Franco Donatoni
Fall 2007

by William Osborne

I studied with Franco at Chigiana in the summer of 79 and at the L'Accademia di Santa Cecilia in the Winter of 80. (There was no fall semester at Santa Cecilia.) I did not study with him during one of his better periods. He was having psychological problems. During the semester at Santa Cecilia he was hospitalized and classes were cancelled for a time.

Franco seem stressed during at Chigiana. His lectures were very interesting, though I couldn't always understand him. Two of my classmates were Magnus Lindberg and Esa-Pekka Salonen, both who were accepted as auditors. Esa-Pekka was about 19. They lived across the hall from us, so we spent a good deal of time together.

For some odd reason, and I do mean odd, Franco thought I was a very special composer. I had written a number of works based on the folklore around my home in New Mexico. One was entitled the "Mescalito Sonata" (for two pianos), and another, "The Land of Journeys' Ending" was based on the rituals of a folk-religious group called the Penitentes. Franco had been reading the books of Carlos Castaneda, which had affected him very deeply. He seemed to think I had some sort of deep connection to the world of sorcery in the American
Southwest. I sensed he thought I was somehow connected to characters in Castaneda's books.

After listening to "The Land of Journeys' Ending" in class, he told us that he was a "Sacerdote". The class was not sure just how he meant that, since he implied that it was very mystical. He began to treat me differently than the other students. He was very positive and supportive, but it seemed extreme, as if I were some sort of mystic or visionary or something. Students are very happy when supported by their teachers, but I felt this situation was not normal. The other students did not notice any of this as strongly, perhaps because they were not the object of the odd attention. I was left unsure what to think.

At the end of the Festival, Franco invited me to study with him at Santa Cecilia. I was very hesitant at first, because it would have meant a very long train ride to Rome from Turin every two weeks when the classes met, but I decided to do it. (That summer my wife won the first trombone position for the Maggio Musicale in Florence, but was denied the position because Ricardo Muti said there were "too many women in the orchestra." They took the man who came in second, so Abbie auditioned for his old job in Turin and won it.) I told Franco it would not be such a difficult problem to study, because we were going to be living in Italy anyway.

At Santa Cecilia, Franco's behavior became even stranger. He seemed to think I had some sort of special abilities. He would even talk to the class about them, though I didn't fully understand what he was saying, because his Italian was so fast and hard to follow anyway. One day he even stood up in class, said he was turning the rest of it over to me, and walked out. We were all incredulous. We sat there for another hour or so until the class was about to end and he came back. He asked what we had done. We told him that we had just waited for his return. He was dismayed. I didn't know what to say. After the class I told my fellow students that I thought he was having mental problems. They agreed, especially one of the Italians who knew that he had a history to that effect.

During the classes, I would stay at a very economical hotel named "Il Sole" near the Campo Fiore, which is built over the foundations of the Teatro Pompei where Julius Caesar was murdered. I had noticed the street was horse shoe shaped, but didn't realize it was the theater's foundation until I read about it in a tour guide. I told Franco in class how remarkable my discovery was about the hotel's background (or at least its foundation) and how incredible such ancient history is for Americans whose country is so young. Strangely, he then started staying at Il Sole too when in Rome. It was a cheap place, and not very nice at all, something for students, so I thought that very odd. It wasn't that he was stalking me or anything like that. It was just some strange notion he took on about Il Sole.

I decided to discontinue my studies. I wrote him a letter to let him know,
but it was returned, even though the address was correct. In the letter I
politely told him I couldn't continue because the train rides from Turin 
were too long. About a month or six weeks after I sent it, (it took that long to get the letter back and to wait for the next two week cycle of the classes) I traveled to Rome to give him the letter in person. He strongly insisted that I come back, and in front of
the entire class, so I just didn't have the heart to say no. It was getting toward the end of the semester anyway.

At some point after that (I can't remember if it was the same trip or a 
little later) he took us all out to lunch at a very good restaurant called La 
Costanza, which was near Il Sole (and on the same foundation at the ancient theater.) We all noticed he seemed rather out of his mind, but we still managed to have a good time.

Even though the lunch was very expensive, at the end he invited us to dinner
at La Costanza as well, though we were not sure exactly that he was serious 
because his behavior was so strange. Several of us thought the polite thing would be not to go. We were not even sure he would even be able to remember what he
was saying. That evening we were all at a friend's house sitting around and
about to eat dinner when one of the students came pounding on the door out
of breath and in a state of panic. He said he had gone to La Costanza to see
if Franco would even be there. He said Franco was there, and that he was "super arabiata." The student was French, and that is how he said it, with a long stressed French pronunciation of "supaaaaeeeer arabiata!" He said we needed to get there as fast as possible. We all dashed out the door and ran to La Costanza.

Franco was sitting at the end of a long table in a crowded room. We all
sheepishly took our seats and ordered some food. I had taken a seat at the
opposite end of the table, thinking the whole thing was embarrassing. Franco was saying a lot of things but I couldn't follow the Italian. He always spoke in endless, very complicated sentences that would form complex, running patters like his music. He began gesticulating more and more wildly. We were all hushed in silence. I felt so self-conscious that I just stared down at a wine bottle in front of me. Then one of the Italian students nudged me and signaled that I shouldn't look at the wine bottle any more. I looked up and Franco was talking into the wine bottle in front of him as if he were communicating to me through it. I made a big point of not looking at the bottle in front of me any more. He went on, however, and eventually started stabbing his plate with the ample supply of bread sticks that was on the table. Pieces of food started flying off his plate and hitting people at nearby tables.

After a short while, we called the waiter, paid the bill, and took Franco
outside. We stood for a while not knowing what to do. I suggested we take
a walk in the Campo with Franco, maybe look at the statue of Bruno which is
there. Franco said he was "already Bruno enough." Then I remember that 
Bruno was a heretic who was burned at the stake. We decided it might not be best to take a walk, and sat down with him at an outdoor cafe.

One of the Italian students knew he had a close friend at the French Embassy in Rome. I think she worked in the office of  the cultural attaché. The student telephoned her and she came to the cafe. Franco passed around some cigarettes. I politely said I didn't smoke, but he kept holding the pack in front of me and insisted I smoke one any way. The French woman
glanced at me with a look that said "You better take one!" So I did. He lit it and we
all smoked. I think there might have been one or two other non-smokers, but 
I am not sure. There was a certain humor to the smoking, coughs, very 
unexperienced puffs of blue clouds, etc. but we tried not to show anything. 
Finally, Franco calmed down enough that the French woman could take him home. I don't know how he got back to Milan.

A short time later Franco was put in a mental hospital for about two weeks.
I was told by some of the Italian students that he had been caught running
around Bologna with a butcher knife looking for some composer
colleague he wanted to kill. (I am not sure I remember the city right, but
I think it was Bologna.)

Classes were cancelled for a period, but at the end of the semester we
all got together again for our chamber performances by the RAI, which were
also broadcast live. Franco was much better, but looked like he had been
through hell. He was ashen and subdued. I told him that my wife had gotten a job in Germany, so I told him I couldn't come back to the classes next year. He
was very kind and wished us much luck in Germany.

One other very odd thing happened when I returned to give him the letter about leaving the class, but I don't know what to think of it. It just sticks in my mind. I gave him a book about Taoism I had and suggested he might like to read it. He asked if he could keep the book permanently since I had two copies. He said that, and looked at me, like he knew for sure I had two copies. I did in fact have two copies, since my wife also had one when we married! But I am absolutely certain I had never told him. I had never discussed the book at all with him, or even mentioned it. That's what was so odd about Franco. Every once and a while something so odd would happen that for a moment you really started thinking he was a sacerdote.

The next summer I visited Sienna and dropped in at Chigianna to see
Franco. We went out for coffee after the class. He suggested I come back 
to Santa Cecilia. When he left to go he said, "Il suo ritorno mi interesse molto."
That was the last I saw him. I still remember his wave goodbye like a 
picture in my mind.

It was so nice to have been treated with so much respect as an artist, but I wish it had been a little more rational. In spite of all of this, my time in the classes, and
the trips to Rome, are among the most treasured experiences of my life. I didn't learn anything specific in the classes that I could relate. It was just something about the warmth and intensity of Franco's humanity, even if flawed, that made such an impression. To this day, I feel Italy is the most wonderful place on earth, and the Italians the most wonderful people.

If you have any questions, please feel free to write.