Retired Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Donald Martino, widely respected for his atonal works, died on Thursday aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean off the coast of Antigua. He was 74.
The death was caused by cardiac arrest, which was brought about by complications with his diabetes and occurred while he was vacationing with Lora Martino, his wife of 36 years.
Born in Plainfield, N.J. in 1931, Martino taught music for over 20 years.
Martino joined the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard in 1983 after teaching at Princeton, Yale, The New England Conservatory, and Brandeis. He retired ten years later for the sole purpose of devoting himself to composition.
“He was happiest when he was writing music,” Lora Martino said.
Although labeled as a Serial or a 12-tone composer, Martino never seemed to agree with these titles. In addition to being denser and more complex, his music often included an improvisatory element.
“He was a kooky guy and always cracking jokes,” his son, Christopher Martino, said. “People who were his close friends knew this, but I don’t think the rest of the public ever recognized this in him.”
Other musicians spoke of his unique approach to composing music.
“He wrote music of great complexity and great purity at the same time,” Pianist and long-time friend Russell Sherman said. “But even beyond the beauty of his pieces, the music is imperishable—it’s his character of devotion to his craft that is inimitable and really a model for all musicians.”
Before teaching, Donald Martino studied at Syracuse University and at Princeton, where his mentors included composers Milton Babbitt and Rogers Sessions. Afterwards, he studied on a Fulbright fellowship in Florence with Luigi Dallapiccola, known as a Modernist master.
Martino seemed to view music from a different perspective even from his fellow bohemian-like artists, said his fellow musician and roommate at Syracuse, Roy Lazarus.
Not only did he take a special pride in the appearance of his works, handwriting his manuscripts in India ink, but he also did so in the structuring of his music, according to Lazarus.
“[Martino] told me that it’s not only important that the parts be correct, but that the note is placed correctly within the bar line,” Lazarus said. “I found this interesting because I had never even considered it before.”
Martino composed for six decades and continued to write even when he was in poor health. In 1978, he created Dantalian Inc., a publishing company, joining the ranks of those who use self-publishing as a means to circulate their music.
“As kids, we all dreamed that our music would make a difference and change the world,” Sherman said. “As we grew up, we realized it was a vain hope, but it never stopped [Martino] from composing the most elegant and profound music.”
He is survived by his wife, daughter, Anna Maria in Branford, Conn., and son, Christopher, in Boston.