Luciano Berio, classical music composer

Luciano Berio image

Luciano Berio


Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio (October 24, 1925 – May 27, 2003) was an Italian composer. He is noted for his experimental work (in particular his 1968 composition Sinfonia and his series of virtuosic solo pieces titled Sequenza) and also for his pioneering work in electronic music.

Berio was born in Oneglia (now part of Imperia). He was taught the piano by his father and grandfather who were both organists. During World War II he was conscripted into the army, but on his first day he injured his hand while learning how a gun worked, and spent time in a military hospital. Following the war, Berio studied at the Milan Conservatory under Giulio Cesare Paribeni and Giorgio Federico Ghedini. He was unable to continue studying the piano because of his injured hand, so instead concentrated on composition. In 1947 came the first public performance of one of his works, a suite for piano. Berio made a living at this time accompanying singing classes, and it was in doing this that he met the American mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, whom he married shortly after graduating (they divorced in 1964). Berio wrote a number of pieces which exploit her distinctive voice.

In 1952, Berio went to the United States to study with Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood, from whom he gained an interest in serialism. He later attended the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik at Darmstadt, where he met Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti and Mauricio Kagel. He became interested in electronic music, co-founding the Studio di Fonologia, an electronic music studio in Milan, with Bruno Maderna in 1955. He invited a number of significant composers to work there, among them Henri Pousseur and John Cage. He also produced an electronic music periodical, Incontri Musicali.

In 1960, Berio returned to Tanglewood, this time as Composer in Residence, and in 1962, on an invitation from Darius Milhaud, took a teaching post at Mills College in Oakland, California. From 1960 to 1962 Berio also taught at the Dartington International Summer School. In 1965 he began to teach at the Juilliard School, and there he founded the Juilliard Ensemble, a group dedicated to performances of contemporary music. In 1966, he again married, this time to the noted philosopher of science Susan Oyama (they divorced in 1972). His students included Louis Andriessen, Steven Gellman, Dina Koston, Steve Reich, Luca Francesconi, Giulio Castagnoli, Flavio Emilio Scogna and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead.

All this time Berio had been steadily composing and building a reputation, winning the Prix Italia in 1966 for Laborintus II. His reputation was cemented when his Sinfonia was premiered in 1968. In 1972, Berio returned to Italy. From 1974–80 he acted as director of the electro-acoustic division of IRCAM in Paris, and in 1977 he married the musicologist Talia Pecker. In 1987 he opened Tempo Reale, a centre for musical research and production based in Florence. In 1988 he was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music, London. In 1989 he received the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994. The same year, he became Distinguished Composer in Residence at Harvard University, remaining there until 2000. In 1993/94 he gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, later published as Remembering the Future. He was active as a conductor and continued to compose to the end of his life. In 2000, he became Presidente and Sovrintendente at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Luciano Berio died in 2003 in a hospital in Rome. He was an atheist.

Berio's electronic work dates for the most part from his time at Milan's Studio di Fonologia. One of the most influential works he produced there was Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958), based on Cathy Berberian reading from James Joyce's Ulysses, which can be considered as the first electro-acoustic composition in the history of western music made with voice and elaboration of it by technological means. A later work, Visage (1961) sees Berio creating a wordless emotional language by cutting up and rearranging a recording of Cathy Berberian's voice; therefore the composition is based on the symbolic and representative charge of gestures and voice inflections, "from inarticulate sounds to syllables, from laughter to tears and singing, from aphasia to inflection patterns from specific languages: English and Italian, Hebrew and the Neapolitan dialect."

In 1968, Berio completed O King a work which exists in two versions: one for voice, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the other for eight voices and orchestra. The piece is in memory of Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated shortly before its composition. In it, the voice(s) intones first the vowels, and then the consonants which make up his name, only stringing them together to give his name in full in the final bars.

The orchestral version of O King was, shortly after its completion, integrated into what is perhaps Berio's most famous work, Sinfonia (1967–69), for orchestra and eight amplified voices. The voices are not used in a traditional classical way; they frequently do not sing at all, but speak, whisper and shout. The third movement is a collage of literary and musical quotations. A-Ronne (1974) is similarly collaged, but with the focus more squarely on the voice. It was originally written as a radio program for five actors, and reworked in 1975 for eight vocalists and an optional keyboard part. The work is one of a number of collaborations with the poet Edoardo Sanguineti, who for this piece provided a text full of quotations from sources including the Bible, T. S. Eliot and Karl Marx.

Another example of the influence of Sanguineti is the large work Coro (premiered 1977), scored for orchestra, solo voices, and a large choir, whose members are paired with instruments of the orchestra. The work extends over roughly an hour, and explores a number of themes within a framework of folk music from a variety of regions: Chile, North America, Africa. Recurrent themes are the expression of love and passion; the pain of being parted from loved ones; death of a wife or husband. A line repeated often is "come and see the blood on the streets", a reference to a poem by Pablo Neruda, written in the context of savage events in Latin America under various military regimes.

In the last period of his production Berio was also interested in the use of live electronics, applied in some compositions as Ofanìm (1988–1997) and Altra voce (1999): the electronic music and technical part of such pieces was always performed by the musicians of Tempo Reale.


Composer Title Date Action
Luciano Berio Cinque Variazioni 07/29/2014 Play Add to playlist
Luciano Berio Sequenza III 10/26/2014 Play Add to playlist
Luciano Berio Sequenza IV, for piano 10/26/2014 Play Add to playlist
Luciano Berio Sinfonia, 1st movement 10/26/2014 Play Add to playlist
Luciano Berio Sequenza IXa for clarinet 10/18/2015 Play Add to playlist