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The Politics of the New Music
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The Politics of the New Music

Luigi Nono’s Time has Come. There are CDs and documentaries, and—in Germany—even performances of his music. Remarkably, given the uncompromising radicalism of both its score and its politics, the ‘azione scenica’ Intolleranza 1960 (Venice, 1961) seems well on the way to achieving repertory status in German opera houses. Nono is also the focus of a medium-sized academic industry whose most prestigious results to date are the critical editions of selected compositions (more are on their way) in which both of his publishers, Schott (in Mainz) and Ricordi (in Milan), have seen fit to invest.1 Academic work on Nono shows a marked philological—one might say ‘positivistic’—bent. Of the four volumes so far issued under the auspices of the Archivio Luigi Nono in Venice, two—including the one presently under review—are editions of his letters. In addition, Nono’s correspondence with the critic Massimo Mila has been published, as well as a door-stopping two-volume collection of his prose and interviews.2 Scholars of his music, meanwhile, have taken advantage of the availability of Nono’s sketches in the archive (run by his widow Nuria Schoenberg Nono on the Giudecca) to produce painstaking explorations of the various numerical and other pre-compositional schemes that played such an important role in his creative process. There is a growing sketch-based analytical literature in Italian and German—and (this is a recent development) in English too. If there is currently no monograph in English on Nono, it will surely not be long in coming.

But what is the significance of all this activity? With respect to Nono’s two principal commitments—on the one hand to the new music, on the other to the politics of the revolutionary left (for him the two were inseparable)—such an emphasis on philology, or on matters of abstract formal construction, can only suggest that if Nono’s time has indeed come, it is because the causes he believed in so passionately are now lost, or considered [End Page 664] entirely harmless. The incipient repertory status of Intolleranza 1960 already suggests as much. Calls for a revolution in musical language or for the overthrow of the bourgeois state were never intended to be treated dispassionately. The present volume of correspondence between Nono and his pupil Helmut Lachenmann (rounded out by a series of texts by Lachenmann relating to Nono and his music) positively draws attention to its scholarliness.3 Different colours, fonts, or typefaces are employed depending on whether words were originally typed or written (or written in different colours, in which case an orgy of pernicketiness is unleashed (p. 158)); the number of underlinings of specific words is faithfully noted when it cannot be reproduced (p. 60); more importantly (and somewhat perversely), while the introduction and critical apparatus are in Italian, the original language used by the correspondents is always preserved, which is mostly German—or Nono’s idiosyncratic version of that language, whose grammatical and other inaccuracies are generally left uncorrected. Lachenmann rarely writes in Italian after the early 1960s, while Nono seldom writes in Italian at all. Given that a German-only edition of this same correspondence has since appeared,4 one imagines Italian readers may feel at something of a disadvantage.

The text does Nono’s posthumous reputation a greater disservice (beyond this evidence of academic embalming) in the way that, alongside plentiful evidence of his kindness and generosity towards a struggling young composer, it shows the Italian acting on occasion in a remarkably unpleasant manner, and also supplies gossipy material of a kind that, in its obvious attractiveness to commentators, will serve only to obscure the historical significance of his achievement. As Nono’s disciple in the late 1950s and early 1960s (his ‘slave of honour’, as the critic Mario Bortolotto put it (pp. 53, 70)), Lachenmann found himself thoroughly embroiled in various composers’ squabbles. Nono expresses the standard disdain for Henze (p. 65), while Stravinsky’s Agon is fit only for snobs (p. 10), but his principal bugbear is the new ‘Bismarck’ Stockhausen and his hangers-on (whom he calls the ‘Koelner Clan’: this...