Luciano Berio

Works by Luciano Berio 155

Luciano Berio biography

Luciano Berio’s biography begins like the story of many Italian (and German, and French…) composers of the past: his ancestors were all musicians ever since the 18th century. He was born in a small town, Oneglia, where his grandfather and his father played the organ in a local church and also composed. (Universal Edition has published some of their works in the volume Berio Family Album where Luciano’s pieces are printed along with Adolfo and Ernesto Berio’s).

While Ernesto Berio was an ardent admirer of the Duce, his son was an equally ardent antifascist – ardent and furious: he could not forgive Mussolini for falsifying music history by suppressing the works of the pioneering composers of the 20th century. Having grown up in the provinces, Berio was in any case handicapped by having been cut off from cultural life but Italian fascism aggravated his isolation by depriving him of access to music which would have been so essential for his development.

Berio was convinced of the need for young composers to come to terms with the achievements of their predecessors by studying their scores and writing music in various styles. He owed a great deal to his teacher Ghedini under whose influence he learned to love and respect the music of Monteverdi (in 1966, he was to make an arrangement of Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda); also to his friend Bruno Maderna (“I learned for instance from the way he conducted Mozart or my works and his own. He had a thorough knowledge of early counterpoint, Dufay and the others, and studied electronic music much earlier than I did).

Berio and Maderna founded together the Studio di Fonologia Musicale (1955) where Mutazioni, Perspectives and Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) as well as Différences were composed. They also established a journal, Incontri musicali (1956-1960) a title which they also gave to a concert series, with Boulez, Scherchen, Maderna among the conductors. (“We had many enemies. I remember on one occasion, when Boulez was conducting, it came to a scuffle so that the police had to intervene”).

Next to Ghedini and Maderna, Berio also learned a great deal from Pousseur whom he had met in Darmstadt in 1954. “If I look back at those years – he was to say – I feel gratitude to three people: Ghedini, Maderna and Pousseur. After all, I was still the young man from Oneglia and I needed their help to understand many things about music”.

Over the years and decades, Luciano Berio grew to become a towering figure in international musical life. Similarly to a handful of other composers, all born in the 1920’s (including Boulez and Nono), whatever he produced became a milestone in the history of music – whether works for solo instruments and solo voice (the Sequenza-series), pieces for chamber ensemble (including the Chemins based on some of the Sequenze), orchestra (Sinfonia – with eight voices added to the ensemble - is to this day a representative composition of the 1960’s),chorus and orchestra (Coro being an emblematic treatment of folk music within the framework of a contemporary composition), voice and orchestra (such as Epiphanies), solo voice, chorus and orchestra (Berio’s farewell to composition: Stanze for baritone, male chorus and orchestra) and all his music theatre pieces (Passaggio, La vera storia, Un re in ascolto, Laborintus II…).

He never lost his awareness of and interest in his predecessors – hence his reconstruction of an unfinished Schubert symphony in Rendering, his arrangements and instrumentations of Purcell, Boccherini, de Falla, Verdi, Mahler, Puccini, Weill. Neither did he close his ears to music outside the sphere of the concert hall and theatre: he was an admirer of the Beatles and arranged some of their hits. He also orchestrated a bunch of folksongs under the eponymous title Folk Songs which has in its turn also become a hit.

Luciano Berio was conscious of his responsibilities as a member of society. He said he could not understand composers who deluded themselves to be a mouthpiece of the universe or mankind. As he put it: “In my view it is enough if we endeavour to become responsible children of society”.

1925 – Born on October 24 in Oneglia, Italy
First music lessons from grandfather Adolfo and father Ernesto who are both musicians;
discovers his love of piano

1944 – Drafted; hand injury prematurely ends career as pianist

1946 on – Studies counterpoint (Giulio Cesare Paribeni) and composition (Giorgio Federico Ghedini) at Milan Conservatory

1950 – Marries singer Cathy Berberian

1951 – Diploma in composition

1952 – Composition course with Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood (Berkshire Music Festival);
attends first public electronic music concert in the USA

1953 – Birth of his daughter Cristina

1955 – Bruno Maderna and Berio found Milan's Studio di Fonologia Musicale (RAI), Italy's first studio for electro-acoustic music

1956–1959 – Publishes Incontri musicali magazine and organizes concert series of the same name

from 1960 – Principal residence in the USA; teaches at various institutions

1960 – Teaches composition course at Tanglewood

1961–1962 – Leeds courses at the Dartington Summer School

1962–1964 – Teaches at Mills College in Oakland

1965 – Marries psychologist Susan Oyama

1966 – Birth of his daughter Marina

1965–1971 – Teaches at the Juilliard School in New York, founds the Juilliard Ensemble (1967), and expands conducting activities

1968 – Birth of his son Stefano

1972 – Returns to Europe

1974–1980 – Head of the electro-acoustic section of IRCAM, Paris

1975 – Conductor/Artistic Director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra

1975–1976 – Artistic Director of the Accademia Filarmonica Romana

1977 – Marries musicologist Talia Pecker

1978 – Birth of his son Daniel

1980 – Birth of his son Jonathan;
Honorary degree from the City University of London

1982 – Artistic director of the Orchestra Regionale Toscana

1984 – Guest artistic director of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

1987 – Founds Tempo Reale, the Florentine Institute for live electronics, artistic director since then

1989 – Ernst von Siemens Prize, Munich

1991 – Wolf Foundation Prize, Jerusalem

1992 – Founder member of the Académie Universelle des Cultures in Paris

1993–1994 – Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, Cambridge, USA

1994 – South Bank Centre, London, Festival "Renderings" dedicated to Berio’s music;
Mario Novaro Prize, Geneva

1995 – Leone d'oro at the Venice Biennale;
Honorary Degree from the University of Siena;
Featured composer at the Lucerne Festival

1996 – Featured composer at the Milan Musica Festival;
Praemium Imperiale (Japanese Imperial Prize for the Arts)

1997 – Featured composer at the Présences Festival in Paris

1998 – Featured composer at the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival

1999 – Honorary Degree from the University of Turin (Italy);
Honorary Degree from the University of Edinburgh (Great Britain);
Interim Director of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome

2000 – Artistic Director of the Saarländischer Rundfunk festival "Music in the 21st Century", Elected President and Artistic Director of Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome;
Honorary degree from the University of Bologna

2001 – Premio Internazionale "Luigi Vanvitelli" (Caserta);
Artistic Director of the European project "L'Arte della Fuga" (Spoleto, Den Haag, Lyon, London)

2003 – Luciano Berio passes away on 27 May in Rome

Luciano Berio (1925 - 2003)
On the Death of Luciano Berio

If one were to select a metaphor to describe the various tendencies and genres of the modern era, it would have to be that of the labyrinth – a concept which has occupied artists since the late Renaissance. The labyrinth is not just the classic garden maze, but also an inner, kaleidoscopic mobile, created by the subject and lying beyond the supposed security of the two-dimensional. And if one wanted to typify the most significant artists of the 20th century, one could speak of the labyrinthine and the non-labyrinthine. The Italian composer Luciano Berio was both: a Mediterranean rationalist, even a pragmatic, and a restless searcher in the chaotic trenches of history. Born in 1924 in Oneglia near Genoa, he was always thought of as a sort of aesthetic and political antipode to Luigi Nono. Berio, though also left-of-centre politically, favoured the westward-looking orientation of his fellow Genoese Columbus. It was no coincidence that Berio spent much time living and learning in America. A dogmatist he was not. At the same time, the name Berio stands for new music’s heroic pioneering generation. He figured decisively in the genesis of many influential ideas and techniques – enthusiastic, unbelievably creative and versatile, but never convinced of having found the “silver bullet.” He did, of course, do serial composition in the 1950s, developing complex structures, but soon relaxed to produce prototypes of orchestral “music in space” with Allelujah II, while also taking John Cage’s idea of mobile forms and developing it further in a highly individual way (Circles, Tempi concertati). And he was one of the first to make creative use of music’s electro-acoustic dimension and – using the voice, of all things – to draw from it electronic masterpieces, such as Omagio a Joyce or Altra voce.

Berio, of broad training and interests, was always on a two-fold search: for a musical language and for linguistic music. He was fascinated by literature in all its forms – less so as a vehicle of semantic communication than as a puzzle. For Berio, technical experimentation and expressive will often went hand-in-hand – right up to the significant ambiguity of the title Laborintus.

Berio was constantly engaged in an intense dialogue with tradition. He even managed to create an oeuvre considered popular by some, even if certain characteristics of hermetic construction were indeed visible: the Sinfonia of 1968 – the dedication of this work to Leonard Bernstein was hardly a coincidence – presented in its third movement a “scherzo to end all scherzos”, music about music: superimposed upon the entirely through-composed “Sermon to the Fishes” scherzo from Mahler’s Second runs a dense collage of quotations from Bach to Berio. The work was an enormous success, but also earned Berio the accusation of having “betrayed” the “true” avant-garde.

Berio’s love of language, of communication and puzzles, naturally also pushed him towards the theatre, where he assumed a sovereign position in the middle – in the best sense of the word – where opera was to a large extent transformed into experimental music theatre: into a quasi-three-dimensional labyrinth of language, music and imagery. Whether scrambling up Verdi’s Troubadour in La vera storia or transforming Shakespeare’s Prospero from the “Tempest” into a timidly doubting, powerless theatre boss together with Italo Calvino in Un re in ascolto, Berio – his aesthetic will highly developed – always took as his theme the incomprehensibility of the world and of life. Berio’s greatness consisted not least in his quest for reconciliation between the utopian future and the forces of tradition from which he still profited – thereby insisting on the unresolved, irresolvable tension between yesterday and tomorrow. In this, too, he had something in common with Odysseus who, in order to return home, had to travel ever further. On 27 May, Luciano Berio died in Rome at the age of 77.

Gerhard. R. Koch

About the music

The past as future: Luciano Berio

In the aftermath of the Second World War, many composers of Luciano Berio’s generation felt obliged to wipe the slate clean. To a composer with roots as deep in the achievements of the past four centuries as Berio, this was never an option.

His work constantly re-invented continuities where others saw only the possibilities of rupture. Not that he was ever tempted by the assorted nostalgias that haunted some part of the music of the last century. On the contrary, he maintained an insatiable curiosity about the explorations of his contemporaries – musical or otherwise. But his dialogues with literature, with linguistics, with structural anthropology, with ethnomusicology always proved to be the most inventive of piratical raids – seizing the materials that he needed as a musician, and drawing from them creative consequences often far removed from their original context. They are a fraternal “homage”, not an imitation. Beyond his apprentice years of the late forties and early fifties, much the same might be said of his response to his musical contemporaries. His oblique relationship to the post-Webernian mainstream was the first instance of a trait that has remained central to his work ever since. Seizing with relish upon its demonstrations of inexhaustible metamorphic potential, he expanded this into a basic principle: you may always re-write what is already written. The exuberant melodic confidence of his work from the late fifties and sixties – whether the nervous brilliance of the flute Sequenza I, or the by now classic lyrical intensity of works written for Cathy Berberian, such as Circles or Sequenza III – bears witness to the confident authority with which he grasped these means. Equally, the series of Chemins that revisit solo Sequenzas demonstrate not just a Joycean “work in progress”, but our obligation to treat each completed work as a “listening in progress”. But the sixties also saw the first indices of an unwillingness to side-line issues central to his rigorous sense of musical tradition. Where some contemporaries seemed content to treat harmony as simply a sub-category of “texture”, Berio insistently returned to the harmonic dimension as central to his larger musical aspirations. Training his own and his listeners’ ears to find their way through the harmonic jungle was at first a matter of brilliantly alert intuition – in, for instance, Sequenza IV for piano – but was soon absorbed into a focussed framework, first in O King, but then in many subsequent works of the early seventies, by exploring the consequences of harmonic projections from a line. The fruits of this patient process of exploration came in the major works of the eighties and nineties, where harmony resumed its rights as the organising force behind such major theatre works as La vera storia, Un re in ascolto, and Outis, but could equally determine the masterly concision of Sequenza XIII for accordion. Although Berio drew admiration in the late fifties as an exuberant explorer of electronic resources, his vivid empathy for the risks and rewards of live performance tended to gain the upper hand over any disembodied search for “new sounds”. However fragile and temporary the community created in the concert-hall by a brilliant performance, it is one that Berio served with singular fixity of purpose. Since the sixties a vigorous inhabitant of McLuhan’s “global village” (of which any concert-hall or radio station may propose itself as a temporary microcosm) he asserted music’s obligation not only to its own singular history, but also to the re-statement of human concerns that, without such patient and committed reiteration, could so easily evaporate. His is a music that “refuses to forget”.

David Osmond-Smith

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