Luciano Berio (October 24, 1925 – May 27, 2003) was an Italian composer. He is noted for his experimental music work (in particular his 1968 musical composition Sinfonia for voices and orchestra) and also for his pioneering work in electronic music. Many were waiting for a time to be independent from the limitations of traditional musical instruments and scalar patterns and Luciano Berio became one of the teachers who helped to develop an understanding and self-confidence in this expansion of new music in the mid-twentieth century.
Berio was born in Oneglia (now Borgo d'Oneglia, a small village three km North near the city of Imperia). He was taught the piano by his father and grandfather who were both organists. During World War II he was conscripted into the army, but on his first day he injured his hand while learning how a gun worked. He spent time in a military hospital, before fleeing to fight in anti-Nazi groups.
Following the war, Berio studied at the Milan Conservatory under Giulio Cesare Paribeni and Giorgio Federico Ghedini. He was unable to continue studying the piano because of his injured hand, so instead concentrated on composition. In 1947 came the first public performance of one of his works, a suite for piano.
Berio made a living at this time accompanying singing classes, and it was in doing this that he met American mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, whom he married shortly after graduating (they divorced in 1964). Berio would write many pieces exploiting her versatile and unique voice.
In 1951, Berio went to the United States to study with Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood, from whom he gained an interest in serialism. He later attended the Darmstadt New Music Summer School or Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik at Darmstadt, meeting Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti and Mauricio Kagel there. He became interested in electronic music, co-founding the Studio di Fonologia, an electronic music studio in Milan, with Bruno Maderna in 1955. He invited a number of significant composers to work there, among them Henri Pousseur and John Cage. He also produced an electronic music periodical, Incontri Musicali.
In 1960, Berio returned to Tanglewood, this time as Composer in Residence, and in 1962, on an invitation from Darius Milhaud, took a teaching post at Mills College in Oakland, California. In 1965 he began to teach at the Juilliard School, and there he founded the Juilliard Ensemble, a group dedicated to performances of contemporary music. Also in 1965, he again married, this time to the noted philosopher of science Susan Oyama (they divorced in 1971). His students included Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich, Luca Francesconi and, perhaps most surprisingly, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead.
All this time Berio had been steadily composing and building a reputation, winning the Italian Prize in 1966 for Laborintus II. His reputation was cemented when his Sinfonia was premiered in 1968.
In 1972, Berio returned to Italy. From 1974 to 1980 he acted as director of the electro-acoustic division of IRCAM in Paris, and in 1977 he married for the third time with musicologist Talia Pecker. In 1987 he opened Tempo Reale in Florence, a centre similar in intent to IRCAM.
In 1994 he became Distinguished Composer in Residence at Harvard University, remaining there until 2000. He was also active as a conductor and continued to compose to the end of his life. In 2000, he became Presidente and Sovrintendente at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Luciano Berio died in 2003 in a hospital in Rome.
Berio's electronic work dates for the most part from his time at Milan's Studio di Fonologia. One of the most influential works he produced there was Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958), based on Cathy Berberian reading from James Joyce's novel Ulysses. A later work, Visage (1961) sees Berio creating a wordless emotional language by cutting up and rearranging a recording of Cathy Berberian's voice.
In 1968, Berio completed O King, a work which exists in two versions: one for voice, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano; the other for eight voices and orchestra. The piece is in memory of Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated shortly before its composition. In it, the voice(s) intones first the vowels, and then the consonants which make up his name, only stringing them together to give his name in full in the final bars.
The orchestral version of O King was, shortly after its completion, integrated into what is perhaps Berio's most famous work, Sinfonia (1968-69), for orchestra and eight amplified voices. The voices are not used in a traditional classical way; they frequently do not sing at all, but speak, whisper and shout words by Claude Lévi-Strauss (whose Le cru et le cuit provides much of the text), Samuel Beckett (from his novel The Unnamable), instructions from the scores of Gustav Mahler and other writings.
In the third movement of the piece Berio takes the third movement from Mahler's Symphony No. 2 and has the orchestra play a slightly cut-up and re-shuffled version of it. At the same time, the voices recite texts from various sources, and the orchestra plays snatches of Claude Debussy's La Mer, Maurice Ravel's La Valse, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, as well as quotations from Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and many others, creating a dense collage, occasionally to humorous effect; when one of the reciters says "I have a present for you," the orchestra follows immediately with a fragment from Don (French for "gift"), the first movement from Pli selon pli by Pierre Boulez.
The result is a narrative with the usual tension and release of classical music, but using a completely different language. The actual chords and melodies at any one time do not seem as important as the fact that we are hearing such and such a part of Mahler, a particular bit of Alban Berg and certain words by Beckett. Because of this, the movement is seen as one of the first examples of Postmodern music. It has also been described as a deconstruction of Mahler's Second Symphony, just as Visage was a deconstruction of Berberian's voice.
A-Ronne (1974) is similarly collaged, but with the focus more squarely on the voice. It was originally written as a radio program for five actors, and reworked in 1975 for eight vocalists and an optional keyboard part. The work is one of a number of collaborations with the poet Edoardo Sanguineti, who for this piece provided a text full of quotations from sources including the Bible, T. S. Eliot and Karl Marx.
Another example of the influence of Sanguineti is the large work Coro, scored for orchestra, solo voices, and a large choir, whose members are paired with instruments of the orchestra. The work extends over roughly an hour, and explores a number of themes within a framework of folk music from a variety of regions: Chile, North America, Africa. Recurrent themes are the expression of love and passion; the pain of being parted from loved ones; death of a wife or husband. A line repeated often is "come and see the blood on the streets," a reference to a poem by Pablo Neruda, written in the context of savage events in Latin America under various military regimes.
Berio also produced work which does not quote the work of others at all. Perhaps best known among these is his series of works for solo instruments under the name Sequenza. The first, Sequenza I came in 1958 and is for flute; the last, Sequenza XIV (2002) is for cello. These works explore the possibilities of each instrument to the full, often calling for extended techniques.
The various Sequenza are as follows;
- Sequenza I for flute (1958);
- Sequenza II for harp (1963);
- Sequenza III for woman's voice (1965);
- Sequenza IV for piano (1966);
- Sequenza V for trombone (1965);
- Sequenza VI for viola (1967);
- Sequenza VII for oboe (1969);
- sequenza VIIb for soprano saxophone (1993);
- Sequenza VIII for violin (1976);
- Sequenza IX for clarinet (1980);
- sequenza IXb for alto saxophone (1981);
- Sequenza X for trumpet in C and piano resonance (1984);
- Sequenza XI for guitar (1987-88);
- Sequenza XII for bassoon (1995);
- Sequenza XIII for accordion "Chanson" (1995);
- Sequenza XIV for violoncello (2002).
- Opera (1970, revised 1977)
- La Vera Storia (1981)
- Un re in ascolto (1984)
- Turandot (Ending for the Puccini opera) (2001)
Transcriptions and arrangements
Berio is known for adapting and transforming the music of others, but he also adapted his own compositions: the series of Sequenze gave rise to a series of works called Chemins each based on one of the Sequenze. Chemins II (1967), for instance, takes the original Sequenza VI (1967) for viola and adapts it for solo viola and nine other instruments. Chemins II was itself transformed into Chemins III (1968) by the addition of an orchestra, and there also exists Chemins IIb, a version of Chemins II without the solo viola but with a larger ensemble, and Chemins IIc, which is Chemins IIb with an added solo bass clarinet. The Sequenze were also shaped into new works under titles other than Chemins; Corale (1981), for example, is based on Sequenza VIII.
As well as original works, Berio made a number of arrangements of works by other composers, among them Claudio Monteverdi, Henry Purcell, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler and Kurt Weill. For Berberian he wrote Folk Songs (1964; a set of arrangements of folk songs). He also wrote an ending for Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot (premiered in Los Angeles on May 27, 2002, and in the same year in Amsterdam and Salzburg) and in Rendering (1989) took the few sketches Franz Schubert made for his Symphony No. 10, and completed them by adding music derived from other Schubert works.
In fact, transcription is a vital part of even Berio's "creative" works. In "Two Interviews," Berio muses about what a college course in transcription would look like, looking not only at Liszt, Busoni, Stravinsky, Bach, himself, and others, but to what extent composition is always self-transcription. In this respect, Berio rejects and distances himself from notions of "collage," preferring instead the position of "transcriber," arguing that "collage" implies a certain arbitrary abandon that runs counter to the careful control of his highly intellectual play, especially within Sinfonia but throughout his "deconstructive" works. Rather, each quotation carefully evokes the context of its original work, creating an open web, but an open web with highly specific referents and a vigorously defined, if self-proliferating, signifier-signified relationship. "I'm not interested in collages, and they amuse me only when I'm doing them with my children: then they become an exercise in relativizing and 'decontextualizing' images, an elementary exercise whose healthy cynicism won't do anyone any harm," Berio tells interviewer Rossana Dalmonte, in what reads like Berio attempting to distance himself from the haphazard image many more careless second-hand analysts have of him.
Perhaps Berio's most notable contribution to the world of post-WWII non-serial experimental music, running throughout most of his works, is his engagement with the broader world of critical theory (epitomized by his life-long friendship with linguist and critical theorist Umberto Eco) through his compositions. Berio's works are often analytic acts: deliberately analyzing myths, stories, the components of words themselves, his own compositions, or preexisting musical works. In other words, it is not only the composition of the "collage" that conveys meaning; it is the particular composition of the component "sound-image" that conveys meaning, even extra-musical meaning. The technique of the "collage," that he is associated with, is, then, less a neutral process than a conscious, Joycean process of analysis-by-composition, a form of analytic transcription of which Sinfonia and The Chemins are the most prurient examples. Berio often offers his compositions as forms of academic or cultural discourse themselves rather than as "mere" fodder for them.
Among Berio's other compositions are Circles (1960), Sequenza III (1966), and Recital I (for Cathy) (1972), all written for Berberian, and a number of stage works, with Un re in ascolto, a collaboration with Italo Calvino, the best known.
Berio's "central instrumental focus," if such a thing exists, is probably with the voice, the piano, the flute, and the strings. He wrote many remarkable pieces for piano which vary from solo pieces to essentially concerto pieces (points on the curve to find, concerto for two pianos, and Coro, which has a strong backbone of harmonic and melodic material entirely based on the piano part).
Lesser known works make use of a very distinguishable polyphony unique to Berio that develops in a variety of ways. This occurs in several works, but most recognizably in compositions for small instrumental combinations. Examples are Differences, for flute, harp, clarinet, cello, violin and electronic sounds, Agnus, for three clarinets and voices, Tempi concertanti for flute and four instrumental groups, Linea, for marimba, Vibraphone, and two pianos, and Chemins IV, for eleven strings and oboe.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Anhalt, István. Alternative voices: essays on contemporary vocal and choral composition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984. ISBN 9780802055316
- Berio, Luciano, Rossana Dalmonte, Bálint András Varga, and David Osmond-Smith. Luciano Berio. New York: Boyars, 1985. ISBN 9780714528298
- Osmond-Smith, David. Playing on words: a guide to Luciano Berio's Sinfonia. Royal Musical Association monographs, no. 1. London: Royal Musical Association, 1985. ISBN 9780947854003
All links retrieved November 3, 2022.
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