The Inability to Create: Donatoni and Cage

Excerpt from my doctoral research paper, in progress.

FRANCO DONATONI was born in Verona on June 9, 1927. At that time, Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party ruled the Kingdom of Italy, following the March of Rome.[1] Donatoni grew up during the Italian irredentism, when the national goal was to promote the unification of geographic areas still retained by the Austrian Empire after the War of Independence in 1866.[2]While Europe was emerging from the ashes of World War II, rediscovering Schoenberg’s second string quartet and becoming accustomed to its place under the new nuclear forces — Russia, the United States, England and France — Donatoni was in Rome, studying composition with Ildebrando Pizzetti at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, from which he graduated in 1953.[3] The Marshall Plan’s European Recovery Program lifted Europe from 1948 to 1952 under Harry S. Truman, sending a shockwave of reconstruction through England, France and West Germany,[4] which greatly benefited Italy because the United States feared that the country could become communist following the vote to abolish the monarchy and create the Republic.[5]Meanwhile, the transistor, invented by Bell Laboratories in 1947 and industrialized by Raytheon in the 1950s,[6] contributed to the development of the “manufacturers of culture” who would delimit music’s “market allocation,”[7] segmenting music into spheres such as “classical” and “popular.” Yet Donatoni, like other composers with him and after him, wanted to escape from a strictly commercial conception of music and take into his hands the fate of a necessary “new music.”Franco Donatoni wrote music based in particular on Darmstadt’s International New Music Summer Courses, founded by Wolfgang Steinecke in 1947,[8] which he attended in 1954, 56, 58 and 61.[9] During these years, he was exposed to Pierre Boulez’s uncompromising ideas on modernism; Darmstadt taught modern music following Schoenberg’s ideas of 1908, along with Webern and Varèse.

As war acts on politics in that it has the capacity to reconfigure social relations, the start of the identification processes of those engaged in armed conflicts through creation or mobilization of musical works and musical practices, the sublimation of suffering prompted by conflicts, Christian von Ehrenfels’ “Gestalt psychology,”[10] and the technological advancement of communication are all key to understanding the reasons behind the necessity for a new music following World War II, with Nazism being the consequence of the “untenable metaphysical philosophies and ideologies upon which Romanticism was founded.”[11]

Besides Franz Liszt’s Bagatelle sans tonalité, written in 1885,[12] and Abel Decaux’s Scriabinian Clairs de lune, written between 1900 and 1903,[13] a diachronic enigma is Arnold Schoenberg’s fourth movement of the second string quartet, Op. 10, “Entrückung,”[14] and Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11,[15] both written in 1908, as to why a subjective exhaustion of the expressive tonal chromaticism — since aesthetic evidence seems to point in that direction — would lead to a harmonic relativism identifiable as “atonalism.”[16] Are Schoenberg’s complaint that “the illegitimacy of a triad chord that claims dominance over all the others”[17] and these two 1908 works a natural reaction to the exhaustion of chromatic harmony, as Webern later pointed out,[18] or perhaps a revolt against Karl Marx’s 1848 Communist Manifesto?[19] The Kishinev pogroms between 1903 and 1906?[20] The San Francisco earthquake of April 1906?[21] Mathilde Schoenberg’s affair with Richard Gerstl in 1908 (most probably)?[22]

“The dictum that every composer must create an individual style to establish credentials as Artist is so widely taken for granted in the modern world that it is worth emphasizing how recently the Western community has demanded this kind of originality.” [23]

 Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of modernism established a striking parallel between the shift to atonalism and the Dionysian experience of looking into the abyss:

“Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun?” [24]

What Schoenberg did was the first radical experience of atonal music in history. It overwhelmed the listening parameters and redesigned the tonal music geometries. For the first time ever, a composer could be the supreme author of his own structural grammar, “making up the rules as we go.”[25]

But why did this first radical experience take place to begin with? Why such a compositional methodology, replacing tonality with a new system of his own making? Because of the need for a logical analysis of language following the growing globalization of communications, new socio-economic developments and the unification of science going beyond metaphysics, in which statements would remain clearer, universal and more accessible. Because Schoenberg asserted that:

“The logic of the artwork embodies and expresses its own value, defining a structural listening as a concrete attempt of unfolding logic which could vouch for the value of the music itself.” [26]

“The appreciation of art is accessible only to those whose artistic and ethical culture is on a high level.”[27] Schoenberg’s apparent confusion regarding musical expression allowed him to convey atonal musical ideas which were able to embrace atonalism, in that a “germinal conception of a musical work is indescribable in language.”[28] He conceived music as a form of “logic” that is subject to constraints imposed by the laws of sound (“the requirements of the material”), and the laws of cognition (“the demands of the subject”).[29]

It was Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) in his Begriffsschrift of 1879,[30] who may have triggered Schoenberg’s experience of atonal music, along with the early writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951).[31] His symbolic conception of logic replaced Aristotelian syllogistics, rewritten in symbolic form, in order to algebraize the syllogistic logic.[32] In Platonic realism, a structure exists with its properties independent of any systems that have that structure. In Aristotelian realism, a structure exists and is ontologically posterior to the system that instantiates it. Frege’s intentions were an axiomatized logic “purified” from clericalism and empiricism, which would redefine the complex relationships between the signified and the signifier. To that end, he adopted a functional-theoretical syntax and conceived logic as a language.

Schoenberg may not have read Frege’s Begriffsschrift, but he felt its strong influence in the Wiener Kreis, the “Vienna Circle,” led by Moritz Schlick[33] at the University of Vienna’s Mathematical Seminar, which he frequented.[34] In the meantime, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus came with the possibility of a theoretically “principled distinction” of an intelligible discourse compared to a nonsensical one, the “verifiability principle,”[35] placing the analysis of language at the center of philosophy, calling for the rise of what would become the Logical Positivism movement.[36]

“To understand a proposition is to know the outcome when it is true (it can therefore be understood without knowing if it is true).” [37]

 This neo-Kantian proposition, which constitutes a critique of language, was a key factor for Schoenberg regarding the relationship in formalism between theoretical music and mathematical modeling in music analysis. Schoenberg was looking for an epistemological shift from the triad chord dominance with the help of a new “universal” (stable immutable law) in his quest for harmonic relativism. Schoenberg would then rebuke Hugo Riemann’s Grundlageforschung (“foundational research”) hierarchy of the sonance as a universal[38] and replace it with new standards such as the “emancipation of the dissonance,” the equal status for consonance and dissonance, and the liberation of the dissonance from obligatory resolution to consonance, going back all the way to Protagorus of Abdera’s sophistic revolt against absolute standards.[39]

Wittgenstein imagined a conceptual framework that reduces language to its formal logical essentials, a prescription of the proper usage of language in order to circumscribe the limits within which things can, and cannot, be legitimately described and “said,” despite Kantian Proposition 6.421:

“It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one.)” [40]

 He proclaimed the aesthetic limits of discourse with all ethics and aesthetics pointing to the facts, drawing attention to things. Facts, for Schoenberg, were the liberation of dissonance from obligatory resolution to consonance, the chord complementarity where the second chord “receives” what is missing in the first, and the sovereignty of the series which provides for harmonic coherence. Words now name things from the world of experience, and the relationships between them are organized in a propositional grammar,[41] an “entelechy” — a being in itself, having its own end and perfection, “rhythm and harmonies created by visual forms and colors.”[42]

Equating Schoenberg’s writing technique to the logical tools of positivism[43] seems to make sense as the “elementary propositions” of a row, in a serial standpoint, like the “protocol sentences” of an inevitable axiomatic proposition, are an empiricism that seeks to reconstruct science (tonality), considering a single pitch as an irreducible unit of sensory data. It is precisely a “Machian empiricism,”[44] if such an adjectivization is possible, reconstructing music and its philosophy inside a system of logically inevitable propositions (the “protocol sentences” of what would become serialism). When Schoenberg joined the Wiener Kreis in 1922, the last adjustments of his dodecaphonic enterprise were already well advanced. He would reposition the coding of the musical expression, where the structured pitches would obey the laws of a series, where the Grundgestalt (“basic shape”) would become a twelve-tone row inside “developing variations.”[45] The question of language-directionality and gestural-signifier[46] would compose the grammar of the meaning, a syntax of the foundation of the sound expression.

If the idea is expressed in language and follows its rules, as well as the general rules of thought, then the expression of the musical idea is possible in only one way, through tones; and the idea obeys the rules of tones as well as corresponding approximately to the rules of thought.[47]

A later comparison between Schoenberg and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch (will to power) is found in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus when the demon-possessed character Adrian Leverkühn, based on Nietzsche, attains fame for inventing twelve-tone music.[48] This diabolical comparison by such an acclaimed author constitutes a social refusal of the radical musical agenda of this new norm. The capacity to hear and tolerate an environment of sounds that did not exist before WWI was inconceivable, as if physical death itself had found a way into music because music was now confronted with a present that was no longer recognizable, a present in a nuclear world in which the scream of expressionism had fossilized in Auschwitz.

… it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living — especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.[49]

Following the death of Richard Strauss in 1949, it is impossible to write music — music that is considered “serious” — without taking into consideration six new realities:

  1. Arnold Schoenberg;
  2. Hitler and Auschwitz;
  3. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki;
  4. John Cage’s 4’33”;
  5. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey;
  6. The 9/11 attacks.

Franco Donatoni brilliantly competed with, overcame and answered the first five — yet the most difficult reality was himself.


[1] Gentile, Emilio (2012): E fu subito regime. Il fascismo e la Marcia su Roma. Bari, Laterza Editori.
[2] Rossi, Angelo (1968): The Rise of Italian Fascism, 1918-1922. Howard Fertig, 1st Edition, p. 47. Charles Upson Clark (1917): Italy’s Claim to Istria. The New York Times, December 21, 1917 – online at
[3] Enzo Restagno (1990): Un autobiografia dell’autore raccontata da Enzo Restagno. “Franco Donatoni,” Torino, EDT Musica, pp. 57-58.
[4] United States of America, 80th Congress, 2nd session, Chapter 169 (April 3, 1948), online at
[5] Baget Bozzo, Gianni (1974): Il partito cristiano al potere. La DC di De Gasperi et di Dossetti 1945-54. Firenze, Vallecchi.
[6] Goldstein, Harry (2003): The Irresistible Transistor, Spectrum Magazine № 40, online at
[7] Baricco, Alessandro (1992): L’anima di Hegel e le mucche del Wisconsin, una riflessione su musica colta e modernità. Milano, Garzanti s.r.l., p. 7.
[8] Nono, Luigi (1962): In memoriam Wolfgang Steinecke, in Écrits. Geneva, Contrechamps, p. 122.
[9] Avantaggiato, Massimo (2014): Donatoni: a critical re-appraisal of Quartetto III. Proceedings of the Electroacoustic Music Studies Network Conference, Electroacoustic Music Beyond Performance. Berlin, June 2014, p. 2.
[10] Ehrenfels’ theory of form gives a signified structure to a system, resulting in a structured form. Looking at the stars is a visual stimulation that is easily organizable, e.g. into a constellation — the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Forms are transposable configurations through a plurality of situations — in Fisette, D., Fréchette, G. (2007): À l’école de Brentano, de Würzburg à Vienne. Paris, Brin, Collection Textes philosophiques, p. 82, and von Bertalanffy, Ludwig (1968): Théorie Générale des systèmes. Translated by Jean-Benoist Chabrol. Paris, Dunod (1973), Collection Idem.
[11] Neurath, M., Cohen, R. S., (1974): Otto Neurath: Empiricism and Sociology. Instructional Science, Vol. 3, №. 2, p. 201.
[12] The fourth Mephisto Waltz, “Bagatelle ohne Tonart,” hyper-chromatic and “omnitonic”— Fétis, François-Joseph (1832): Traité d’harmonie, Vol IV, which foresaw the division of the octave into twelve equal semitones and the dissolution of the scale; in Neubauer, John (2017): The Persistence of Voice: Instrumental Music and Romantic Orality. National Cultivation of Culture. Leyde, Brill, p. 175. Built around a G# diminished chord, the piece is devoid of any tonal center.
[13] Paris, Éditions S. Chapelier, 1913, S.C.118-121.
[14] Universal Edition, Wien, Study Score Series, UE № 3554300.
[15] Universal Edition, Wien, 1910, UE № 2992.
[16] Schaeffer, Pierre (1952): À la recherche d’une musique concrète. Paris, Seuil, p. 130.
[17] Schoenberg, Arnold (1910): Fonctions structurelles de l’harmonie, supplément au Traité d’Harmonie, édition révisée. Translation and commentaries by Bernard Floirat, Paris, Delatour France, p. 240.
[18] Webern, Anton (1932-33): Der Weg zur Neue Musik. Translated from German into French: Chemins vers la nouvelle musique. Paris, J.-C. Lattès, 1980.
[19] Winock, Michel (1992): Le socialisme en France et en Europe, XIXe-XXe siècle. Paris, Seuil, p. 45.
[20] Minczelesk, Henri (1999): Histoire générale du Bund, un mouvement révolutionnaire juif. Paris, Denoël, p. 95.
[21] The New York Times, April 6, 1906 – online at
[22] Stuckenschmidt, Hans Heinz (1993): Arnold Schoenberg, Étude de l’œuvre. Translated by Alain Poirier. Paris, Fayard, p. 93.
[23] Swain, Joseph P. (1997): Musical Languages. New York, Norton & Co., p. 121.
[24] The Parable of the Madman in Nietzsche, Friedrich (1882): Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. Translated by Walter Kaufmann: The Gay Science. New York, Vintage, 1974, Par. 125, p. 181.
[25] Thomson, William (1991): Schoenberg’s Error. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 118.
[26] Rosengard Subotnik, Rose (1996): Deconstructive Variations. London, University of Minnesota Press, p. 95.
[27] Schoenberg, Arnold (1950-51): Le style et l’idée. Translated by Christiane de Lisle. Paris, Buchet-Chastel, 1994, p. 369.
[28] Goehr, Alexander (1985): Schoenberg and Karl Kraus: The Idea behind the Music. Music Analysis, Vol. 4, No. 1/2, Special Issue: King’s College London Music Analysis Conference 1984 (Mar. – Jul., 1985), pp. 59-71.
[29] Lerdahl, Fred (1988): Generative Processes in Music: The Psychology of Performance, Improvisation, and Composition. Oxford, Clarendon Press, pp. 231–59.
[30] Frege, Gottlob (1879): Begriffsschrift, eine der arithmetischen nachgebildete Formelsprache des reinen Denkens. Translated by J.L. Austin: The Foundations of Arithmetic. A logico-mathematical enquiry into the concept of number. London, Basil Blackwell, 1950.
[31] Especially with the Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung (1914). Translated by Gilles Gaston Granger (1972): Tractatus logico-philosophicus. Paris, Gallimard, collection Tel, 1993.
[32] Abeles, F.F., Fuller, M.E. (2016): Modern Logic 1850-1950, East and West. Switzerland, Birkhäuser, p. 13.
[33] The “Empirical observational sentences” of Friedrich Albert Moritz Schlick (1882–1936), Empirische Beobachtungssätz, stipulated, among other things, that one’s own experience is not certain, but that “consciousness is ultimately determinative for empirical claims,” showing that Schoenberg’s conscience could no longer draw from the tonal perspective and that an empirical claim toward a theoretical-analytical conception in which the words name things from the world of experience, and the relationships between them can be organized in a propositional grammar, would be acceptable. The form would be an a priori based on the rules of the language — in Livingston, Paul M. (2004): Philosophical History and the Problem of Consciousness. Cambridge University Press, p. 219.  Schlick’s critique of Emmanuel Kant’s symmetrical propositions on space and time, based on Albert Einstein’s new theory of relativity, gave Schoenberg a point of interpretation to criticize the immutability of the tonal architecture. As Schlick thought that Kant sought to make Newtonian mechanics an absolute truth by means of the transcendental forms of intuition and understanding, Einstein’s physical states of space and time were methods from the empirical natural sciences, synthetic propositions which are a posteriori, contrary to the a priori propositions of Newton as thought by Kant. Harmony was not immutable, but a collection of a posterioris, an understanding which became a realistic criticism.
[34] Feigl, Herbert (1968): The Wiener Kreis in America. Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, Perspectives in American History, Vol II: Harvard University Press, pp. 630-673. Harrison, Thomas (1910): The Emancipation of Dissonance, University of California Press (1996), p. 68.
[35] Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1914), Propositions 3.1 and 4.25, pp. 41, 64.
[36] Bramann, Jorn K. (1985): Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and the Modern Arts. Rochester, Adler Publishing.
[37] Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1914), Proposition 4.024, p. 53.
[38] The “foundational research” was to investigate and formulate the natural laws for musical composition in coherent rules — in Riemann, Hugo (1899): L’Esthétique musicale. Translated by Georges Humbert. Paris, Félix Alcan (1906).
[39] Protagorus of Abdera (481-411 B.C.): A pre-Socratic agnostic, he already considered man as being “the measure of all things,” and taught that any discourse can give birth to any being. His revolt against any absolute was detailed in Eusebius of Caesarea’s critic in which Protagoras’ atheistic subjectivism was an attack on the Gospel; with Heracleitus of Ephesus’ (544-483 B.C.) doctrine of flux (referred to by Plato’s Cratylus, 402a), which stipulates that any universal flux and any identity of opposites (“transformational equivalent”) entail a denial of the “principle of non-contradiction” (that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense and at the same time): “Heracleitus, I believe, says that all things go and nothing stays, and comparing existents to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.” It is the fact that the waters are always changing that there are rivers at all, pointing to this other fact that some changing things make possible the continued existence of other things, nurturing a future postmodern outlook in epistemology — in Eusebius of Caesarea (Eusebius Pamphili) (314): La Préparation évangélique, Livres XIV-XV, in Le Boulluec, Alain (1989): Revue de l’histoire des religions № 206-3. Paris, Presse universitaire de France, pp. 313-14, and Cassin, Barbara (2015): La rhétorique au miroir de la philosophie. Paris, Vrin, collection Histoire de la philosophie, pp. 69-91.
[40] Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1914), p. 110.
[41] Goehr, Alexander (1985): Schoenberg and Karl Kraus: The Idea Behind the Music. Music Analysis 4:1/2, pp. 59-71.
[42] Kandinsky, Wassily (1910): Du spirituel dans l’art et dans la peinture en particulier. Translated from Russian by Philippe Sers (1989). Paris, Denöel, p. 112.
[43] Yourgrau, Palle (2005): A World Without Time. The Forgotten Legacy of Gödel and Einstein. Cambridge MA, Basic Books, pp. 54-55.
[44] Ernst Mach (1883): Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwicklung. Historisch-kritisch dargestellt, 1904. Translated by Émile Bertrand: La mécanique. Exposé historique et critique de son développement. Paris, Hermann, 1987.
[45] Schoenberg, Arnold (): Le Style et l’idée. Translated by Christiane de Lisle. Paris, Buchet-Chastel, 2002.
[46] Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1987): Musicologie générale et sémiologie. Paris, Christian Bourgois.
[47] Rufer, Josef (1962): The Works of Arnold Schoenberg: a Catalogue of His Compositions, Writings and Paintings. Translated by Dika Newlin. London, Faber. In Gedanke Manuscript. Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, Vol. II, № 1, 1977, pp. 4-25.
[48] Mann, Thomas (1947): Le Docteur Faustus. Translated by Louise Servicen. Paris, Albin Michel, 1996.
[49] Adorno, Theodor W. (1966): Negative Dialektik. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main. Translated by E.B. Ashton. London, Routledge, pp. 362-63.

Le Dernier Apocryphe, récit anagogique

Essay – Difficult and dense tale, quite short (101 well-thought-out pages), fideistic, the first of a series. The plot of the backstory is the attacks on the towers in New York that are followed by the upheaval of a symptomatic friendship.

Excerpt (translated from French) —

WHEN THE DESTRUCTION of the Twin Towers had struck dumb a global society as malleable as an emotional opinion, the character at the center of this strange tale took refuge in himself, faced with the relentless reality of collective ignorance.

The moment was certainly eloquent, a moment stemming from a prophetic staging in broad daylight for a better disaster. The buildings, in rows like barrels, had displayed a war pensioner’s outdated reverence, receiving the planes painted with distemper like a morality lesson following a day of debauchery with all the enviable silence that basic vigilance would have forestalled. The Third World War had officially begun: America had been kidnapped; its riches now had to satiate Lucifer’s soiled hands in his rape of the dignity of nations and common souls.

Registration of copyright: 4th trimester 2010, Éditions Bénévent, Nice, FRANCE, 2011 — ISBN 978-2-7563-2025-0 ; deposit: Bibliothèque nationale de France, catalogue général, monographie under notice NFRBNF42422927, 2011.