Nono, who died in May 1990, would have reached
his 80th birthday in January 2004.
Paradoxically, his compositions have probably
exerted more influence during the past decade
than they did throughout his career.
his death, Luigi Nono's reputation has risen
steadily, and not just among devotees of new
music. In Germany, particularly, his achievement
is regarded as central to compositional developments
since 1945, and will be celebrated accordingly
during 2004. There are still gaps preventing
a full appreciation of all aspects of his
career, notwithstanding some significant recent
recordings, and it is hoped that at least
some of these will soon be eliminated.
area which deserves serious consideration
is Nono's relationship to his elder colleagues,
Goffredo Petrassi and especially Luigi Dallapiccola,
both of whose centenaries fall in 2004. Nono
did not study with either, but he was probably
influenced by their use of serial techniques,
and there is little doubt he sympathised with
many of Dallapiccola's artistic concerns.
Indeed, Nono dedicated one of his most important
transitional works of the later 1970s to Dallapiccola's
influences included the operas of Verdi, and
a substantial knowledge of renaissance polyphony,
obtained partly through Bruno Maderna; but
a more intriguing, if coincidental comparison
can be made with Beethoven. Both were idealists,
with distinct political inclinations in the
direction of universal brotherhood. Each was
fascinated by the myth of Prometheus. In Beethoven's
case, the myth contributed to the Eroica
Symphony, while it formed the basis of Nono's
magnum opus. Their respective careers can
be divided into three phases, with both achieving
a state of transcendence in their late works.
studied law, as well as music, but by 1950,
the latter had claimed his full attention.
However, political engagement is rarely absent
from his compositions, reflecting the influence
of Maderna, and Hermann Scherchen. He first
made an impact with two ensemble pieces: Polonifica-Monodia-Ritmica,
and Canonic Variations. Significantly,
he based the latter on a tone-row used by
Schoenberg in his Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte.
Briefly, Nono and Pierre Boulez were the chief
protagonists at the Darmstadt Summer Courses,
but the advent of Karlheinz Stockhausen reduced
Nono's influence. Stockhausen helped to emphasise
the 'abstract' nature of integral serialism,
whereas Nono favoured concrete music, using
serial procedures to create dramatic, or lyrical
responses to poetic texts. A good example
is the triptych, including the flute concerto,
ya Viene Cantando, inspired by the poetry
of Federico Garcia Lorca.
the domination Stockhausen exerted over the
avant-garde by the 1950s, Nono had several
notable successes, especially Il Canto
Sospeso, for soloists, chorus and orchestra,
which effectively brought the first phase
of his career to a culmination, in 1956. On
the one hand, the work's detailed construction
was in accordance with the tenets of integral
serialism. On the other, it fulfilled his
ambition of creating a powerful indictment
of fascism. The initial stimulus was almost
certainly Arnold Schoenberg's A Survivor
from Warsaw. Nono's response involved
setting texts written by inmates of Auschwitz
in a style ranging from intense lyricism to
poetry of Garcia Lorca, and other Spanish
writers, had already inspired Nono's engagement
with politics, but Il Canto Sospeso
was followed by an extended period during
which Nono concentrated almost exclusively
on political issues. In his 1959 Darmstadt
lecture, 'The presence of History in the Music
of Today' he outlined his compositional philosophy.
The main precepts were already evident in
his opera, Intolleranza 1960, and the
cantata, Canti di Vita every d'Amore,
for soprano, tenor and orchestra - two of
his more urgent statements from the early
1960s. Thereafter, he abandoned the traditional
opera house and concert hall for a number
of years as he sought new audiences for his
compositions and political ideas.
1960s was a period of political turbulence
in Italy, and this was reflected in many artistic
productions. Several of Luciano Berio's finest
works - frequently with political overtones
- date from that time, and some of his contemporaries
equated compositional radicalism with political
radicalism. Thus Nono created an extended
sequence of politically inspired scores directed
primarily at industrial workers.
from the short orchestral piece, Per Bastiana:
The East is Red, he favoured performances
in factory canteens, workers' clubs, schools,
etc. Electronically generated sounds played
a major role, involving frequent collaborations
with the sound technician, Marino Zuccheri.
Not only could tape compositions, either with,
or without 'live' soloists, be presented in
small venues but they could incorporate sound
material drawn from different working environments.
instance, the tape for La Fabrica Illuminata,
for voice and electronics, was compiled from
the sounds of a metal foundry, while Contrapunto
Dialettico alla Mente, for vocal soloists,
chorus and tape, included sounds recorded
in a Venetian market, as well as references
to the Venetian renaissance composer, Adriano
Banchieri. At the same time, Ricorda Cosa
ti Hanno Fatto in Auschwitz, for soprano,
children's choir and tape, extended the concept
of the 'campo sonore', or 'field of sound'
Nono had developed in his previous choral
Nono's political pieces have often been regarded
as little more than propaganda, but besides
pioneering new electronic techniques, they
explored the phonetic basis of language. As
such, they have never been more topical than
today. Nono returned to the concert arena
in 1972 with one of his finest achievements:
Como una Ola de Fuerza you Luz, for
solo soprano, small chorus, solo piano, orchestra
and tape. It was dedicated to the memory of
the Chilean revolutionary, Luciano Cruz, and
demonstrated Nono's continuing political commitment,
despite the failure of the 1968 uprisings.
same was true of Nono's second opera, Also
Gran Sole, Carico
reflecting the history of the Paris Commune,
in 1871. This proved to be a work of transition
at a time of considerable cultural and political
change. The post-war avant-garde had largely
dissipated, and Marxism had been discredited.
Several aspects of the opera already pointed
to the final phase of Nono's career, but the
decisive change began with .. Sofferte
onde Serene .. for piano and electronics.
onde Serene was the first work in which
Nono used electronics to analyse the sounds
of a single instrument, thereby prefiguring
his activities at the Freiburg Experimentalstudio.
Equally important was the Hoelderlin-inspired
String Quartet, Fragmente-Stille, an
Besides the political appeal of Hoelderlin's
late verse for many left-wing intellectuals,
his poetry provided Nono with a key to an
understanding of the German-speaking cultural
tradition. However, the unique achievements
of Nono's final years in Freiburg were ultimately
made possible by two further collaborations.
Nono was remarkably adept at choosing the
most appropriate collaborators for each compositional
project, and by 1981, he had established the
colleagues with whom he would create his magnum
opus: Prometeo, a Tragedy of Listening.
The Italian writer and philosopher, Massimo
Cacciari began compiling collages of various
texts on which Nono could draw as required.
The composer was also introduced to the Experimentalstudio,
and its Director, Hans-Peter Haller.
Freiburg Experimentalstudio of the Heinrich
Strobel Foundation of South-West German Radio
quickly acquired a formidable reputation for
its work with many composers, but, during
the 1980s, its relationship with Luigi Nono
was unique. Nono recognised that the ideas
he had adumbrated in Fragmente-Stille,
especially the interplay between sound and
silence, could be extended by means of the
new electroacoustic technology. The transformation
of even the most delicate sounds and their
spatial distribution in real time introduced
a new compositional dimension.
the works Nono completed during the first
half of the 1980s, beginning with Io, Frammento
da Prometeo, for bass flute, contrabass
clarinet, small chorus and 'live' electronics,
were essentially satellites of Promoteo
itself. They not only presented a new sound-world,
but contributed to the originality of Nono's
new concept of music-theatre.
was first performed in 1984. Its texts were
based on various interpretations of the ancient
myth of the eternal wanderer, but the intelligibility
of the words was less significant, since in
music it was the sound of words that was of
prime importance. Similarly, Nono conceived
music-theatre as a sonic landscape; accordingly
Prometeo was subdivided into 'islands'
of slowly changing performing and listening
regarded Prometheus' wanderings as symbolising
an essential aspect of the human condition,
not least his own wanderings and searchings
in the world of sound. Hence, the metaphor
of wandering, or travelling, remained central
to his output, and was reinforced by an inscription
he encountered in Toledo: 'Pilgrim: there
is no pathway, there is only travelling itself'.
the second half of the 1980s, Nono undertook
many projects, some of which were left unfinished.
Yet the Toledo inscription gave rise to several
completed scores which testified to the fact
that he retained his creative powers despite
failing health. No Hay Caminos, Hay Que
Caminar, for orchestra; Caminantes
... Ayacucho, for orchestra, chorus and
electronics; Hay Que Caminar Sonando,
for two violins continued his quest for a
new way of listening, in which timbres were
combined at the threshold of audibility.
the supreme achievement of Nono's last years
Nostalgica Utopica Futura, for solo violin,
'live' electronics, eight-channel tape and
eight to ten music-stands. Described as a
Madrigal for several 'travellers' with Gidon
Kremer, it alludes to the polyphony of late
renaissance Italy. In keeping with its title,
it also attempts to encapsulate elements of
the past, present and even future into a single
entity, particularly as regards the re-application
of fragments, or concepts from his earlier
output. It has already received three commercial
the work grew from a project: this time involving
a collaboration between Nono and the violinist,
Gidon Kremer. At the same time, it was the
culmination of Nono's quest for a music of
pure sound, which would dispense with conventional
notions of time and space. He assembled a
tape lasting 61 minutes, the basis of which
was Kremer playing anything that came to mind.
The violin sounds were then combined with
fragments which had been transformed, electronically,
plus extraneous material produced in the studio.
the six sections of the solo part are distributed
on music-stands positioned at random around
the acoustic space, leaving the violinist
to devise the path he or she will traverse.
Similarly, the sound director chooses the
material that emanates from the loudspeakers.
The two performers can react to each other's
material, and their interaction determines
the form and character of each interpretation.
Lontananza was conceived as a work of
music-theatre, based on the Toledo inscription,
and not simply as a piece of 'absolute' music.
This undoubtedly helps to explain its communicative
power. Its title also confirms that it encapsulates
many of the compositional objectives Nono
pursued for decades, ultimately proposing
an essentially metaphysical response to the
intellectual challenge posed by the collapse
of Marxist ideology. Nevertheless, it should
be stressed that Nono's approach had nothing
in common with the quasi-liturgical rituals
frequently, but misguidedly endowed with the
the consistency and integrity of Nono's oeuvre
has enhanced his reputation as possibly the
most significant composer of the post-war
generation. This is likely to be reinforced
by the various events planned to mark what
would have been his 80th birthday, especially
in Germany, where several pupils and close
associates have upheld his legacy. Apart from
the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival,
British audiences have had few chances to
experience Nono's music in 'live' performances.
2004 would seem to be an appropriate year
for British concert planners and music broadcasters
to accord Nono's scores the recognition they
enjoy in the rest of Europe.