24 October 2017

Luciano Berio – composer

War casualty who became significant figure in Italian music

Luciano Berio was an experimental composer with a prolific output
Luciano Berio was an experimental
composer with a prolific output
The avant-garde composer Luciano Berio, whose substantial catalogue of diverse work made him one of the most significant figures in music in Italy in the modern era, was born on this day in 1925 in Oneglia, on the Ligurian coast.

Noted for his innovative combining of voices and instruments and his pioneering of electronic music, Berio composed more than 170 pieces between 1937 and his death in 2003.

His most famous works are Sinfonia, a composition for orchestra and eight voices in five movements commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1968, and dedicated to the conductor Leonard Bernstein, and his Sequenza series of 18 virtuoso solo works that each featured a different instrument, or in one case a female voice alone.

Berio's musical fascinations included Italian opera, particularly Monteverdi and Verdi, the 20th-century modernism of Stravinsky, the Romantic symphonies of Schubert, Brahms and Mahler, folk songs, jazz and the music of the Beatles.

All these forms influenced him in one way or another and even his most experimental work paid homage to the past. In writing operas, concerti, string quartets or pieces for solo instruments, Berio could be said to have contributed to tradition, even if composing pieces that followed traditional forms was far from his thinking.

The apparent chaos of Sinfonia, for example, may seem as far away from a traditional symphony as is possible and yet conforms to the principle of what constitutes a symphony, a combination of different moods, keys and emotions. 

Berio at a formal appearance in The Hague in 1972, pictured with Princess Beatrix and Prince Claus of The Netherlands
Berio at a formal appearance in The Hague in 1972, pictured
with Princess Beatrix and Prince Claus of The Netherlands
The eight voices often speak or shout rather than sing, yet in superimposing texts by authors ranging from James Joyce to Samuel Beckett and snatches from many classical and romantic works of music on to a framework of the scherzo of Mahler's Second Symphony, Berio creates, by definition, a symphony.

Berio came from a musical background. Both his grandfather Adolfo and father Ernesto were organists and he might have become a concert pianist but for the misfortune that befell him in the Second World War.

It was late in the conflict – 1944 – when he was called up. He considered joining the resistance movement, but feared what the consequences might be for his family and so accepted conscription.  Given a loaded gun on his first day, he was trying to learn how it worked when it went off, badly injuring his right hand.

He spent three months in a military hospital before fleeing to Como, joining the partisans after all. When, after the war, he entered the Milan Conservatory, it was clear his hand injury would prevent him achieving proficiency as a pianist, at which point he decided to concentrate on composition.

A suite for piano he had written in 1947 was his first work to be publicly performed. He earned his keep by accompanying singing classes and accepting conducting engagements in small opera houses.

The Studio Fonologia in Milan that Berio helped establish
The Studio Fonologia in Milan that Berio helped establish
One of the singers he accompanied was Cathy Berberian, an American soprano with whom he fell in love and married within a few months. He visited the United States for the first time on honeymoon and thereafter became a frequent visitor, where he won a scholarship to study at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, the summer home of the Boston Philharmonic.

At the same time, Berio was beginning to experiment with electronic music.  He and Bruno Maderna, another Italian he had met at an annual summer school on Germany where avant-garde composers would congregate, became co-directors of an electronic studio within the Milan studios of the state broadcaster, RAI.

He and Berberian divorced in 1964 but Berio continued to spend much of his time in New York with his second wife, Susan Oyama, a Japanese psychology student. He had founded the Juilliard Ensemble while teaching at the Juilliard School of Music. He resigned from the Juilliard in 1971, divorcing Oyama in the same year.

He returned to Italy and bought a house to renovate in the hill town of Radicondoli, near Siena, where he planted vineyards and fruit trees. He moved into the house in 1975 and was soon married for a third time, to the Israeli musicologist, Talia Pecker.  

Berio, whose other acclaimed works include Opera and Coro, both composed in the 1970s, La Vera Storia (1981) and Outis (1996), remained an active composer until his death.  He was Distinguished Composer in Residence at Harvard University until 2000, when he became president of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, where he was living at the time of his death.

The waterfront at Imperia, looking towards Porto Maurizio
The waterfront at Imperia, looking towards Porto Maurizio
Travel tip:

Oneglia, where Luciano Berio was born, ceased to exist as a town in its own right in 1923, when it and its neighbour, Porto Maurizio, were subsumed into a new city of Imperia, created by Benito Mussolini as part of his drive to create ideal Fascist cities. Today, Imperia is part industrial port and part tourist resort.  What used to be Oneglia is at the eastern end of Imperia, around Piazza Dante, which is at the centre of a long shopping street, Via Aurelia.

The church of Santi Simone e Guida in the ancient town of Radicondoli
The church of Santi Simone e Guida
in the ancient town of Radicondoli
Travel tip:

Radicondoli, situated about 50km (31 miles) west of Siena, is a beautiful walled medieval town of Etruscan origins, perched on a hilltop and offering outstanding views of the surrounding countryside, looking out over typical rolling Tuscan hills.  The town itself, with quaint cobbled streets, is home to little more than 1,000 inhabitants, with an economy and lifestyle based on farming, and a diet rich in local produce.

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