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Stephen Beville, pianist and composer, reflects on the wilful indifference to this Great Italian composer.


Luigi Nono was, to my mind, the greatest composer to emerge in the second half of the 20th century, and yet you will find few references to him in the standard histories of Western music written in the English language.

He has been 'persona non grata' in Britain for decades; not only with regard to UK performances, but similarly, amongst numerous music critics and musicologists who, I believe, have failed to grasp his importance. He is perhaps one of the least understood composers in the English speaking world. His music is rarely programmed at UK festivals, and with few exceptions has been omitted from intelligent discussion in British musicology.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) this contradicts sharply with the situation on the European continent. In Germany , Nono is increasingly regarded as the 'father of modern music', the most important (for the musical future) and most influential member of the avant-garde that came to prominence at Darmstadt after the Second World War. In Germany , there are at least thirty books published, devoted to his music - music that has yielded so much potential, and philosophical relevance for a whole new generation of composers. In view of Nono's anti-fascist stance, a cynic might be tempted to suggest that his music is particularly relevant to Germany in view of its history, and for that very reason is performed there. However, Nono is equally performed in Holland , Switzerland , Italy , France - in fact throughout Europe . His political commitment has not alienated listeners abroad - why should it do so in Britain ?

A frequent charge against Nono is that he created 'agit-propaganda' music for a hopelessly dated cause. This simply is not true; even the most overtly politically engaged works of Nono's middle period are surprisingly astute for their time and should not be seen as communist propoganda. Nono is far too complex, questioning and historically aware an artist for that; he does not impose the comparatively simple and seductive word setting of a composer like Hans Eisler, for example, on his listeners. With Nono, certainty comes equally with doubt (political quotations are superimposed with poetry and anonymous utterances, lines and instrumental groups are refracted and decentralised to create new possibilities of listening and absorbing philosophical engagement). That is why such a masterpiece as Al Gran Sole carico d'amore is not so much a 'celebration' of the 1871 Paris Commune, but a meditation and commemoration of failed revolutions (events of central importance to 20th century history) by people, individuals, who were actively seeking a better society. Nono does not engage so much with politics, but with history. In addition, the kind of communism that Nono believed in was not of the Stalinist kind (which most certainly was not communism), and it should be noted that the ideas of Marx are still relevant today - for example, in China , or even in Israeli kibbutz. Even if one does not share Nono's political 'convictions', it is possible to admire this incredible music, just as it is possible for an athiest to admire J.S Bach.

In 2004, Al Gran Sole was produced at the Edinburgh festival, which along with Huddersfield , has been one of the few exceptions with regards to performances of Nono's work. Earlier in 1999, a recording of Al Gran Sole had been released by the Stuttgart Opera conducted by Lothar Zagrosek (Teldec). It is one of the best new opera recordings of recent times, and yet it did not even feature as an 'editor's choice' by the highly respected British magazine, Gramophone. In fact, glancing at last years' Gramophone Good CD Guide (and that published for 2006), one realises that Luigi Nono is not even listed, despite several quality recordings of his work, including his greatest achievement, Prometeo (a live performance from the Salzburg festival, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher). There are similar omissions in BBC publications like 'Settling the Score' (1999, Faber) - a rather too hasty evaluation of 20th century music - or in the Encylopoedia of Music (2000, Lorenze Books) and Al Gran Sole is not registered in the new Cambridge Companion to 20th Century Opera (M Cooke, 2006). If one searches for 'Nono and the Proms' on the internet, we are taken back in time to 1970, when Il Canto Sospeso was given its UK premiere. (It was some fourteen years after its world premiere, but at least, thanks to the initiatives of William Glock, such a milestone in modern music was performed). Indeed, the gradual decline of radical and experimental music performed at the Proms over the last two decades, may partly be responsible for the general decline of interest in classical music in the UK . (The globalisation of American culture is another undeniable factor).

The rather insular and sterile situation right now seems to me remarkably similar to that in the 1950's (pre-Glock), when Britain refused to acknowledge the new musical developments on the continent, but rather pursued its own conservative agenda. Only later did we realise how exciting the new European music really was, and what the British public had been deprived of. Indeed, there is a whole 'school' of composers profoundly influenced by Nono, including such varied figures as Helmut Lachenmann, Wolfgang Rihm, Salvatore Sciarrino and Olga Neuwirth, who receive scant performances in the UK today. The implication is that only European conductors and orchestras have the technique, artistic seriousness and financial funding necessary to take on Nono's major masterpieces. To our shame, Nono's Prometeo - perhaps the greatest singular work of the 20th century - still awaits its UK premiere, now over twenty years after its first performance in Venice . Were it not for the initiatives of Richard Steinitz at the 1995 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, many of the late works ( Fragmente-stille , La Lontanaza , Caminantes .... Ayacucho ) might similarly remain unperformed to British audiences.

This wilful neglect of Nono's music suggests a hostility not only confined to some music critics, but British conductors and composers as well. The hostility seems to be born not only on account of the technical difficulty of his music, but a fear that if Nono were to achieve his due recognition and were admitted to serious musicological discourse, the change of musical 'climate' might endanger the reputation of composers of less radical orientation. But this need not be so, especially in our post-modern society where musical greatness is increasingly confused with commercial appeal. In April 2005, Oliver Knussen conducted a whole concert of Nono with the London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Whether the concert was at Knussen's instigation is anyone's guess, but the hall was fully packed - in fact, I'd never seen it so full. This seems to belie the assertion that Nono's music drives audiences away. The occasion was a success, even if it did not include the composer's best scores and the programme notes were far from satisfactory - again, illustrating the problem of non-constructive Nono scholarship in Britain.

Nono's music requires careful introduction, especially to the new listener. The most striking and immediately communicative of his works are perhaps the most suitable - Epitaph per Frederico Garcia Lorca , Il Canto Sospeso , La Lontananza or even Al Gran Sole. However, it does not suffice to simply announce the works on the programme or list the facts of the composer's life. For fuller appreciation and understanding, this requires a presentation of Nono's thought ; one must be aware of the whole cultural milieu in which the composer was brought up (the legacy of the Second Vienese School and the Second World War), and the cultural milieu which he immeasurably contributed to. It is not possible to truly understand Nono without some understanding of the philosophy of Walter Benjamin (especially his Uber den Begriff der Geschichte - 'On the Concept of History'), Massimo Cacciari, or the writing of Robert Musil. The Adorno-like call for a music incompatible with (political) celebration and centralization has been one of Nono's very particular studies; an argument taken further in the work of his politically conscious pupil, Helmut Lachenmann. For Nono totally reconstructed musical language, and engaged in the most fundamental issues with regards to its expressivity. (However, one should not misconstrue Adorno's or even Lachenmann's views as necessarily corrosponding with Nono).

The lack of fertile discussion in Britain about Nono, seems to me a reflection of a larger inability in general, to understand music philosophically. Perhaps this is due to a rather nebulous and neglected British philosophical tradition, since at present, the teaching of philosophy (rather like classical music) is, by and large, rather non-existent in our Secondary education. However, we are over-saturated with literary traditions and literary meaning, and are all too reluctant to accept other possible meanings outside the written word. In Nono's Prometeo , as in many of his works, words are literally dissolved (deconstructed) or 'translated' into pure sound; their semantic values act as pointers to the new dimensions of meaning, realised sonically. This very process may seem profoundly anathema to our literary tradition, and may explain a certain discomfort on the part of many critics with regards to Nono's music. We lack the ability to discuss music philosophically, to acknowledge new meanings presented to us in unfamilliar ways.

Another charge against Nono, is that his music is depressingly bleak; this seems to me another misunderstanding. The composer does indeed confront some of the most difficult subjects of the 20th century; Auschwitz , Vietnam , racial intolerance, imperialism, poverty in the third-world etc. but the results are surprisingly hopeful. Il Canto Sospeso stands not only as a profound warning, but offers renewed hope for a better world. In Nono's music, the bleakness of the subject is offset by the composer's dignity and idealism which comes shining through (as in the setting of the closing lines of Canti di Vita e d'Amore or La Fabrica illuminata ) - there is some enlightenment which is gained in the listening experience. Prometeo, subtitled 'a tragedy of listening' may be likened to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in its philosophical scope - a meditation on human history and destiny - only it is a Ninth Symphony for our own age, where former certainties about man's place in the universe have collapsed and pluralities of thought may co-exist in a new and open synthesis. Nono's late works take their time, or offer us a new dimension of time (and space). Even a work like Prometeo is difficult to appreciate on first hearing, but with renewed acquaintance offers immeasurable rewards.


Stephen Beville, 2006.

Related CDs:

Luigi Nono - Al gran sole carico d'amore

Staatsoper Stuttgart/ Lothar Zagrosek (Teldec Newline).

Luigi Nono - Prometeo

Ensemble Modern/ Ingo Metzmacher - Live recording, Salzburg festival 1993. (EMI Classics).


Stephen Beville is a composer and pianist, having studied with Wolfgang Rihm in Kalrsruhe, Germany (2001-2004) on a DAAD scholarship. A number of his works shortlisted by the SPNM, including the early Chamber Concerto (1994), Ballade for Eight Players (1997), Purgatory for string quartet (1998) and Epicycle for chamber orchestra (2000).


This article first appeared on compositiontoday.com (09/06) and SPNM Newnotes Online (10/06) and is re-published with their kind permission.