Luciano Berio (I)

Reading James Joyce with the Ear

Thema (Omaggio a Joyce), 1958


Luciano Berio was born at Oneglia, Liguria, on 24 October 1925.

In 1945 he moved to Milan, where he attended the Conservatorio «Giuseppe Verdi», studying composition with Giorgio Federico Ghedini, as well as conducting with Carlo Maria Giulini and Antonino Votto. In 1952 he attended the courses taught by Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood, USA. From the early fifties Berio made a name for himself as an authoritative exponent of the new generation of the musical avantgarde.

In December 1954 Berio and Maderna created Italy’s first studio of electronic music at the RAI Milan headquarters, inaugurated the following year as the Studio di Fonologia Musicale. Here he was able to experiment with the interaction of acoustic instruments and electronically produced sounds (Momenti, 1957; Différences, 1958-59) and explore new relationships between sounds and words (Thema. Omaggio a Joyce, 1958; Visage, 1961). Moving into the sixties, Berio was exploring further complex combinations of timbres. His investigation of the expressive resources of the female voice – prompted by the voice of Cathy Berberian.

This series of solo works with the relative Chemins – elaborations for instrumental ensemble of some of the Sequenze – exemplifies Luciano Berio’s approach to composition as “work in progress”, conceived as a potentially never-ending process of comment and elaboration which continues and proliferates from one piece to the next. In his compositions for large symphony orchestra he explored new spatial layouts. The dialectical relationship between solo instrument and orchestra is at the heart of works such as Concerto for two pianos (1973); “Points on the curve to find…” for piano and chamber orchestra (1974). The concerto was not the only traditional genre Berio reworked; he also tackled the string quartet (Quartetto, 1956; Sincronie, 1964; Notturno, 1993; Glosse, 1997) and even the piano, an instrument redolent of traditional connotations which he subjected to new aural, formal and expressive criteria in a series of works starting with Sequenza IV (1966) and culminating with Sonata (2000).

Berio’s musical research is characterised by his attainment of an equilibrium between a keen awareness of tradition and a propensity to experiment with new forms of musical communication. In his various creative phases the composer invariably tried to relate music to various fields of knowledge: poetry, theatre, linguistics, anthropology and architecture. His interest in the multiple expressions of human musicality led him to return again and again to various repertories of the oral tradition.
Music theatre constituted a fundamental focus for Berio’s research and poetics. After the first works for the stage in the fifties and sixties, he conceived his first musical action organized in three acts with texts he wrote himself: Opera (1969-70/1977). This was followed by La vera storia (1977-79), text by Calvino, Un re in ascolto (1979-83) with texts by Calvino, Gotter, Auden and Berio, Outis (1992-96) with texts by Dario Del Corno, and Cronaca del Luogo (1997-99) with a text by Talia Pecker Berio. A special place was occupied by A-ronne (1974-75), a radio documentary for 5 actors (reworked in 1975 for 8 voices) with a text by Sanguineti, the culmination of the experimentations for radio that Berio undertook in the fifties.
Luciano Berio died in Rome on 27 May 2003.