Dr David C. F. Wright
Luigi Nono was a somewhat withdrawn man. He did not
have an expansive nature. I never knew him to tell a joke or laugh and
colleagues, who also knew him, say the same thing. He was a sober and
serious man and while he may not have been popular with everybody I
liked him. However strange it is to say, he did not look Italian but
rather Venetian with those piercing blue eyes. He was tall and thin
in his early to middle years and still unpretentious and not forthcoming
about anything. He married Schoenberg’s daughter and I believe that
they were separated for a while. It is hard to image him being in love
or married in view of the character that he showed to us.
He studied with Malipiero the elder, and dismissed
his attitude to music as being too conservative. Nono became interested
and, indeed, fascinated by both the mechanics and the science of music
and the development of the artistry within new forms. Although he seemed
to be cold and clinical musically, and said that all music came from
formulae it seems to me that music always has a human expression. It
could, however, be argued, that a lot of music is formulae or device.
The canon, the ricerare, the fugue, the passacaglia, the ground are
formulae. Bach can use them and it is accepted but formulae used by
Webern, Schoenberg and Berg or, for that matter, Bartok or Hindemith
are criticised, if not condemned. Early composers used ornamental devices
such as the trill, the shake, the mordant (upper and lower), and others,
which, quite frankly, can be a downright nuisance and the cause of endless
pointless arguments. And so when Nono becomes fascinated by devices
and uses them he is in the same category as the Bachs and Handels, et
Nono’s music was rarely played in Italy until Il Canto
Sospeso appeared in the mid-1960s. That great conductor, Hermann Scherchen
had played Nono’s music in Switzerland and elsewhere but Nono was not
accepted in his own country.
Il Canto Sospeso is a twelve note work with a brilliantly
conceived note row
A rising to B flat.................minor 2nd
that B flat down to A flat.........major 2nd
that A flat rising to B natural....augmented 2nd
that B natural falling to G........major 3rd.
that G rising to C.......................perfect 4th.
that C falling to F sharp.........diminished 5th
that F sharp rising to C sharp......perfect 5th
that C sharp falling to F natural.....augmented 5th
that F natural rising to D.........major 6th
that D falling to E...............minor 7th
that E rising to E flat.............augmented 7th.
Another mechanical device used by Nono was the mirror
form which means exactly what it says. He used it in such works as Composizione
for orchestra and Variants for orchestra. Webern used it, for example,
in his Piano Variations Opus 27 and bars 37 to 40 are an ideal example
of mirror form. Nono was meticulous. For example, in the violin solo
in Variants every note has a different tonal marking which causes the
passage to have a constantly changing colour.
Nono was born in Venice on 29 January 1924. He was
educated at the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory and studied composition
under Gian Francesco Malipiero between 1941 and 1945. He studied law
concurrently at Padua University and graduated in 1946. He was an active
member of the Italian Resistance during 1943-1945. A workaholic he furthered
his studies in advanced harmony and composition with Bruno Maderna and
Hermann Scherchen. He went to Darmstadt in 1950 and further studied
the use of electronics in music. This was his decade of research into
mechanical music, as it has often been called.
Electronics in music is decried by many. In addition,
because it is often varied at subsequent performances, it is said that
the piece is never played the same. Every performance is different.
Yes, that may be but it could be said to some extent of early music
which employed improvisation, for example, cadenzas in concertos. If
we had lived at the time at the end of the eighteenth century and heard
several performances of one of the great Mozart Piano Concertos no performance
would have been the same, not just in matters of tempo but in the improvisational
passages such as a cadenza. I have sixty recordings of the glorious
Brahms’ Double Concerto, all of them are different but all the notes
are the same and the sounds are the same. There is no improvisation.
It is appreciated that some works ‘written’ today are
completely aleatory, all down to chance. And I would agree that this
may not constitute music that can be ascribed to a composer. But the
use of electronics can be very effective and produce relevant sounds
that orchestras cannot produce ... for example, the wonderful stone
throwing passage in Humphrey Searle’s opera The Photo of the Colonel.
But this is a short passage. A whole work of nothing but electronics
is different. A work that is partly through composed and partly improvisatory
with electronics may be a hybrid and some think it to be unsatisfactory.
Nono was a revolutionary both politically and musically
and the two go together. The comparatively new order of communism calls
for a new order in music. All that is traditional is to be condemned.
He was a strenuous anti-fascist. It is a great pity when politics dictate
to music. How Shostakovich suffered at the hands of Stalin and his evil
regime for example. Nono was a communist and a member of the Central
Committee of the Communist party. From about 1964 he organised debates
with trade unions in various factories. He visited the Soviet Union
many times and Cuba as well as other European communist countries. He
was composer in residence at the Dartington Summer School in Devon in
Nono was a fascinating character. My friend, the distinguished
British composer Reginald Smith Brindle has allowed me to quote from
his as yet unpublished autobiography details of his meetings with Nono:-
While I was in Venice, I formed a firm friendship
with Luigi Nono, at that time reputed to be the most advanced of
the avant-garde in Italy. But though he had a strong reputation,
his work were never played except in Germany, so he was a bit of
an unknown quantity. He lived on the island of La Giudecca opposite
San Marco with his wife who was Schoenberg’s daughter.
I went there mostly while he was composing Il
Canto Sospeso, a politically orientated work of choral-orchestral
character which involved the most abstruse constructivism I have
ever come across. Mathematics governed every detail of the composition
... the pitch of the notes, their duration, volume and sound character.
In his study, there was a wall entirely covered with successions
of numbers, notes and performance details and from this he extracted
all the details of the composition. It seemed to me that all his
intense constructivism was a certain formula for the creation of
non-music, yet from recordings of his music, I got the impression
of a highly sensitive artistry. I was so taken up with his intellectual
principles that for some years afterwards I would use his methods
here and there in my music. Nono had strong political views, which
came out in the texts he used. He was a communist but also a rabid
anti-fascist, and I think this partly accounted for the lack of
performances in Italy. Only towards the sixties did he have works
performed at Venice, his home town. At the Festival performance
of Il Canto Sospeso there was a fracas at the back of the theatre
between communists and neo-fascists which caused no small disturbance.
I was at the front, a critic’s privileged position, so I was not
much bothered. However, William Glock, Head of BBC Music at that
time, was in the middle of it and quite visibly shaken.
However, Nono was obviously most pleased at
the political row his music had provoked. He invited me to a ‘little’
celebration after the concert, but when I got there, I found myself
in a jostling crowd of at least two hundred guests and then pushed
into a place opposite Glock and his wife, who both looked quite
stunned. After trying to quiet their obvious unease with much tedium
and little result, I had had enough and went off leaving the party
still not yet started. I could see that it was going to be a long
and tiresome evening.
Nono’s opera, Intolleranza 1960, was performed
in La Fenice in 1961 but this time the neo-fascists used a different
and more subtle stratagem of opposition. The performance was well
under way when a shower of stink bombs rained down on the orchestra.
There was a mad scramble to get out, including we critics on the
front seats and there was mayhem for the next ten minutes. The stink
was incredible. Eventually, the performance was resumed, but in
a rather subdued fashion. This time, I don’t think Nono was pleased.
I don’t believe he was really a convinced communist
at all, though he was certainly anti-fascist. Like many Italian
composers, be found support in the Communist Party which was not
available elsewhere. There were many cities and regions in Italy
under communist rule and these promoted music of party members.
For example, in Tuscany, thirty-four performances of Nono’s La Fabbrica
Illuminata were given at various factories for the edification of
the workers, but just what the workers thought of this arduous and
enigmatic piece does not seem to have been recorded.
When one considers that Italy is predominantly Roman
Catholic and that communism is opposed to the teaching of the Catholic
church one might ask why so much of Italy became communist. In fact,
it could be said that, at one time, it was on the brink of total communism.
This is because throughout history the Papacy split Italy into various
sections. Many Popes were, of course, not Christians or even religious
or had any training in ecclesiastical or theological matters. Some Popes
were Dukes or important landowners or political figures and would claim
that they represented that which was above and that which was on the
earth. Some Popes began their rule as mere children simply because they
were next in line and, if Catholic dogma is to be believed the next
descendant from the apostle Peter. One Pope might also be the ruler
of a part of Italy and his successor another part and so Italy was divided
politically although maintaining its overall Catholicism. The political
activities of the Papacy were of more impact than any ecclesiastical
ones and it is a fact of history that many Popes were villains and rogues.
This caused Italy to be divided and although Catholicism was upheld,
a large percentage of people were so sick of its political input and
its blatant hypocrisy that to welcome any new order, such as communism
was more than a possibility even after the unification of Italy in the
This two-sided situation was a feature of Nono. He
could be bellicose and argumentative on political issues to the point
of real anger but in his dealings with people on other matters he was
gentle, withdrawn and reticent.
Whatever one thinks of Nono’s music Il Canto Sospeso
is a magnificent achievement. It is scored for soprano, contralto, tenor,
mixed chorus and orchestra and consists of excerpts from the last letters
of those condemned to death because they were members of the European
Resistance movement. It is a profound, deeply felt work, a veritable
masterpiece with a simple serialism. There is lyricism and clear melodic
lines. The chorus sometimes use merely vowel sounds and, at other times,
explores new ideas of considerable expression.
But it must not be taken that he is a one work composer.
In the mid-1970s the mood of his work changed to a sort of peaceful
resignation as in Con Luigi Dallapiccola and the string quartet Fragmente-Stille.
He returned to his fascination with electronics and composed his massive
work Prometeo: Tragedia dell’ascolto which includes literary excerpts
from a wide range of writers.
He died in March 1991.
He was a most interesting man although it has to be
said that his music is for the informed and also for the discerning.
The ignorant will simply dismiss it but this will tell us more about
them than it will about Nono.
A museum in his memory has been set up in Venice.
Copyright David C.
F. Wright 2002
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