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The commission provided Luciano Berio with an opportunity to consider yet again a new kind of deployment of the orchestral apparatus. He decided to divide the instruments into the following groups:
group A1: 1st flute; 2nd flute; oboe; cor anglais; tenor saxophone in Bb; bassoon;
group A2: 1st flute; 2nd flute; oboe; alto saxophone in Eb; bassoon;
group B1: 1st horn in F; 2nd horn in F; 3rd horn in F; 1st trumpet in C; 2nd trumpet in C; 1st trombone; 2nd trombone; bass tuba;
group B2: 1st horn in F; 2nd horn in F; 3rd horn in F; 1st trumpet in C; 2nd trumpet in C; 1st trombone; 2nd trombone; bass tuba;
group C: clarinet in Eb; 1st clarinet in Bb; 2nd clarinet in Bb; 3rd clarinet in Bb; bass clarinet in Bb; contrabassoon;
group D: violin I(12); violin II(12); viola(12); violoncello(10); contrabass(8);
group E: 1st percussion; 2nd percussion; 3rd percussion; 1st harp; 2nd harp; celesta
But – Berio wondered – do a viola and a double-bass, under specific conditions, have less in common than a viola and a flute? Is there really less of an acoustic kinship between a horn and a trumpet than between a stopped trumpet and an oboe or a cor anglais?
That is (among other things) what Formazioni is about: relationships within the traditional families of instruments and the roles they are given to play are defined and allotted in a new manner. Hence the unusual arrangement of the orchestra. To the left in front and to the right in the back there sit two groups of woodwind instruments, with two groups of brass placed to the right and to the left in the middle. An important group of five clarinets and contrabassoons
is put in the middle of the front, surrounded by violins and violas. Berio has referred to string instruments as “the often hidden cement”; in Formazioni, the violins relinquish their prominence to the double-basses (to the right in front). All in all, the lower instruments tend to sit closer to the front whereas the higher ones take their places farther in the back.
As a result of this orchestral “geography”, there emerges an important new acoustic perspective. Already in Coro (1974-1976) where each of the forty singers is placed next to a specific instrument, Berio taught us something new about the significance of different instrumental relationships in space. In Voci (1984-1985), too, new musical and acoustic balances are developed among the solo viola and the two groups of instruments.
Spatial arrangement is also a primary concern in Formazioni with its ceaseless interaction between massive sound blocks and chamber music-like passages. The composer himself talks of “composing for orchestra which is made up of different ‘chamber musics’ heightened to the extreme”. That is what renders a performance of Formazioni such a challenge both for the individual players as well as for the orchestra as a collective.
Why Formazioni? These ‘formations of forms’ could be described as a strategic interaction of ‘military’ formations but equally also as a ‘geological’ superposition of musical layers, each of them homogeneous.”