A Musician for the Class Struggle

Italian composer Luigi Nono’s career told the story of European communism writ large: brash and revolutionary at the height of the 1960s and ‘70s, reflective and uncertain as the Italian Communist Party collapsed and the possibility of radical change receded. His life is a reminder that no artist is free from the politics of our time.

Italian composer Luigi Nono conducting his piece "Canti di vita e d'amore: sul ponte di Hiroshima" in rehearsal at the Royal College of Music, London, September 7, 1963. Erich Auerbach / Hulton Archive / Getty

In late 1961, the German composer Hans Werner Henze was conducting the third staging of his brand new opera, Elegy for Young Lovers, in Munich, West Germany. An old friend of Henze’s was sitting in the audience. However, halfway through the first act, the friend suddenly rose and loudly forced an entire row to stand so that he might leave. This man was Luigi Nono, world-famous composer and member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

In his autobiography, Henze recounts an after-party where Nono, when questioned on his behavior at the concert, violently overturned a table, smashing expensive china in the process. Henze ponders Nono’s angry response to his opera and eventually expresses total ignorance of the reason. But as an old friend, Henze must have been aware of Nono’s issue: Elegy lacked explicit and contemporary political content.

Given Nono’s life and work, his reaction, melodramatic as it was, makes sense. He was a committed antifascist and communist who had spent years developing a theory and practice of revolutionary art-making. Watching Henze, a fellow communist and PCI member, stage an apparently politically neutral opera was galling to Nono, especially given the historical context.

For Nono, revolution was everywhere. Anti-imperial struggles were surging in Latin America and Southeast Asia and he was committed to supporting their cause through his music. Any revolutionary artist who was not immediately engaged with these issues was, to Nono, not a revolutionary artist at all. A revolutionary composer needed to be an “activist-musician, not above, but within the class struggle,” he asserted.

Nono’s vision may have made him, at times, brash and obstinate with his contemporaries. But it also produced a flexible, and often surprising, body of work over his lifetime. As historical conditions changed, and revolutionary prospects ebbed and flowed, so did Nono’s music adapt. At different times, it incorporated the charged notes of antifascism, or a reflectiveness borne of the decline of the PCI and the closure of alternatives during the rise of neoliberalism. But even in periods of working-class defeat, Nono did not lose the political foundation of his art. For artists today looking to respond to the realities around them — from the new opportunities for socialists to the threat of the far right — Nono’s life and work offers much inspiration.

Radical Beginnings

Nono was born on January 29, 1924 in Venice. He descended from a long line of native Venetian artists. His paternal grandfather and namesake had been a painter well known for depicting the brutal life of the Venetian poor. His great uncle Urbano Nono, a sculptor, designed the monument in Florence dedicated to Daniele Manin, leader of the revolutionary Republic of San Marco (Venice) during the upheavals of 1848.

Nono’s father was an engineer and the family led a solidly upper-middle-class life. Both of his parents were amateur musicians involved in the city’s lively arts circles. Nono began to study piano with a family friend at the age of twelve, but quit because he found the instrument tedious. Instead, he spent his time exploring the soundscapes of Venice, particularly the echoes of the Basilica di San Marco, which he began attending regularly to contemplate the cathedral’s “special acoustics.”

The entirety of Nono’s childhood was spent under a fascist government. It was under these oppressive conditions that he first came to radical left-wing politics. As a teenager, he attended socialist gatherings and subversive art shows. After graduating in 1942, he was able to avoid forced military conscription with the help of a socialist-sympathizing doctor, who provided him with a fake diagnosis of permanent illness. He enrolled in the University of Padua for law but also began to seriously study music.

While at university, Nono began doing secret work for the Italian Resistance. It was during the struggle against Mussolini’s crumbling regime that he became totally committed to the communist cause. He distributed newsletters, hid illegal weapons, and even assisted with the movement of partisan outlaws through the city. On the day of Venice’s liberation, April 28, 1945, the twenty-one-year-old Nono was on the scene, helping the partisans take and occupy key buildings.

Learning From the Left

Soon after the war, Nono met two men that would have a significant impact on his work, Bruno Maderna and Hermann Scherchen. He was first introduced to Maderna in 1946. Maderna, a fellow Venetian, was only a few years older than Nono, but he was a musical prodigy who already enjoyed a successful career as a performer and composer. Maderna’s musicology of “living music” was the first major influence on Nono’s theory and practice. Its basic claim was that musical compositions were historically contingent and could not be properly understood as artifacts outside of their historical context. This approach would be the foundation of Nono’s revolutionary art and political aesthetics.

Both men met Scherchen, a German conductor, in 1948, when they attended a course he was giving in Venice. The elder musician quickly took them under his wing. It was Scherchen, a lifelong socialist, who introduced Nono to European left-wing movements outside of Italy.

In 1950, with the sponsorship of his two mentors, the twenty-six-year-old Nono attended the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (International Summer Courses for New Music) in Darmstadt, West Germany, an annual gathering of young European composers that included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, and our old friend Hans Werner Henze. Nono’s first public performance, after almost a decade of study, took place at this gathering. The piece, titled Variazioni Canoniche (Canonical Variations), was a series of variations based on Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon. Nono would return to Darmstadt every summer for the next decade.

Two years later, in 1952, Nono and Maderna attempted to join the PCI together. They were initially denied entry. Both men were practitioners of serialism, a method of musical composition that originated with Arnold Schoenberg and used predetermined sets of pitches as the foundation of musical pieces. Serialism had been denounced by the Soviet Union’s institutionalized socialist-realist school of aesthetics as “bourgeois” and “formalist.” The PCI, like many communist parties at the time, was still under the indirect control of the Soviet Union and so accepted this aesthetic judgement. But Nono, never one to back down, went to great lengths to convince the Venetian PCI secretary of their absolute sincerity, visiting him personally to make their case. Eventually the party leadership relented and they were allowed to join.

Antifascist Commitment

By the mid-1950s Nono had developed the foundation of a robust revolutionary artistic practice and theory of political aesthetics. His practice focused on locating oppositions in art-making, for instance the struggle between the different artistic mediums of music, design, and dance on an opera stage, and transcending them. Nono believed that oppositions such as these could be overcome by artistic commitment, a term he borrowed from the literary theory of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who stated that for art to be committed it must “reveal the situation … in order to change it.”

For Nono, the common goal of revealing the situation of capitalism’s criminal nature could turn the struggle between artistic mediums into a productive dialectic. In the 1950s, he believed that, in order to be committed, a composer had to dedicate themselves to the use of serialism, still the cutting edge of the European musical avant-garde, as an artistic tool for ensuring the continued politico-cultural hegemony of the resistance movements against fascism. Accordingly, the major theme of Nono’s music during the fifties was antifascism. It was this dedication to the contemporary political moment that eventually led to his dramatic break with the other composers at Darmstadt.

Nono’s antifascist cantata for solo voices, choir, and orchestra, Il canto sospeso (The suspended song) was the subject of much controversy at its premiere at Darmstadt in 1955. This was in part the result of West German culture at the time, still traumatized by its participation in the worst crimes of fascism. But it was also due to the negative response of his peers.

The text of the piece is made up of a series of letters written by captured antifascist resistance fighters just before their executions. Stockhausen was highly critical of the serialist treatment that Nono had given the libretto. He believed it rendered much of the text difficult to understand and obscured the antifascist message. But Stockhausen went even further: he accused Nono of having consciously done this out of shame.

Nono was enraged by the accusation that he was veiling fascist crimes. He passionately responded to Stockhausen: “The message of those letters … is carved in my heart … as an example of the spirit of sacrifice and resistance against Nazism.” The reason he had given the text such a strict serial treatment was not to obscure its message but to “transpose its semantic meaning into [my] musical language.” The pain of this debate would remain raw for decades. Twenty years later, in 1976, he would still be responding to Stockhausen’s critique of his early major work.

Intolerance 1960

At the tail end of his Darmstadt period, Nono, then aged thirty-six, composed his first major operatic work, or as he called it, an “azione scenica.” Intolleranza 1960 (Intolerance 1960) premiered in 1961 at Teatro La Fenice in Venice.

The piece tells the story of a migrant laborer who is arrested and imprisoned in a concentration camp. Nono made no excuses for the explicitly antifascist themes in the opera, making clear his allegiance to the radical left by incorporating leftist slogans such as “No Pasaran” (They Will Not Pass), “Nie Wieder” (No Further), and “Morte al Fascismo e Liberta ai Popoli” (Death to Fascism and Liberty to the People) into the libretto. As a result, the premiere was plagued by political censorship and infiltrated by neofascists, who screamed “Viva la Polizia” (Long Live the Police) during a scene in which the migrant was tortured by police officers.

It was during this production that Nono began to synthesize his thoughts on form and content. Returning to his childhood fascination with the soundscape of Basilica di San Marco, he began to leave behind ideas of purely musical form, recognizing the aural and physical layout of the performance as a form in itself, a space that could be organized to support the revolutionary political content of his art. Nono began to democratize the stage by opening it up and placing the audience in the center of the action. The use of new technology was key to transforming the performance from a passive experience into an active one. Nono began to experiment with integrating new mediums such as film and sound design into his work.

Intolleranza 1960 was his first major piece to utilize these experimental techniques. Projected images, text, film, electronic sounds, sampled voices, and music amplified by speakers placed all around the theater bombarded the audience. The sensory overload and highly charged political content combined with Nono’s bracing serialist style to make it a daring and confrontational work.

The second performance of the opera, in 1964 in Boston, would again be plagued by controversy. Nono, denied a US visa because of his political affiliations, arrived at rehearsals weeks late. The politics of the piece created serious tension on set. Nono had replaced many of the original projected images, film, and text with new US-specific content, and the cast and crew threatened a strike to protest the “unjust” focus on American crimes of intolerance. In a letter sent after the performance, Nono accused the American director, Sarah Caldwell, of censorship because she had attempted to remove the term “bourgeois” and the phrase “capitalist exploitation” from the performance.

Internationalist Allegiances

The 1960s and ‘70s were the most politically engaged years of Nono’s life owing to the explosive anti-imperialist and socialist movements in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and the developing student and worker movements in the capitalist core. The excitement of these struggles is reflected in his music. Siamo la gioventù del Vietnam (We are the youth of Vietnam), Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz (Remember what they did to you in Auschwitz), and Non consumiamo Marx (We don’t consume Marx) are just a few.

One piece, La fabbrica Illuminata (The revealed factory), which premiered in 1964, was composed in protest of the working conditions at the Genoa Italsider Steel Factory. It features a lone floating soprano voice attacked on all sides by prerecorded choirs and mechanical noises sampled from field recordings Nono had collected at the factory. As the piece goes on, samples of the soprano are played back at the vocalist, as if ghosts from the beginning of the piece have come to haunt its end. The audience at the premiere included a delegation of workers from Italisider as well as Jean-Paul Sartre. La fabbrica illuminata was hugely successful and Nono went on a subsequent speaking tour, visiting numerous trade union societies to present and discuss the piece.

In 1967, Nono traveled through Latin America as a cultural ambassador for the PCI. In Chile, he was able to meet the legendary socialist musician Victor Jara and the two would keep in touch until Jara’s murder during the US-backed military coup in 1973. In Peru, he was a guest lecturer at the University of San Marcos in Lima. During his class he expressed support for the political prisoners of the Belaúde administration. He was immediately arrested and placed in prison, where he faced an overnight interrogation before the Italian government secured his release. He also spent some time in Cuba, where he had a personal meeting with Fidel Castro.

In April of 1975, his second, and most explicitly political, operatic work, Al gran sole carico d’amore (The great sun filled with love), premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The scenes of the piece move back and forth between the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1905 Russian Revolution. Texts from Bertolt Brecht, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro were combined to form a politically charged libretto. The choir, who represent the martyred heroes of the working class, lay face up on suspended slabs hovering behind these scenes of action.

Neoliberalism Ascendant

Nono’s music began to take a more reflective turn during the late seventies. His signature blistering fortissimo chords disappeared and his artistic agitation for the communist future was replaced by a quiet, contemplative mode of expression. The evolution of his style is sometimes attributed to a change in his political ideology, prompted by the influence of philosopher Massimo Cacciari, whom Nono had recently befriended. This narrative is incorrect. Cacciari was also a leftist and member of the PCI. His philosophy was indeed less agitational, but this had little to do with Nono’s evolving musical style. Rather, historical events were leading both men to similar conclusions at the same time.

In the capitalist core, the social-democratic and New Deal gains of the postwar era were about to be eradicated by an ascendant neoliberalism. The capitalist realism of the neoliberal order would go on to consume the global electoral left, including much of the anti-imperialist movement that Nono had supported in the sixties. The effects of this happened gradually in Italy. Nono joined the central committee of the PCI in 1975 and saw it make significant gains in the next election. However, after Berlinguer’s attempt at a “historic compromise” with Italy’s political center, Nono watched the PCI lose power inch by inch over the course of the 1980s.

It was a bleak time for an artist committed to engaging with the contemporary moment. It’s no wonder that Nono’s music took a more reflective style. However, to say that his political ideology changed during this time misconstrues what was happening. Nono was still engaged with the contemporary. His music lacked revolutionary content not because he was no longer a revolutionary, but because the contemporary moment lacked revolutionary potential. Granted, there were still struggles happening around the world, for instance the Sandinistas of Nicaragua or the pan-African socialist movement led by Thomas Sankara. But the international student, worker, and anti-imperialist movements of the sixties and early seventies had seemingly disappeared with the rise of neoliberalism.

In the early 1980s, Nono and Cacciari collaborated on a new operatic work, Prometeo: Tragedia dell’ascolto (Prometheus: Tragedy of listening). The opera told multiple versions of the Prometheus myth using texts from a number of authors including Walter Benjamin and Rainer Maria Rilke. Prometeo was composed specifically for the acoustic properties of the Basilica di San Marco, the church which had so intrigued Nono as a child. However, the premiere was eventually moved to another Venetian church, San Lorenzo, where it was performed in 1984.

For Prometeo, Nono focused all of his energy on the democratization of the aural and physical space of the performance. The “stage” was no longer a static scene of action but a centered, titanic omnidirectional presentation. An enormous wooden resonating chamber was constructed to exact specifications so that even the most miniscule pianissimo could be carried through San Lorenzo with complete clarity. This chamber reached all the way to the church vaults. Friedrich Spangemacher, a composer and music critic in attendance, likened it to “a ship’s frame.” The singers and instrumentalists were placed on all sides of the church at varying levels. Each musician had a microphone. The feeds from these microphones were electronically altered and sent to numerous speakers placed around the audience.

If approached on its own, Prometeo is a crunching, cacophonous piece of music filled with dissonant melodic jumps and overblown brass and woodwinds. But for Nono’s corpus, it is very tame. There is a marked lack of chromaticism (the use of all twelve notes of the European musical system) that was a typical feature of his serialist style. And while it would be a stretch to call Prometeo tonal, there is a floating center that grounds it. Consonant intervals like the 5th and Octave are more frequent than ever before.

Nono’s music is always unsettling, whether because of its references to the brutal crimes of capitalism or its bracingly loud dissonance. Prometeo, despite its less explicit content and more grounded musical language, is a very disturbing piece of music. The libretto is mumbled by two voices that are often drowned out by the choir and orchestra. Every so often a single “Prometeo, Prometeo” is heard underneath the dense vocal and instrumental textures. Below even the murmuring voices, a lone brass or woodwind sometimes begins to squeak like a broken door or a lost animal.

Instead of developing a clear musical idea, Nono lingers on fragments of melodic ideas, single chords, or short rhythms before moving onto something new. He later described Prometeo as an archipelago of musical contradictions. It was an archipelago he explored in his search to find a new struggle, a new resolution to the problem of “real life [being] much more advanced than the political reality.”

Forward-Looking Reflection

Nono remained an active member of the PCI until his death. And his reflective work is not politically agnostic. Rather, it is an explicitly Marxist reflection, characterized by the texts he was engaged with at the time, particularly the work of Walter Benjamin. For Nono, to continue to agitate for the socialist future was useless in a world where the forces dedicated to creating it had been so utterly defeated. Without a clear struggle to which to commit himself, his music could not transcend the dialectical oppositions he saw as endemic to art-making. Instead, he came to believe that engaging with the current moment meant to reflect on both these oppositions themselves and why the struggle to transcend them artistically and politically had been defeated. He was especially fixated on the contradiction between the seemingly bleak future and the heroic struggles of the past, an artistic attitude that he called “nostalgia for the future.”

During the last few years of his life, Nono became obsessed with a quote he saw spray-painted on the side of a monastery during a 1985 trip to Toledo, Spain. It was a line from Spanish Republican poet Antonio Machado: “Caminantes, no hay camino, solo hay caminar” (Travelers, there is no path to travel, only traveling itself). The quote clearly spoke to Nono’s position as an activist-musician searching for a cause. Over the next half-decade, he would compose five pieces inspired by this idea. But despite the stark political reality, Nono never became a defeatist. Instead, he reveled in the acts of exploration and reflection, fully expecting that the solution, the struggle, would eventually reveal itself.

On May 8, 1990, Luigi Nono passed away in his childhood home on the Zaterre al Ponte Longo in Venice at the age of sixty-four.

An English-translated collection of Nono’s writings, aptly titled Nostalgia for the Future, was published last year. For artists on the Left, Nono provides a framework for how to create and judge politically committed art. A framework that is desperately needed in a world just beginning to emerge from the stunted political imagination of capitalist realism. Though the end of neoliberal hegemony is heartening, economic and climate catastrophes haunt the renewed socialist movement. It is up to socialist artists to create a robust left-wing culture that can support a movement strong enough to radically alter our political and social possibilities if we are to avert the coming crisis. Nono was totally committed to the two major global struggles that took place during his lifetime. The socialist artists of today must be just as committed. When asked about his reason for making music Nono made himself absolutely clear: “The battle against fascism and imperialism is my purpose in life.”

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Jackson Albert Mann is an activist, musician, and writer from Boston, MA. He is a teaching artist at Berklee College of Music’s city music program, an adjunct professor of music at Bunker Hill Community College, and a member of the MCCC Teachers Union. He is also an active member of the Boston Democratic Socialists of America.

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