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Luciano Berio

Gavin Thomas introduces the work of Luciano Berio (1925–2003).


Luciano Berio's work is characterised above all by his love of the theatrical, his fascination with the voice, and his constant willingness to engage with music of the past as well as of the present.

Drawing on a range of influences that reaches from the poetry of Dante to the politics of Martin Luther King, and from the operas of Monteverdi to the sounds of modern jazz, his output has embraced all the major musical developments of its time, including electronic music, music theatre, and works using quotation and collage – hence one critic's description of him as an "omnivore".

Berio's leaning towards vocal music was fostered by his relationship with the remarkable American singer Cathy Berberian, for whom he wrote many of his earlier works, and whose vocal versatility and charismatic stage presence was richly exploited in works such as Recital1 – a piece depicting the nervous breakdown of a neurotic concert singer – Sequenza III, with its surreally dramatic (if largely unintelligible) stream of sung, muttered and garbled phonetic fragments, and (in a very different vein) the engaging Folk Songs, a compendium of folk tunes from around the world which has proved Berio's most popular work.

At the same time as he was composing his Berberian-inspired vocal pieces, Berio was also exploring more complex interactions of music and text in three major works of the 1960s: Épiphanie (1962), Laborintus 2 (1965) and Sinfonia (1969).

Épiphanie sets words by Proust and Brecht (among others) in a variety of vocal styles ranging from the extravagantly ornamented to the monotonously spoken, while Laborintus 2 uses speaker, singers, orchestra and jazz musicians to explore a welter of texts organized around the poetry of Dante.

Most extraordinary of all, however, is the third movement of Sinfonia, which constructs a musical and verbal labyrinth around the third movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 and passages from Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable.

The quasi-theatrical Sinfonia was quickly followed by the first of Berio's four operas. The first of these works, baldly entitled Opera (1970), is one of Berio's less successful achievements, but in his three subsequent operas, La vera storia (1981), Un re in ascolto (1984) and Cronaca del Luogo (1999), Berio has achieved a remarkable synthesis of extended theatrical techniques and large-scale musical means.

Admittedly, it's one which owes little to traditional operatic models, concentrating instead on a staged representation of the musical and textual labyrinths which were so striking a feature of Sinfonia, as in Un re in ascolto (A King Listens, with a libretto by Calvino), an opera about the rehearsals and auditions for an opera – not so much a musico-dramatic story as an extended meditation on the meaning of listening, singing and memory.

The interleaved musical and verbal texts which characterize so many of Berio's vocal and theatrical works find their counterpart in much of his purely instrumental works. In 1958 he embarked on the sequence of pieces for solo instruments, the Sequenzas, whose sometimes zany virtuosity offers an instrumental parallel to the Berberian vocal works.

These were followed by a further series of linked works, the Chemins, in which the existing Sequenzas are recycled within new layers of musical accompaniment and commentary, rather as the third movement of Sinfonia had supplied fresh layers of musical and verbal commentary around the kernel of Mahler's symphonic movement.

A similar preoccupation with recomposition and "commentary techniques" can be found in Berio's rich sequence of (mainly instrumental) works based on popular and folk music.

Extract from Berio's Folk Songs, © Universal Edition

Though this interest dates back to the Berberian Folk Songs of 1964, it was in instrumental works of the 1970s and 1980s that this aspect of his music became especially important, most memorably in Voci (1984), a haunting reworking of Sicilian folk melodies for viola and orchestra, and Ritorno degli snovidenia (1977), based on fragments of Russian revolutionary songs, for cello and orchestra.

Berio's constant dialogue with musical tradition can also be seen in his various orchestrations of works by de Falla, Mahler and Brahms, among others, and, most notably, in Rendering (1989), his typically creative completion of unfinished symphonic sketches by Schubert.

Article and review pages originally published in The Rough Guide to Classical Music