Earlier, St. Ambrose in Milan had introduced the singing of psalms and hymns. These actions provided the groundwork for Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), regarded as the greatest exponent of modal polyphonic art. Instrumental music developed in Venice in the 16th century, and Florence was the birthplace of opera in the 17th century. The tonal system that flourished in the 19th century and to a large extent still does to this day was set in motion in the 1700s by such composers as Corelli and Vivaldi. Italy was then the musical center of Europe, sending its product and practitioners throughout the lands. Italian opera was the rage in London in Handel's time, and most of the European capitals succumbed to the delights of Rossini and were swept away by the drama of Verdi. But in the century of those two Italian masters of opera, thus of vocal music, the center of gravity moved to Germany and Austria, and instrumental music became predominant. However, Italians, born in the second half of the 19th century, began to point the way for their country's reemergence into the arena of instrumental music-Busoni, Pizzetti, and Alfredo Casella among them.
Fortunately for a young musician of Franco Donatoni's intensity and ability, there were contemporary Italians to whom he could turn for knowledge and inspiration. Having grown up during the period of fascist rule and although his childhood activities were severely limited, he was given violin lessons and eventually managed to learn enough about music to study composition at the Bolzano Conservatory. When in 1945 the Americans liberated his native Verona, the 18-year-old Donatoni (1927-2000) was able to attend first the Milan Conservatory and then the Bologna Conservatory, where his musical life entered a new progressive phase.
A fateful incident during this period was his introduction to the music of Goffredo Petrassi, who welcomed Donatoni into his class at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. With Petrassi's help he won a competition with a Bartók-influenced composition, which apparently opened the way for him to meet his second mentor, the avant garde composer Bruno Maderna. Maderna impressed him with the need to investigate seriously the music of Schoenberg and Webern and then encouraged him to attend the school in Darmstadt in the summer of 1954. Schoenberg, then Stockhausen and Boulez made their wonted effect, and the first works he wrote revealed his efforts to emulate these composers. Next John Cage, whom he met at the home of another Italian luminary, Luciano Berio, came into view, but even though he did not climb onto the Cage bandwagon, he found himself using the method of chance in his compositions.
Donatoni's procedure was to begin with a fragment from a work of his own and, with no pre-determined plan, spontaneously make a set of rules with which new material was created. However much his students approved and admired the compositions that emerged from this process, Donatoni became aware of "the impossibility of being the author of one's own intellect, of one's own will," and his doubts led him into a personal and compositional crisis. In spite of this he continued to produce several scores, but even with their success he left his writing table and in 1975 took a job as an editor at his music publisher. This release from the self-imposed pressure that plagued him apparently proved salutary, for the following year he returned to composing, devising new methods of construction that were satisfying to him. By 1977 a new approach to composing gave him new enthusiasm: he would no longer write massive orchestral works but rather confine his efforts to chamber ensembles. A series of compositions followed this resolution, one of which, the first piece he titled Cauda (Latin for 'tail'), was commissioned by Boulez and scored for the kind of unusual instrumentation that became a Donatoni trademark. Although the chamber works proved to be a pleasurable outlet for him, large orchestral compositions and even opera beckoned.
Throughout his life (he died on 17 August 2000) Donatoni held to the belief that music is absolute and therefore should not be egotistical or be a means for self-expression. Convinced that a composer does not create but transforms, he adhered to the processes of transformation in a great number of his compositions, large and small. Applying intellect, imagination, ingenuity, and iron-willed determination, Donatoni struck out on an original path of creativity (yes, his stated conviction to the contrary, he did create) that has added luster to Italian music.
Some thoughts on Donatoni from Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was a student of the Italian composer:
"Donatoni saw himself as a craftsman, an artisan, i.e. a manufacturer of music, not the lonely romantic genius who wanders in forests and feels Weltschmerz. His point of view is typically Italian: clear, practical, light (as opposed to heavy), unsentimental. The key to composing is to work, meticulously and precisely: "lavorare e lavorare, sempre lavorare" he used to say. I find all this very healthy. When I was young I wanted to become an elegant intellectual acrobat like Donatoni and Berio. Only much later I realized, that people of the North can never be like the people of the South. We need both poles. I love the kaleidoscopic world of Donatoni's, the sudden twists and turns and the sheer beauty of the surface of the music. Not only did he mange to develop his very own language: he also learned to speak it.
"ESA (In cauda V) is a Los Angeles Philharmonic commission. Sadly, it turned out to be the very last work Donatoni completed. I was deeply moved when I saw the title and the dedication. The master had dictated his last composition to his assistants as he was no longer able to write himself."
The composition bears a dedication to Mr. Salonen.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, bells, gong, piano, harpsichord, harp, and strings.
First performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic (world premiere).