The Italian Communist Composer Who Wrote Revolutionary Music for the Working Class

Amid a historic upsurge of worker militancy in 1960s Italy, communist composer Luigi Nono turned his efforts to dramatizing the plight of exploited factory employees. The result was musically groundbreaking, and beloved by the workers who inspired it.

Two workers pouring the cast steel from the ladle into the ingot maker at the Cornigliano Steelworks, 1963. The Cornigliano metalworkers were the inspiration for Luigi Nono’s composition La fabbrica illuminata. (Mondadori via Getty Images).

It’s a common prejudice that working people are less able to appreciate “culture” in the form of high art. The avant-garde is for the upper classes; workers and the poor should just be left to enjoy their Top 40 hits and the next Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars spinoff.

The story of the 1964 art music composition La fabbrica illuminata (The Illuminated Factory), by the Italian modernist composer and Communist Party member Luigi Nono, is a beautiful refutation of this trope. Nono’s work was directly inspired by, and drew from, his observations of and interviews with Genoese steelworkers; and the workers whose plight Nono dramatized were themselves enraptured by his experimental piece, which was both politically and musically challenging.

The early ’60s were a tumultuous time for the relatively young Republic of Italy, which celebrated one hundred years as a unified nation-state in 1961. That same year, the country marked only fifteen years as a true republic since the overthrow of the fascist government in 1946. Italy’s economy had grown steadily since World War II thanks to rapid industrialization powered by significant public investment from the Italian government — a phenomenon called the “economic miracle.” In the largely agricultural south, however, lack of education and poor wages contributed to financial hardships that invited organized crime and institutional corruption.

Many agricultural workers responded by migrating north, chasing the perceived prosperity of industrial centers like Turin, Milan, and Genoa. The economic miracle saw some 1.3 million farmers abandon the south in favor of dangerous, low-paying jobs in auto manufacturing and metal work. Though the industrialized north fared a little better economically, it still suffered from neofascist terrorist attacks and expansive corporate greed, on top of a growing “new mafia” that feasted on increased demand for drugs, alcohol, and tobacco brought on by rapid urbanization and corporate commerce.

To this new criminal element, every emerging market was an indispensable source of income. Fledgling workers’ coalitions from north to south found themselves the targets of organized crime, as well as of the traditional pallbearers of capital like the national police, corrupt judicial courts, and international lobbyists. The capitalists, for their part, fought against union-won wage raises with price increases to maintain their profit margins, diverting investment to real estate speculation, and state suppression of union action.

The Italian workers moved sharply left, and a wave of strikes erupted throughout the Italian north between 1959 and 1963. This period marked the most vigorous labor militancy Italy had ever seen, only trumped by the “Hot Autumn” strikes of 1969–1972 in labor hours lost, according to labor historian Roberto Franzosi.

In June of 1960, a group of Genoese workers called a general strike to stand with students and citizens alike to expel a neofascist conference attempting to organize in the city. A performance of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele was canceled in March of 1964 when over four thousand opera workers struck for higher wages. Later in July, thirty thousand railroad workers shut down railways in Rome for weeks, demanding higher wages and improved benefits.

Perhaps the most important of these labor actions was the 1963 FIAT wildcat strike, which saw 6,200 men defy union leadership with an impromptu work stoppage. The workers were frustrated with concessions the union had made on their behalf, and with problems outside of work like soaring rent prices and subpar living conditions. This strike quickly grew to over one hundred thousand auto workers across Turin and helped popularize the idea of the working class in Italy as an independent political bloc.

This message caught and held the attention of Luigi Nono, then an emerging voice for communism and the third world within the European avant-garde. Nono, born in 1924, grew up a committed anti-fascist, and became a communist during his university years in Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. Nono’s approach to music and politics took after Antonio Gransci’s idea of the “organic intellectual,” an artist or thinker who advocates for the interests of the working class against capitalist and imperialist influence in academia, the arts, and government. Rather than pursue art solely for art’s sake, the organic intellectual sees art as a class effort.

Nono saw a path toward establishing a working-class cultural presence through music. He made it clear that his motives were not to write music for himself, but for the laboring class: “The relationship between the creator and the masses must no longer be those of professor to pupil, of initiator to neophyte. They must find themselves at the origin of the work.” Accessibility and direct messaging were central to Nono’s understanding of art.

Nono was a composer for whom the act of music making was itself a political act, if not a transcendental one. But music didn’t simply complement working-class agitation. To Nono, making subversive music was no less revolutionary than hucking projectiles at riot police — and he did both. Contemplating the role of the revolutionary musician, he said that one needs “spiritual order, artistic discipline, and a clarity of insight . . . [to be] a revolutionary with a clear idea of the situation in which he finds himself who is thus able to bring down existing structures to make way for existing structures that are growing up in their place.” It was with this penchant for tearing down structures that he turned his eye on Cornigliano, a western district of Genoa.

The Strike as Musical Inspiration

In May of 1964, over forty thousand metalworkers in Cornigliano walked off the job. Many more steel- and ironworkers declared strikes throughout Italy, leaving only a handful of foundries operational and crippling the country’s manufacturing sector. Topping the workers’ demands was a rejection of productivity agreements and a rise in living and working standards — the Cornigliano steelworks had some of the most dangerous working conditions in Northern Italy at the time. The uproar was widespread and captured the nation’s attention.

Nono scholar Jonathan Impett writes:

It seemed that while their government was helping near-monopoly companies create unprecedented wealth, Italian workers saw no rise in their living standards but ever-harsher working conditions. They felt treated by their employers with state-sponsored contempt; German steelworkers earned twice as much.

When another set of strikes was scheduled for June, Nono saw a window of opportunity. He and a team of collaborators had been working on a massive piece titled Da un diario italiano, a composition that would synthesize quotes from Sicilian workers, excerpts from Fidel Castro’s Second Declaration of Havana, and writings by the anti-fascist poet Cesare Pavese. The work was to be set in six scenes depicting Italy’s recent history; this six-movement structure wasn’t dissimilar from a Bach cantata, a composer who Nono drew on repeatedly for the project.

Each scene was connected to a world event but was described without specific reference to historical details. Nono likely chose this route in order to avoid censorship and make the work approachable, while maintaining the piece’s political message. The Holocaust became “human oppression,” the worker’s condition became “nightmare,” fascism became “violence,” Italy after fascism became “joy,” the nuclear arms race became “catastrophe,” a humanist rediscovery of mankind’s good — “life returning.”

Five movements came easily enough given the composer’s chosen source material. But the second movement, “nightmare,” seemed to demand connection to the historical moment. It was while plotting out this second movement that Nono began to consider the strikes at Genoa as a source for musical inspiration.

In May, Nono had received an invitation from the Radiotelevisione italiana (RAI) to write a piece for the September Prix Italia, one of the most significant radio art contests in Europe. That year’s Prix Italia would be held in Genoa, the perfect audience for the debut of the second movement of Un diario. Nono, along with his collaborators, sound engineer Marino Zuccheri and writer Giuliano Scabia, packed their recording equipment and set off for the Cornigliano Steelworks.

The trio was welcomed onto the campus by workers who were eager to guide them on their sound rummage. To Nono, it was not a safari to ogle at workers in pity, but a study of reactions and the human condition. “I was shocked not just by the seemingly fantastic acoustic and visual spectacle . . . but really by the violence with which I was struck by the reality of the complex conditions of the workers in those places.” The three gathered any sound they could find, from the roar of the blast furnace to lunchtime conversations with the workers who risked their lives to fuel it.

They returned to their studio in Venice invigorated for the project yet horrified by the conditions they had witnessed. Nono’s Prix Italia submission was to be an excerpt of the fully realized second movement, set to existing text by Scabia. He would call it La fabbrica illuminata. For this standalone work, he would stage a lone soprano with reactive magnetic tape, a much more intimate — and confrontational — setting than Un diario.

The result was a haunting, inhuman work of industrialized music, exhibiting the macabre reality of life as a slave to the foundries. Opening on the line, “The factory of death, they call it,” the soprano acts as a sort of Virgil through the processes of alienation and dehumanization. As was the case with the Cornigliano steelworkers, she never really has control over the dialogues that play out around her. By the end of the work, her own recorded sounds from the beginning are brought back — now disfigured and consolidated with the hellish chorus of factory noise and the work cries of laborers. No longer her own voice, she belongs to the factory.

The audience is transported to the material sound-space of the steelworks and to the soprano’s personal world of suffering. This unification of factory, performer, and audience is not accidental. Nono’s goal here was to give the audience a work with “no camouflage . . . no popular or populist naturalism.” The brilliance here lies in the confrontation: a work of high art that assaults the audience so directly that it creates a monologue, from alienated worker to captive listener.

La fabbrica illuminata wouldn’t premiere in Genoa, however. Italian authorities found the work too subversive for the political climate in the industrial center, fearing a state-sponsored event that could provoke thousands of already agitated workers (this would not be the last time Nono would be censored by the state). Instead, Nono premiered it at the independent Venice Biennale in late September.

The work was an immediate success with the patrons most important to Nono, the metalworkers themselves, who insisted that he return to the factory for another performance. When he obliged, the composer found an audience who, contrary to stereotype, had a deep interest in art music. The foundry workers were eager to understand the artistic process and its applications: “[They asked] very concrete questions, but also very serious and deep, not ideological hot air.” The Italian workers were not only capable of but hungry for “highbrow” cultural engagement.

By valuing the interests of the working class over the aesthetic sensibilities of the upper classes, Nono made a strong case for art music as a revolutionary tool. But his concern with the situation of the exploited factory worker is also what inspired him to break new musical ground — showing that the plight of the oppressed can be material not just for propaganda, but for transcendent art of a kind that can be appreciated by people of all classes.