The master of sound and silence. Luigi Nono | book excerpt

Krzysztof Kwiatkowski , transl. Agata Klichowska / 28 Jul 2016

The master of sound and silence. Luigi Nono
Krzysztof Kwiatkowski

luigi_nono_okladka Chapter 11
The Polish diaries. Nono and the countries of real socialism

In 1952 Luigi Nono became a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) – this formal move was a natural consequence of his political orientation, which he took on back in the 1940s. Nono himself thought that his Marxist sympathies were inspired by the ethos of the Italian anti-fascist resistance movement, in which communists played a large part.

The turn of the 1940s was the peak of the ‘cold war’ and the permanent threat of confrontation between the East and the West; it was also a time when socialist realism ruled unopposed in all the countries within the Soviet zone of influence. In theory, Stalinist ideas were to be followed within the Italian communist party as well, but in practice the Italians’ cultural policy often strayed from the official rigors – one could say that it was exceptional within the communist bloc.

Almost since its inception in 1921 PCI was helmed by intellectuals – something that made this formation very different from both its Eastern and Western counterparts. Antonio Gramsci served as chairman between 1924 and 1926; after he was imprisoned by the fascists Palmiro Togliatti took over and held the function until 1964. Unlike many other European party leaders, Togliatti respected culture and in the first post-war years tried to smooth over the anti-intellectual and anti-artistic communist rhetoric. This, however, couldn’t stand – starting from the first Cominform meeting in 1947, Stalin started pushing on the Western parties to submit to his leadership in all matters, including culture. Zhdanov’s guidelines slowly superceded PCI’s light touch, as evidenced by Togliatti’s statement from November 1948, when he officially condemned abstract painting as ‘formalism and intellectual impotence’. 1

Zhdanov’s theses scared away many formerly sympathetic artists (such as Boulez) and made others take on the ‘fellow traveler’ attitude of comfortable detachment allowing for non-commital solidarity with the USSR without giving up artistic and intellectual freedom. However Nono, a continuator of Schönberg’s reviled legacy, wanted to be more than just a sympathizer and attempted to reconcile his work in the Party with the voice of his own creative intuition. This was possible because, even during Stalinism, PCI gave its members a certain degree of freedom. In a conversation with Hartmut Lück Nono quotes the words he heard from one of his comrades soon after he joined the party: ‘If you think that making dodecaphonic music is important to you, then you have to continue your struggle on this path’, and then gives his own comment: ‘It meant that there was no pressure for me to start composing in a different way; acceptance was alive both in theory and practice. We often discussed this with the comrades: in Rome, in Venice, in the Gramsci Institute’. 2

The duality of Nono’s situation – a communist and an avant-garde composer at the same time – can be seen in his contacts with the countries under real socialism. The communist-ruled European and Asian countries, especially the Cuba of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, were to him an embodiment of historical rightness and social progress. Nono was convinced of the absolute superiority of their socio-political arrangements over those of the capitalist world, even if in some cases he took the side of people persecuted by communist governments (more on that in section about Quando stanno morendo. Diario polacco n. 2, a composition dedicated to his Polish friends who opposed the introduction of martial law in 1981). At the same time his view of the cultural reality was often very realistic, probably largely thanks to his negative experiences with the cultural life of Eastern Europe. Nono’s letters and interviews are full of criticism, however his reactions to provocative questions (such as how can a composer support the Maoist cultural revolution, when the Red Guard destroys all pianos as artifacts of bourgeois luxury) were often ones of a fanatic who considers all uneasy matters to be figments of deplorable ‘anti-communism’.

Nono’s idea of politically involved art had a lot to do with the doctrine of socialist realism; the notes from his numerous journeys to socialist countries contain as many moments of elation as those of disappointment. A good example is the letter he sent to Karl Amadeus Hartmann on October 21st 1958, right after he attended the Warsaw Autumn festival during his very first visit to a socialist country:

I just came back from Poland! It was the most beautiful experience I’ve had a musician and a man, tons of important things, high hopes !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! the musical situation verrrrrrrry beautiful, real friends, crazy-romantic-full of life friends! and a human base, no cliques, no snobbery, you are who you are at work. The audience, 2000 people, in love with Schönberg and Webern: they wanted encores of A Survivor From Warsaw, the same thing with Psalm, with 5 Sätze for a string quartet and with Webern’s five compositions for orchestra.

But the cold of the terrible-fake-graceless official Soviet music, truly depressing and pathetic as ever, it’s impossible, what a crisis, such fakeness and inhumanity!!!!!!!!! 3

Describing Poland as a country of Schönberg and Webern enthusiasts is as beautiful as it is untrue. Still, Nono’s recollection is not dramatized: in 1958, after a two-year break, the Warsaw festival became a review of contemporary music. The first Autumn programme included such composers as Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and mostly featured the kind of repertoire that can today be heard mostly in the more conservative philharmonics. The second Autumn was a chance for Polish listeners to see Webern, Stockhausen and Eimert performed – their enthusiasm can be mostly explained by a hunger for novelty, which was otherwise unreflected in everyday concert practice. Still, it would be unfair to overlook the Polish composers who were heavily inspired by these new musical possibilities.

One can confidently say that, among the Western musical luminaries who visited the Warsaw Autumn, Nono was the one most interested in Poland’s contemporary music scene (his involvement in promoting Polish music is evidenced by Włodzimierz Kotoński’s statement quoted below). During his first visit, in an interview by Stefan Jarociński for ‘Ruch Muzyczny’ (‘The Musical Movement’), Nono thus judged the outlook for the development of new music in Poland:

I was surprised by almost everything: your mature, lively audiences, your conductors – you have four (Rowicki, Krenz, Skrowaczewski, Markowski) who could be world-famous, your young talented composers and their enthusiasm for new music, your experimental studio at the Polish Radio ran by Józef Patkowski (by the way, I am familiar with such studios in Cologne and Milan and I can truly appreciate Patkowski’s impressive efforts), and finally the very fact that you have a theoretician as impressive as Schaeffer. All this guarantees a huge musical renaissance. I am convinced that you will achieve great things in music, and soon. With my whole heart I wish that you do.4

Nono’s impressions from his stay in Poland became the inspiration for his Composizione per orchestra n. 2: Diario polacco ‘58, which he wrote between 1958 and 1959. See his notes:

 I came to Poland by invitation to the second international contemporary music festival in Warsaw, where one of my compositions was performed. Since I went there saddled with a baggage of prejudices, the lively and creative reality of today’s Poland came as a great surprise to me. The powerfully positive impressions I had inspired me to write Composizione per orchestra n. 2 as a recollection of my Polish friends and their country, which I have learned to admire.

This first meeting (I returned to Poland in the following year) was characterised by quick sequences of events, the juxtaposition of different human situations which, during these several days, have left a deep impression in me.

From the very first emotions, which were spurred in me during the visit in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and the Warsaw ghetto – where a clear and total awakening of my conscience was coupled with one of the most tragic experiences of my life – to the moments of astonishment and admiration for the works of human invention in Cracow, for the beauty of nature in Warsaw’s great park and the Tatra Mountains in Zakopane, the enthusiasm for Poles’ fight for freedom and a dignified life, the stalwart resistance against Nazism, the glorious rise of Warsaw in 1944 and the material, economical, social and cultural rebuilding – all these feelings, and many others, have crystallized in me during my encounters with Polish reality. They became the starting point and the rationale behind my Diario polacco ‘58.5

In his commentary to the composition Nono stresses what could be considered to be the motto of all his work: ‘all my compositions are born from a human impulse: an event, an experience, a text about life, that appeal to my instinct and my conscience and demand that I give testimony as a musician and as a human’. He fights the attempts to directly relate musical structures to their ‘content’ (‘I am far from the primitive idea of descriptive programmatic music’), but a bit farther on he depicts the relations of musical form to meaning which characterise his compositions: ‘The three kinds of feeling that I have mentioned earlier – fright, astonishment mixed with admiration, and fascination – find their counterparts in musical types and their various uses in musical composition. The quick succession, or even parallelism, of situations is reflected by the quick succession of “diary entries”. The 19th century structure made up of introduction, development and culmination is gone – my music is made up of sudden and unexpected turns which always result in something startling, and surprising in its variety’.

Nono’s ‘Diary entries’ are thirty fragments varying in length, sound and texture. Although the composer gives few programmatic notes besides the ones quoted above, some references to extra-musical content can be assigned to specific fragments by comparing the expressive role that musical means play in Nono’s other compositions (especially his later operatic works) – Jürg Stenzl writes about the ‘concentration camp episode’ (bars 20-38, where four frusta were used) and the ‘fights of the Warsaw ghetto uprising which can be heard in the dwindling sounds of the percussion’ (the ‘ghetto episode’ in bars 54-107 is the composition’s longest ‘diary entry’). 6

In his analysis of the compositions Erika Schaller points out some liberties in Stenzl’s interpretation, for instance that the word ‘Auschwitz’ – the sole programmatic hint in the score’s manuscript – is located in an entirely different place 7. The three kinds of feelings mentioned by the composer were not explicitly tied to particular places and events, although that was his original intention: notes from the composition in its early stages show that the oeuvre was meant to be a kind of a travel diary from Nono’s journey from Venice to Poland and back (the first and last episodes), through the four places he visited in Poland (the four middle episodes). Although, as Schaller notes, these feelings from the initial sketches are reflected in the composition’s three basic structures (marked A, B and C), the ongoing process  of blurring the separation between them causes a lack of programmatic unequivocality. It seems then that Schaller’s note that ‘the three kinds of feelings described should be understood as the source and cause for choosing the three basic structures, rather than as a detailed description of the extra-musical content of the composition’ 8 is correct. Nono’s explanations, much like the composition’s title, point the listener in a general direction.

Here, the orchestra is made up of wooden wind and brass instruments (four of each kind plus eight French horns), strings and percussions played by sixteen musicians. The entire performative apparatus is staged unorthodoxically – the musicians are divided into four equally-sized groups of different instruments in order to reflect the composition’s spatial notions. The first performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen, which Nono attended, almost immediately resulted in new ideas for spatial arrangements of the orchestra, although for practical reasons Stockhausen’s idea to use multiple orchestras on separate stages was rarely put into pratice. Diario polacco does not feature the ping-pong-like effect of moving sound from place to place which is so typical of the then-nascent spatial music. Nono is more concerned with arranging sound in space; he creates a structure of sound clusters defined not just by timbre, articulation, dynamics and pitch, but also the place from which they originate.

Composizione per orchestra n. 2. Diario polacco ‘58 was first performed on September the 2nd 1958 in Darmstadt by the Hessian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bruno Maderna. In 1965 the first performance of a new version with an added tape part of the composition took place at the Warsaw Autumn festival. It was played by the Poznań Philharmonic orchestra and Les Percussions de Strasbourg. The orchestra was led by Andrzej Markowski – Nono considered this Polish conductor to be one of the greatest performers of new music and often entrusted him to perform his compositions. Another Polish performer that Nono worked with was Stefania Woytowicz – her solo vocal parts in the tape recording of Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz can be heard on the sole available album featuring this composition (Wergo).


Luigi Nono visited the USSR and Eastern Europe many times, but this rarely coincided with performances of his compositions – the ideologically proper extra-musical content were not enough to overcome the negative attitudes towards new music from the West. Poland – where since the October ‘thaw’ the government stopped perceiving music as a threat to the system – was an exception to that rule. Up to 1989 the Warsaw Autumn festival saw the performances of Composizione per orchestra n. 1 (1959), Il canto sospeso (1961), Epitaffio per Federico García Lorca – III. Memento. Romanca de la guardia civil española (1962), Omaggio a Emilio Vedova (1962), Canti di vita e d’amore. Sul ponte di Hiroshima (1963), Czerwony płaszcz (as a ballet, 1963), Canciónes a Guiomar (1964), Composizione per orchestra n. 2. Diario polacco ’58 (1965), Sarà dolce tacere (1972), Como una ola de fuerza y luz (1975), … sofferte onde serene… (1977), Fragmente- Stille, an Diotima (1983); in 1988 a major review of Nono’s works took place, featuring A Carlo Scarpa, Quando stanno morendo, Post-praeludium Donau and three works from Das atmende Klarsein. Nono’s music was rarely heard in Poland outside of the Festival; a notable exception is the premiere performance of Il canto sospeso, which took place at the Cracow Philharmonic, prior to the composition’s performance at the Warsaw Autumn in the same year 9.

Since between 1959 and 1989 (and later) Nono’s compositions were performed, by average, once every two years, one can not honestly say that his music had a live presence in Poland. Still, Poland was in a much better situation than other socialist countries, where musicians and music enthusiasts were almost completely cut off from Western post-war music, and atonal, serialist and electronic music was officially considered to be decadent and bourgeois. Apart from Poland, Nono often visited the USSR and GDR. His travels to the USSR were unrelated to public performances, but they still meant a lot to the local musical scene: Nono brought with him recordings of new music from the West, played them during meetings with Soviet and East-German musicians and took with him their scores, which were then often performed at such events as the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt and Pierre Boulez’s Parisian ‘Domaine Musical’.

Nono’s encounters with musicians from socialist countries were not always official. In a conversation with Enzo Restagno he recalled one of his visits in the USSR: ‘[…] with Luigi Pestalozza we met, in near-secrecy, with Schnittke and Denisov, young composers who were not allowed to join the Composers’ Union […] I specifically remember the extremely talented Sofia Gubaidulina’ 10. During his 1958 stay in Prague a major quarrel occurred between Nono and representatives of the Composers’ Union, who rejected his music as incompatible with socialist realism. This is probably why the czechoslovakian government refused Josef Svoboda and Alfréda Radok (the duo created Prague’s Laterna Magika, a theater that Nono was deeply impressed by) permission to travel to Venice when the Italian composer invited them to work on the premiere performance of his Intolleranza at the 1961 Biennale di Venezia. Only after Nono asked Palmiro Togliatti to intervene could Svoboda come to Venice – although accompanied not by Radok, but Václav Kašlík. A similar intervention at the highest echelons of the PCI took place in 1975, when Enrico Berlinguer, then PCI’s secretary general, convinced the Soviet government to waive its initial refusal to grant a travel visa to Yuri Lyubimov, the director of Al gran sole carico d’amore at La Scala.

Nono was able to get in touch with the GDR musical scene thanks to Paul Dessau to whom, for his 80th birthday in 1974, Nono dedicated his tape composition Für Paul Dessau. A year earlier the International Youth Festival in Berlin saw the first performance of Siamo la gioventù del Vietnam (We are the youth of Vietnam), a  choral composition based on the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Some performances of Nono’s music took place as far back as the 1960’s – surprising, given the near total absence of Western music in GDR. In the mid-1970s the opposition against the Western ‘avant-garde’ (including music from the Vienna School) still stood strong in the GDR, but thanks to its ardent supporters, such as conductors Herbert Kegel and Max Pommer, occasional breakthroughs took place. One example is the album recording of Como una ola de fuerza y luz made in 1976 and 1977 by the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra directed by Herbert Kegel and Horst Neumann (available as a Berlin Classic imprint) – a very interesting piece, if only due to its unusual, aggressive orchestral arrangement, which stands in stark contrast with Pollini’s performance under Claudio Abbado.


1 Angela Zanotti, Impegno e critica. Gli intellettuali di sinistra nel dopoguerra, Neapol, Liguori, 1979, pp. 97–8.

2 LN 1975, pp. 289.

3 After Stenzl 1998, pp. 49–50.

4 „Ruch Muzyczny” 23/1958.

5 Écrits, pp. 287.

6 Stenzl 1998, pp. 51.

7 Erika Schaller, Klang und Zahl, Pfau Verlag, Saarbrücken, pp. 234.

8 Schaller, pp. 235.

9 See: Bohdan Pociej, Polskie prawykonanie Il Canto sospeso, „Ruch Muzyczny“ 6/1961. Performed by the Cracow Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra under Andrzej Markowski and soloists Zofia Stachurska (soprano), Krystyna Szostek-Radkowa (mezzo soprano), Andrzej Bachleda (tenor). Choir preparation – Józef Bok. After 1989 Nono’s music was also played outside the Warsaw Autumn: … sofferte onde serene… (Dominik Blum at the Audio Art festival in Cracow, 2000), Das atmende Klarsein (Camerata Silesia, under Anna Szostak, Roberto Fabbriciani, Alvise Vidolin) and Contrapunto dialettico alla mente (tape, Vidolin) at Pomosty in Cracow, 2005, A Pierre (Ensemble recherche) in 2009 at the Musica Electronica Nova Festival in Wrocław.

10 Écrits, pp. 116.