On Luigi Nono’s late work:
Another world – but which one?

Luigi Nono 1979 | Foto Fernando Pereira 1979, Wiki

The ten-minute orchestral piece A Carlo Scarpa, architetto, ai suoi infiniti possibili (1984) is a prime example of Luigi Nono’s late work. The title („For Carlo Scarpa, architect, for his infinite possibilities“ or also: „for his possible infinities“) is a personal homage. Nono remembered in this work his friend, the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, who died in faraway Japan in 1978 and whose architectures are characterized by a special sensitivity in their handling of space and the materials used.

In his dedicatory piece, Nono also shows the greatest sensitivity to sound. In its means and rhetoric, it is subject to a radical reduction: the material basically consists only of the two tones C and E-flat, the initials of the name Carlo Scarpa. The volume moves almost exclusively in the very quiet registers, the orchestra avoids the tutti and is split into ever-changing small formations. But what one hears is the opposite of simplicity. The minor third C-E-flat, the „theme“ or basic motif of the piece, is recolored and reinterpreted in the most ingenious way. Through the finest changes of timbre and microtonal deviations ranging from the quarter to the sixteenth tone, the interval is permanently obscured, and its contours are so subtly blurred that the music acquires an aura of the intangible and is transported into an indefinite distance.

A Carlo Scarpa provides a vivid example of what Nono has called the „suono mobile“ in various works beginning with his string quartet of 1980. The sound becomes fluctuating, it loses its unambiguous shape and clear contour and is no longer fixed on a fixed place in the tonal space and in the physical space. This constantly opens up new perspectives for attentive listening and thus for thinking – the „infiniti possibili“, the infinite possibilities mentioned in the title.

Starting point: the String Quartet

In 1980, four years before the orchestral piece A Carlo Scarpa, the LaSalle Quartet premiered Nono’s string quartet Fragments – Silence, An Diotima. The mixed colours and blurring of the sound contours, which give the orchestral piece its unmistakable face, have already been systematically researched and elaborated by Nono in the quartet. Given the small number of performers, the procedures can be seen as if under a magnifying glass. What is striking here is what could be called a polyphony of articulations: a chord or even a unison is not simply bowed or plucked evenly but articulated differently by each of the four strings. The sound is thus split up inside. It becomes a multi-perspective event and reveals its hidden potential: its „infiniti possibili“, the infinite possibilities. This is exactly what Nono had been striving for in the last decade of his life in the Experimentalstudio Freiburg (Germany), where he worked at breaking instrumental and vocal sounds into their component parts using electronic means.

The string quartet was premiered on 2 June 1980 in Bonn-Bad Godesberg by the LaSalle Quartet. The day before, the quartet held a public workshop together with Nono. The first violinist of the Quartet, Walter Levin, used a concrete example to explain the extremely refined methods of sound splitting that Nono has used here.

An excerpt from that event (with some background noises):

Walter Levin on Luigi Nono’s Quartet

The tritone comes right at the beginning, it is the basic interval of the whole piece. In the first bar it is shown that the sound is doubled by other instruments playing the same notes at the same time, but with different timbre, so that a constant mixture of timbres is achieved. This is also due to the fact that the instruments that play differently play the same sound in different dynamics, so that a mixture changes from note to note. We play the first bar, and there is an interval right away, which starts with a battuto in the second violin – that’s how the piece begins – and then the same notes are held flautato in the violin, so that’s the second. You immediately have a change in timbre, but the same interval.
[Sound sample]
Next comes a mixture of normal sound and arco ponticello in the viola and first violin. Both play the A; The viola plays it flageolet, and I play it normally. The mix would have to be such that you can’t hear one or the other exactly. The A of the viola should be louder than that of the first violin, so it dominates in the mix.
[Sound sample]
It’s a sound that can’t really be located, but it’s produced by completely normal means. I mean, a simple flageolet like the A, you can almost agree with that. (Laughter from the audience) Then comes the first tritone in the first violin, there are two in a row: A-E flat and D-G sharp. But on the D-G sharp comes the second violin at the same time with arco battuto al ponte, then the viola with battuto con legno. They come together, and the second fiddle plays mezzoforte. Mine, on the other hand, the same two tones, are pp. Again, a mixture that creates a different sound character without any new tones coming into play. That’s how a lot of the chords come about. We’ll show it to you after my long-held Eb, then the E flat comes in three different ways: ponticello, flageolet, and arco, while I’m already playing flageolet ponticello. Every time the sound changes, always the same note, always in a different sound composition, and three people play it together, so that the sound changes from note to note. And then comes an A, also produced by three people, resulting in a different timbre.
[Sound sample]
We now come to the problem with music like this, which is built on subtle differences such as these: once you know that, you listen in a completely different way. This means that the listener must first adjust to the differences. That’s always the problem the first time through.

The string quartet: the beginning of Luigi Nono's late work
Beginning of the String Quartet by Luigi Nono | Courtesy Ricordi

In how differentiated and purposeful a manner Luigi Nono was able to expand the individual sound into a complex sound event is shown particularly clearly by another excerpt from this unique composition and interpretation workshop. This is about the famous quotation from Ockeghem’s chanson Malheur me bat, which appears in the viola like a cantus firmus towards the end of the work; it was embedded by Nono in the string section in such a way that it is hardly recognizable. In this way, it becomes a part of the „secret world“ that opens up in the work, evoked by the Hölderlin quotations inserted into the musical text. Nono doesn’t put this quote on his lapel to show off. For him, it is part of a past that has remained alive. Another excerpt from the workshop on the string quartet:

The quote from Ockeghem’s Malheur me bat

Levin: Let’s play the part of Ockeghem?
Nono: Yes!
Levin: That’s a nice demonstration. The song of Ockeghem proceeds in equal time values. The viola plays it. For the first time in the whole piece, there is a cohesive melodic line that occurs in an instrument.
Violist: That’s the solo in question. [Laughter]
Levin: That saved the piece for the violist. [Laughter] The mishap hit us.
Violist: In the same note values?
Levin: Yes, a bit archaic.
[Viola plays Malheur me bat as a soloist].
Levin: Now we’re going to play it for you in the Nono version. You will recognize it immediately.
[The whole quartet plays the section.]

Taking one’s time and silence play an essential role in the String Quartet of 1980 – and in almost all subsequent compositions in Luigi Nono’s late work:

First, music has to breathe. Then (secondly) silence is very important to me here. Silence is a lively moment of sound. Silence sometimes has different needs. Sometimes it means to listen with the ears to something different that had been played before in order to find a relationship. Sometimes it means to develop something further that you’ve heard in yourself. Sometimes it means to hear as a preparation for something that comes later and differently. Sometimes silence is really a moment of living music.

For Nono, silence is more than just a break. It has an activating function with regard to hearing.

Taking one’s time and silence play an essential role in the string quartet – and in almost all subsequent compositions in Luigi Nono’s late work:

So it’s really about silence for listening. It is not a purely acoustic phenomenon. The silence for hearing through the intellect, instinct or intuition, in other words, in very different ways.

In the score of his string quartet, Nono had written quotations from Hölderlin, which were not to be read aloud, but only to be contemplated by the performers. In the run-up to the composition, he had become acquainted with the Frankfurt Hölderlin edition, where the texts poems are printed graphically with all the large blank spaces as Hölderlin himself wrote them down.

This can be seen very clearly in the Frankfurt edition: his special compositional thinking. Sometimes there are a lot of ideas, then again there is only a word or a syllable or a preposition. It is very important to hear everything: Listen! Ascoltare! Ascoltare purely physical, ascoltare conscious, with intuition, or completely rational and purely psychological, in a psychophysical way. All these levels.

Here are some text fragments by Hölderlin that Nono wrote into the score of the string quartet:

Geheimere Welt – seliges Angesicht – wenn aus der Tiefe – wenn in reicher Stille – staunend – heraus in Luft und Licht – in stiller ewiger Klarheit – das weißt du aber nicht – Schatten stummes Reich – wenn in der Ferne – wenn ich trauernd versank – das zweifelnde Haupt

More secret world—blessed face—when out of the depths—when in rich silence—wondering—out into air and light—in silent, eternal clarity—but you don’t know—shadow, silent realm—when in the distance—when I sank in mourning—the doubting head.

Some of these fragments occur several times, such as „if in rich silence“ and „but you don’t know that“, the latter no fewer than five times.

What has been characteristic of Luigi Nono’s late work since the string quartet is that his work on sound is not merely a formal gimmick or a catalogue of new playing techniques but is determined in terms of content. We will have to come back to this later. The most important aspects of these methods can be described as follows:

  • Expansion of simple sound to the complex simultaneity of individual events.
  • Dissolution of all systems of order and fixed structures.
  • Search instead of certainty.
  • Seeking out the quiet regions, the silence.
  • Take your time, listen inwardly.
  • Secrecy instead of proclamation of truths.

Al gran sole carico d’amore: Farewell to the Revolution

The secrecy rather than a proclamation of truths is perhaps most striking in the change in Nono’s musical thinking between 1975 and 1980, between the opera Al gran sole carico d’amore and the string quartet. In the stage work of 1975, the large, pathos-laden tone of the revolutionary drama still dominates. The tragedy of the many failed revolutions and their protagonists in the 19th and 20th centuries is depicted by Nono in grandiose, gloomy sound scenarios.

Al gran sole carico d’amore, with texts ranging from Marx and Lenin to Brecht and Fidel Castro, marks the end of a creative phase that began in 1961 with his first major stage work, Intolleranza, and included a whole series of politically engaged works, some of which even had an undisguised militant character.

These include La fabbrica illuminata for soprano voice and tape (1964), Musica-Manifesto and Non consumiamo Marx (1969), the cantata Ein Gespenst geht um die Welt (A Ghost Goes Around the World) based on the Communist Manifesto (1971), and, above all, A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida for solo soprano, three voices, clarinet, copper plates and tape (1966). Here, concrete sounds and revolutionary slogans on tape are mixed with bruitistic live sounds and highly expressive vocal parts to create a rebellious sound drama. The piece is dedicated to the Vietnamese Liberation Front. The premiere in Venice in 1966 featured members of the Living Theatre, the legendary political theatre troupe from New York.

Viewed at a distance of almost half a century, however, A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida seems like a faded document from revolutionary history. The opera Al gran sole carico d’amore, which premiered nine years later, has also taken on a patina. After the end of the so-called socialist camp with the Soviet Union in the lead, after digitalization, after Nine-Eleven and after the various Islamist revolutions, which are not left-wing revolutions at all but mass movements of reactionary fanatics – after all these events, which do not at all obey the logic of an understanding of revolution as propagated by Marx and Lenin, the political content of Nono’s revolutionary works has lost its power of persuasion. What remains of him is the utopian hope for some kind of liberation in an uncertain future.

Prometeo, the centre of Luigi Nono’s late work

It is only logical that, after the failure of the socialist revolutionary idea and the failure of his own hopes, which he attached to it as an active member of the Communist Party of Italy, Luigi Nono anchors his next magnum opus, Prometeo, as a „tragedy of hearing“ in the interior of perception. And that he now replaces the slogans of the victory of the proletariat with the invocation of the „weak messianic hope“ – a thought of Walter Benjamin, which now also appears in Prometeo. Differentiation of sound inwards instead of excited mass choirs, Jewish messianism instead of world revolution.

It seems that Nono made a U-turn after Al gran sole, from a committed fighter with music to an introverted individualist. But it’s not that simple. There are many indications that the two creative phases, the political phase of the sixties and the early seventies and the inward-looking phase of the last decade of his life, from the string quartet onwards, that these two so contrasting phases present themselves as two manifestations of a common idea.

A glance at the lyrics of Al gran sole shows that although there is a lot of talk about struggle and insurrection, it ultimately tells a story of revolutionary failure. Towards the end, three prisoners have their say: Gramsci, Dimitrov and Castro, of whom only the last one, Castro, actually led a successful revolution. Then the revolutionary symbolic figure of the mother is murdered, and at the very end the choir and a woman’s voice intone a sequence of notes from the Internationale to the words „Neither servant nor master, let’s fight“.

All this does not sound optimistic at all, but rather skeptical, and Nono rescues himself from the general melancholy into the poetic spheres of the higher soprano registers. The music fades away in the diffuse distance. In its gestures, this final music bears an astonishing resemblance to the choirs transported into mythological spheres in Prometeo, which premiered nine years later. The only difference is that live electronics are now added as a constitutive element.

Revolution and messianic perspective, are these two sides of the same coin? This idea is not so far-fetched, nor is it so completely new. What we have in common would then be a hope for radical change. Or, to put it another way: a longing for another world that would have nothing to do with the misery of the real world. A very topical variant of the poetic critique of Dasein, as it is a constant in recent modernism, from Romanticism to Baudelaire’s disillusionment to Gustav Mahler’s idea of the „hustle and bustle of this world“. On the one hand, Nono’s critique of existence is articulated through revolutionary slogans and in relation to purely worldly conditions; on the other hand, in Luigi Nono’s late work, through images that point beyond reality; in the case of the string quartet, these extend into the realms of poetry and in the case of Prometeo into ancient mythology and Jewish theology.

Robert Musil’s sense of possibility

The intellectual background of Nono’s reorientation away from politics and towards new intellectual districts is the culture in Vienna at the turn of the century. His friend and the librettist of Prometeo, Massimo Cacciari, had a strong influence on him.

Massimo Cacciari is really one of the new thinkers in Italy, who for years has been publishing books and essays on Wittgenstein, on Benjamin, on the problems of Rathenau, on Schmitt, on Frege. Now his new book Dallo Steinhof („From Steinhof“), a large collection of essays about Vienna, has been published[1]. They open up a whole new perspective on this culture … new formants, new components.

From the culture of the late Habsburg Empire, Nono received decisive impetus for what he called a wandering through the interior, which took on full musical form for the first time in the string quartet in 1980:

Wanderer inside: This is very important. You often think that you have to wander through the exterior as a robot. But I think you also have to wander within yourself. That doesn’t happen enough. One is afraid to wander into oneself, to examine oneself. This, I think, is also a great lesson, and it comes from the great Viennese. Not only from the composers – from the great Viennese, the giants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in literature, painting, music, psychology, philosophy, and life.

In the title of the orchestral piece, which Nono dedicated to his deceased friend Carlo Scarpa, there are the words: „ai suoi infiniti possibili“ – his infinite possibilities. This is reminiscent of Robert Musil, whom Nono held in high esteem as one of the „Viennese giants“, and his novel Man Without Qualities. In it, the dimension of the possible, the „sense of possibility“, is widely discussed:

„But if there is a sense of reality, and no one will doubt that it has its raison d’être, then there must also be something that can be called a sense of possibility. Someone who possesses it does not say, for example, that this or that has happened, will happen, must happen; but he invents: This could, should, or ought to happen here; and if you explain to him that something is the way it is, then he thinks: Well, it could probably be different. Thus, the sense of possibility could be defined as the ability to consider as good everything that could exist and not to consider what exists as more important than what does not.“ [2]

The narrator says about the decaying late-period culture of the Viennese turn of the century in Man Without Qualities that one recognizes in it

„… the well-known incoherence of ideas and their proliferation without a centre, which is characteristic of the present and constitutes its curious arithmetic, which goes from the hundredth to the thousandth without having any unity.“ [3]

The archipelago and the wanderer

This almost sounds like an anticipation of a diagnosis of postmodernism, as Jean-François Lyotard, for example, formulated it. Nono is obviously referring to this when, with regard to the creation of the string quartet, he says he had the idea of an archipelago without a center in which to navigate. His description of the compositional process is also interesting insofar as he speaks of the difficulties he was confronted with after he had shattered all the principles that had been valid until now and now had to start again from scratch with a new way of thinking, a new method, so to speak.

The compositional period was quite long and was not a successive compositional practice. I prepared different materials at first, I composed different passages, and very often I threw everything away and composed again, with the experience of what did not seem good to me. There is actually no development. Rather, there is a technique – I say technology, but I mean a way of thinking – which is based – I could put it this way – on the image of different islands in a large archipelago. And these islands are small and large, and there are different roads that run through these islands.

The image of navigating between the islands is closely related to another image that Nono used repeatedly: that of the aforementioned hiker or wanderer. Here, too, it is a search movement that does not require any fixed guidelines and leaves the searching subject to fend for itself. Nono addressed this in several works of his later years: for example, in Caminantes – Ayacucho for vocal solo, choir, organ, orchestra and electronics, in the duo for violinists wandering in space Hay que caminar, soñando and in No hay caminos, hay que caminar… Andrei Tarkovsky for seven orchestral groups. In this piece, interspersed with pauses, the microtonally fluctuating note G forms a kind of red thread. The sound eruptions are strung together as if on a string.

No hay caminos, hay que caminar – „There are no paths, you have to walk“: This is Nono’s wanderer philosophy in its purest form. Nono supposedly found the title words, taken from a poem by Antonio Machado, on a monastery wall in the Spanish city of Toledo. A magical place: the city of the legendary Rabbi of Toledo by Jorge Luís Borges and a center of Moorish-Judeo-Christian culture of the Middle Ages. Nono’s emblematic title of the work involuntarily conjures up images of millennia-old traditions, of Talmud and mysticism.

Nono’s transformation from an exponent of class warfare via music to musical philosopher took place essentially between 1975 and 1980 in the form of a deep crisis. He overcame them through discipline and self-criticism and not without awareness of the big picture of musical development.

Luigi Nono on his reorientation after 1975

What was needed after Al gran sole carico d’amore – which was performed at the opera in Milan and in Frankfurt – was a period of great deliberation. Technical, musical language, human, text, ideological as well. And compositionally. Composing music is not just a technical thing, just a craft. It is a matter of thought, which was also said by Schoenberg. Schoenberg taught us to think, not to compose. This also occurs in the teachings of the Renaissance period, from Zarlino, Zacconi, Artusi to Padre Martini, where people always spoke of different ways of thinking, musically. Not just technically, just formulas, schemes, paradigms. Rather, it is the special thinking of a person who lives in a special time, who participates in his time, who feels: What comes out? New or old? Stop or move on? New audibility, new feelings, new togetherness, new conflicts, new contradictions, sometimes also new earth. But not in a physical-naturalistic sense.

What Nono spoke into the microphone here in 1980, he was only able to realize in rudimentary form in the following years, the last decade of his life. Like a wanderer, he embarked on a journey of discovery through unexplored terrain, where there were remnants of ancient cultures, buried wisdom and new possibilities of musical poetry to discover. It was a great attempt to reconstruct from the ruins of the 20th century a worldview, however problematic – a whole composed of fragments in which the great European traditions might perhaps be able to recognise themselves as in a broken mirror.


[1] Adelphi Publishers, first edition 1980 (out of print), new edition 200.
[2] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, in: Collected Works, vol. 1, chap. 4, Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag 1978, p. 16.
[3] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, p. 20.


This text is based, with minor modifications, on the manuscript of a broadcast by Bayerischer Rundfunk Munich on 27 January 2014 on the occasion of Luigi Nono’s 90th birthday on 29 January. The two excerpts from the workshop on June 1, 1980 with the LaSalle Quartet and Nono’s long statement at the end were recorded by the author from the audience. All other information provided by Nono comes from a personal interview with the author in German language, which also took place on June 1, 1980. Some ambiguities in Nono’s German have been cleared up for the written version.

Translation: Jürgen Thym, Ralph P. Locke

German version
See also: Luigi Nono 100

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