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Nones (author's note)

Nones
for orchestra (1954)

In Nones (The Ninth Hour), W. H. Auden transfigures the Passion of Christ into a lucid and burning inquiry about the agony of man chained to the enigma of a sudden, final moment.

What we know to be not possible
Though time after time foretold
By wild hermits, by shaman and sibyl
Gibbering in their trances,
Or revealed to a child in some chance rhyme
Like will and kill, comes to pass
Before we realize it. We are surprised
At the ease and speed of our deed
And uneasy: It is barely three,
Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
Of our sacrifice is already
Dry on the grass; we are not prepared
For silence so sudden and so soon;
The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.

In 1953-1954 I had envisioned a sort of cantata for solo voices, chorus and orchestra based on that poem. The musical scope of the project was very ample and elaborate, and was based on a rigorously symmetrical thirteen-note series: a series with the repetition of one pitch that generated wide harmonic transformations ranging from cluster-like aggregates to octaves:

The whole musical development was controlled by systematic and rather “fatalistic” procedures.
But after a year of work I became aware that the poem itself was much too complex and long to be totally assimilated into a musical process. Therefore, having eventually put aside that project, I assembled five of its many orchestral episodes into a coherent sequence retaining, I hope, some of the power of transfiguration of Auden’s poem. The five episodes are to be regarded as different facets of the same musical process, formally outlined by operations on number 9, involving durations, dynamics and modes of attack. Nones can also be listened to as a study in sound transitions going from noise to sound, that is from rather complicated situations to relatively simple ones.
Nones was first performed in 1955 in Turin, with Bruno Maderna conducting.

Luciano Berio