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2017/09/11

Work of the Week: Luigi Nono – Il canto sospeso

“…Your son is leaving. He won’t be able to hear the bells of freedom”, wrote Konstantinos Sirbos in a farewell letter hours before his murder by the Nazis. Luigi Nono chose this and other similar letters as the basis for his work Il canto sospeso (“Floating chant”), which will be performed on 11 September by the SWR Symphonieorchester and the SWR Vokalensemble at Musikfest Berlin with Peter Rundel conducting and soloists Mojca Erdmann (soprano), Jenny Carlstedt (mezzo soprano) and Robin Tritschler (tenor).

During the Third Reich, many people chose to resist the injustices of the Nazi regime and most of them faced death as a result. Letters written by such fourteen- to forty-year-old members of the resistance from around Europe just before their death were published in a documentary in 1954. Nono’s work sets fragments from these letters in nine connected sections and is dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom.

Luigi Nono‘s Il canto sospeso: Overcoming death through music

At the work’s opening, Nono uses floating orchestral sounds to draw the audience in before the choir sings the first episode. “I’m dying for justice. Our ideas will win”, wrote a young man from Bulgaria. In the next episode, the three soloists simultaneously sing the words of three different Greek patriots. At the climax of the piece, Nono uses lines written by a condemned woman describing moment the Nazis came to execute her, with the music moving from heart-rending brass and timpani to a contrasting, stark string accompaniment. The soprano soloist then sings words of farewell from a young Russian woman to her mother, accompanied by the hums of the women in the choir and a selection of high instruments. The piece ends with the choir singing the words “I’m leaving, having faith in a better life for you”, with only timpani accompanying. Nono connects each cryptic text fragment with instrumental Intermezzi, creating an atmosphere of farewell, desperation, and bewilderment around the listener.

Now as much as ever, works dedicated to remembrance and reflection are of great importance, giving a voice to thoughts and feelings and even serving as focal points for discussion, talks, and educational activities. You’ll find more works of remembrance by following the link below. In these works it is evident that composers at all times have deeply believed that music has the ability to remind, admonish, but also comfort and reconcile. Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein put it like this:

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

This year offers another opportunity to hear Il canto sospeso on 26 November at the Sendesaal des Hessischen Rundfunks in Frankfurt, Germany.