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Nono, Luigi

(January 29, 1924  - May 8, 1990)

Born in Venice, the second child of Mario Nono and Maria Manetti. The first input for his artistic and cultural development came from his family: his paternal grandfather, Luigi Nono, was a well known painter in the late nineteenth-century Venetian tradition, and the latter’s brother, his great uncle Urbano, was a sculptor; while his maternal grandmother, a descendant of the ancient Venetian family Priuli Bon, played the piano and sang, including the Lieder of her own day (among her music Nono was astonished to find an early edition of Hugo Wolf’s Italienische Lieder, and Montezuma by Sacchini; Nono 1987, p. 480).
Both his mother and his father, an engineer by profession, were amateur pianists who enjoyed playing some of the major classics (including Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, often recalled by the composer as one of the first works he heard as a child; ibid.). Mario and Maria Nono took an active part in the cultural and musical life of Venetian high society, being regular patrons of the Teatro La Fenice and concert series in the city. Thanks to his father’s extensive record collection, Nono was able to get to know the music of Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler from an early age in the first recordings made by such conductors as Toscanini and Mengelberg. No less important were his encounters with literature in his father’s impressive library (now partly conserved in the composer’s legacy), including the first Italian translations of Russian poets and authors, the American novelists being published by Einaudi, Pavese, Gogol, Rilke and other authors who would surface over the years in the texts he selected for his compositions.
In this fertile and privileged domestic environment one can recognise the roots of what was to become a hallmark of Nono’s artistic universe, namely the idea and practice of music as an art without frontiers which can be inspired by, and grounded in, a whole range of artistic and scientific manifestations (painting, architecture, literature, poetry, philosophy, etc.) from throughout history.

© Angela Ida De Benedictis 2013; translation by Mark Weir

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Every composer – at all times and in all cases – gives his own interpretation of how modern society is structured:whether actively or passively, consciously or unconsciously, he makes choices in this regard. He may be conservative or he may subject himself to continual renewal; or he may strive for a revolutionary, historical or social palingenesis. At a technical, linguistic and expressive level of communication – that is, with a full cognizance of “actuality” – the man composer assesses and selects his inventive and creative participation and establishes the value of his testimony in relation to the reality of his own time. Which is directly related to the economic-ideological confrontation that characterizes the time itself.[1]

Right from his earliest works in the 1950s, Luigi Nono was an engagé composer. For him a right course for the “new music” implied a rigorously contemporary compositional method. At the same time, in order to arrive at “pure” music, the man-composer should connect the music to having an awareness of responsibility and taking a stand on the present. And finally, this position of the “organic intellectual” (Antonio Gramsci) required total involvement. Nono was not only one of the most important composers of the second half of the 20th century; he was also the most illustrious “moral agitators” of that generation of musicians.

He was born in Venice on 24 January 1924 and had his first lessons of music theory with Gian Francesco Malipiero, who above all showed him the route to early music(particularly early Venetian music). After finishing his law studies at the University of Padua, in 1946 he resumed his musical studies, this time with someone who became a close friend: the composer and conductor Bruno Maderna. In 1948 both became disciples of Hermann Scherchen, who deeply influenced Nono not only musically, but also culturally and politically.

During the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt of 1950 Scherchen directed the highly contested first performance of Nono’s first work, the Canonic Variations on the series of Schönberg’s op. 41. From that moment on – first as a student and then very rapidly as a teacher – Nono took part in the “Laboratorium der seriellen Musik” of Darmstadt until 1955 (until his Incontri for 24 instruments), though without strictly following the compositional techniques of integral serialism. Often the points of departure for his works were texts, as well as “musical objects”, melodies (folk), political songs, etc. – all things that directly influenced the very structure of his music.

In the most important compositions of this period– the three-part Epitaffio per Federico García Lorca (1951-1953), Il canto sospeso (1955-56), the works for choir and instruments on texts by Cesare Pavese and Giuseppe Ungaretti (La terra e la compagna, 1957; Cori di Didone, 1958) and the opera Intolleranza 1960 (1960-1961) – the techniques of the avant-garde were put at the service of an expressive aim and a direct position on a given issue. A conscious link between recent history and actuality was formed, both within and through his work, by the use of texts by Lorca or by European resistance fighters condemned to death (in Canto sospeso). He became a member of the Italian Communist Party in 1952, and in 1955 he married Nuria, Schönberg’s daughter. With equal energy he dissociated him self from both the pomposity of “social realism” and the avant-garde that wanted to withdraw from the present and live in a hermetic subculture.

The first performance of Canto sospeso in Cologne in 1956, conducted by Scherchen, was his successful debut on the European scene. His reputation was then confirmed by the tumultuous premiere of the“staged action” Intolleranza 1960 during the Venice Biennale: incidentally this was also the very first performance of a Nono work in his home country. The music of the “School of Darmstadt” was essentially instrumental music. In Nono’s works, however, the voice and the chorus played an important role. In his choruses he developed an utterly new method of “choral phrasing” by shaping the fragmentary phrasing of the orchestra onto the vocal ensemble. In this way he inaugurated an utterly new expressive relationship between the texts and the music.

In 1960 he began to work in the electronic studio of the famous Rai Phonology Studio in Milan, together with the technician Marino Zuccheri. His works of the 1960s and early 1970s, beginning with La fabbrica illuminata (1964) for soprano and tape, distinguish them selves for an infinitely more radical approach. Voices, instruments and tape often come together to create broad frescos that express Nono’s solidarity with the Italian workers (La fabbrica illuminata), Maoist China (Per Bastiana Tai-Yang Cheng, 1967), the Latin American struggles for freedom (A floresta é jovem echeja de vida, 1966) and the students of May 1968 (Musica-manifesto no. 1, 1968-1969). His work in the electronic studio allowed him to use the pre-existing “acoustic objects” in a different way and to create works conceived with contrasting dramaturgies, in which grand explosions of sound alternate with passages of intense and serene lyricism. Such works signalled a break with the ritual of traditional concerts and addressed other strata of listeners in both Europe (West and East) and Latin America, where Nono held many courses and lessons.

Latin America, and particularly Cuban culture, left a profound mark on his work. In a certain sense, Intolleranza 1960 sums up Nono’s development during the 1950s. A similar claim, with respect to the next fifteen years, could perhaps be made for Al gran sole carico d’amore, his second theatrical work of 1972-1974 (commissioned by La Scala and first performed at the Teatro Lirico of Milan). Without telling a “story” in a theatrically linear way, this “azione scenica” consists of a montage of episodes comprising the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the situation of the workers in Turin around 1980. From the musical point of view, new lyrical moments, often for four high-pitched solo sopranos, are juxtaposed with powerful “tutti” for soloists, chorus, orchestra and tape. The dramaturgy of this work, which can be traced back to fundamental concepts ofthe avant-garde Russian theatre of Meyerchold, were the result of the composer’s close collaboration with the director Yuri Lyubimov and the scenographer David Borovsky of the Taganka Theatre in Moscow. By developing further his compositional technique of the 1950s, Nono expanded his serial structures and worked with “harmonic blocks” and their transformations (especially as from Canti di vita e d’amore, 1962). The writing for voices and instruments became denser and, in particular, embraced the experiences made during his work in the electronics studio.

Between 1975 and 1979 Nono completed only two works. As he said in an interview dated 1981,

after Al gran sole I felt the need to rethink my way of being a musician and intellectual in today’s society and to find new ways of knowledge and imagination. Certain patterns and certain thoughts are antiquated. Today there is a need to integrate the creative force as broadly as possible.[2]

The first consequence of this questioning was the collapse of certain convictions, including political convictions, even though these convictions had previously been expressed in all their contradictory complexity. Indeed his self criticism proceeded so far in its lack of compromise that the critics began to wonder if he had perhaps “broken” with his own past or even “repudiated it”. Others, alternatively, speculated that the provocative modernity found in works like the string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima (1979-80), might reveal pages that the composer had hitherto kept concealed or even neglected. A catalyst in this fundamental new orientation was the Venetian philosopher Massimo Cacciari, who helped to open up new horizons (both philosophical and literary). At the centre of this “new” musical thought lay the idea of openness and permanent questioning. His works became longer; they became more numerous; and the musical path became fragmented, mysterious and for the most part very subdued. At the same time, the texts became submerged in the music, through which they impinged on its course. At this time Nono identified the most urgent task of his musical activity as that of revealing new worlds and new sonic landscapes, which would rupture the habits of listening that had developed in the increasingly mediatized musical culture. Before the contradictions of present-day reality, his music had the aim of reawakening all the human faculties. In the works written in the 1980s it is the small ensembles for voices and instruments that prevail.

Almost always he worked with the live electronics of the Experimentalstudio der Heinrich-Strobel-Stiftung des SWR in Freiburg which allowed him to transform sung and played sounds in real time and arrange them in space as he wished. Increasingly he developed the experimental works with a fixed groups of musicians who collaborated in nearly all the performances of those years, there by establishing a new relationship between composition, preparation and interpretation, between the score and its realization in a given context. The beginnings of this new way of composing and performing his works, however, can be traced back to the 1960s. The peak of these developments was clearly his “tragedy of listening” Prometeo (first version, Venice, 1984; second version, Milan, 1985; with further revisions at successive moments), though previous steps in that direction were works such as Das atmende Klarsein (1980-81), Quando stanno morendo. Diario polacco no. 2 (1982) and Guai ai gelidi mostri (1983).

Prometeo was a point of departure for his last works (among which, Risonanze erranti, 1986; Caminantes ... Ajacucho, 1987; and No hay caminos hay que caminar... Andrej Tarkowskij, 1987). In these works the truth lies in the search for an answer that is fragmentary and intentional partial; by this time Nono was radically rejecting all systematizing solutions. Characteristics of the “late” works are the use of micro-intervals and sonorities verging on the inaudible, introduced to

reawaken the ear, the eyes, human thought, intelligence; a maximum of alienated interiority”.[3]

At the same time it was clear that these late works cast a fresh light on the early ones, which had previously made their provocative effect thanks to their firm standpoint and their modern and uncompromising expressive style. Other features of Nono’s personality, long unrecognized, became visible: he was no longer viewed as the representative of a political, aesthetic or musical system. In the 1950s, for example, he had repudiated every form of neoclassicism, but had very soon used “canon” techniques and other experimental forms of early music, which he duly integrated into his works, in the form of quotations or allusions to other music, since they came from either a “high” culture or a “folk” culture. He kept completely clear, however, of all forms of collage.

After his first famous lesson at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse in 1959, Geschichte und Gegenwart in der Musikheute, Nono rejected the denial of tradition and pressed for an equally lucid awareness of history and the present. He harshly criticized the “a-historical” positions of John Cage and his followers as well as the woolly reconciliations of art and life that do no more than “aestheticize” reality. Nono never taught systematically, nor did he ever present his musical thought in any concise form, like Pierre Boulez (Penser la musique aujourd’hui), Karlheinz Stockhausen or Iannis Xenakis. His life and work are inseparable, yet his works are not autobiographical, though often associated with a present in perpetual change. The positions he takes are exclusively and consistently expressed in music and not in “texts set to music”.

The interaction between contents, texts and music corresponds completely to that between the works and their listeners. Significantly only the late Prometeo is a sort of “work in progress”. New versions of earlier works – almost the rule for Boulez – were almost unknown to Nono. Every work lies in relation to a fixed point at a specific moment, in which the expressive means are drawn on and developed. There is no need to go back to them later; the composer never made the claim that his works should “survive”. For forty years Nono closely accompanied world history (social and political), also leaving a lasting mark on the history of music of his time, particularly in Italy and Germany. Even though different stages and equilibriums can be identified at the different points of his artistic career, his coherence and originality (both musical and human) are never in question.

Jürg Stenzl


* Introduction in Luigi Nono and electronic sound, 10th Milano Musica Festival, Editions of the Teatro alla Scala (2000), by kind permission. Translated by Hugh Ward-Perkins

[1] Martine Cadieu. “Entretien avec Luigi Nono”, Les lettres françaises, 29.6.1966, pp. 18-19 : 18; German trans. in Luigi Nono. Texte. Studien zu seiner Musik, edited by Jürg Stenzl, Zürich, 1975, pp.187-191: 187.

[2] Interview with Renato Garavaglia in L’Unità, 58 (1981), no. 125, 29 May; German trans. by Catherine Stenzl in Schweizerische Musikzeitung,121 (1981), p. 310.

[3] “L’erreur comme nécessité”, in Revolution, no. 169 (27 May-2 June 1983), pp. 50f.; reprinted in Schweizerische Musikzeitung, 123 (1983), pp. 270f.; German trans. in Jürg Stenzl, Luigi Nono, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1998, pp. 105-108.


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