Luigi Nono's Socialist Modernist Political Aesthetic: Transposing Sartre and Brecht

by Jackson Albert Mann

Luigi Nono (1924-1990) was one of the most important European composers of the 20th century. He was also a committed socialist and a life-long member of (and later leader in) the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Nono’s music was intrinsically bound to his political beliefs and his pieces were always thematically connected to left-wing liberation struggles of the time. However, much of the scholarship on Nono either ignores his politics completely or mentions it only in passing. That scholarship which does comprehensively engage with his political commitments almost always does so through either a neo-Marxist or Gramscian lens. I argue that neither of these approaches provide a satisfactory picture of Nono’s highly developed political aesthetic. Neo-Marxist aesthetics are ill-suited as a framework for understanding Nono’s materialist approach to music composition and, while making a connection between Nono and Gramsci is understandable as a result of his numerous references to the late Italian communist leader, Nono’s reading of Gramsci is mostly superficial. Rather, I believe a close reading of Nono’s writings reveals that his influences lie elsewhere, specifically the literary theory of Jean-Paul Sartre and the dramaturgy of Bertolt Brecht. It is by transposing progressive Modernist concepts from the work of these two figures to the discipline of music composition that Nono develops a left-wing political aesthetic distinct both the Socialist Realism of the communist East and the Adornian neo-Marxism of the capitalist West, a political aesthetic that I term Socialist Modernism.


Luigi Nono was a Venetian composer whose work was well known for its explicit leftist political content. Born in 1924, Nono grew up under Mussolini’s fascist government. He developed radical left-wing politics in his youth. As a young adult during WWII, he was able to avoid military conscription with the help of a socialist sympathizing doctor and enrolled in university as a law student, where he began secretly assisting the anti-fascist resistance movement.[1] Nono spent what free time he had studying music composition with Gian Francesco Malipiero, the director of the Venice Liceo Musicale.

After the war he was introduced to the child prodigy performer/composer Bruno Maderna and the renowned orchestral conductor Hermann Scherchen. Both men were committed socialists and their politics had an enormous impact on Nono.[2] It was through these connections that Nono was able to attend the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Summer Course for New Music) in Darmstadt, Germany, returning every summer between 1950 and 1959. During this period Nono officially joined the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and went on to become the so-called “political enfant terrible” of the “Darmstadt School,” a result of his experimental anti-fascist compositions (Il canto sospeso, 3 Epitaffi per Federico Garcia Lorca).[3] [4]

In 1959, Nono accused John Cage of “colonialist thinking” and denounced his method as “orientalisms that a certain Western culture employs to enhance the attractiveness of its aesthetic...” during a public lecture at Darmstadt.[5] [6] [7] Nono took issue with numerous elements of Cage’s practice but focused specifically on his appropriation of Zen Buddhism as simultaneously a manifestation of cultural imperialism and a conscious use of Zen's historical connection to imperialist ideology in Chinese antiquity.[8] The debate with Cage and others led to Nono’s subsequent break with the Darmstadt School, after which his music became even more politically charged. His pieces dealt with themes stretching from the everyday injustices faced by factory workers in Italy (La fabbrica illuminata), to the struggles of Communist freedom fighters during the Vietnam War (A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida), the Paris Commune, the 1905 Russian Revolution (Al gran sole carico d’amore), and the US Civil Rights Movement (Contrappunto dialettico alla mente).

Much of the commentary and scholarship on Nono’s music never engages with his politics directly, instead choosing to focus on the technical construction of his pieces. This approach is problematic given that Nono saw himself as a “totally committed musician... in the rich, diverse, multifaceted, and often contradictory struggle for socialism.”[9] However, even the scholarship which does seriously engage with his left-wing beliefs does so on shaky grounds, either retroactively applying a ready-made neo-Marxist aesthetic lens to his work or focusing on the influence that Antonio Gramsci had on his thought, viewing his corpus within a Gramscian framework. The former approach reveals the contradictory voices in Nono’s music and the explicit modernism of his method, yet understands this modernism as a conservative reaction against postmodernism. The latter sheds light on Nono’s use (and misuse) of Gramsci’s concepts of cultural hegemony and organic intellectualism as a justification for his artistic position. However, both fail to reveal the full picture of Nono’s highly developed political aesthetic.

Nono’s modernism is obvious, but this modernism is not a conservative allegiance to an interwar-period aesthetic. Rather, it is far more nuanced and progressive. It is also true that he repeatedly cited Gramscian concepts to justify his position as a revolutionary artist, which was often under scrutiny as a result of his upper-middle-class upbringing, as well as his education and participation in a style of modern classical music (Serialism) seen by many orthodox Marxists as bourgeois.[10] However, pointing out his work’s modernism does not tell us much about his complete aesthetic project and presents a blinkered view of Nono as a musical conservative and, additionally, as shown by Robert Adlington, if Nono was a Gramscian, he was “in fact a highly idiosyncratic” one.[11]

I argue two points: A) the reason for Nono’s awkward Gramscianism is that he is not, despite numerous claims to the contrary, a Gramscian at all and B) rather than being a conservative modernist, Nono’s political aesthetic is firmly rooted in specific progressive trends within Modernism. This paper will deal with two of them: the ‘epic theatre’ of Bertolt Brecht (a figure who is cited often and even paraphrased in Nono’s writings, interviews, and notes) and the literary theory of Jean-Paul Sartre.[12] In fact, it is upon this foundation that Nono builds a forward-looking political aesthetic that I term socialist modernism.

Any interpretation of Nono’s work which does not take into account these connections misunderstands and misrepresents it. It is only by placing Nono’s work within the framework of Brechtian dramaturgy and Sartrean literary theory that it can be understood.

Nono & Gramsci

Like most Italian left-wing artists and intellectuals after World War II, Nono often cited Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which were enormously popular after their first publication in the1950s.[13] In his 2016 article ‘Whose Voices? The Fate of Luigi Nono’s Voci destroying muros,’ Adlington introduces us to Nono in the 1960s, a decade after his famous public denunciation of John Cage in 1959 and his subsequent break with the Darmstadt School.[14] Adlington presents Nono as a committed, albeit confused, Gramscian under attack intellectually by the “folk-ethnology” aesthetic of the then popular Workerist movement and the Dutch anarchist group Provo[15] during the 1970 Amsterdam production of his eventually-redacted piece Voci destroying muros (Voices destroying walls).[16] [17] But this Gramscian frame only provides tenuous rationales for Nono’s aesthetic ideas, imagining them to be a direct result of his supposed misreading of Gramsci.

Adlington points out that Nono consistently “misrepresented his compatriot’s arguments” and that he accepted at face value the PCI’s conflation of Gramsci’s concept of the ‘organic intellectual’ with any intellectual whose politics aligned with those of the working class.[18] [19] Nono also seemed to misunderstand Gramsci’s notion of culture as being made up of already established artistic mediums.[20]

It is difficult to take Nono’s Gramscianism seriously in light of these misunderstandings, particularly his misinterpretation of the concept of the organic intellectual, about which Gramsci is incredibly clear. According to Gramsci, the organic intellectual’s claim to this status is bound up in their actual labour. It is an intellectualism constructed on the basis of their experiential technical knowledge of the capitalist method of production within their specific industry.[21]

Interestingly, despite his misapplication of this concept when used in reference to himself, Nono did seem to understand it when discussing the working class. He explained, on more than one occasion, how his 1964 piece for soprano voice and magnetic tape, La fabbrica illuminata, was well-received by working class audiences because its status as a factory soundscape, rather than an autonomous musical piece, appealed to their technical intellectualism, an organic intellectualism constructed experientially.[22] [23]

According to Adlington, it is Nono’s simultaneous paradoxical applications of Gramsci that led to his lifelong obsession with technology. Nono “drew from Gramsci’s statement [on Organic Intellectualism] a different conclusion,” analogizing the act of musical research into electronics to the experiential knowledge of the working class and ignoring Gramsci’s emphasis on “locating organicity in indigeneity...”[24] [25]

Luckily, Gramsci provides Nono with a possible exit from the conundrum of his class background: “One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle... to conquer ‘ideologically’ the traditional intellectuals.”[26] Nono, as a member of the traditional intellectual category of composer, could conceive of himself as a conquered intellectual, won over to the cause of the working class. Unfortunately, no such conception of his intellectual position appears in his writings.

Adlington does mention that Nono, like other post-War European composers, “wished to heed the Sartrean call to throw off the chains of oppression of creative... domains... specifically addressing the kinds of modernism that fascism had suppressed.”[27] But he does not pursue this Sartrean connection any further, instead continuing to discuss Nono and his work within a Gramscian frame.

It is regrettable that Adlington does not explore Nono’s reading of Sartre, as this would clarify Nono’s artistic approach. Though drawing a line from Gramsci to Nono is understandable, Adlington shows throughout his article that this leaves us more confused than before regarding Nono’s aesthetic choices and intentions. It is on the basis of this incomplete picture that Adlington attempts to piece together a causal connection between Nono’s more direct (i.e. less avant-garde) forms of representation for working class voices in Voci destroying muros and the folk-ethnology critiques of the Workerist movement, even though such criticism was never leveled at Nono publicly and there is “no concrete evidence for a direct influence.”[28] [29] [30]

Nono & Neo-Marxist Aesthetics

In his 2014 doctoral dissertation, Nono and Marxist Aesthetics, Joshua Cody attempts to interpret Nono’s 1980 string quartet Fragmente-Stille, An Diatoma through the framework of what he calls “the four major Marxist approaches to art.”[31] [32] He comes to two key conclusions. The first regards what Cody terms Nono’s ‘conservative late-modernism.’ This is most clearly articulated in the following quote:

Far from the mystical/naive poetic visionary in the fashion of a Rothko, Scelsi, or Tarkovsky... Nono is revealed via a narratological analytic approach as a wily, canny dramatist armed with a conservative, late-modernist and even, in a sense, neoromantic (if never regressive) technique, one always consciously resisting the true postmodernity of [John]Cage...[33]

Cody places Nono on a political spectrum from conservatism to progressivism, positioning him as the reactionary modernist to Cage’s progressive postmodernism.

His second conclusion regards the proper Marxist interpretation of Nono’s pieces. Cody infers that only Bloch/Jameson’s neo-Marxist literary theory can sufficiently interpret Nono’s music. Within this aesthetic framework Fragmente-Stille, An Diatoma is interpreted as a subversive fairy-tale that narrates the conflicts of late-capitalism and provides a fantastical resolution to its schisms: “The ‘neutrality’ of the major second dyad that opens the piece, the ‘hostility’ of the alla punto aperiodico material, the ‘enigmatic’ nature of the tritones throughout, and the “transcendent” harmonies that close the work are the semantic content...” that make up the narrative of this insurgent fairy tale, one which chronicles the struggle between “different voices” on the late-capitalist battlefield and the eventual imagined victory of the subaltern.[34] [35] [36]

Cody’s conclusions are correct on two points. Nono is indeed working within a modernist framework and his pieces do present numerous contradictory voices. However, his accusation of musical conservatism and his narrative interpretation misrepresent both the context and function of Nono’s work. This is a direct result of the absence of Nono’s voice in Cody’s paper, in which he is directly quoted only once.

Without a clear understanding of Nono’s influences and the highly-developed political aesthetic to which these influences contributed, Cody comes to a conclusion that directly contradicts Nono’s own statements regarding Fragmente-Stille, An Diatoma. Rather than engaging with Nono on his own terms, Cody reads into Nono’s corpus a reactionary tendency based on his own assumptions, and into the specific sound-clusters of Fragmente-Stille, An Diatoma a pointillistic narrative that is absent in Nono’s writings on the piece.[37]

This is not to say that Cody’s subjective interpretation is entirely incorrect, but rather that there is no evidence to support this reading as a critical and objective view on Nono’s work. A further consequence of this is Cody’s quick dismissal of the ‘Marx/Engels’ aesthetic approach in favor of the ‘Bloch/Jameson’ framework. A direct precursor to Brechtian aesthetics, Engels’ predilection for anti-parabolic realism, exemplified for him by the novels of Honoré de Balzac, is significantly more useful in analyzing Nono’s music.[38] [39] His simple desire for art that truthfully reproduces “typical characters under typical circumstances” is far more suited to Nono’s materialist approach, which I will subsequently describe.[40] \

Nono, Sartre, & Committed Writing

If neither a neo-Marxist nor a Gramscian approach to understanding Nono’s work can reveal his political aesthetic, what approach can? In order to develop a complete picture of Nono’s aesthetic we must trace the genealogy of his ideas to the literary theory of Jean-Paul Satre and the ‘epic theatre’ of Bertolt Brecht. It is on the foundations laid by these two figures that Nono built a progressive modernism that integrated their ideas.

The most founda-tional concept in Nono’s aesthetic is commitment. In his article on Nono’s 1974 piece Für Paul Desau, Luis Velasco-Pufleau traces Nono’s concept of commitment to the influence of Gramsci, stating that “seeing composers as organic intellectuals, Nono granted them the hegemonic function of struggling against... the world of the ruling class (bourgeoisie) by musical creation and by promoting a revolutionary and socialist imaginary.”[41]

According to Velasco-Pufleau, Nono believed it was the position of the composer as an organic intellectual which inevitably led to the necessity of political commitment in their work. However, this is an inversion of Nono’s idea regarding commitment, which he borrows directly from Sartrean literary theory.

For Sartre, the nature of writing prose is inherently semiotic as “the words are first of all not objects but designations for objects.”[42] This is the result of the communicative attitude of the prose writer (Sartre contrasts this with the attitude of the poetic writer) whose writing is purely communicative in function.[