Luigi Nono: Liebeslied for mixed choir and instruments

performed by the Wiener Jeunesse-Chor, Günther Theuring, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Claudio Abbado

Today we begin a rather brief discussion of one of the pillars of the Darmstadt school, in fact of the very man who coined the phrase ‘Darmstadt school’ in a lecture in 1958. That’s a significant point, and perhaps a bit late in coming, since everything we’ve talked about thus far (and most of what is still left to talk about this month) was written/published/premiered before that date. So what that means is, much like Beethoven and Haydn and Mozart didn’t go around wearing “First Viennese School” badges (ditto for Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, although they were a more standout bunch, arguably), Boulez wasn’t sitting at his desk composing thinking “this will be the next entry in the compendium of the works of The Darmstadt School.” It’s a thing that exists in retrospect, a label applied to a movement or trend or group only after it has been established or even dissipated. But anyway, entire books could be (and have been) written about that topic.

Nono came from a wealthy, artistic family, and started studying with Gian Francesco Malipiero as a teenager at the Venice Conservatory. The Wikipedia article on him jumps to saying he then graduated with a law degree before making connections with Maderna and Scherchen (also Maderna’s teacher), and remarks that one of Nono’s “first acknowledged work [was] the Variazioni canoniche sulla serie dell’op. 41 di A. Schönberg in 1950, at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik Darmstadt…” but nothing about how Nono came to be interested in or attached to Schoenberg’s music. One presumes through Scherchen and Maderna. In any case, he later married Schoenberg’s daughter Nuria, to whom this piece is dedicated. They married the following year. Wiki says he met her “at the 1953 world première of Moses und Aron in Hamburg.” Small world, I suppose. The piece premiered in London in 1956.

Nono, distinctly different from Boulez and Stockhausen, was apparently highly political, even having joined the Italian Communist Party in the early ’50s. But today, as mentioned above, we’re talking, as the piece’s name suggests, of love, not war. And that’s something that’s quite interesting, I think, about this work. It’s a ‘lovesong.’ Many people would accuse serialist music of being unfeeling, void of emotion, harsh, and so on, or if emotional, then suitable for pained, excruciating, tragic stormy turbulent works like Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, but nothing so tender and personal as a love song to  your wife-to-be, but here it is, and I believe it to be one of Nono’s more well-known works. (As a side-note, I asked an Italian acquaintance of mine if she knows of this man Nono. She grew up relatively close to where he was born, and her response was “No… Italy has better composers than whoever that is.” Unsurprisingly not a household name, I guess.)

If you (speak/read Spanish and) are looking for a really wonderful analysis of the work from a more academic standpoint than I can offer, check out Daniel Duarte Loza’s paper here. He gives simple insights that seem like they should be easier to find, like that the text (in German, written by Nono himself) is set 90º to standard left-to-right (i.e. it’s written vertically, bottom-to-top) and indented at different points so the outline of the text looks like a church. The text (original German with Spanish translation) contains phrases like ‘I love you’ and ‘with you is peace’ or ‘you are life.’ These seem fitting for the context. (For more information on the work (like, a ton of information, about the composer and the work at hand, and others), read A study of parametric organization in selected works of Luigi Nonopart of a doctoral thesis by Douglas Needly. It goes way beyond the scope of the article, but the portion dealing with this work begins on p. 44.)

We have here the kind of Klangfarbenmelodie that was introduced earlier in Webern’s works, where one melodic line isn’t just given to one instrument to play from beginning to end, but is distributed across multiple instruments. A very good way to hear this is to watch the video from the article a few days ago on Berio’s little children’s piece, where the narration jumps between players, sometimes mid-sentence, without missing a beat. It sounds to some, understandably, like choppy, fragmented, disjointed music, like there’s no single melodic line, and part of that is the ‘pointillism’ or ‘punctualism‘ that came to its heyday around this time. That article says it is music where:

structures are predominantly effected from tone to tone, without superordinate formal conceptions coming to bear” (Essl 1989, 93). In simpler terms: “music that consists of separately formed particles—however complexly these may be composed—[is called] punctual music, as opposed to linear, or group-formed, or mass-formed music” (Stockhausen 1998, 452, bolding in the source). This was accomplished by assigning to each note in a composition values drawn from scales of pitch, duration, dynamics, and attack characteristics, resulting in a “stronger individualizing of separate tones” (Frisius 1994).

That’s kind of a side point. I’d rather not talk too much about music theory or the fact that Nono doesn’t do terribly complicated things with his tone row like Schoenberg or Webern would, (or so says this article). The work seems to be through-composed, and as the above-linked thesis mentions, it’s in three basic sections, but even then… the tone row gets unique application. Needley says (on p. 49),

Instead of a fixed twelve-tone series, Nono uses various permutations of the notes in sections of the chromatic scale. There is, in reality, no longer a “series” in the traditional sense, but rather merely a regulator to ensure an even distribution of the various selected pitches.

Can you hear the beauty of the music? Do you hear its shimmering, stark, straightforward qualities? Does it sound like a love song?

I wonder what the young Ms. Schoenberg thought of the work when first heard. I assume she was at the performance, and one would think it might not come as too much of a shock: a young Italian composer, introduced to her father’s work by a German conductor, who she met at the premiere of one of her father’s works. It couldn’t have been too surprising. But here it is, a youthful punctualist, serialist, love letter, straightforward and simple, and a hell of a lot brighter than what we’ll be discussing later in the week. Stay tuned.


3 thoughts on “Luigi Nono: Liebeslied for mixed choir and instruments

  1. Quite interesting. I crossed the name of Nono several times but never actually got around to listen to any of his pieces. Anything you would suggest to start exploring his works?

    1. Liebeslied must be one of his most approachable, I’d say, but likely his most famous is coming up on Thursday. It’s hard to say because I myself haven’t really warmed up to his music in the way that I have to that of Boulez.
      I also couldn’t leave him it of a Darmstadt School series, seeing as he himself coined the term!

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