Luigi Nono

1924 1990

Luigi Nono



Luigi Nono was a leading composer in Europe in the post-World War I era of the Avant-garde style. He was a true experimentalist, never settling for too long on one concept. Up until the 1950s, Nono was a part of the European Avant-garde circle, until his very public abandonment of the practice. The next phases in his career include an interest in electronics and other advanced techniques along with a strong political agenda. From the 1970s on, Nono focused on a more concentrated form and experimented with various manners of listening and performing.

As the son of amateur pianists and the grandson of a painter and sculptor, Luigi Nono was born and raised in a very culturally active and aware family. His interest in cultural history and art began at an early age, followed by a curious fascination with music, which was encouraged by his parents, who also happened to have an extensive collection or recordings. At about the age of 12, Nono began piano lessons Signora Alessandri, a friend of his mother’s. In addition to this, he attended performances at La Fenice, the Venice Biennale and Saint Mark’s Basilica, whose unique acoustic piqued his attention.

Nono’s influential relationship, which he claimed, “opened op all the musical horizons [for him]”, with his mentor Gian Francesco Malipiero began in 1941 at the Venice Conservatory, which Nono attended as a part-time student. Malipiero ensured that his students properly learnt the music of the past, including vocal polyphony and the madrigal tradition, focusing on the Italian Renaissance andMonteverdi. Furthermore, they studied the music of the composers from the Second Viennese School (Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern ), along with that of Stravinsky and Bartók. Following Malipiero’s retirement in 1943, Nono attended a course on counterpoint and fugue by Raffaele Cumar, a pupil of Malipiero andDallapiccola, and piano with Gino Gorini.

In an attempt to appease and alleviate his father’s concerns about the practicality of a music career, Nono studied law at the University of Padua from 1942 until his graduation in 1947.

It is perhaps important to note that Nono’s studies were not interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, as he had been exempted from military service for health reasons. During the war years, he did however feed his political interests by visiting many members of the opposition. After completing the first two stages of his composition course, Nono found his knowledge sufficient and ceased his studies before obtaining a diploma. It was also around this time that Nono became acquainted with the composer and conductor Bruno Maderna and also the renowned composer Luigi Dallpiccola.

Nono’s first composition, La discesa di Cristo agli inferi (1945, lost), ended up being a much-needed reality check for the young composer. He sent his work, which was inspired by Monteverdi’s sacred dramas, to Dallapiccola, who commented, “I understand that here you have a lot in your heart you wish to express, but you still have to study a good deal in order to be able to do so”. Upon receiving this advice, Nono began his music studies afresh with Bruno Maderna, under whom he learnt about the music of the 15th and 16th centuries, including ars antiqua, French ars nova, the Flemish school and Italian polyphony. In particular, Nono studied the music ofGuillaume de Machaut, John Dunstable, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Desprez, Adrian Willaert andGiovanni Gabrieli in depth. Also of importance to Nono was his study of Hindemith ’s manual of compositional technique.

It was through his studies with Maderna that Nono reached the conclusion that artistic language and current political/social movements must develop together.

Through an international conducting course, Nono met the older conductor Hermann Scherchen, who guided Nono in many areas, including music and German culture before the rise of Nazism. With Scherchen’s encouragement, Nono studied the music of the German masters—Bach, Beethoven and Schumann, in addition to the twelve-tone method.

Nono became a regular at the courses in Darmstadt beginning in 1950, eventually becoming a teacher there in 1957. At this time, Nono was at the centre of the Avant-garde movement along withKarlheinz Stockhaussen, Pierre Boulez, Henri Pousseur, John Cage and Hans Werner Henze. He also became familiar withEdgard Varèse, who expressed much praise for Nono’s international debut of hisVariazioni canoniche sulla serie dell’ op. 41 di Arnold Schoenberg (1949-50). This orchestral work, while certainly not appreciated by everyone, landed him a spot at the head of the Avant-garde movement. In the following years, many more of his works were premiered at Darmstadt, includingPolifonica-Monodia-Ritmica (1951), Epitaffio per Federico García Lorca I. España en el corazón (1952), La victoire de Guernica (1954), Incontri(1955), Cori di Didone (1958) and Composizione per orchestra no 2: Diario Polacco ’58(1959).  

In 1959, Nono publicly disowned the Avant-garde movement in his memorable lectureGeschichte und Gegenwart in der Musik von heute (‘History and Present in Music today’), due to issues with its incoherence and contradictions. In particular, he attacked the work of Stockhausen and Cage.

All of Nono’s vocal works in the 1950s were influenced by the many political and cultural events taking place outside of Italy, in combination with the teachings and philosophies of Antonio Gramsci and Jean-Paul Sartre and the poetry of García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Paul Éluard, Cesare Pavese and Giuseppe Ungaretti. His masterpiece from this decade was, without question,Il canto sospeso(1955-6), which features a text based on letters written by people that had received a life sentence for their resistance. He also developed an individual form of serialism and fragmentation in hisCanti per 13 (1955).

After moving away from the Darmstadt circle, Nono became more concerned with music’s ability to communicate, usually about political themes, such as in his Intolleranza 1960(1960-61), which caused a riot at its premiere in Venice in 1961. This work belongs to the ‘azione scenica’ genre that he created, in the search for a ‘new music theatre’. While the audience and critics focused solely on the message of the work, they neglected to realize that Nono’sIntolleranza 1960was an important development, experimenting with the expanded technical and linguistic techniques that would captivate composers throughout the 1960s, including the technique of a ‘single line’.

Nono composed his first electronic work Omaggio a Emilio Vedova in 1960, which laid the groundwork for future compositions involving a tape and electroacoustic instruments. With his later works, Nono began to work together with his performers to create pieces such asLa fabbrica illuminata (1964), in which a live voice interacts with its pre-recorded self and recorded sounds from a factory, such as noises and voices of workers.

In Nono’s later works, he moved the performing space to allow for more communication and interaction. He used spaces such as work cafeterias and recreational clubs as concert halls in an effort to “break down the traditional barrier between stage and audience”.

After a brief creative crisis after the deaths of both of his parents in the mid-1970s, Nono’s style transformed yet again. About this period, Nono stated, “I felt the need not only to study my musical language but also to analyse my own mental categories, and I began to compose again”. His first composition after this hiatus was hissofferte onde serene, a work he claims to have been very taxing to complete. He also composed a tribute to the Studio di Fonologia of the Rai in the form ofCon Luigi Dallapiccola (1979).

During the 1980s, Nono began to experiment more with space and the use of silence, as evidenced in his string quartetFragmente-Stille, an Diotima (1979-80) and thePolifonica-Monodia-Ritmica.

In a such a diverse and successful career as Luigi Nono’s, there are works that stand out, including thePrometeo and orchestral works such as A Carlo Scarpa architetto, ai suoi infiniti possibili (1984), which uses micro tonality and chamber pieces with live electronics such as the tributes to Boulez and Cacciari,A Pierre, dell’azzurro silenzio, inquietum (1985) and Risonanze erranti. Liederzyklus a Massimo Cacciari (1986). His final composition was the solo workHay que caminar’ sognando (1989).

Nono led a life of exploration and experimentation, always pushing the boundaries of music in its traditional sense. For his work, he earned a number of awards including the prestigious Großer Kunstpreis Berlin (March, 1990). He died on 8 May 1990 in Venice due to complications of a serious liver disease.