Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio (born 1925), Italian composer, created some of the most advanced styles of music in the mid-20th century. His unique style is a result of the combination of Italian lyricism with a highly original idiom.

Luciano Berio was born in Onegia, northern Italy. His father and grandfather were church organists and composers. After preliminary study with his father, Berio entered the Milan Conservatory, specializing in piano, conducting, and composition and after graduation worked as an operatic coach and conductor. In 1951 he received a scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola, the Italian twelve-tone composer. Dallapiccola's influence is evident in the compositions Berio wrote after his return to Italy. Nones (1955), written to W. H. Auden's poem "Ninth Hour," is "totally controlled"; that is, not only the tones but also the durations, dynamics, and articulations follow a preconceived serial order.

In 1953 Berio attended the Darmstadt Summer School for New Music, where he met Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and other advanced young composers and became acquainted with their revolutionary musical ideas. Back in Milan, Berio established the first electronic music studio in Italy and started to compose in this medium. One of his first pieces was Homage to Joyce, in which the sound material is not electronically produced tones but is a reading of the opening section of the "Sirens" chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses. The sound of the words is distorted through tape manipulation so that meaning is lost and only expressive vocal sounds remain. Berio was fascinated with such sounds, and in many of his pieces he explored unusual manners of speaking and singing. In his discoveries the composer was greatly aided by his first wife, Cathy Berberian, the versatile American singer.

Circles (1961), for voice, harp, and percussion instruments, is another early piece that exploits the expressive quality of words. The words, an E. E. Cummings poem, are "fractured," that is, separated into their component parts: single vowels and consonants. In Visage (1960) the singer emits cries, laughs, sobs, and moans, creating a whole drama on a preverbal level.

Berio was a characteristic 20th-century composer in that he did not repeat himself; each piece called for new sounds and embodied his developing aesthetic. Sinfonia (1968), an extraordinary composition written for eight singers (the Swingle Singers) and orchestra, is a vast collage of words and sounds, reflecting the complexity and disorder of modern life. Parts of it sound as though several radio programs were being played simultaneously. Underlying everything, a distorted but recognizable performance of the third movement of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony can be heard. In addition, there are words from a Samuel Beckett play, student slogans from contemporary confrontations, and fleeting references to a score of other composers ranging from J. S. Bach to Stockhausen. The piece is a Joycean bringing-together of everything in a time-destroying present. In spite of its unconventionality and complexity, the first performances were highly successful.

In the early 1970s, Berio began experimentation in opera, alongside his continuing orchestral, choral, and chamber pieces, notably the ongoing Sequenza series. However, despite the titular suggestion of Opera (1970), Berios's forays into the genre expectedly strayed from its traditional narrative structure while retaining its emotive peaks. Again working in collaboration with key figures of postmodern literature like Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, Berio found an audience with subsequent "operas" such as La Vera Storia (1977), Un Re in Ascolto (1979), and Outis (1996), all of which deepened the composer's techniques of undermining normative conceptions of space and time. Outis, for example, was loosely based upon the classic myth of Odysseus, but lapsed in and out of a web of time frames, with Odysseus dying repeatedly in each scene. In the operas of Berio, characters were used less as coherent dramatic fictions and more as concepts on stage. Nonetheless, the works retained the color and excitement of opera, simultaneously celebrating the relationship with the legacy of musical history and interrogating that very relationship.

Berio became increasingly appreciated by a mass audience, and was hailed as a much-wanted link between popular audiences and the deconstructionist avant-garde. Accordingly, Berio was invited to give a series of oral dissertations for the 1993 Charles Eliot Norton lecture at Harvard University, a prestigious chair devoted to poetic expression in all the arts. Unfortunately, the lectures were ill received, the general consensus being that Berio's ideas were best expressed through his music.


Further Reading on Luciano Berio

Richard Steinitz's entry on Berio in Contemporary Composers (1994) provides an overall portrait of the composer as well as an exhaustive list of works. For a detailed companion to Sinfonia, see David Osmond-Smith's Playing On Words: A Guide To Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (1985). A good commentary on Berio's Circles appears in Wilfrid Mellers, Caliban Reborn in Twentieth-Century Music (1967). Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961), and Peter S. Hansen, An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music (3d ed. 1971), contain a brief discussion of Berio. A good background book on the period is Otto Deri, Exploring Twentieth-Century Music (1968), which discusses the lives and analyzes the different styles of major 20th-century composers.