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Donald Martino

  • Composition (chair)

Donald Martino (1931–2005), who headed NEC's composition department from 1969 to 1981, died December 8, 2005, of a heart attack. His death came while cruising the Caribbean to Antigua, a vacation trip in which Martino continued to work happily on a new Concertino for Violin and 14 Instruments commissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center.

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, on May 16, 1931, Martino began music lessons at nine—learning to play the clarinet, saxophone, and oboe. He started composing at 15. A graduate of Syracuse University, he studied composition with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt at Princeton and with Luigi Dallapiccola while on a Fulbright Scholarship in Florence. Although he cringed when labeled a “serial” or “12-tone” composer, Martino was an unabashed modernist who favored an atonal harmonic system and the rigorously determined compositional procedures of the serialists. Yet his music was often leavened with jazzy flavors that carried over from his experience playing in dance bands and by vivid internal dramatic conflicts. There were also demonstrations of wit and irony such as that in Das magische Kabarett des Doktor Schoenberg (Dr. Schoenberg’s Magic Cabaret), a chamber music movement in which he envisioned Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, “and maybe Egon Wellesz,” forced to play in a cabaret quartet for eternity—”the pit band in Hell.” Martino’s 12-tone settings of 16 pop tunes showed how that infernal soundtrack might have played out.

Martino, like many composers of his generation, held numerous university and conservatory positions, including such prestigious appointments as the Irving Fine Professorship at Brandeis University and the Walter Bigelow Rosen Professorship at Harvard. At NEC, he was appointed by President Gunther Schuller to head the composition faculty, and during his tenure here he wrote Notturno, the now classic chamber work for flutes, clarinets, violin/viola, cello, piano, and percussion. That piece won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize and has since been recorded numerous times.

Also while at NEC, Martino composed the Paradiso Choruses, an enormous oratorio inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy that was commissioned by the Paderewsky Fund for Lorna Cooke de Varon (in photo, with Martino) on the occasion of her 25th anniversary directing the choruses at NEC.

“I thought Notturno was a very beautiful piece and believed Don was the logical person to commission to write a small work for chorus,” says De Varon. “But the piece kept getting bigger and bigger.” Having composed a particularly thorny Christmas piece for the NEC chamber chorus some years before the Paradiso Choruses, Martino in setting Dante “went back to what Dallapiccola taught him and wrote in a more Italianate vein,” De Varon said. “He realized that he couldn’t write the same kind of music for singers as he could for orchestra.”

Given its world premiere in 1975 in NEC’s Jordan Hall, Paradiso Choruses spilled off the stage, into the balconies and onto specially built daises. In its review of the piece, The Boston Globe called the Paradiso Choruses, “some kind of masterpiece” and asked: “How … can a work of this capaciousness, of its evident complexity and equally evident simplicity, of its variety and inevitability, of its immediate necessariness, not have been there all along, like some new planet, just somehow now swimming into ken?”

Even after Martino had gone on to other schools and an active retirement devoted to composition, NEC continued to honor a composer who had been such an important influence on so many students and colleagues. For example, the Conservatory presented “A Tribute to Donald Martino,” with a concert including Fantasies and Impromptus for piano, From the Other Side, and Notturno in November 2003. A memorial concert held in Jordan Hall on May 8, 2007, has been released as a two-CD set by Navona Records.

Dantalian, Inc., is publisher and distributor of music and music products by Donald Martino.

Shortly after Martino's death, the Donald Martino Award for Excellence in Composition was established in his name by family and friends. The award, to be given out to outstanding composition students at New England Conservatory, commemorates Martino's important achievements as a composer and his impact on students and colleagues at NEC. To contribute to this fund, please contact Julia Olson, Associate Director of Donor Relations, by e-mail or by phone at 617-585-1185.