updated 19 September 2021

Sylvano Bussotti

Italian composer born 1 October 1931 in Florence; died 19 September 2021 in Milan.

Sylvano Bussotti was born in Florence on 1 October 1931. His father, Gino, loved painting, and his mother, Ines, created rag animals Bussotti would memorialize years later in his compositions. Bussotti had not yet turned five when he began taking violin lessons, and he started composing just two years later, while also creating dramas written in strict hendecasyllabic meter, in the classic Italian style, and devouring novels and short stories. Once enrolled at the Conservatorio Luigi-Cherubini, he studied harmony and counterpoint with Roberto Lupi and piano with Luigi Dallapiccola. His studies were cut short by the Second World War, and he was unable to complete his degree. His brother Renzo Bussotti, and his mother’s brother, Tono Zancanaro, both painters, and, later on, the poet Aldo Braibanti, were all formative influences in Bussotti’s first years of creation.

From 1949 to 1956, Bussotti continued studying composition on his own. In Paris, from 1956 to 1958, he took private lessons with Max Deutsch, himself a student of Arnold Schoenberg. Through Luigi Nono, Bussotti was introduced to Pierre Boulez and Heinz-Klaus Metzger, who brought him to Darmstadt, where he met John Cage. The first official performance of one of his works was by Françoise Deslogères, who performed Breve at Galerie 22 in Düsseldorf, in 1958 – with John Cage in attendance. The following year, at Darmstadt, David Tudor performed Pièces de chair II, and the year after that, in 1960, Cathy Berberian premiered Lettura di Braibanti at the Domaine Musical. Bussotti was part of a group of Florentine artists that included Marcello Aitiani, Giancarlo Cardini, Giuseppe Chiari, Pietro Grossi, Daniele Lombardi, Sergio Maltagliati, and Albert Mayr, and with them, he experimented with the interaction among sound, movement, and images.

On 5 September 1965, Bussotti’s La Passion selon Sade: “mystère de chambre” was performed at the Teatro Biondo in Palermo with the titled altered from the composer’s original intention: selon Sade (“according to Sade”) replaced de Sade (of Sade), as it was considered too scandalous to associate the Passion of Christ with the Marquis de Sade. In spite of this precaution, the production caused a scandal significant enough that the work’s title was changed again for the French premiere at the Theâtre de l’Odéon on 7 December 1966: this time, to avoid the shock of associating the name ‘de Sade’ with any religious imagery, the title was given as Passion selon x (“Passion according to X”).

Bussotti spent the year 1964-1965 in Buffalo and New York City as a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1972, he travelled to Berlin as a guest of the DAAD on a fellowship from the Ford Foundation. He won many awards and honors, including the SIMC (Société Internationale pour la Musique Contemporaine) in 1961, 1963, and 1965; the Venice Biennale Prix all’Amelia in 1967; the Toscani d’Oggi Prize in 1974; and the Psacaropulo Prize in 1979.

Bussotti was a regular contributor to the journals Discoteca and the monthly Piano Time and a member of the editorial board of the magazine Musica/Realtà. His book publications include I miei teatri (My Theaters), Letture del Tieste (Reading Thyestes) and Disordine alphabetico (Alphabetical Disorder), a collection of his major writings from 1957 to 2002, as well as two volumes of poetry, Letterati ignoranti (Ignorant Learned) and Non fare il minimo rumore (Don’t Make the Slightest Noise). Other publications related to his work include an illustrated volume on his dramatic and stage works titled Moda e musica nei costumi di Sylvano Bussotti (Fashion and Music in the Costumes of Sylvano Bussotti) and a catalogue of an exhibit held in Florence in 1988 titled L’opera di Sylvano Bussotti (The Works of Sylvano Bussotti). Bussotti was the artistic director of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, of the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, and from 1987 to 1991, of Biennale Musica, the international festival of contemporary music of the Venice Biennale. He has taught history of musical theatre, composition, and analysis at the Accademia di Belle Arti dell’Aquila, the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, the Festival de Royan, and, from 1980 to 1991, at the Fiesole School of Music.

Since childhood, Bussotti practiced drawing and painting alongside composition. Exhibits of his visual art have been organized around the world, notably at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Bussotti was also a concert pianist as well as an actor, performing for stage, television, and film. Indeed, in 1988, it was the filmmaker Derek Jarman, a friend of his, who directed his opera L’Ispiratione, based on a work by Ernst Bloch, at the Teatro Comunale di Firenzi, as part of the Florence May Music Festival. Starting in 1965, he composed mostly musical theatre pieces, in which he sought to showcase his own artistic practice, produced under the aegis of the Bussottioperaballet (B.O.B), an institution he founded in 1984 in his hometown of Genazzano, which organized concerts, performances, exhibits, and international conferences.

In parallel, Bussotti composed scores for stage productions (notably for plays by Mayakovski, Osborne, Beckett, Hofmannsthal, and Strindberg), directed short and feature-length films (including RARA (film), Solo, Cinque frammenti all’Italia, Apology, Immagine, Pausa), and directed lyric performances for theaters and festivals such as the Florence May Music Festival, the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, the Teatro Regio in Turin, the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid, the Torre del Lago Festival, the Arena di Verona Festival, and the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. He directed operas by Bizet, Chailly, De Falla, Donizetti, Ghedini, Leoncavallo, Malipiero, Mascagni, Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, Mozart, Ponchielli, Poulenc, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz (Benvenuto Cellini in Florence in 1987), and Dallapiccola (Ulisse in Turin, 1985), as well as Verdi (I due Foscari, Simon Boccanegra, Il finto Stanislao, Un ballo in maschera, Aida) and Puccini (Gianni Schicchi, Palermo, 1969; La fanciulla del West, Florence, 1974; La Bohème, Torre del Lago, 1981; Turandot, Torre del Lago, 1982 and Rome, 1985; Il Trittico, Milan, 1983; and Tosca, Verona, 1984).

Bussotti was a member of the Accademia Filarmonica Romana and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, an honorary citizen of the cities of Palermo and Rouen, a Knight of the Order of Mark Twain, and a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2016

By Laurent Feneyrou

As well as a composer, Sylvano Bussotti was a pianist, narrator, actor, painter, drawer, poet, dramaturge, diarist, writer of stories, stage director, scenographer, decorator, costume designer… Coming from a family of visual artists, he could easily have chosen the same path, but he instead centered his creativity around music. “I think that music imposes formal discipline, a faculty of synthesis that ultimately erases heterogeneity,” he confided in a 1992 interview.1 Any attempt to describe his aesthetic using support from his writings will run into two obstacles: he mostly discusses his experiences with the stage, his friendships, his models and collaborations, and himself, and he adopts a rather untheoretical position. Mainly, he calls for a union of the arts, in the tradition of Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty, the activities of Fluxus and the Living Theater (with which he collaborated in 1968), and, more distant, Wagner’s total artwork or even Leonardo da Vinci and the Marquis de Sade. In a 1981 essay, he announced that

The concert hall, the picture gallery, the artist’s or writer’s workshop, the radio studio — more and more, every intellectual milieu today is compelled to throw off its own labels and individual disciplines and take on interchangeable and multifarious disguises.2

Or again in 1989: “In the arts, contamination is a foregone conclusion, one can even say a necessity, already almost a century old. Too bad for the blind and illiterate among musicians, who are doomed to end up deaf as well.”3 In short, Bussotti stood for subjective, egocentric work in which all of the arts contribute to the expression of inner worlds and spectacles.

The Sign

Bussotti’s first period covers the good number of scores written between 1937 and the late 1950s, that is, when he was between six and about twenty years old. These scores contain established forms from music history: the rondo, chanson, motet, waltz, divertimento, nocturne, cantata, etc., and transcriptions too, especially of Corelli (others of Monteverdi and Puccini would follow). As for performing forces, he favored the violin and then the piano, which he used with or without voices until the late 1950s, which brought a series of essays for ondes Martenot. Bach is mixed with mythological elements, ancient Greek poetry in Salvatore Quasimodo’s translations, and literature from Tasso, Rilke, Georg Trakl, Antonio Machado, André Chénier, and André Gide; see for example the Tre Canti (Three Songs, 1951-1952) and Juvenilia I (1951-1953), the latter a “Wagnerian” ballet for tenor and piano. But it was Bussotti’s encounter with the ideas of Theodor Adorno that finally gave him a foundation for his creativity.

At Darmstadt in 1961, Adorno gave a lecture entitled “Vers une musique informelle,” in which he launched into a critique of serialism. He accused it of having discarded expression as well as the tension between material, composition, and creative subject. A mathematical inevitability, he argued, indifferent to individuated phenomena, will always degenerate into musical deficiency: in any kind of construction, the need to appear to be based on some foundation betrays its contingent character extrinsic to the subject. As an alternative to this rationality, Adorno proposed a musique informelle; this expression, which he formulated in French, originally signified a rapprochement between music and painting at the level of concept and techniques:

By “musique informelle” I mean music free from all the abstract, fixed forms imposed on it from without, music that constitutes itself with an objective necessity in the phenomenon itself, without cowing to any exterior law alien to its own logic.4

This “informal” (that is, non-formalized) music would reject an exclusive concern with material and organization. Logic and causality, though not completely foreign to it, would appear in modified form, as in a dream state, and not literally. Furthermore, such music would confront the idea of radical liberty. Bussotti had already composed three cycles in search of such liberty, in 1959-1960. The first was Five Piano Pieces for David Tudor (the reference to the American pianist is not a dedication but a sort of “indication of instrumentation”); its score ranges from traditional notation to drawing. Second is the “occult collection” Sette Fogli (Seven Pages). Third, Pièces de chair II (Pieces of Flesh II), is fourteen pieces (sometimes subdivided), for piano, baritone, female voice, and instruments that reprise the Five Piano Pieces for David Tudor in a different order. These aleatoric works betray the influence of John Cage, alongside whose music Bussotti finally got his own programmed at Galerie 22 in Dusseldorf and then at the Darmstadt Summer Courses. In these works, Bussotti intended to get beyond serialism, whose rupture with the past had, after Cage, or perhaps in spite of him, turned out to be less definitive than had first appeared. A certain distance is apparent: for Bussotti, the open work, “happenings,” gestural music, and graphic scores superseded the structural conception of the work. But more than that, they reintroduced him to History.

Unlike the traditional score, a mere tablature or series of signs on lines and staves with no special interest for the eye, Bussotti’s scores are graphic. Sections of precise notation alternate with sections that are more like “happenings.” The visual and the sonic enter into relationship, and the graphic representation, now hyperbolic, serves less to capture precise acoustic material than to appeal to the performers’ imaginations, inviting them to associate different elements.

Sylvano Bussotti, La Passion selon Sade, figure 6 © Ricordi, Milan, 1966.

On this point, Roland Barthes, who devoted an article to Bussotti’s work, writes:

When Bussotti lays out his page and, with broad, black, calligraphic strokes, fills it up with staves, notes, signs, words, even drawings, he is not merely transmitting to his performers certain operations to be executed, as in the old kind of musical manuscript, whose puritanical nature is well represented by figured bass; rather, he is constructing a homological space, one whose surface — since the page is doomed to be no more than a surface — yearns, vehemently yet precisely, to acquire depth, to become a scene, streaked with lightning, billowing with waves, broken up by silhouettes. Or all of that at once (such is the gamble): on the one hand, a spell-book of various signs, refined and coded with infinite exactitude; on the other, a vast analogical composition in which the lines, the spacing, the vanishing points, the curves serve to evoke, if not to imitate, what really happens on the stage of one’s hearing.5

Against the idea that art music is first writing and then sound — or, at least, that written music, fixed in signs and staves, is by the same gesture visual and sonic — this renewed conception of notation extracts the sign from any stable, univocal symbolization of sound, and from the linearity of predetermined form. The payoff of such an opening up of notation is new complexity not in the possible combinations of elements, but in the ways of using one’s imagination. Moreover, if the notes are in the drawing, transforming it into a musical sign, the graphic representation obliges the reader to take in the page as a whole, synchronically, as though confronting a work of visual art. Thus does Bussotti introduce space into music, the art of time.

The Stage

For Bussotti, interpretation means, strictly speaking, representation of the score; this explains why his music, including the works with soloist, is profoundly theatrical. His fixation on the symbol on the page rhymes with a passion for violent gestures and Sade’s infatuation with marks imprinted on the flesh. Bussotti indeed wrote a La Passion selon Sade (The Passion According to Sade, 1965-1966), a passion like those of Bach, with dramatic stations and established forms, but also a “chamber Golgotha,” a “mystery” or “musical boudoir,” not far at times from the piano lounge. At its premiere, Bussotti himself served as master of ceremonies, a sort of officiant presiding over this happening, this black mass à la Joris-Karl Huysmans, while Cathy Berberian struck crudely seductive poses and let loose dazzling vocalizations. Yet little remains of the Marquis except for two titles, La Philosophie dans le boudoir and Les 120 Journées de Sodome, as well as two characters, Justine and Juliette, sung by the same voice, representing vice and virtue in one. Bussotti interpolates a sonnet by Louise Labé and numerous allusions, especially to Verdi and Puccini. In this work, in which the musicians’ bodies are indwelt by the libido of another, of the creator, the timbres that Bussotti considered “historical” (those of the ensemble) are denatured through the use of percussion, just as the constrained, victimized voices embody the fate to which Sade condemns his heroines. And this blasphemy, this corruption of voices and instruments, with fragile, delicate, suave sonorities, goes along with formal corruption; the cruelty is also that of the work’s dismemberment. The theme of sadomasochism, in connection with the French Revolution, might recall Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, which relates the “gymnastic pyramids of Sade’s orgies” to the absolute domination of universalism and modern Reason: Sade does not allow his adversaries to yield their Reason to the horrors unleashed by it. If Bussotti’s work is political, then, it is political not in the classical sense of ideological or partisan or engagé but rather inasmuch as the body with its desires and obsessions is suffused with politics. Not surprisingly, the composer has paid homage to Michel Foucault, who studied the ways in which power governs our bodies through various “apparatuses,” strategies and disciplinary procedures. Bussotti would ultimately produce a whole series of Sade-themed works, including Tableaux vivants (avant La Passion selon Sade) (1964) for two pianos, Extraits de concerts (1965) for voice and instruments, and various Solos (1966-1967) for as many combinations of performers. The theme returns two decades later in Intégrale Sade (Total Sade, 1989), the mirror image of the Passion, an almost necrophiliac work haunted by a female creature insensitive to pain. The body, no longer an organ but a machine, now brings not so much the pleasure of pain as the “sex appeal of the inorganic.” As Bussotti’s collaborator Giovanna Morelli explains, “‘Integral sadism’ can become the ultimate metaphor for the erotics of communication, and the most powerful language available to us, while the glacial, assertive, half-dead body can become the absolute psychic stimulation.”6

In Bussotti’s theatrical work — largely contained in one vast cycle, the Tredici trame, a provisory cycle perpetually incomplete and in a state of becoming, like a kind of interdisciplinary meta-work (Intégrale Sade is its first number) — four aspects or principles stand out.

First, this is a theater of the voice, the mythic origin of music. “Music, a primordial human discovery,” Bussotti writes,

one of the most primal among our spontaneous, immediate attitudes, of which the origins reside in the very flesh of the human being, bursts forth from the voice as song, and not only as a liberation of the instincts but especially as a tangible expression of thought.7

The voice is moreover the musical and theatrical space par excellence, even in non-stage works. Consider the potential it contains: phonemes, syllables, words, expression, articulation, song, recitation, exclamation, declamation, the cry, other gymnastics of the lips, mouth, teeth, tongue, larynx… All is material, produced by human flesh. Bussotti cites Cesare Pavese on this point: “The voice, along with the smell of the body, is what is most immutable in us.” What of relations between voice and text? It is an illusion, the composer says, to think that a text can unite with music — there is not even any convincing example of an objectively, rationally analyzable relation between verbal and musical expression:

In reality, to set a text to music, to apply signification to a composition by means of a chosen title, only illuminates the work indirectly, with an extra-musical light, applied according to a different operation of thought, one that signifies neither listening to nor performing nor creating nor even conceiving of music in any fashion.8

Music does not render the words and does not attain their sentiments but remains contained within itself, “by nature purely imaginary and prisoner to its abstract phenomenology as acoustic material.” The voice nevertheless strives for a quality of emotion or narcissistically becomes infatuated with itself, with the pleasure of its own beauty.

Second, Bussotti’s theater is a theater of fragments, which make up his libretti. One example among many is Lorenzaccio (1968-1972), a “Romantic Melodrama” in homage to Alfred de Musset’s drama of the same name, with five acts, twenty-three scenes, and two extra numbers, scored for five singers, three dancers, reciters and mimes, vocal sextet, double choir, and orchestra. Packed with self-quotations and anamorphoses, covered in velvets, veils, silks of purple, silver, and gold, this monumental work, the summum of Bussotti’s theatrical thought, is made up of borrowings from numerous authors: Adorno, Anacreon, Benjamin, Braibanti, Campana, Chénier, d’Annunzio, Foscolo, Homer, Joyce, Mallarmé, Metzger, Monteverdi, Palazzeschi, Penna, Petronius, Pradella, Rilke, Stendhal, Tasso, Verdi, da Vinci, Walter von der Vogelweide, Weber… In all, about thirty sources by poets, writers, painters, musicians, critics, friends of the composer, jumbled together without concern for chronology, not to mention the flow of Musset’s drama. And the same approach prevails in the concertante works: fragments of texts mirror fragments of music, combined, connected, reassembled, strung together, like the cadences in Voliera (Aviary, 1986-1989; Tredici trame No. 8) for piano and ten instruments with voices ad libitum. Occasionally, one fragment or even work (sometimes rearranged) turns up in another, or a work is integrated into a cycle or collection, such as the Tredici trame cycle or Il Catalogo è questo (The List Reads as Follows, 1976-1981), a Mozartishly titled collection of pieces for solo instrument and orchestra, in homage to the nineteenth-century repertoire in this genre. Here is its structure:

I. Opus Cygne

  1. Inattuali

a) La Classe de garçon
b) Corps de ballet

  1. Nudi
  2. Raramente

a) Derrière la lumière
b) Massimo sistema
c) Cupola

II. Raragramma

  1. Raragramma; R. & R.
  2. L’Enfant prodige
  3. Paganini

a) Capriccio e castigo
b) L’Éducation à la danse
c) A una forma del corpo

  1. Calando Symphony

a) La grazia in un paesaggio
b) Les Adieux

  1. Finale con Riccardo
  2. Biblioteca viennese
  3. Telemaco
  4. Pomeriggio musicale
  5. Pietro su pietra

III. Trittico

  1. Intermezzo
  2. Timpani
  3. La Fiorentinata

IV. I Poemi

  1. H III
  2. Poemetto
  3. “A Fiesole in poema giovanile”
  4. Tragico

Thus, the construction of one piece resembles that of a cycle, if not of the whole oeuvre.

Third, Bussotti’s theater is classical, cathartic, and in that sense almost Aristotelian; Ivanka Stoianova detects in it the three stages of antique tragedy, dolor, furor, and nefas.9 It is therefore no stranger to horror, as seen in Tieste (Thyestes, 1989-1993; Tredici trame No. 3), based on Seneca. Here, in classical fashion, the abomination is not shown onstage but recounted by the protagonists, who almost become the chorus of their own tragedy. Only two scenes feature direct discourse, namely the ones showing, respectively, the reunion of the brothers Atreus (played by Bussotti at the premiere) and Thyestes, and the former’s revelation that Thyestes has just eaten his own children. We find here, also, a theater of rewriting; in Tieste, the myth of Thyestes is seen through Greek tragedy, as seen through Seneca, as seen through Bussotti. As is his wont, the latter redistributes Seneca’s verses and introduces their author as a character (a bass). Whole sections are declaimed rather than set to music, thereby magnifying the sound of the words. Bussotti moreover heightens the isolation of his protagonists by cutting out their dialogues almost entirely and immersing them in a play of mirrors and echoes. By the time the barbarity is over, Thyestes has achieved a catharsis not so unlike Wagnerian redemption (Bussotti has after all acknowledged his Wagnerism as fundamental).

Fourth, Bussotti’s theater is a meta-theater: stories within stories, theater within theater, concentric circles of memory are his stock in trade. The same character might be taken by several performers, as in Lorenzaccio, whose hero is played by a mime and a dancer, while the role of his alter ego Musset goes to an actor (Bussotti again for the premiere). Conversely, the same actor plays both George Sand (sung also by a mezzo-soprano) and Catherine Ginori. All these masks, indifferent to the character’s sex, threaten the dramatis personae with crisis, in the form of disappearance or absence but also of merely partial manifestation: Lorenzaccio appears only in this pantomime form, like a shadow of himself, his own erasure. The unity of each character is not provided on stage and has to be furnished by the spectator’s mind. With so many scenes, places, and actions, some of them defying representation, with the disaggregation of narrative, what ultimately comes across to the viewer and hearer is Musset reading his own Lorenzaccio, written to be seen or heard in one person’s imagination. This point is crucial: Bussotti has reintroduced the creative subject, the author that structuralism tried in vain to deconstruct. “The only person in the world who Sees, with the mind’s eye, the stage and the characters, figures or apparitions of a story, with such precision that they seem Real,” he once wrote, “is no doubt the author when imagining a Work yet to be written.”10 But even if Bussotti duly mentions biography and autobiography as constitutive, the subject is still abolished, only in a different way: it dissolves not into the process (the tone-row) but into the innumerable faces adopted from one time or place to another. This is why L’Ispirazione (1984-1986), a melodrama in three acts based on one of Ernst Bloch’s Traces, still interrogates History. Harno Lupo (bass), a man of music and time, and Futur (Tilda Swinton at the premiere), a woman of theater and space, move in a place without place — a utopia in the strict sense — and a time without time. Bussotti scrambles chronology into a double future, either October 2031 (the centenary of his birth, a choice that sanctions the play of self-quotation, especially quotation of Nympheo) or 2752, mirroring the eighteenth century of a millennium earlier. In this world, astronauts, androids, and robots pair with contemporaries of the paintings of Guardi and Longhi, among other zoomorphic, biologic, and synthetic contaminations. In Morelli’s words, “L’Ispirazione is like a toybox on a grand scale.”11 Something similar happens in Fedra (1980-1988), an opera in three acts and an intermezzo set on 1 January 1677 (the day that Racine’s Phèdre premiered in the Hôtel de Bourgogne) and in 1931, the year of Bussotti’s birth.

Aspects of an Aesthetic

The stage is also home to ballet, a genre to which Bussotti made many contributions, notably Raramente (1964-1970), a “Choreographic Mystery”; Autotono (1977), a “Divertimento” in which the instruments are freely chosen; Le Bal Mirò (1981), a pantomime ballet on a scenario by Jacques Dupin, for which the titular painter provided décor and costumes, and which sets out to awaken “the magic faculty of the image”; and the “Grand Mythological Fantasy” Ermafrodito (Hermaphrodite, 1999) — to say nothing of other works adapted for dance, sometimes surrounded by pieces by old masters. One of the major items is Bergkristall (Rock Crystal, 1972-1973), a ballet in one act and seven scenes for large orchestra after a novella by Adalbert Stifter. Of this “drama of innocence in the infinite,” a mixture of Jugendstil, Surrealism, and Stifter’s own Romanticism, three dimensions are worth noting. First, the work relies explicitly on repetition, as seen for instance in the fifth section, which exposes fragments one by one, then in various combinations, and finally simultaneously — this is a constant in Bussotti’s work, in which the repetition of whole fragments, varied in their orchestration with the addition or subtraction of a voice, symbolizes the continual regeneration of the material. Second, imitation, a category scorned by the avant-garde, makes a comeback, as in the final Adagio which imitates the glinting of snow crystals in the rising sun. Third, this ballet is, once again, the double of another, based on the same text: Cristallo di Rocca (1972-1983), a work for choir and orchestra in a prologue and vigil with twelve scenes.

The voice, as a manifestation of the self; the positioning of the performer and instrument, linked to each other in a kind of amorous embrace; opera and ballet, which exhibit the body of the musician or dancer, Bussotti’s included — everything partakes of a poetics of the body, and an ostentatiously homosexual one at that. The idea is to embody through sound, or, more specifically, to underscore the fusion of the musical and the sensual or sexual: “Music and sex resemble each other too much to not appear condemned to a mutual sacrifice.”12 Thus Bussotti’s music is placed under the sign of Eros. The image of the faun makes as much clear in Nuit du Faune (Night of the Faun, 1990-1991) and Questo fauno (1998-1999), taken from Luca Signorelli’s School of Pan. The Mallarmean faun and that of Debussy duly make their appearances, but we also encounter Pan and his Roman descendants Faunus and Sylvanus, deities issuing from the darkest recesses of our imagination, ithyphallic dragons and goats that dwell in the grottos where primal urges overflow — all this contrasts sharply, in Bussotti’s work, with the display of erudition. Even The Rara Requiem (1968-1969, rev. 1970) for vocal ensemble, choir, guitar, cello, wind instruments, piano, harp, and percussion needs to be read in an erotic light: the requiem, the genre par excellence of, if not Thanatos, at least the memory of the deceased, ends up inverted into an orgiastic ritual. Much could be said about the name Rara, an allegorical character invented by Bussotti in the 1960s that turns up in many of his work titles: Rara (1964-1967), Ultima Rara (Pop Song) (1969), Raragramma (1979-1980), and the above-mentioned Raramente. But the immediately relevant point is that the Rara Requiem resulted from the entreaties of a person very much alive, and even young, for Bussotti to write him a requiem to listen to before dying. This, then, is a living requiem, a requiem of love, made in order to “contemplate in music his own shade in the other world: almost a metaphor, the most beautiful and serene there is, for immortality.” Throughout the slow, circuitous course of this work’s two large sections, immortality is identified with the power to revive the past with such intensity that it becomes a quite real essence, and therefore a part of the memorial dimension.

Still more than the body — an obvious, excessively obvious, histrionic element — the key to Bussotti’s art is memory, according to the critic and musicologist Luigi Pestalozza, especially in I Semi di Gramsci (Seeds of Gramsci, 1962-1971), for string quartet and orchestra, based on the Italian communist’s letters from prison, and in the Quartetto Gramsci (1971), a reworking of the above for string quartet. Memory plays a double role in these works. First, there is the memory of Gramsci’s words: “Memory does not mean that Gramsci’s text is hidden, silenced and legible at the bottom of the score,” Pestalozza explains, “but in both cases just the opposite: music itself is the memory of Gramsci’s text, of these words that, as writing, have sound as their memory, their music.”13 Secondly, the one work is remembered in the other; altogether, then, we have memory of the other and memory of self, both of them active (though silent) presences. Nevertheless, on the subject of the weight of the past, Bussotti has written — though not without irony or acerbity, and relatively late in his career — that

The accumulation of works in the Past paralyzes living music, compelling musicians to search unceasingly for new formulas, even unto the absurd. RECORDING, on top of WRITING, has rendered musical composition still more difficult, and its performance as well.14

Memory discloses an aesthetic as well as a political dimension: that of mannerism and the Baroque, which imply a philosophy of art and existence in terms of citations, Wunderkammern, erudition so rich and ponderous that it grows melancholy. Two essential aspects of mannerism can be seen in Bussotti’s work: exorbitant imitation and superabundance. The composer has much recourse to allusions, copies, and quotations, real or imaginary; in that sense, his art partakes of artifice in the second degree, art within art, giving the impression that a simulacrum taken to excess becomes more real than nature, or at least that sensations and sentiments trump conformity to the objectively perceived. But form breaks down, empties out, leaving the work to organize around an absence, beneath a mask concealing an underside never to be seen. The game of mannerism consists in giving body to pleasure by taking it alternately to extremes of excess and dearth; with an abundant, plethoric, overwhelming musician such as Bussotti, excess is the rule. The lack of limits, the challenge thrown down to reason, the superfluity or even incontinence of ornamentation are all opposed the necessity and sufficiency of serial logic. In the Rara Requiem, Bussotti sets a line from Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Beauty is only the beginning of terror”; it appears at the juncture of a calm ritornello, in an almost frozen polyphony. Amidst the tensions that, at least since Kant, have buffeted art history between classical beauty and the sublime, Bussotti made his choice: his art calls for a certain “elegance.”

Translated from the French by Tadhg Sauvey

1. Sylvano Bussotti quoted in Enzo RESTAGNO, “Conversand,” liner notes to Sylvano Bussotti: Nympheo (CD Ricordi, CRMCD 1019, 1992), p. 7. 

2. Sylvano BUSSOTTI, “Extra” [1981], in Bussotti, Disordine alfabetico (Milan: Spirali, 2002), p. 132. 

3. Sylvano BUSSOTTI quoted in Musiques en création (Geneva: Contrechamps/Paris: Festival d’automne à Paris, 1989), p. 59. 

4. Theodor W. ADORNO, “Vers une musique informelle” [1961], in Quasi una fantasia, trans. Jean-Louis Leleu (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), p. 294. 

5. Roland BARTHES, “La partition comme théâtre” [1976], in Œuvres complètes, vol. 3 (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1995), p. 387. 

6. Giovanna MORELLI, Dopo il melodrama: Il teatro lirico di Sylvano Bussotti (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2009), p. 83. 

7. BUSSOTTI, “Musica e nuova musica” [1966], in Disordine alfabetico, p. 202. 

8. BUSSOTTI, “Extra,” p. 140. 

9. See Ivanka STOIANOVA, “Sylvano Bussotti: B.O.B. — Bussottioperaballet / Stratégies dissipatives dans Questo fauno et Tieste,” in Musiques vocales en Italie depuis 1945: Esthétique, relations texte-musique, techniques de composition, ed. P. Michel and G. Borio (Notre-Dame-de-Bliquetuit: Millénaire III, 2005), p. 29-60. 

10. BUSSOTTI, “L’immagine fiabesca” [1983], in Disordine alfabetico, p. 180. 

11. MORELLI, Dopo il melodramma, p. 74. 

12. BUSSOTTI, “L’Homo Musicus” [1981], in Disordine alfabetico, p. 298. 

13. Luigi PESTALOZZA, “Bussotti al mio specchio: la categoria della memoria” [1988], in Pestalozza, L’opposizione musicale: scritti sulla musica del Novecento (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1991), p. 220. 

14. BUSSOTTI, “Il peso del passato e della storia, la sua influenza sulla cultura vivente” [1995], in Disordine alfabetico, p. 282-283. 

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2016


  • Roland BARTHES, « La partition comme théâtre » [1976], Œuvres complètes, Paris, Seuil, 1995, t. 3, p. 387-388.
  • Moreno BUCCI, L’opera di Sylvano Bussotti, Florence, Electa, 1988.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Oggetto amato. Nottetempo, Milan, Ricordi, 1979.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, I miei teatri, Palerme, Novecento, 1982.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Letterati ignoranti, Sienne, Quaderni di Barbablù, 1986.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Lettura del Tieste, Rome, Semar, 1996.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Non fare il minimo rumore, Ravenne, Il Girasole, 1997.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Disordine alfabetico. Musica, pittura, teatri, scritture (1957-2002), Milan, Spirali, 2002.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Olivier J. FRANK, Giuseppina LA FACE BIANCONI, « La lunga litania dei nostri affetti ». Omaggio a Sylvano Bussotti, Milan, Ricordi, 1991.
  • Francesco DEGRADA, Sylvano Bussotti e il suo teatro, Milan, Ricordi, 1976.
  • Davide DAOLMI et Emanuele SENICI, « L’omosessualità è un modo di cantare. Il contributo queer all’indagine sull’opera in musica », Il Saggiatore musicale, VII/1 (2000), p. 137-178.
  • Luigi ESPOSITO, Un male incontenibile. Sylvano Bussotti artista senza confini, Milan, Bietti, 2013.
  • Mario EVANGELISTI, Teatri nascosti. Gesto, segno e drammaturgia nell’opera di Sylvano Bussotti, Florence, LoGisma, 2013.
  • Daniela IOTTI, L’aura ritrovata: il teatro di Sylvano Bussotti da La Passion selon Sade a Lorenzaccio, Lucques, LIM, 2014.
  • Luciano MORINI, Aldo PREMOLI, Musique et mode dans les costumes de Sylvano Bussotti, Paris, Dessain et Tolra, 1986.
  • Giovanna MORELLI, Dopo il melodramma. Il teatro lirico di Sylvano Bussotti, Pise, ETS, 2009.
  • Alessandra LUCIOLI, Sylvano Bussotti, Milan, Targa Italiana, 1988.
  • Luca SCARLINI, Corpi di musica, Florence, Maschietto, 2010.
  • Luigi PESTALOZZA, « Bussotti al mio specchio: la categoria della memoria », L’opera di Sylvano Bussotti, Florence, Electa, 1988, p. 207-209 ; repris dans L’opposizione musicale, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1991, p. 220-226.
  • Leonardo PINZAUTI, Musicisti d’oggi. Venti colloqui, Turin, ERI, 1978.
  • Ivanka STOIANOVA, « Sylvano Bussotti : B.O.B. – Bussottioperaballet / Stratégies dissipatives dans Questo fauno et Tieste », Musiques vocales en Italie depuis 1945, sous la direction de Gianmario Borio et Pierre Michel, Notre Dame de Bliquetuit, Millénaire III, 2005, p. 29-60.


  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, La Passion selon Sade, Extraits de concert (I), Le Bal Miro’, Première suite – Anthologie pour orchestre (II), solistes sous la direction de Marcello Panni (I), Orchestre symphonique de la RAI de Rome, sous la direction de Lothar Zagrosek (II), CD Ricordi, CRMCD 1002, 1987.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Nympheo (Versione dal francese, Citazione con Quartina per Maurice, Preludio e nove variazioni, Nudino, La Vergine Ispirata, Max Deutsch in memoriam, Naked Angel Face, Prosa, In Memoriam, Tredici fogli d’album, Due canti, Studia sempre), Sylvano Bussotti (récitant, piano), Mario Bolognesi (ténor), Aurio Tomicich (basse), Maurizio Ben Omar (percussion), Alberto Bocini (contrebasse), Mauro Castellano (piano), Roberto Fabbriciani (flûte), Stefano Scodanibbio (contrebasse), Augusto Vismara (alto), Maurio Ruffini (concertatore), CD Ricordi, CRMCD 1019, 1992.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, The Rara Requiem (I), Bergkristall (II), Lorenzaccio, Symphonie (III), solistes, Chœur de la Musikhoschule de Sarrebruck (sous la direction de Herbert Schmolzi), Orchestre symphonique de la Radio de Sarrebruck, sous la direction de Gianpiero Taverna (I), Orchestre symphonique de la NDR, sous la direction de Giuseppe Sinopoli (II et III), 2 CD Deutsche Grammophon, DG 437 739-2, 1993.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Il preludio, Pour clavier, Bartók-Busoni, capriccio di 34 mikrokosmos, Brillante, Sonatina Gioacchina, Musica per amici, Petit bis, Martine Joste (piano), CD Mode, Mode 65, 1998.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Fogli d’album, Aquila imperiale con Ganymede, Luca Paoloni (violon) et Sylvano Bussotti (piano), CD Stradivarius, STR 33402, 2003.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, The Rara Requiem, solistes, Chœur et Orchestre du Teatro La Fenice, sous la direction d’Arturo Tamayo, CD Col legno, WWE 20221, 2005.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Il catalogo è questo (Opus Cygne, Raragramma, Trittico et I Poemi), Sylvano Bussotti (récitant), solistes, Ensemble vocal Aquarius (sous la direction de Marc-Michaël De Smet), Orchestre philharmonique du Luxembourg, sous la direction d’Arturo Tamayo, 2 CD, Timpani 2C2114, 2009.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Autotono (El Carbonero, Couple, Cœur, Per Tre, Lachrimae, extraits de Fedra, extrait de 5 frammenti all’Italia, Gran duo, Autotono, E l’uccellino), mdi ensemble, sous la direction de Yoichi Sugiyama, CD Stradivarius, STR 33884, 2010.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Echi danzanti, tratti da Solo, Giovanna Reitano (harpe) et Sylvano Bussotti (récitant), CD Stradivarius, STR 33749, 2011.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Quattro pianoforti, 12 folie d’après François Couperin le Grand, La Vergine Ispirata, Per Tre, Bartók-Busoni, capriccio di 34 mikrokosmos, Olof Palme, Le pietre di Venezia, Sylvano Bussotti (clavecin et piano), Aldo Orvieto, Ciro Longobardi, Giovanni Mancuso, Debora Petrina (pianos), Carlo Lazari (violon), Claudio Ambrosini (inside piano), Alvise Vidolin (live electronics), CD Stradivarius, STR 33952, 2013.
  • Sylvano BUSSOTTI, Ultima rara ; Popolaresca ; Ermafrodito ; Nuvola barocca ; Rara (Eco sierologico), Sergio Sorrentino : guitare, dans « Sylvano Bussotti - Complete works for solo guitar », 1 CD Creative Sources, 2016, CS 375 CD.

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