Luigi Nono, who was born in 1926, is a musician and a marxist who believes the composer must relate his music to the condition and problems of the contemporary world. He sees music as part of a wider context and as a means of defining and communicating consciousness. In order to express his thought he has used an unfamiliar and sometimes complex musical language: in spite of this, his music has succeeded in making a wide impact.

He was in the early 1950’s one of the composers associated with the Darmstadt school, who took the music of Webern as their point of departure. The triumvirate Boulez-Nono-Stockhausen was at that time synonymous with the avant-garde in European music. Nono shared with Boulez and Stockhausen an interest in complex musical detail: works such as Stockhausen’s Kontrapunkte, Boulez’ Structures and Nono’s Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica (1951) and Incontri (1955) show their composers concerned in different ways with finding solutions to the formal and technical problems raised by the later music of Webern. This concern does not, of course, mean that their music is barren or inexpressive—rather the reverse: it is now possible to hear how in each of these pieces, as in later works, new techniques have brought a widening of the expressive potential available to the composer. It is true that in the early years of post-Webern music a preoccupation with musical language was predominant. But at the point where it seemed likely that this would degenerate into a academic exercise of technical devices, these three composers showed themselves aware of the danger, and in each case their music shows a development beyond purely technical virtuosity. It was left to others to formulate the ‘doctrine’ of serialism, which treats musical order as something existing ‘objectively’, whether or not it can be heard. This so-called objectivity is the result, as Adorno says, of a technocratic mentality, which reveals itself in the use of technique for its own sake.

From the first Nono’s use of serial technique was simpler and more audible than that of other post-Webern composers; his early music has a clarity which is close to Webern’s own. More important, he has also shown that he is concerned as much with the expressive power as with the grammar and syntax of his musical language. While he has moved beyond the technical preoccupations of the early 1950’s, he has not abandoned the resources of the language developed in those years. But this language is treated as a means of communication and not as an end in itself. He has taken from the post-Webern development of serialism what was essential for his artistic needs.

This is clear in Il Canto Sospeso (1956) for voices and orchestra, in which Nono set to music letters written by members of European resistance movements condemned to death during the Second World War. These letters, written in simple and direct language, express the thoughts of people facing execution. Nono has set them to music which is often complex, but which has an immediate and powerful imaginative force.

The word sospeso means ‘unresolved’, ‘interrupted’. The letters describe the awareness of brutality and injustice, and the writers’ confident hope that their death will not be in vain and that the ideals for which they are fighting will be realized. Nono’s music evokes not a simple contrast between the horror of brutality and the hope of freedom from oppression in the future, but rather an unresolved conflict; there are moments of violent outburst (e.g. at the words Eccoli i nostri assassini) and others in which the music hovers ‘in suspense’: the hope of the final section seems muted by the realization that injustice and oppression are still too close to warrant any easy optimism.

One of the most arresting features of Nono’s technique in this work is his treatment of the words. In some of the choral sections, the words are broken up into their constituent syllables; vowels and consonants are dissociated, so that a word is spread across the whole range of the chorus, one voice taking the first sound, another the second, and so on.

Stockhausen has published an analysis in which he examines this process. He is interested in the way the syllables are composed phonetically, as elements of musical sound; he speaks of them as part of an autonomous musical structure.