Epitaffi Nos. 1, 2, and 3

By Kyle Gann, Associate Professor of Music, Bard College

Written for the concert The Artist’s Conscience, performed on Sep 28, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Luigi Nono (1924-1991) lived through the Nazi occupation and resistance of World War II as a student in Venice, and it left a mark on him politically: in 1952 he joined the Italian Communist Party, and was defined ever after as the political composer among the post-war avant-gardists of the Darmstadt circle. Yet unlike other political composers such as Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski, Nono did not condescend to write in a populist idiom, but gravitated toward the 12-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg, and even married Schoenberg’s daughter in 1955. Nono would achieve fame in 1956 with his Il canto sospeso, a song cycle based on letters written by victims of the Nazi concentration camps. Soon after, however, believing in technology as the key to dealing with the modern condition, he would turn to electronics, and, with a long series of works for voices or instruments with prerecorded tape, would become one of Europe’s leading electronic practitioners. Another stylistic evolution, starting with the string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima (1980) led to a period of gorgeously delicate, somewhat existential, introversion.

Some of that characteristic delicacy can be heard in the Three Epitaphs on poems of García Lorca, especially in poems one and three of the first epitaph, even though they represent his earliest style. From the beginning, Nono was attracted to a clearer rhythmic grid, with less mercurial complexity, than his Darmstadt colleagues, and he even experimented with the 12-tone-style development of popular Spanish rhythms, as is rousingly evident in the second song, “La Guerra,” on a text by Pablo Neruda. Pointillism – the breaking up of music into widely separated individual notes – was the basic premise of post-Webern serialism at Darmstadt. But it is remarkable in all of these songs how carefully Nono uses pointillism not to create chaos, but to draw a gentle melodic line through the ensemble by keeping notes within very limited pitch ranges and separating lines with a subtle rhythmic independence. In the surreal images of Lorca’s “Romance of the Spanish Civil Guard,” Nono’s delicacy combines with the drama and forceful directness of his political music in an early but quintessential statement of his aesthetic.