Nono: Il Canto Sospeso

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with Susanne Otto, Marek Torzewski, Barbara Bonney, Dietrich Knothe & Rundfunkchor Berlin under Claudio Abbado

If any evidence exists that Webern’s work does not mark the esoteric “expiry” of Western music in a pianissimo of aphoristic shreds, then it is provided by Luigi Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso… The 32-year-old composer has proved himself to be the most powerful of Webern’s successors.

(Kölner Stadt Anzeiger, 26 October 1956, quoted in Flamm 1995)

We said in the first Nono post earlier this week that the composer was known for being political, and today’s piece is a strong contrast to the ‘love song’ of earlier in the week, although one could argue that the content in this work is in fact still an expression of love. But today’s piece is not a feel-good one. It is, however, likely the composer’s most famous work.

I thought about going all minimalist for this post like I did with the Mahler piano quartet. There’s been lots of political and unrest stuff in the news, but I feel rather less than keen to comment on it. Suffice it to say Nono was, apparently unlike his fellow Darmstadt composers, highly political, and there’s no getting around that in this work.

I mention love above, and in the text that opens the work, one can’t help but notice it, even if your German isn’t spectacular. It very much sets the tone for the piece, which is about as much as I think I’ll do to give a background for the work. It’s all on Wikipedia, which says:

It is one of the most admired examples of serial composition from the 1950s, but has also excited controversy over the relationship between its political content and its compositional means.

It continues, and I quote again:

The title is actually taken from the Italian edition of a poem, “If We Die”, by Ethel Rosenberg who, together with her husband Julius, was tried and convicted in America of espionage and of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Their execution on 19 June 1953 caused outrage in Europe. The phrase in the English original is “the song unsung” (Nielinger 2006, 87)… Nono chose his texts from an anthology published in 1954 by Giulio Einaudi as Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza europea, a collection of farewell letters written to loved ones by captured European resistance fighters shortly before their executions by the Nazis. The score is dedicated “a tutti loro” (to all of them)…

So… Like I said, not a feel-good piece. And again (or still), we’re in a serialist idiom. The piece is scored for a rather large orchestra, as well as mixed choir and solo soprano, alto, and tenor voices. The piece is in nine movements, each of which containing a different combination of the members of the ensemble. Again from Wikipedia:

  • I orchestra alone
  • II choir alone
  • III soprano, alto, and tenor soli, with orchestra
  • IV orchestra alone
  • V tenor solo and orchestra
  • VI choir and orchestra
  • VII soprano solo and choir
  • VIII orchestra alone
  • IX choir and timpani

The spoken text before the music begins is not counted as part of these nine movements, which are further grouped into three sections: I-IV; V-VII; VIII-IX. That’s four, three, then two movements. The composer rather fittingly calls the work a cantata. Christopher Fox, in “Luigi Nono and the Darmstadt School: Form and Meaning in the Early Works (1950–1959)”, says (per Wiki) that the Darmstadt ideology to which Nono subscribed at the time shared with neoclassical aesthetics a commitment to the notions of purity, order, and objectivity.

There’s certainly a stark clarity of expression to the work. I would almost say Mahler comes to mind, an extremely late Mahler, like if he’d been able to write another dozen symphonies or live a few more decades or something. The series used for this composition has some interesting qualities:

from here

This series is referred to as a ‘wedge’ because of the way it expands out, first with the semitone, then a whole step, then a minor third, major third, all the way up to the final interval of a major seventh. Most modern analyses would do these by interval classes instead of their diatonic labels, so it’d be one half step, then two, three, four, five… all the way up to 11, which means that this row contains all the intervals possible for twelve notes, which is why it’s called an all-interval series. Wiki also says that “It is a symmetrical series, whose retrograde is identical to the prime form transposed by a tritone,” which just means that if you transpose it by three whole steps and read it ‘backwards’, it’s the same notes.

There are some additional spoken parts throughout the work, notably also in the second part of the fourth movement. And really, no matter how you look at it, this is terrifying, heartwrenching, soul-shattering music, to the point that I’ve pretty much avoided listening to it in most cases where I sit down to do some focused listening.

The Reception section of the Wiki article mentions many interesting things, including protest and political response not only (expectedly) toward the content and source of the work, but also the compositional techniques. If you ever thought music was just a recreational endeavor, this is a good example of how worked up people can get about music. A planned performance in 1980 was cancelled due to a ‘terror bombing’ in Munich. It’s also an example of how ‘classical music’ isn’t just pretty tunes to listen to before bed or at fancy dinner parties. It’s powerful stuff.

I haven’t really much else to say on this work, either because it’s all a bit too real lately, or because it is in many ways so self-evident, so rawly in-your-face that talking about parts of it that sound ‘angry’ or ‘mournful’ or ’empty’ or ‘violent’ cannot do justice to and in fact might only cheapen the idea behind this work. Wikipedia says that there are many analyses of this work, which does not surprise me, and I will include some additional references below, but I can’t really get that far into this work at this point.

In any case, just about anything in the news lately is something politically-charged enough that someone in the future may write something equally as moving and representative of strife and turmoil, but if you’re in the mood for a getaway from tragedy and trouble, don’t listen to this piece. It might be a little too close to home.

I feel I should make it clear that there wasn’t any specific planning for this piece to coincide with anything in the news. I scrawled it into my calendar many months ago, and here it is. That’s all for Nono for now, but stay tuned next week (and this weekend), as we will be seeing some new names.

Also, for other reading on this work, check out this article, only sort of mentioning this work; this article from Music Theory Online back in 2006; and a lengthier article on JSTOR.


4 thoughts on “Nono: Il Canto Sospeso

  1. How nice that you quote the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. I worked for that newspaper some 10 years ago, though not on the cultural pages, but rather as a news editor.

  2. I have had a first take at the piece… interesting. Merits a deeper study… and a post sometime in early 2017! Thank you for pointing this work out to me.

    1. I feel in many ways like I didn’t do it justice. The series Nono used has many interesting properties, and there’s a lot to study from an analytical/theoretical standpoint, but to be honest, it’s just a little bit…. raw for me. It’s such a heavy topic, such a heart-wrenching idea… that I couldn’t really enjoy listening to it, at least now. I’ll have to revisit it in the future.

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