Luciano Berio (October 24, 1925 – May 27, 2003) was an Italian composer. He is noted for his experimental work, particularly in his orchestral work, Sinfonia, and also as a pioneer in electronic music.
Table of contents
Berio was born in Oneglia. 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 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 doing this that he met American soprano Cathy Berberian, who 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 summer school courses 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 married for the second time (he divorced again in 1971). His students include Louis Andriessen.
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. 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 continuted to compose to the end of his life. 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 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.
The third movement of the piece is particularly famous. In it, Berio takes the second movement from Mahler's Symphony No. 2 and has the orchestra play a slightly cut-up and shuffled around 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, as well as quotations from Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and 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.
Berio also produced work which does not quote the work of others at all. Perhaps best known among these are his series of works for solo instruments under the name Sequenza, the first, Sequenza I came in 1958 and was for flute. The last, Sequenza XIV (2002) was for solo cello. These works explore the possibilities of each instrument to the full, often calling for extended techniques
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 II (1963) for harp 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 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.
Among Berio's other compositions are Circles (1960) and Recital I (for Cathy) (1972), both written for Berberian, and a number of stage works, with Un re in ascolto, a collaboration with Italo Calvino, the best known.
See also: List of compositions by Luciano Berio