Luciano Berio: Notturno

Luciano Berio Notturno

Luciano Berio: Notturno

Year of composition:
3rd string quartet
Scored for:
for string quartet
Luciano Berio
Instrumentation details:
1st violin
2nd violin
Commissioned by Internationale Musikforschungsgesellschaft / Konzerthaus Wien and The South Bank Centre London
Scritto per il Quartetto Alban Berg e dedicato a Lorin Maazel per il suo sessantesimo compleanno
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Work introduction

Luciano Berio has composed three string quartets, all of them in one movement. Already in the first, entitled simply Quartetto (1956), in which, as one might expect, we catch distant echoes of Anton Webern, we encounter a theme destined to become central to Berio's later development: the multiplication of layers. The second quartet, Sincronie (1964), signals a change: now the quartet is a monolith, indifferent to discourse and polyphony. The quartet is treated as a block: the four voices do not engage in dialogue but instead obstinately persist in saying the same thing. In the years between Sincronie and Notturno (1993), Berio has conducted significant and adventurous experimentation on the human voice, on instruments, on popular music and on musical theatre and space. In Notturno, the vast and proliferating dimensions of this research seem sublimated, while an affectionate solidarity is expressed with the very substance of the string quartet and its overwhelming history.

In Notturno, Berio explores the possibility of a relative formal openness. Everything in it seems to be born from inside: figures appear, then return, modified or unchanged, to follow separate paths, which turn upon themselves, get lost or disappear altogether.

According to Berio, “Notturno is nocturnal because it is silent. It is silent because it is made up of unspoken words and incomplete discourses. It is silent even when it is loud, because the form itself is silent and non-argumentative. Every so often it turns back upon itself, bringing to the surface those silenced words; every so often it comes to a stop, insisting on a single figure, dilating it obsessively...".

Notturno is a meditation on the possibility of a non-dialectic musical narrative. The discourse seems to draw different conclusions from different developments, but then it stops and everything remains suspended. In fact, what is perceived is not real development; rather, it is the emergence of musical figures which do not make a statement: they merely meet and split, in agreement or disagreement with each other.

There is, however, a hidden statement in Notturno: It is the cruelly suggestive message of the line of verse Berio has placed as an epigraph to the score: „Ihr das erschwiegene Wort” („To her - the night - the silenced word”). The line is from Argumentum e silentio (A testimony from silence), by Paul Celan, the Rumanian-born Jewish poet who survived the Holocaust. He wrote in German and lived in Paris, where he died by his own hand in 1970. The word Argumentum is employed here to mean witness (or testimony) and as such it inhabits silence: the only possible mode of listening to the victims of genocide is silence, a silenced word against the language of pompous falsehood.

None of the figures in Notturno, not even those on the brink of violence, is developed: they die out, or they are repeated with different functions that render them unrecognizable. At times, we seem to hear a melody we could almost sing - for it is typical of Berio to bring language to coin terms in its own empty spaces, terms which appear to come from virgin territories but are nevertheless steeped in memories. With a sort of amorous gratitude, Berio knows that „...nothing can speak to us about the power of fate better than sound...” (Curt Sachs): nor can anything speak out better against the power of evil.

Luciana Galliano

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World première

Wien (AT)
Alban Berg Quartett

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