Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima (1979-80)

Luigi Nono

string quartet


Program Notes

To compose a string quartet: from the late works of Beethoven up to Schoenberg and Bartók, this has always meant facing the greatest musical challenge. String quartets have represented the fruit of a “long and laborious endeavour”: (Mozart), fusing the maximum density of musical argument with “innigster Empfindung” (“the most heartfelt sentiment”: Beethoven’s indication in the slow movement of op. 132) into music that deliberately renounces the wealth of colour and contrast found in opera and symphony.

Before the composition of his String Quartet, there had been no chamber music in Luigi Nono’s ceuvre. Even with all his attention to creating intricate microstructures, it was still expressive sound, the human voice and, above all, large-scale dramatic contrasts that formed the essence of his music. In his Quartet, however, Nono faced head-on the most extreme demands of the genre’s traditions: Fragments - Stillness, For Diotima (commissioned by the city of Bonn for the 30th Beethoven Festival, composed between July 1979 and January 1980, first performed on 2 June 1980 in Bad Godesberg by the LaSalle Quartet to whom it is dedicated “mit innigster Empfindung”) is a quartet of the utmost concentration, of radical subjectivity, of extreme rigour - and of enormous technical difficulty for the performers. But at the same time, these Fragments - Stillness are intimate and inwardly directed to the point of being esoteric; they are an unshielded act of self-questioning that recalls the “existential” quartets of Smetana and Wolf, Janacek and particularly Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite.

Although Nono’s work thus clearly belongs to the string quartet genre, some of its features nevertheless contradict that tradition. This is intimated by the title itself, Fragments - Stillness- Nono’s Quartet consists of stillness as well as sound, of many and long pauses. It is like an archipelago of sound emerging from that stillness only to fade again and again into those pauses. By “fragments” is meant here an extremely fragile web, which appears open on all sides and repeatedly assumes a state of motionlessness, even within the islands of sound, rather than a strict linear progression from the first note to the final chord. The title of Nono’s piano piece written for Maurizio Pollini in 1976 already suggests this fading in and fading out: “…sofferte onde serene…” (“…serene waves endured…”). The timbral profile of the String Quartet, too, is determined by personal anguish (“sofferte”) and by the swelling and subsiding of waves (“onde”), suspension in tranquil serenity (“serene”).

Weightlessness, light, air - these are suggested by sounds which are characteristic of this work but previously quite unusual for Nono: notes produced by very high hand positions, harmonics, flautato, notes played on the fingerboard and near the bridge, notes produced with the wood of the bow by tapping it or drawing it across the instrument - and all within a dynamic range kept largely between p and a barely audible ppppp. These are sounds as “from the ether”, tones from a “more secret world”, a musical language that defies attempts at verbal description, one that is pure sound. The Fragments - Stillness must be discovered aurally, literally extracted in the process of hearing. “To awaken the ear, the eye, human thought, intelligence, externalizing as fully as possible that which has been internalized - this is what matters today”, stated Nono in a talk given in Geneva in 1983.

The “more secret world” of this quartet has something eminently mysterious about it; it questions and it raises questions. This is hinted at by the title: For Diotima.”… from the ether…” and “… a more secret world…” are two of 47 short quotations from the poetry of Hoelderlin that the composer has written into the score in 52 places. Twelve of these quotations, significantly, stem from a single poem, Diotima; another (“… das weisst aber du nicht…” - “but you cannot know that”, from Wenn aus der Ferne - “If from a distance”) recurs five times, always together with Beethoven’s indication “mit innigster Empfindung”. Here too, in the verbal mode, a fading in and out: not complete lines, but a web of memories and allusions to Diotima and Hoelderlin, to the lovers.

The music does not illustrate or comment on the texts. Nono said that “they must not under any circumstances be recited during a performance”, nor should they be misunderstood “as naturalistic programme indications”. - He called them “silent “songs” from other spaces and other skies, intimations that one need not say farewell to hope”. The four players “may “sing” them silently as they experience them - as sounds striving for that “delicate harmony of the inner life” (Hoelderlin)”.

Hoelderlin’s Diotima, as woman and lover, appears in yet another form in Nono’s Quartet. In 1889 Giuseppe Verdi composed a setting of the Ave Maria as a harmonization of an unusual, “enigmatic scale”. This work (one of the Quattro Pezzi Sacri) for chorus a cappella combines modern expressiveness with vocal writing in the style of Palestrina to create a prayer, a musical representation of the Virgin. The same “scala enigmatica” serves as material for Nono’s Quartet, a submerged layer not directly audible, another of the work’s “more secret worlds”.

Verdi fused the old (Palestrina) with the contemporary, and Nono does the same: the principal voice of the chanson “Malheur me bat” (“I am struck by misfortune”) is hidden in the viola part a few minutes before the end of the Quartet. This Renaissance song attributed to Ockeghem was printed in 1501 in Venice, in Petrucci’s Harmonice Musices Odhecaton A. Nono analysed this collection during his studies with Malipiero and Bruno Maderna, and Maderna later orchestrated this very piece. The quotation of a lovers lament by Ockeghem, the most enigmatic of the great Netherlandish composers, is not only an allusion to an earlier period in the history of music, it is also charged with memories of the composers late mentor and friend, Bruno Maderna.

Old music, memories, things from the distant past are thus present here like pain (“Malheur me bat”, linked with Hoelderlin’s “… wenn ich trauernd versank… das zweifelnde Haupt…” - “when in sorrow I foundered… my doubting mind”) and hope (“… heraus in Luft und Licht…” - “out into air and light”, “… hoffend und duldend…” - “hoping and enduring”). The composer poses the fundamental question: “Where am I, who am I?” He asks himself - and his listener. To question relentlessly, with the repeated ‘… das weisst aber du nicht…” (“but you cannot know that”) also implies a readiness to break out of the habitual, the petrified, and to emerge “into the open air” - “mit innigster Empfindung”.

Juerg Stenzl (Translation: C. Stenzl and L. Pan)

Juerg Stenzl