Il canto sospeso

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Il canto sospeso
Cantata by Luigi Nono
Luigi Nono (1979).jpg
The composer in 1979
English The Suspended Song
Text from Giulio Einaudi's Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza europea
Language Italian
Performed 24 October 1956 (1956-10-24)
  • soprano
  • alto
  • tenor
  • choir
  • orchestra

Il canto sospeso (The Suspended Song) is a cantata for vocal soloists, choir, and orchestra by the Italian composer Luigi Nono, written in 1955–56. It is one of the most admired examples of serial composition from the 1950s, but has also excited controversy over the relationship between its political content and its compositional means.


The title Il canto sospeso may be literally translated as "The Suspended Song", though the word sospeso may also be rendered as "floating" or "interrupted". The title is actually taken from the Italian edition of a poem, "If We Die", by Ethel Rosenberg who, together with her husband Julius, was tried and convicted in America of espionage and of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Their execution on 19 June 1953 caused outrage in Europe. The phrase in the English original is "the song unsung" (Nielinger 2006, 87).

Nono chose his texts from an anthology published in 1954 by Giulio Einaudi as Lettere di condannati a morte della Resistenza europea, a collection of farewell letters written to loved ones by captured European resistance fighters shortly before their executions by the Nazis. The score is dedicated "a tutti loro" (to all of them) (Nielinger 2006, 85). The premiere was given under the direction of Hermann Scherchen in Cologne on 24 October 1956. Four years later it was performed at the twenty-third Festival of Contemporary Music of the Venice Biennale under the direction of Bruno Maderna (Mila 1975, 382; Nielinger 2006, 83). This Venice performance was recorded for the radio on 17 September 1960 and in 1988, nearly three decades later, became the first commercially released recording of Il canto sospeso.

Four years after completing the work, Nono incorporated its entire fourth movement into his opera Intolleranza 1960 (Nielinger 2006, 83).


Il canto sospeso is set for solo soprano, alto, and tenor voices, mixed choir, and an orchestra consisting of:

  • 4 flutes
  • 2 oboes
  • 3 clarinets
  • 2 bassoons
  • 6 horns
  • 5 trumpets
  • 4 trombones
  • 3 timpani
  • Percussion (5 snare drums, 5 suspended cymbals, glockenspiel, 12 bells, marimbaphone, vibraphone, and xylophone)
  • 2 harps
  • celesta
  • first violins
  • second violins
  • violas
  • cellos
  • double basses


All-interval "wedge" series used in Il canto sospeso

The work is divided into nine movements with changing forces:

  • I orchestra alone
  • II choir alone
  • III soprano, alto, and tenor soli, with orchestra
  • IV orchestra alone
  • V tenor solo and orchestra
  • VI choir and orchestra
  • VII soprano solo and choir
  • VIII orchestra alone
  • IX choir and timpani

The movements are grouped into three large segments of four, three, and two movements, marked by a short pause between groups (Mila 1975, 283).

In its alternation of instrumental, choral, and solo movements, as well as in some internal details, Il canto sospeso resembles a Baroque cantata or mass setting. Although it is in no way a neoclassical composition, the Darmstadt ideology to which Nono subscribed at the time shared with neoclassical aesthetics a commitment to the notions of purity, order, and objectivity (Fox 1999, 122–23). Nono himself referred to the work as a "cantata" (Nielinger 2006, 86).

For its pitch material Il canto sospeso employs an all-interval twelve-tone row sometimes called the "wedge" series because of its presentation of all the intervals within the octave in expanding order. It is a symmetrical series, whose retrograde is identical to the prime form transposed by a tritone (Mila 1975, 384; Bailey 1992, 281; Fox 1999, 119, 121).


Il canto sospeso is regarded today as a "serial masterpiece", and is admired for the variety of ideas achieved with the compositional technique of serialism (Nielinger 2006, 88–89, 136), while at the same time the work’s expressive content is considered to be unsurpassed by Nono's subsequent works (Fox 1999, 127).

Although the premiere under Hermann Scherchen's baton in Cologne on 24 October 1956 was a success, the direct reference to Nazi crimes was bound to be controversial at a time when such things were not generally spoken of in Germany (Nielinger 2006, 83). Herbert Eimert, reviewing the concert (on which it appeared in the company of Anton Webern’s opp. 6 and 10 orchestral pieces and Arnold Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden), declared that Il canto sospeso "probably left the most significant impression to date of any concert work of the young generation of composers today. … This one work would be enough to legitimize the enigmatic 'legacy of Webern' once and for all" (Eimert 1956, translated in Nielinger 2006, 84–85).

The choice of texts, however, provoked protracted dissension over the appropriateness of Nono's compositional means to its political content, particularly in the context of Theodor Adorno's recently published "Das Altern der neuen Musik", which associated integral serialism with totalitarian regimes, and his famous phrase, "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (Nielinger 2006, 83, 89). Sides in the debate were largely along national lines, between West Germany and Italy. Heinz-Klaus Metzger attacked Nono as "a serial Pfitzner" who exploited such texts "in order to present them at the next important festival to the applause of a delighted bourgeoisie" (Metzger 1980, 120–21), while Massimo Mila defended Nono against Metzger's attack (Nielinger 2006, 92–93).

In at least one case opposition to Nono's composition went beyond words. A terror bombing at the Munich Oktoberfest on 26 September 1980 killed 13 people and injured more than 200 others. It is believed to have been directed at the scheduled performance of Il canto sospeso, which was cancelled as a result. The political message of the work, rather than its use of integral serialism, is presumed to have been the provocation for the attack (Bailey 1992, 279–80).

Though largely overshadowed by the political debate, various aspects of the composition have attracted a steady stream of analysts (Unger 1958, Stockhausen 1958, Mila 1960, Smith Brindle 1961, Ekbom & 1962–63, Gentilucci 1967, Huber 1981, Stoianova 1987, Balázs 1987, Bailey 1992, Hercher 1997, Fox 1999, Motz 1996, Motz 1999, Hermann 2000, Feneyrou 1993, Feneyrou 2002, Nielinger 2006, Okuneva 2012).


  • La nuova musica: volume 1. Arnold Schoenberg: La vocazione di Mosè [Moses und Aron, act 1 scene 1]. Luigi Nono: Il canto sospeso. Bruno Maderna: Hyperion. Sinfonieorchester und Chor der Norddeutscher Rundfunk Hamburg, cond. Hans Rosbaud (Schoenberg, recorded in Hamburg on 12 March 1954). Ilsa Hollweg, soprano; Eva Bornemann, alto; Friedrich Lenz, tenor; Kölner Rundfunkchor and Orchestra of WDR Cologne (Bernhard Zimmermann, chorus master), cond. Bruno Maderna (Nono, recorded in Venice on 17 September 1960). Severino Gazzelloni, flute; Dorothy Dorow, soprano; Choro ed Orchestra della Radio Audizioni Italia di Roma, cond. Bruno Maderna (Maderna, recorded in Rome on 8 January 1966). CD recording. Stradivarius STR 10008. [N.p.]: FSM, 1988.
  • Luigi Nono: Il canto sospeso. Gustav Mahler: Kindertotenlieder; Rückert-Lieder [No. 3 only]. Barbara Bonney, soprano; Susanne Otto, alto; Marek Torzewski, tenor; Susanne Lothar and Bruno Ganz, speakers; Rundfunkchor Berlin (Dietrich Knothe, chorus master) (Nono). Marjana Lipovsek, mezzo-soprano (Mahler). Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Claudio Abbado. Recorded in the Philharmonie, Berlin, 9–11 December 1992 (Nono) and 3 & 4 September 1992 (Mahler). CD recording. Sony Classical SK 53360. Austria: Sony Classical, 1993.
  • Luigi Nono, Il canto sospeso. CD 9 of Anthology of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Volume 3: Live, the Radio Recordings1960–1970. Ilse Hollweg, soprano; Sophia van Sante, mezzo-soprano; Friedrich Lenz, tenor; members of the Radio Netherlands Choir; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, cond. Pierre Boulez. 14-CD set. Radio Netherlands Music RCO 05001. Hilversum: Radio Netherlands Music, 2002.


  • Bailey, Kathryn. 1992. "'Work in Progress': Analysing Nono's Il canto sospeso". Music Analysis 11, nos. 2–3 (July–October): 279–334.
  • Balázs, István. 1987. "'Il giovane Prometeo'. I 'peccati' di Nono contro il serialismo ortodosso nel periodo darmstadtiano". In Nono, edited by Enzo Restagno, 102–15. Biblioteca di Cultura Musicale: Autori e Opere. Turin: EDT Musica. ISBN 887063048X.
  • Ekbom, Torston. 1962–63. "Det omöjliga uppdraget. Om Luigi Nonos körverk Il canto sospeso". Nutida Musik 6, no. 1.
  • Eimert, Herbert. 1956. "Uraufführung von Nonos Canto sospeso in Köln". Melos 23:354.
  • Feneyrou, Laurent. 1993. "Il canto sospeso de Luigi Nono: esquisse analytique". Analyse Musicale, no. 31:53–63.
  • Feneyrou, Laurent. 2002. Il canto sospeso de Luigi Nono: Musique et analyse. Paris: Michel de Maule. ISBN 2-87623-106-9.
  • Fox, Christopher. 1999. "Luigi Nono and the Darmstadt School: Form and Meaning in the Early Works (1950–1959)". Contemporary Music Review 18, no. 2:111–30.
  • Gentilucci, Armando. 1967. "La tecnica corale di Luigi Nono". Rivista Italiana di Musicologia 2, no. 1:111–29.
  • Hercher, Christiane. 1997. "Ein Geheimnis des L. N.: Zum V. Satz des Canto sospeso von Luigi Nono". In Musik/Revolution: Festschrift für Georg Knepler zum 90. Geburtstag, 3 vols., edited by Hanns-Werner Heister, 3:29-45. Hamburg: Bockel. ISBN 3-928770-73-X; ISBN 3-928770-74-8; ISBN 3-928770-75-6.
  • Hermann, Matthias. 2000. "Das Zeitnetz als serielles Mittel formaler Organisation: Untersuchungen zum 4. Satz aus Il Canto Sospeso von Luigi Nono". In Musiktheorie: Festschrift für Heinrich Deppert zum 65. Geburtstag, edited by Wolfgang Budday, Heinrich Deppert, and Erhard Karkoschka, 261–75. Tutzing: Hans Schneider. ISBN 3-7952-1005-4.
  • Huber, Nicolaus A. 1981. "Luigi Nono: Il canto sospeso VIa, b—Versuch einer Analyse mit Hilfe dialektischer Montagetechniken". In Musik-Konzepte 20: Luigi Nono, edited by Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn, 58–79. Munich: Edition Text+Kritik. Reprinted in Nicolaus A. Huber, Durchleuchtungen: Texte zur Musik 1964–1999. edited by Joseph Häusler, 118–39. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 2000.
  • Metzger, Heinz-Klaus. 1980. "Das Altern der jüngsten Musik" (1962). In his Musik wozu: Literatur zu Noten, edited by Rainer Riehn, 113–28. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
  • Mila, Massimo. 1960. 'La Linea Nono. Aproposito de "Il canto sospeso"'. "Rassegna Musicale Italiana" 30:297–311.
  • Mila, Massimo. 1975. "Nonos Weg—zum Canto sospeso". In Luigi Nono: Texte: Studien zu seiner Musik, edited by Jürg Stenzl, 380–93. Zurich: Atlantis. ISBN 3761104561.
  • Motz, Wolfgang. 1996. Konstruktion und Ausdruck: analytische Betrachtungen zu 'Il canto sospeso' (1955/56) von Luigi Nono. Saarbrücken: Pfau-Verlag. ISBN 3930735199.
  • Motz, Wolfgang. 1999. "Konstruktive Strenge und kompositorische Freiheit im ersten Satz des Canto sospeso". In La nuova ricerca sull' opera di Luigi Nono, edited by Veniero Rizzardi, Gianmario Borio, Giovanni Morelli, 53–66. Florence: Leo S. Olschki. ISBN 88-222-4697-7.
  • Nielinger, Carola. 2006. "'The Song Unsung': Luigi Nono's Il canto sospeso". Journal of the Royal Musical Association 131, no. 1:83–150.
  • Okuneva, Ekaterina Gur'evna [Окунева, Екатерина Гурьевна]. 2012. "Организация ритмических структур в Il canto sospeso Ноно: Bопросы анализа" [Organization of Rhythmic Structures in Il canto sospeso by Nono: Analytical Issues]. Izrail' XXI, no. 34.
  • Smith Brindle, Reginald. 1961. "Current Chronicle: Italy". Musical Quarterly 47:247–55.
  • Stockhausen, Karlheinz. 1958. "Musik und Sprache". Darmstädter Beiträge zur Neuen Musik 1: 57-81. Reprinted in a slightly revised form in Die Reihe 6 ("Sprache und Musik", 1958): 36–58. English version, as "Music and Speech", translated by Ruth Koenig, Die Reihe 6 ("Speech and Music", 1964): 40–64. Reprinted in three parts in Karlheinz Stockhausen. Texte 2, edited by Dieter Schnebel, 58–68, 149–56, and 157–66. DuMont Dokumente. Cologne: Verlag M. DuMont Schauberg, 1964.
  • Stoianova, Ivanka. 1987. "Testo—musico—senso. "Il canto sospeso"", In "Nono", edited by Enzo Restagno, 126–42. Biblioteca di Cultura Musicale. Autori e Opere. Turin: EDT Musica. ISBN 887063048X.
  • Unger, Udo. 1958. "Luigi Nono: Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica; Il canto sospeso", Die Reihe 4 (Junge Komponisten): 9–17; English version, translated by Leo Black, as "Luigi Nono", Die Reihe 4 (Young Composers, 1960): 5–13.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1951. "Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft". In Soziologische Forschung in unserer Zeit: Leopold Wiese zum 75. Geburtstag, edited by Karl Gustav Specht. Cologne: Westdeutscher Verlag. Reprinted in Theodor W. Adorno, Prismen, 7–31. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1955. English as "Cultural Criticism and Society", in Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber, 17–34. London: Neville Spearman, 1967. Reprinted Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1955. "Das Altern der neuen Musik", broadcast April 1954, first published in Der Monat 80: 150–58. Expanded in Dissonanzen: Musik in der verwalteten Welt. Göttingen:[publisher], 1956), 136–59. English as "The Aging of the New Music", translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor and Frederic Will. In Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, edited by Richard Leppert 181–202. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Nonnenmann, Rainer. 2013. Der Gang durch die Klippen: Helmut Lachenmanns Begegnungen mit Luigi Nono anhand ihres Briefwechsels und anderer Quellen 1957-1990. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel. ISBN 978-3-7651-0326-1.
  • Pestalozza, Luigi. 1975. "Luigi Nono und Intolleranza 1960". In Luigi Nono: Texte: Studien zu seiner Musik, edited by Jürg Stenzl, 348–79. Zurich: Atlantis. ISBN 3761104561.