Luigi Nono: Prometeo
Their excitement was infectious and well-warranted: Prometeo, perhaps the magnum opus of Luigi Nono’s already remarkable late period, was making its UK début nearly a quarter of a century after it was completed. Composed for four groups of 13 players, a small chorus, groups of string, wind and brass and voice soloists, two narrators, glass bells and an immense surround sound system, the logistics of Prometeo are an event of their own. I attended both performances, which were both immaculate and intensely committed. All involved can’t be praised too highly.
But, about midway through the total 135 minutes, as the relatively brisk ‘Hölderlin’ movement began, I began to think that, despite its splendours, there is quite a lot like Prometeo. In terms of style it is like lots of other Nono – there’s plenty of ground shared here with works such as Das Atmende Klarsein or Quando stanno morendo, Diario Polacco No.2.
In terms of its scale and its demands on concentration it recalls late Cage and Feldman. And, most obviously, its spatiality has its roots in Nono’s fellow Venetians Gabrieli and Monteverdi. But what I found most surprising was the relatively conventional – and ultimately very user-friendly – pacing of the work. Of its 11 movements (nine are numbered, but the third of these is subdivided into three) the first three are considerably the longest, recalling the structure of Bach oratorios in which the first movement is generally the longest. After this monumental opening hour, the pace quickens notably with the aforementioned ‘Hölderlin’, and the work settles into a pattern of shorter movements for contrasting groups of performers and in contrasting styles – again, rather like a Bach oratorio.
Conventional wisdom would have it that in such large-scale works one needs to bring something new to the experience regularly in order to maintain an audience’s interest, and to keep one’s powder dry until relatively late on. Excitement and energy needs to accumulate, not be discharged in the prologue and fizzle out over the next two hours. This is exactly the structure of Prometeo, which begins strongly with intensely detailed waves of material but raises its game with each movement until the seventh, ‘Three Voices (a)’. This three-layered slab of solo voices, thunderous brass rumbles and a high violin drone that was slowly passed around the auditorium is a shattering experience: and on first encounter a jaw-dropping shock.
Having pushed through the spiritually cleansing rigours of the earlier movements, at this stage I was hearing Nono’s music with an acuity I have rarely experienced. It was as though layers of my received listening habits had been progressively peeled away to expose the raw, subjective core of my listening being. Nono’s musical reward for his listeners who have reached this far is this overwhelming and exhilarating 12-minute blast of sound.
I was stunned at this point to notice a minor exodus of audience members. Didn’t you just hear that? I wanted to ask them. Don’t you want to see what might come next? In a way, though, they were right. Having reached this far inside, Nono could only bring us back to the objective world, his music restoring the tropes from the previous 90 minutes, gradually reclothing us in our familiar habits. This rather conflicted with the impression that had been encouraged beforehand that Prometeo was structured in a non-linear fashion, both musically and narratively. For sure, overlaid upon this were a number of complementary alternative structures, but the sense of leaving somewhere behind, reaching somewhere new, and then returning was unmistakable. Even the text, in which Prometeo is born, brings the sun to mankind, then returns home at his journey’s end (his hubris remains unpunished in this abbreviated telling of the myth), has a straightforward linear basis.
The ultimate judgement on the work has to be, were things changed on the return journey? And here I answer with a tentative yes. Because the virtue of Prometeo’s relatively simple underlying shape is that it is a surprisingly easy piece to hold entire in your mind. I have found that a lot of Nono’s music fits a certain shape exceedingly cleanly, with few loose threads. But within this shape it is extremely rewarding to attentive ears wishing to explore its interior complexities. So whilst often a powerful experience in the moment, it stays with you and haunts your intellect more than a lot of other music does. It unfolds inwardly, rather than sprawls outward.
In this way, Nono’s music not only expresses his political commitment but enacts it, as the attentive listener’s approach to subsequent music, and their everyday sonic environment, is subtly changed as the work is slowly absorbed.
The utopianism of Nono’s musico-political ambition is sometimes mocked or misunderstood, but in Prometeo at least sheer scale demands that it be considered. What eventually emerges as the most sympathetic (and Promethean) aspect of Nono’s music is a knowledge of the limitations of composing as a mode of political engagement. He brings to his art an honest and human awareness of the probable futility of what he is doing compared to more direct means of political engagement.
The other great success of the Fragments of Venice series, A floresta é jovem e cheja de vida, heard in October last year, resounded with the student protest “Is this all we can do?”. Perhaps listening is all we can do, but our ears tell us that Nono’s music is at least something. Perhaps this is the ‘Tragedy of Listening’ of Prometeo. It’s a sort of giving up but carrying on regardless because one has to, because the struggle is vital and the sacrifice essential. But in that, something special may be found.
See also Anne Osorio in Seen & Heard and her review on Music Web of the col legno CDs of Prometeo,