Modernism’s wife and daughter

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It was a classic coup de foudre. Nuria Schoenberg, daughter of the great composer Arnold Schoenberg, was in Hamburg in 1954 to attend the posthumous premiere of her father’s opera Moses und Aron. It was her first visit to Europe since her family had fled Nazi Germany for the US 20 years previously. Standing opposite her was a young Italian called Luigi Nono. The aspiring composer had helped write the unfinished opera’s orchestral parts and wanted to be introduced. Neither spoke the other’s language. Within weeks, Nuria and “Gigi” were married. So began a story that was to unite the legacy of two of the 20th century’s musical giants.

Nuria Nono, chic, petite and 75, is in London to attend the Southbank Centre’s Nono retrospective, “Fragments of Venice”. Pooling the talents of musicians as diverse as Maurizio Pollini and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, it sets Nono’s music in the context of those who influenced him, from the early Italian polyphonists to the father of serialism (and of Nuria) – Arnold Schoenberg.

Nuria – that is how she likes to be known, avoiding a preference for either of the composers whose flame she carries – has worked tirelessly since her husband’s death in 1990 to nurture his musical legacy. She also played a pivotal role in guiding her father’s estate back to Vienna, the city that fertilised his revolutionary experiments a century ago.

It’s largely thanks to her quiet determination that Nono’s star is shining more brightly than ever. …sofferte onde serene… is in the repertoire of an increasing number of pianists. Prometeo has reached the fringe of the repertoire in continental Europe and will receive its UK premiere next May. Nuria’s supervision of the Nono archive and website has meant his scores, sketches and recordings are being disseminated in a way many mainstream composers would envy.

But lingering questions dog his reputation. Wasn’t Nono one of those uncompromising modernists who led European tradition down a blind alley? And what about the now-discredited Marxist beliefs that led him to proclaim that writing music was a political act?

Nuria says such questions are indicative of the misunderstandings that surround his music. “Whenever I hear people say ‘I don’t understand this music’, my response is: ‘You’re not supposed to understand it, you’re supposed to feel it.’ It needs performers who realise this, because Gigi’s music is all based on emotions. He wasn’t temperamental – he didn’t like the ‘artist’ aura, he felt we should lead a relatively normal life – but he could be angry if there was a reason and, yes, he believed in the possibility of a fairer and better world. In postwar Italy most intellectuals wanted to change things after the defeat of fascism.”

The Nonos lived with their two daughters on Giudecca, a Venetian island, at that time more a working-class community than the upmarket place it is now. Their home was an open house. “Gigi didn’t talk a lot,” says Nuria. “He listened. He believed listening was the key to everything, and ‘listen’ (ascolta) is the most important word in Prometeo. All his so-called political pieces stem from him listening to the suffering of others, and trying to communicate the emotions he had when he became aware of that suffering.

“If you read the texts carefully, the people he quotes may be revolutionary but their words express the doubts they had – doubts based on their belief that they hadn’t really made it, they hadn’t been able to realise their dreams. There were joys, and there are pieces reflecting that, but from first to last, human suffering was his theme.”

With Schoenberg, the suffering was more direct. “You have to remember my father was a Jew who grew up in Vienna at a certain time. From teaching a masterclass in Berlin attended by composers from all over the world he goes to America to teach beginners and ends with a pension of $29.60 a month. He was very serious and very humorous, very strict and very loving. He was always grateful to the US, he was a positive man and creative in everything he did, but I’m sure he died disappointed.”

The story, of course, does not end there. Nuria says, with a twinkle in her eye, that her father’s legacy has now become the property of the YouTube generation. Thanks to her foresight and unassuming advocacy, the two men closest to her are better understood today than they ever were in their lifetimes.


‘Fragments of Venice’ continues with the Arditti Quartet tonight, the OAE on Thursday and Maurizio Pollini next Wednesday. Southbank Centre, London SE1. Tel 0871 663 2500

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