fb-pixel Skip to main content

From Nono, rigorous music fitted to political context

Italian composer Luigi Nono conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in 1963.ERICH AUERBACH/GETTY IMAGES/file

On Tuesday, the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, conducted by Charles Peltz, performs a foundational document of musical modernism: Luigi Nono’s 1951 “Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica,” for six instruments and percussion. The work helped establish the sound and approach of the Darmstadt school, a group of composers — including modern-music icons Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez — centered around the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany, dedicated to adventurous expansions on Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone techniques.

Present at the Darmstadt school’s creation, Nono eventually hastened its dissolution. In 1958, John Cage was invited to Darmstadt to lecture on his trademark ideas of chance and indeterminacy. Nono resisted, and, a year later, laid out his objections in his own lecture: A composer who thought that chance could spark more insight than rigorous craft was one “afraid to make his or her own decisions, who is afraid when faced with the freedom of the spirit.” Among those who had experimented with chance were Stockhausen and Boulez; Nono’s well-intentioned but characteristically truculent critique precipitated a break.


For Nono (1924-90), a veteran of the Italian Resistance who — unlike his Darmstadt colleagues — often embraced explicitly political subjects, principle came first. In his Cage lecture, Nono had also warned against regarding sounds in a social or historical vacuum; Cage’s methods seemed to treat sounds as blank-slate components, free for the taking, which, to Nono, carried uncomfortable echoes of “colonial thinking.”

“Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica” was itself based on a folk song Nono learned from Brazilian composer and pianist Eunice Katunda, whose radical politics spurred Nono’s embrace of communism. But Nono’s use of the song — a hymn to Yemanjá, the Brazilian goddess of the ocean — is thoroughly transformative, its basic rhythm genetically pervading the score, its melody deconstructed into component intervals, reconstructed into an atonal, serialist mosaic. For Nono, the material’s social and political context demanded conscientious, intricate compositional engagement.


“Polifonica” already demonstrated Nono’s penchant for mixing musical (and, often, political) dogma with personal inquiry. Belying the Darmstadt school’s reputation for clinical abstractness and objectivity, from the beginning, Nono brought folk and vernacular influences to bear. And while “Polifonica” was instrumental in establishing 12-tone techniques at the heart of the Darmstadt style, Nono was already tinkering, marrying the refined serialism of Schoenberg’s student Anton Webern with ideas of relative consonance and dissonance derived from the unfashionably neoclassical Paul Hindemith. For Nono, then and later, systematic strictness and intuitive freedom were not musical enemies, but necessary allies.

The New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble performs music of Beethoven, Nono, Harbison, and Debussy on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Jordan Hall. Free. 617-585-1260, www.necmusic.edu

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.