There is a certain pattern of creative life, absolutely typical of the 20th century, which goes something like this: the artist or composer begins in a relatively cautious way; then an encounter with the work of some great radical predecessor comes like an electric shock. A confused period follows, with much gloomy self-doubt, and a struggle to find just what in this new world-view can be accepted, and what rejected. Then – if the story ends happily – a ‘third way’ is found, a genuine personal voice which unites and surmounts both the first style and the new influence.
For Franco Donatoni, who was born in Verona on 9 June 1927, the story did end happily, but only after a struggle more protracted even than Debussy’s struggle to ‘surmount’ Wagner. He began conventionally enough in the early 1950s as an admirer of Bartók, and his music of that time shows a fascination with tiny motifs reminiscent of Bartók’s severe dissonant style of the 1920s. The electrifying encounter was with John Cage. Donatoni was intrigued by Cage’s idea of music that obliterated all trace of its creator, and for many years he created ever more complex ‘codes’ to transform a fragment of ‘found’ material. In one of them, Etwas ruhiger in Ausdruck (‘Ever More Peaceful in Expression’, 1967), an extended chamber piece is conjured from just two bars in Schoenberg’s Op. 11 Piano Pieces.
By the early 1970s Donatoni had grown to detest the formlessness implied by Cage’s aesthetic, but could see no way beyond it. He found it only after he had given up, when a commission goaded him back into composing. The resulting chamber pieces, beginning with Ash (1976) have all the exuberance of release after a long confinement. The ‘codes’ were not abandoned; instead they were applied to real melodies, often of a brusque and startling simplicity. It was the beginning of a 25-year outpouring of witty, dangerously exuberant, black-tinged pieces, of which, sadly, Prom was to be among the last. He died, aged 73, on 17 August 2000.
Profile by Ivan Hewett © BBC