Born on the 29th of January 1924 into a family of artists – his grandfather Luigi was a painter and his uncle Urbano a sculptor – Luigi Nono took an interest from an early age in cultural history and art. His interest in music was encouraged by his parents, who were amateur musicians and who owned a sizable collection of recordings. From 1943 to 1945 he studied composition with Malipiero at the Venice Conservatory, where there was an emphasis on vocal polyphony and the madrigal tradition, as well as an awareness of the music of the Second Viennese School, Stravinsky and Bartók.

Nono’s experiences of the war, of the Nazi occupation and the Resistance were fundamental to his general development, while musically his meeting with Maderna was critical; from 1946 onwards they forged a long-lasting association. A small community of musicians grew up around them in Venice who, through the examination of the contrapuntal, harmonic and formal foundations of European art music, aimed to develop a new musical language.

In 1948 Nono and Maderna took part in Scherchen’s conducting course in Venice, following which they worked together for the publishers Ars Viva. For several years Scherchen became their mentor. On Scherchen’s recommendation he was accepted as a student on the 1950 Darmstadt summer course, at which the first performance of his Variazioni canoniche sulla serie dell’op.41 di Schönberg provoked contrasting reactions. In Darmstadt he attended classes given by Varèse, whose influence became progressively more apparent in his work.

He came into contact there with members of the Schoenberg school, in particular the violinist Rudolf Kolisch, with whom he collaborated on the composition of his Varianti; in 1955 he married Schoenberg’s daughter, Nuria. The Darmstadt summer courses confirmed Nono’s leading position and, together with Boulez and Stockhausen, he became a key figure in the European avant garde.

Nono’s intense involvement in the social issues of his time gave rise to a style in which sound and text are inextricably linked; in which the work takes a firm hold in the ‘real’ world, as a kind of a historical record. Increasingly, Nono used texts with political references (he had in 1952 become a member of the Italian Communist party), culminating in the stage piece Intolleranza 1960 which, at its first performance in Venice (1961), provoked protest and uproar. It represented a turning-point, not only because for the first time it made concrete Nono’s ideas for a new form of music theatre which he had been developing in the 1950s, but also because it revealed the extent of the political conflict in which the composer felt himself involved: racial intolerance, fascist violence, exploitation of the working classes, and the struggle for freedom and independence in developing countries.


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