Luigi Rognoni (1913-1986): A Phenomenology of Radical Music

Among the members of the Milan school of phenomenology, the figure of the musicologist Luigi Rognoni deserves to be remembered. He was a student of Antonio Banfi and, together with Enzo Paci, co-founded the journal aut-aut and was a member of its editorial board until his death.

Although I belong to a younger generation than his, I had the luck and the privilege to frequent Rognoni’s Milanese house between 1985-86. When Francesca Romana Paci introduced me to him, I was finalizing the reorganization of the Paci Archive and I was also on the verge of completing my book on the young Paci, which came out two years later. Encountering Rognoni was for me a striking experience. After we met, I decided to put aside for a few months the Paci Archive and to immerse myself in the (way more interesting) collection of Rognoni’s writings. I then edited the first complete bibliography of his works, and curated the exhibition “Luigi Rognoni milanese: itinerario di un intellettuale europeo”, which took place at the Palazzo Sormani in Milan, in January 1986.

Although Rognoni was at that time greatly weakened both in his body and his mind (he would die shortly after of a pulmonary emphysema), he still maintained all those traits that his students often used to recollect: his juvenile spirit (although he made no efforts to look or act younger), his irony and tremendous self-irony, his seriousness, and the radicality of his commitment to culture, which made him one of the most remarkable intellectuals in the post-war Milanese scene. These precious recollections are now available, along with a selection of his archival materials, in Archivio sonoro siciliano, n. 7 (3 volumes), edited by Pietro Misuraca in 2010. The two articles by Rognoni that conclude this collection date back to the period when we used to meet: “Ricordo di Antonio Banfi”, written for the occasion of the conference “Il problema della ragione in Antonio Banfi e nella sua scuola” (Varese, May 1985), and “Frammenti di un colloquio postumo”; a contribution to a special issue of aut aut, on the 10th anniversary of Enzo Paci’s death (this article was published after Rognoni’s death, with the modified title “Ascoltando Schönberg”, aut aut 214-15, July-October 1986, pp. 21-26).

I would like to cite a long excerpt from this article, in which Rognoni recalls his encounter with Paci (Archivio sonoro siciliano, pp. 301-2).

Where did we meet for the first time? Half a century has gone by since then, no doubt about that. I am also sure that I was not yet twenty, and you were in your early twenties. You were already a university student. I was an “irregular”. I had already been hosted for a few months in the 7th wing of San Vittore [Milan’s main prison, ed.], and then released with a political “reprimand”. Later on, I was kicked out of high schools. I used to write for L’Ambrosiano and some other newspapers. By then, you had moved from the University of Pavia to Milan, where Banfi, Baratono, Errante, Luglio, Castiglioni were lecturing. That was in 1931 or 1932, when you used to live alone in Via Curtatone. On which occasion did we meet, though? Was it with Anceschi, Ballo, Persico, De Grada, at the Gilardi and Noto bookshop? Or was it in the gallery of the Scala, which I frequented on a regular basis, or perhaps during one of Banfi’s lectures? In any case, our meeting was founded on music. We both were passionate fans of Wagner. We could listen to Tristan and Isolde at the Scala for six or eight times in a row. And then we used to go on singing it overnight, while wandering from a street to another, without ever resolving to go back home”.

Rognoni was born in the 1910s. A restless and rebel spirit, he never completed his studies, and was (like Croce) a self-educated person. He learned the rudiments of piano from his mother, Luigia Arbib Clément, a lyrical singer whose stage name was Franca Luisa Clementi. Later, while studying with Alfredo Casella, he added elements of musical composition. For a short time in the 1930s, he worked as a conductor at the Orchestra d’archi di Savona, where he was also a composer. However, the young Rognoni put himself in the spotlight especially as a music critic. In this capacity, he struggled to support modern and international music from the pages of L’Ambrosiano and Rivista musicale italiana, in a cultural context where nationalist rhetoric was largely prevalent. While working as a critic and correspondent at the Biennale in Venice, he became acquainted with the dodecaphonic technique of Schönberg and Webern, and made friends with the major composers and directors of the time, as emerges from his correspondence (Luigi Dalla Piccola, Gianfrancesco Malipiero, Goffredo Petrassi, Ferdinando Ballo, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Louis Cortese, Aurel Millos, and many others). The cultural stimuli that animated his feverish activity (he was then a journalist and music critic, he collaborated with the Swiss Radio, he was a collector of cinematographic films, and an editor in several publishing houses) originated from his attendance, as an “irregular” student, of the school of Antonio Banfi, as well as from the cultural connections that this attendance made possible. At that time, he met his future wife, Eva Randi, and his most intimate friends: Enzo Paci, Vittorio Sereni, Francesco Degrada, but also Lavinia Mazzucchetti, Massimo Mila, Alberto Mantelli, Emilio Vedova).

In the post-war years, Rognoni’s works on musical aesthetics stemmed from the intermingling between philosophy (or, as he used to call it, following Banfi’s example, “phenomenology of culture”) and art critique. His most important books on this subject, both published by Einaudi – Espressionismo e dodecafonia: La scuola musicale di Vienna (1954) and Rossini (1956) – allowed him to become professor of History of music at the University of Palermo (from 1957 to 1970) and later on at the University of Bologna (from 1971 to 1983). Despite this newly-achieved position, his nonconformism and political radicalism made it hard for him to be accepted within academic circles, although his great humanity and passion deeply influenced his students. Rognoni was a lively and enthusiastic person, whose original and often neglected work was able to influence a variety of cultural milieus. He had a keen interest in the modern form of artistic technique and communication, and from 1946 onwards, he collaborated to the first RAI TV broadcasts. Together with Alberto Mantelli, he was among the inventors of the Terzo Programma (his anecdotes on those years, when he was in touch with people such as Carlo Emilio Gadda, professor Cutolo, Mike Buongiorno, Franca Valeri, Massimo Girotti are unforgettable). A pioneer of cinematographic art, together with Alberto Lattuada, Luigi Comencini and others, he created in 1946 the Cineteca Italiana, which he directed from 1945 to 1956. He was also a film director: he realized several documentaries, like Cenacolo (1953), on the renovation of Leonardo’s Last Supper, whose soundtrack was expressly written by Luigi Dallapiccola, and Etruria viva (1955), with music by Fulvio Testi, as well as some retrospectives on silent cinema.

Rognoni was not just an expert and promoter of the expressionism of the Vienna music school (he also edited Adorno’s Filosofia della musica moderna). He also played an important role within Italian culture, insofar as he created a lively and critical connection between two generations of avant-garde musicians (Dallapiccola, Malipiero, Petrassi, on the one hand, and Berio, Nono, Maderna, on the other). Rognoni contributed, indeed, to the establishment of the Studio di fonologia musicale di Radio Milano, where Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna introduced in Italy the most advanced experimental researches on sound and electronic music that were already practiced in Germany and in the US. During the 1960-70s (a time during which he alternated teaching at university, writing for magazines, and theatre directorship), Rognoni maintained an open attitude towards the new trends in musical research, even though he maintained, sentimentally and culturally, a tight bond with his post-romantic and expressionist formation.

As a conclusion, we can say that Rognoni embodied the musical soul of the Milan School, setting up a continuous dialogue with Sereni, who represented the poetic voice of the group, as well as with the philosophers Paci and Preti, and the art critics Formaggio, Treccani, and Degrada.

[This paper was presented on the occasion of the 70° anniversary of the foundation of the Casa della Cultura, Milano 3 febbraio 2016. A slightly modified version already appeared in viaBorgogna3, n. 1, Milano 2016, p. 76-86, with the title: “Luigi Rognoni un intellettuale europeo”].

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