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Remaking reality: Echoes, noise and modernist realism in Luigi Nono's Intolleranza 1960

  • Harriet Boyd

After the premiere of Luigi Nono's Intolleranza 1960 at Venice's Teatro La Fenice in 1961, the critical press began a series of debates and redefinitions in response to what struck them most: how noisy the opera was. Although they agreed that Nono's work was unlikely to be popular with a broad public, many immediately recognized that Intolleranza could serve to recall the horrors of Fascism and the sounds of war – to offer, in other words, a warning call that history must not repeat itself. In a debate in the Communist newspaper L'Unità, the sonic hubbub was interpreted as a new kind of realism, formed in order to use memories of the Fascist regime as an allegory of contemporary oppression. The potency of the opera's noise was seen as in part due to Nono's incorporation of the auditory experiences of cinema and television, thus providing an insight into how traditionally elite genres such as theatre and opera could respond to the emergence and increasing hegemony of new mass entertainments. This article seeks to place Intolleranza within these fraught and conflicting discourses on mid-twentieth-century Italian modernity, and show that postwar reconstruction was as much about a concern for the past as it was with a coming to terms with the present.

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1 The Ordine Nuovo, a far-right cultural and political terrorist group founded by Pino Rauti in 1956, was one of the most prominent neo-Fascist organisations in postwar Italy; see Payne, Stanley, A History of Fascism, 1914–1945 (London, 1996). Intolleranza was performed again on 15 April without disruption. This was not the first indication of a resurgent neo-Fascism in Venice that year: in July a bomb had destroyed a ceramic statue celebrating women partisans of the Resistance – ‘La partigiana veneta’ – installed in the Biennale park in 1957.

2 The event might have brought to mind a film made seven years earlier, Luchino Visconti's Senso (1954). Set in the spring of 1866, Senso opens with a performance of Verdi's Il trovatore at La Fenice. As Manrico strides to the front of the stage and sings ‘Di quella pira’ directly at the audience, from the highest tier of the theatre Italian patriots throw down leaflets on the Austrian officers below. A precursor from earlier in the century were the Futurist protests at Puccini's operas; for more on the latter, see Wilson, Alexandra, The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism and Modernity (Cambridge, 2007), 171–2.

3 Nono and fellow Venetian Maderna both joined the PCI in 1952. This was the year in which Einaudi published Lettere di condannati a morte della resistenza italiana (Turin, 1952), followed two years later by Lettere di condannati a morte della resistenza europea (Turin, 1954). Both were used as sources for Nono's Il canto sospeso (1955).

4 See Gramsci, Antonio, Notebooks, Prison, ed. Buttigieg, Joseph A., 3 vols. (New York, 1992–2007). There is a collection of Gramsci's writing at the Archivio Luigi Nono (ALN) in Venice, with many annotations by the composer. Nono himself stated that: ‘Gramsci's thought on the autonomy of confronting models was of great importance at the time’; quoted in Nielinger-Vakil, Carola, ‘“The Song Unsung”: Luigi Nono's Il canto sospeso’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 131/1 (2006), 97.

5 Bernstein argues against the tendencies of foreshadowing and backshadowing when writing history. He instead promotes sideshadowing, which ‘means learning to value the contingencies and multiple paths leading from each concrete moment of lived experience, and recognizing the importance of those moments not for their place in an already determined larger pattern but as significant in their own right’; see his Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (Berkeley, 1994), 70.

6 ‘Scrivo del rumore, perché la prima volta che uno entra nella fabbrica il rumore è la cosa più importante, e più che guardare uno sta a sentire e sta a sentire senza volontà quel gran rumore che cade addosso come una doccia’; Paolo Volponi, Memoriale (1962; rpt. Turin, 1981), 33. The overwhelming noise of the factory has a longer history: nineteenth-century manuals on workers' health frequently returned to the issue of noise levels in the working environment.

7 The ‘economic miracle’ was a period of dramatic industrial growth, when exports doubled and expansion reached an annual rate of eight percent; see Bull, Anna Cento, ‘Social and Political Cultures in Italy from 1860 to the Present Day’, in Barański, Zygmunt G. and West, Rebecca J., eds, The Cambridge Companion to Modern Italian Culture (2008; rpt. Cambridge, 2001), 3561, here 55.

8 The status and treatment of women in the opera is dubious at best: although none of the protagonists is given a proper name, the women are continually placed in subservient relationships to men. This is evident not just in the plot and action, but also in the very manner of their singing.

9 References to the Holocaust were increasingly ubiquitous at this time. The term itself had only just been introduced – in the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, which began only two days before the premiere of Intolleranza. This period marked an explosion of Holocaust imagery and discussion, much of it prompted by Eichmann's trial: for example, in Italy alone, there appeared the story of the experiences of Italian Jews in Luigi Comencini's Tutti a casa (1960), the tracing of a journey from Paris to the concentration camps of Germany and Poland in Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapò (1960), and Visconti's Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa (1965), in which the Holocaust plot weaves a background thread.

10 For more on this, see the series of letters printed in De Benedictis, Angela Ida and Mastinu, Giorgio, eds, Intolleranza 1960: a cinquant'anni dalla prima assoluta (Venice, 2011).

11 The Laterna Magika collaboration was central to Nono's conception. A non-verbal theatre company developed in Prague and first showcased at the Expo '58 in Brussels, the Laterna Magika was originally formed and led by Svoboda and the director Alfréd Radok. Building on the work of German theatre director Erwin Piscator, it arose from a desire to incorporate techniques of film and theatre into a new media experience, achieved partly through the technique of ‘polyekran’ – multiple projections onto screens. This aspect was particularly appealing to Nono: the theatre's experiments with sound projections paved the way for his spatialisation of sound in La Fenice. For more on this, see Restagno, Enzo, ed., Nono (Turin, 1987). Svoboda had in fact prepared photographic slides for use in the premiere of Intolleranza, but Nono eventually settled for Emilio Vedova's abstract projections.

12 Nono's response to such sacralization was to critique performance practice. In his essay ‘Notizen zum Musiktheater Heute’ (1961), he writes that this sacralisation was based on several factors: the separation between the audience and the stage, which begins to imitate the relationship between the clergy and congregation in church; the static presentation of the scenic elements; and the focus on a single perspective; see Nono, in Stenzl, Jürg, Luigi Nono: Texte–Studien zu seiner Musik (Zurich, 1975), 61–7.

13 Fearn, Raymond, Italian Opera Since 1945 (London, 1998).

14 As Nono said, ‘I had in fact been examining the possibility of a stage composition for years’; ‘Ich hatte in der Tat seit Jahren die Möglichkeit einer Bühnenkompositionen untersucht’, see his ‘Einige genauere Hinweise zu “Intolleranza”’ [1962], in Stenzl, Luigi Nono, 68. Prior to Intolleranza, Nono had been working on two other music theatre projects: in a notebook of preliminary ideas entitled ‘Per il teatro’, he wrote on one page ‘-/Anne Frank -/ si ascolta/ si vede non la storia’, an idea that Nono had discussed in correspondence with Ungaretti in 1957 and 1958; another note mentions ‘Tortura -/ Alleg -’, concerned with the Algerian resistance. See Nielinger-Vakil, Carola, ‘Between Memorial and Political Manifesto: Nono's Anti-Fascist Pieces, 1951–1966’, International Nono Conference (Padua, in press); my thanks to the author for an advance copy.

15 Petrobelli, Pierluigi, ‘On Dante and Italian Music: Three Moments’, this journal, 2/3 (1990), 219–20.

16 Although Italians were initially slow to take up ownership of televisions, by 1970 Italy was to become Europe's largest manufacturer. Actual numbers of ownership contemporaneous to Intolleranza were still relatively low, however, with 12% of Italian families owning a television in 1958, rising to 49% by 1965. Rather, it was a sense of threat from the new media that dominated discourse; see, Ginsborg, Paul, ‘Family, Culture and Politics in Contemporary Italy’, in Barański, Zygmunt G. and Lumley, Robert, eds, Culture and Conflict in Postwar Italy (New York, 1990), 2149.

17 For more on this, see The Age of Affluence’, in Judt, Tony, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York, 2005), 324–53.

18 ‘nel teatro musicale del nostro tempo, e nel quadro della lotta per un rinnovamento dell'avanguardia’; Giacomo Manzoni, ‘Intolleranza 1960 alla Fenice’, L'Unità (14 April 1961).

19 ‘Un'opera simile costituisce, dal punto di vista della realizzazione, un fatto senza precedenti’; Massimo Mila, ‘Intolleranza 1960 di Nono: anatomia del nostro tempo’, L'espresso (23 April 1961).

20 ‘Essa cioè non è soltanto l'opera di un grande musicista, ma è un'opera che pone e risolve un problema di teatro’; Luigi Pestalozza, [Untitled], Cinema nuovo (June 1961).

21 Judt, Postwar, 257.

22 von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, Italian Journey, 1786–1788, trans. Auden, W.H. and Meyer, Elizabeth (London, 1962), 77.

23 Goethe, Italian Journey, 67.

24 Abbate, Carolyn, In Search of Opera (Princeton, 2001), 27.

25 Previous operas have also used this Venetian tradition of the echo, such as the gondolier's songs in Rossini's Otello (1816). The opera, set entirely in Venice, uses the echoes of gondoliers as what we might anachronistically call acousmatic voices. Whereas the audience of Otello may have remembered this Venetian tradition, those in attendance at Intolleranza would most likely have only recalled its operatic afterlife. Petrobelli notes that by 1816 it was a tradition almost entirely forgotten; see his ‘On Dante and Italian Music’, 229–30. Even Goethe, writing in 1786, called it one ‘of the half-forgotten legends of the past’; see his Italian Journey, 77. Paolo Prato's recent study contradicts this, however: he cites evidence to suggest that the practice goes somewhat later than this – becoming increasingly obsolete by 1850, but still continuing into the twentieth century; see Prato, , La musica italiana: una storia sociale dall'Unità a oggi (Rome, 2010).

26 Sterne, Jonathan, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, 2003), also critiques the newness of this moment when technology enabled sound to be detached from its source.

27 See Dolar, Mladen's recent contribution, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA, 2006); and Foucault, Michel's notion of biopolitics – in The History of Sexuality, trans. Hurley, Robert, Vol. 1 (1976; rpt., London, 1998) and The Birth of Biopolitics, ed. Senellart, Michel, trans. Burchell, Graham (2008; rpt. Basingstoke, 2010).

28 This might be another echo back to Puccini and earlier twentieth-century aesthetics: the Intolleranza scene bears a striking similarity to the opening of La fanciulla del West (1910). Here too a miner pines for his homeland, amplified by a chorus that sings ‘là lontano, là lontano, chi ti rivedrà?’ What is more, echo effects extract from his song and send it back round the opera house, magnifying his sentiment. Thanks to Arman Schwartz for pointing out this connection to me.

29 ‘Nei cori, che per virtù di megafoni e di abili accorgimenti tecnici invadono la scena da ogni lato e opprimono l'ascoltare con la violenza di un giudizio di Dio, Nono ha trovato i suoi accenti più espressivi’; Laura Fuà, [Untitled], Giornale del popolo (14 April 1961).

30 Conversely, Nono said that the relationship between diegetic dialogue and non-diegetic accompaniment in film is an echo of the relationship between voices and orchestra in traditional opera: film is merely an industrialised version of traditional opera; see Nono, ‘Notizen zum Musiktheater Heute’ [1961], in Stenzl, Luigi Nono, 61–7.

31 This fraught relationship between man and landscape is a key topos of the period. A few years later, Michelangelo Antonioni, in Il deserto rosso (1964), explored similar themes. Through the use of colour photography, Antonioni examined the correspondence between characters and their environment – here an oil refinery in Ravenna. The heightened modernity damages the characters: their interior psychological disarray is portrayed by miscolouring everyday objects.

32 A noteworthy omission from the debates on Intolleranza is the earlier work done on noise by the Futurists, notably Luigi Russolo's manifesto of 1913, L'arte dei rumori. The reason for this could be that by 1961 the Futurist legacy was seen as entwined with that of Fascism – and thus anathema to the leftwing sensibility of these debates. This of course distorts the fact that the Futurists had exerted a strong influence on the Left; see Berghaus, Günter, Futurism and Politics: Between Anarchist Rebellion and Fascist Reaction, 1909–1944 (Oxford, 1996). The Futurist manifesto is remarkably prescient with regards to Nono's opera: Russolo's call for electronic and new technological capabilities to enable composers to expand the traditional range of orchestral timbres is echoed in the sounds of Intolleranza. For the manifesto, see Russolo, , The Art of Noises, trans. Brown, Barclay (New York, 1986); for more on Russolo, see Lista, Giovanni, Luigi Russolo e la musica futurista (Milan, 2009).

33 ‘l'accusa contro le violenze, le torture e l'intolleranza di marca nazista in auge nel “mondo libero”’; Manzoni, ‘Intolleranza 1960 stasera a Venezia’, L'Unità (13 April 1961). See also ‘Intolleranza 1960 alla Fenice’, L'Unità (14 April 1961) and ‘L'opera di Luigi Nono, la gazzarra fascista e un'interpellanza’, L'Unità (19 April 1961).

34 ‘Chi e che cosa ci autorizza ad esempio a definire Intolleranza 1960 un'opera veramente popolare?’; Ugo Duse, ‘Intolleranza 1960, fascisti e politica culturale borghese’, L'Unità (29 April 1961).

35 For more on this, see Gramsci, , ‘People, Nation and Culture’, in Forgacs, David and Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, eds and trans., Selections from Cultural Writings (London, 1985), 196286. It is also worth noting that in Italy, mass and popular culture, at least in the earlier part of the century, tended to be defined rather differently. Whereas cultura di massa was seen as the newly dominating media of radio, cinema and television, created by an elite to control the broader populace, cultura popolare was rather seen as arising from the populace themselves for their own consumption; see Barański and Lumley, ‘Introduction’, in Barański and Lumley, Culture and Conflict in Postwar Italy, 1–17. The undoing of the cultural Left was that they failed to recognize the changing parameters of these definitions: as the two became enmeshed, and cultura di massa became cultura popolare, the Left's denouncement of the former fell on deaf ears.

36 This point is perhaps most forcibly argued by M. Ugolini, in ‘Il nostro dibattito su Intolleranza 1960 e le musica moderna. Contenuti popolari e stile accademico’, L'Unità (6 June 1961). For critic Giuliano Scabia, Intolleranza was ‘undoubtedly a popular work’, because it arose out of a significant common experience; see Scabia, ‘Il dibattito su Intolleranza 1960 e i compositori moderni: musica popolare e realismo’, L'Unità (9 June 1961).

37 ‘Regia di movimento, che porta in teatro le esperienze del cinema e della televisione, eliminando il tradizionale bagaglio’; Pestalozza, ‘Attesa a Venezia per Intolleranza 1960’, Avanti! (13 April 1961).

38 For more on this, see De Benedictis, ‘L'opera nel racconto … Intolleranza 1960, dietro le quinte di un esordio’, in De Benedictis and Mastinu, Intolleranza 1960, 24.

39 ‘una ultradinamica sintesi audiovisiva’; Giorgio Vigolo, ‘Intolleranza 1960’, Il mondo (2 May 1961).

40 ‘dei mezzi corali, strumentali vocali, converge sempre a una prodigiosa essenzialità comunicativa, si catalizza in ogni momento sul senso del dramma e lo rende in maniera diretta, lo porta con violenta chiarezza di fronte allo spettatore’; Pestalozza, ‘Espressionismo e realismo epico nel nuovo dramma di Luigi Nono’, Avanti! (14 April 1961).

41 In early sketches for Intolleranza there are references to theatrical models; on one page is written: ‘Bauhaus. 1919 Bauhaus Weimar – 1925 Dellau?’ (Source 23.05/ 14, ALN). On another: ‘Meyerhold – Taizov … Piscator/Brecht’ (Source 23.05/ 15v, ALN). Nono discusses models of theatre that influenced his conception in ‘Spiel und Wahrheit im neuen Musiktheater’ [1963], in Stenzl, Luigi Nono, 82–6.

42 Pestalozza, ‘Attesa a Venezia per Intolleranza 1960’.

43 This interest in a socially engaged Italian theatre can be traced across various media of the period. Plays such as Giovanni Testori's Arialda (produced in 1960 by Visconti, but immediately banned) dealt explicitly with contemporary social problems. As did film: Visconti's Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960), dealt with similar themes – the urban, industrialised working class in Milan, predominantly made up of migrant workers from the South. The city is portrayed as a bleak world that shatters old Italian values; drug culture, dangerously enticing mass entertainments and the general hustle and bustle of the modern city are seen as producing a lack of social cohesion and a breakdown of traditional family life.

44 As well as Meyerhold, another precursor from Russian theatre of the 1920s that followed a similar path was Vladimir Mayakovsky; see Fearn, Italian Opera Since 1945.

45 ‘questa partitura costituisce una interessante esperienza di fusione di un testo a contenuto democratico […] con una musica che fa suoi i postulati più attuali di linguaggio e di costruzione tecnica’ and ‘al centro di una polemica’; Manzoni, ‘Intolleranza 1960 stasera a Venezia’.

46 Schwartz, , ‘Rough Music: Tosca and Verismo Reconsidered’, 19th-Century Music, 31/3 (2008), 228–44.

47 Schwartz, ‘Rough Music’, 234.

48 Fuà, ‘Intolleranza 1960’.

49 ‘non ci sono melodie, né umili né sublimi; in compenso ci sono strepiti e spari’ and ‘sonorità rarefatte ed esplosioni apocalittiche’; Fernando Lunghi, ‘Intolleranza 1960 di Luigi Nono opera a nastro magnetico e alla laterna magika’, Giornale d'Italia (14 April 1961). In 1950, Lunghi had written a defence of the use of music in neorealist film, arguing that it is music that adds another dimension to the experience that pure naturalism cannot provide; see Lunghi, ‘La musica e il neo-realismo’, in Masetti, Enzo, La musica nel film (Rome, 1950), 5660.

50 The idea of the sounds of war is discussed in Virilio, Paul, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London, 1989). An important text – again absent from discussion – is Russolo, ‘The Noises of War’ [1916], The Art of Noises, 49–53.

51 Ugolini, ‘Il nostro dibattito su Intolleranza 1960 e la musica moderna’.

52 Pestalozza, [Untitled], Cinema nuovo.

53 The main features of allegorical modernism in Italy of this time seemed to be either an evocation of Fascism and war, as here in Intolleranza, or of the city, as in Ungaretti's use of Virgil's Aeneid as an allegory of Alexandria, the place of his birth, in La terra promessa (1950) and Ultimi cori per la terra promessa (1960); Nono had set the former in his Cori di Didone (1958).

54 A significant omission from the reception is any mention of the Risorgimento: this was the centenary year after all, with a grand Italia '61 Exhibition of Italian Unification held in Turin. Contemporary commentaries elsewhere on the importance of remembering Fascism almost without exception refer to Unification.

55 The fourth movement of Il canto sospeso (1955–6) is inserted as an interlude between scenes four and five of Part One. Thus one of the most expressive and emotive moments from the earlier work is used to connect two of Intolleranza's most harrowing scenes: that of the police interrogation and torture. In the second Part, the opening of the second of Nono's Due espressioni (1953) is re-used as an accompaniment to racial graffiti at bars 294–313. Furthermore, Nono maintained that intervallic relationships underpin the association between characters and the drama. He cites the example of the development of the relationship between the Emigrant and the Woman, which, he claims, is done through the use of four intervals: minor and major seconds, a perfect fourth and a tritone; see Nono, ‘Einige genauere Hinweise zu Intolleranza’ [1962], in Stenzl, Luigi Nono, 68.

56 Although the lead soprano in the Boston staging of Intolleranza in 1965, Beverly Sills, recalls that at times Nono called for noisy realism rather than verbal comprehensibility: ‘At one point in the opera I had an aria entitled “Ban the Bomb”, which contained a phrase “the screaming voices of Hiroshima”, on the “shi” in “Hiroshima” I had to hit a high C-sharp. I tried to explain to Mr Nono that on a note that high the text would be indecipherable and so it would be better to sing the word “Hiroshima” on a lower note so that people could understand. “No,” he said, he wanted the high C-sharp to sound like the screaming of the bomb itself’; Sills, , Bubbles: A Self Portrait (New York, 1976), 100.

57 The dedication inside the cover of the score reads ‘Arnold Schoenberg gewidmet’. The year before the premiere of Intolleranza, at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, Nono discussed the relationship between text and music, making reference to Schoenberg's Survivor from Warsaw, claiming it as ‘the manifesto of our era’. It was fellow Venetian Gian Francesco Malipiero who introduced Nono to Schoenberg's music, during Nono's studies with Malipiero in Venice in 1941; see Stenzl, Luigi Nono.

58 Friedrich Spangemacher speculates that Nono may in fact have got to know René Leibowitz at the 1949 twelve-tone conference in Milan. Although Nono disagreed with Leibowitz's advocacy of socialist realism, Spangemacher suggests that it may have been from Leibowitz's text that Nono came to know Jean-Paul Sartre's writing on committed literature; see Spangemacher, , ‘Schoenberg as Role Model… On the Relationship between Luigi Nono and Arnold Schoenberg’, Contemporary Music Review, 18/1 (1999), 3146.

59 Spangemacher, ‘Schoenberg as Role Model’, 42.

60 See Nono, ‘Text–Musik–Gesang’ [1960], in Stenzl, Luigi Nono, 41-60; and Nono, ‘Notizen zum Musiktheater Heute’ [1961], in Stenzl, Luigi Nono, 61–7.

61 ‘Ciò che la Intolleranza 1960 ha di singolare è questo senso di catastrofe che sentiamo incombere sulla nostra epoca’; Vigolo, ‘Intolleranza 1960’.

62 This focus on sound could be seen as a turning away from standard accounts of the visual-centricity of the Fascist period, in which the regime is assumed to be concerned first and foremost with spectacle; for an example of this kind of study, see Falasca-Zamponi, Simonetta, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini's Italy (Berkeley, 1997).

63 There are also dialogues with the realisms of other media: with nineteenth-century literary verismo, a resurgent literary neorealism in the early fiction of Italo Calvino and a post-Second World War modernist realist art movement inspired by Picasso's Guernica (1937) – to name the most prominent manifestations.

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