Der Rote Mantel

L.Nono: Der Rote Mantel; Compositione per orchestra n.1      WERGO 6667 2

Text: Peter Hirsch

”Music-life (or life-music, which is the same thing).” Thus wrote the young Nono to Karl Amadeus Hartmann in 1953. That same year he wrote to Hermann Scherchen about ”the very beautiful reality of our strong unity in life and in music.” This desire for unity of art and life, which was still possible—indeed, perhaps necessary—after the war, found an ideal correspondence in Federico García Lorca and his ”barraca.” It was this simple stage on a truck with which Lorca traveled across the country for a time; he wrote and staged plays for it on behalf of the young Spanish republic. His Amor de Don Perlimplín con Belisa en su jardín was among the works premiered by this traveling student theater in 1933. In 1954 Tatiana Gsovski made it into a ballet for the Deutsche Oper Berlin and asked Nono to set it to music. Nono had already demonstrated his passionate engagement with García Lorca’s work in writing his Epitaph auf Federico García Lorca. (”The song of free Spain surrounds us, despite the effort to extinguish it by murdering Federico García Lorca. This amazing man from Andalusia . . . is for us—his juniors—a master, a friend, a brother, who shows us the true path on which we can be, in our music, human among humans. That is the source of my Epitaph auf Federico García Lorca.) Unlike in that piece, however, in Der rote Mantel the obvious, ”audible” political intentions are very much in the background; there are no choral, rhythmic slogans or anything similar. Nono’s ballet on the ”erotic hallelujah” is rather a bizarre kind of chamber play that seeks intensifications of García Lorca’s intangible, poetic images. And yet at the same time, of course, it is an homage to García Lorca, murdered by the Falangists.
A parable of irreconcilability.
Who is deceiving whom?
Cloak and dagger beneath Moorish arches. Andalusian local color packed into the sound of castanets and other wooden instruments. High-pitched metal remains a signal: of announcement and of death. When everything is sealed, black paper birds fall from the (stage) sky.
Again and again: ”yellow islands” of sung poetry.
Two flutes present a danced declaration of love.
”Amor que està herido
Herido de amor huido.”
Love, wounded and fled, taken refuge—in the mask of the Other. Duel with oneself in a red cape. Triumph of the imagination.
Sometimes this play, which wanted so badly to be a ballet but whose genesis was so indebted to García Lorca’s poetic metaphors, strives, almost touchingly, for the ”dancing” gesture, only in the end to fall back on song once again. It is not least this dichotomy that gives the work its distinctive status.
Peter Hirsch

Plot of Der rote Mantel (The red coat) as indicated in the score:
Act One. In Perlimplin’s house. Perlimplin appears. Mascolfa helps him dress. Belisa appears on the balcony opposite. Mascolfa draws Perlimplin to the window, from which he can see Belisa—Perlimplin listen raptly to her song. Belisa’s song. Mascolfa ”shows” Perlimplin how to dance a courtship dance—Perlimplin repeats Mascolfa’s pantomime for Belisa. Belisa calls her mother, and it turns into a dance for four. Her mother praises first Don Perlimplin, then Belisa—their engagement is decided on. It grows dark, a swarm of black paper birds hovers over the street. Perlimplin’s solo—a chaotic love dance, half in fear, half in joy.
Act Two. The wedding chamber—Perlimplin is timid, shy, and does not approach her at all; Belisa, in sensuous readiness, is disappointed, almost annoyed. ”Night”—The lovers: (1) a centaur; (2) a youth on a white ladder that rises out of the ground; (3) an acrobat; (4) Belisa is symbolically stabbed by a lover. Perlimplin awakes—he has sprouted horns. He wraps Belisa’s bridal veil around his antlers. Perlimplin’s song.
Act Three. Perlimplin’s garden. He writes a letter (a danced declaration of love) and gives it to Mascolfa. He puts on a great red coat and walks past Belisa’s window. She does not recognize the gentleman—she is aroused. Serenade. A man in a red coat—Belisa follows him; Perlimplin without coat blocks her path; Perlimplin with the red coat dances a dance of pursuit. Belisa laments her suffering to her husband, her love for the inaccessible stranger. Perlimplin draws his dagger and rushes out to kill the stranger—the stranger in the red coat stumbles about in the garden like an enormous bird that has been shot. Perlimplin falls dead into Belisa’s arms. She does not fathom the mystery of these events—she slowly wraps the enormous, bloody coat around his shoulders. Belisa’s love song.

Composizione  per orchestra  (Nr.1)
Nono’s Composizione  per orchestra is one of the few works not mentioned in his writings or interviews. Even the title reveals only that it does not want to reveal anything. So what is the background, the occasion for this ”composition”? The year it was composed, 1951, Nono was also working on a piece for two speakers and orchestra, about Julius Fucík,  communist writer and journalist from Prague; the project was never completed, however, presumably because Nono realized that, for political reasons, such a piece could never be performed in the Germany of the 1950s. A comparison of the surviving score parts for the Fucík piece with the Composizione, however, reveals that the two works have no similarities whatsoever, although they are scored for an identical orchestra. On the contrary, as if to emphasize the differences in the material, Nono restricts the tonal material for the bulk of Composizione  to just nine notes! (Only in the concluding section, which consists entirely of percussion, are the other three notes used—and then they are used exclusively). Nevertheless, these nine notes are treated strictly according to the rules for a tone row! Moreover, this restriction is nowhere evident simply by listening, as if Nono were  trying to wipe away even this one trace. A kind of ”dodecaphony with nine notes,” then: what is that, apart from an contradiction in terms? Perhaps this deliberate restriction to nine notes, so brilliantly hidden from the listener, is the task—that is to say, the mask—that becomes the piece itself, and behind which Nono camouflages his emotional engagement. For the blazing dramatic gesture that fills the Composizione  is undeniable. By taking advantage of the mask of an ”absolute” music, however, its expressive  potential  is transformed from a linear narrative style that subordinates itself to a text into an autonomous musical form that obeys the laws of its own dramaturgy.
Much of the work recalls the original version of Polifonica—Monodia—Ritmica, written that same year: no real start at the beginning but rather an opportune capturing of something that is fluttering past, something already sounding, something produced elsewhere. Bell-like sounds, ephemeral and yet filled with utopia, gradually condense into glimmering sonic webs that try to capture the barely tangible impulse of their own emergence. Sounds like a motionless recollection, amid which a broadly spread out monody arises.
The abrupt driving and yet tattered gesture at the opening of the second section feels like an attack in that context. The polyphonic intonation of an espressivo that almost recalls Alban Berg does not quite come about, freezes in paralysis.
Finally, the music plunges into a whirl of intensity so panicked that the entry of the percussion finale—the ”Ritmica” of Composizione—is like the cutting of the Gordian knot: release and peripiteia in one, both liberation and judgment.