Luciano Berio

1925 2003

Luciano Berio



Luciano Berio was an Italian composer of the 20th Century. During his impressive career, he gained a reputation for his creative ability to incorporate layers of meaning both within and outside art forms into his musical compositions. He spent a substantial portion of his career in America, where his music circulated with huge success. He also made an impression around Europe and is today regarded as one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century.

Berio was born on 24 October 1925 into a family of musicians in Oneglia, Italy. Both his father and grandfather were composers and organists and the young Luciano received a thorough musical education at home in his early years. By the age of nine, he was an impressive pianist and had already begun publicly performing and taking part in his father’s musical evenings and meetings. Although he had shown promising potential as a pianist, an earlier injury to his right hand was causing him problems and it became likely he would not play the piano professionally. As a result, he focused on his studies of composition technique and began writing occasionally, only producing a handful of pieces by the age of twenty.

By 1950, Berio had earned a diploma at the Milan Conservatory and was given the opportunity to study with Giulio Paribeni and Giorgio Federico Ghedini. By 1952, he was beginning to explore the idea of electronic music and his interest developed further when he attended the Berkshire Festival at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Here, he studied with composer Luigi Dallapiccola who proved to be an important influence on his later compositions. Between 1953 and 1954, he attended the Darmstadt Summer School, where he met and studied with many innovative and renowned composers includingJohn Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. By 1955, he and Bruno Maderna had founded the Studio di Fonologia Musicale at Milan Radio.

Up until the 1950s, Berio had been largely influenced by the writing of composers such as Ravel and Stravinsky and had been honing his skills as an orchestral composer. However, it was clear that the influence of more innovative and modern music was increasingly consuming his interest. In 1960, he returned to the Berkshire Festival as a faculty member and it is said that he caused some commotion among other composers and performers. He later began to tour the US, a country in which he had developed a major interest. His wife, Cathy Berberian, was American and this gave Berio a further link with the country. Berberian was an accomplished vocalist and the pair travelled the US during the 1960s to promote Berio’s work. Berberian featured as a vocalist in many performances of Berio’s compositions  during this time. Even long after their separation in 1964, they continued to collaborate and she remained a huge influence on his career.

The circulation of his music in America was also largely aided by his friend Leonard Stein, who helped promote his music at concerts and events. Examples of popular works that Berio composed during this time areOmaggio a Joyce, an electronic piece, composed in 1958, based on an interpretation of the poemSirens from chapter eleven of the notoriously complex novelUlysses by the prolific Irish writer James Joyce. The same year he composedSequenza I for solo flute.  Soon after cameCircles, dedicated to Cathy Berberian, a work written in 1960 for female voice, harp and two percussion instruments.

In 1962, Berio accepted a position at Mills College as a replacement for Darius Milhaud. This was to be the beginning of Berio’s most successful period in America. At Mills College, he and Morton Subotnick established the Mills Performing Group – an ensemble of students and professionals dedicated to the performance of contemporary music. During this time he also composed many successful works includingPassaggio and Sequenza II for solo harp in 1963. He composedFolk Songs between 1963 and 1964, which was commissioned by the college.

During the early 1960s, Berio was particularly interested in composition for voice and he explored linguistic and theatrical compositional techniques. He also composed a lot of electronic and jazz music. His compositions were typically quite musically and psychologically complex and were often built with layers of underlying meaning. Berio’s music became quite successful in the US and he also took the opportunity to exhibit his earlier works to American audiences, which he would have originally composed in Italy.

After completing his stint at Mills College, Berio moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here, he married his second wife, Susan Oyama and began to teach composition at Juilliard. He also founded the Juilliard Ensemble, the second American ensemble he established for the performance of contemporary music. Between 1966 and 1967, he held the post of Lauro de Bosis Lecturer at Harvard. He returned to Harvard during his later years as Norton Lecturer. The 1960s were also the years in which Berio continued to write many more of hisSequenzas – a set ofworks for solo instrument and voice, which, he continued to add to throughout the intervening decades, eventually numbering fourteen in 2004. During his time at Juilliard he composed the first five sequenzas. In 1965, he composed his revision ofEpifanie and one of his most significant works, Laborintus II.

Berio was awarded many prizes during the later stages of his career, including the Siemens Musikpreis in 1989 and The Praemium Imperiale from the Japan Art Association in 1996. He was also presented honorary doctorates from City University, London and the Universities of Siena, Turin and Bologna. His creative and innovative energy continued until his death in 2003. His moodySOLO <> for trombone and orchestra is an example of Berio's late work, composed during 1999-2000 which has been widely recorded with many world-class orchestras, such as theRoyal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Berio is regarded today as one Italy’s most important and prolific composers of the 20th Century.

In 1968, Berio composed Sinfonia, which is often considered his most popular and renowned work. As a result of his interest in the Civil Rights movement, his piece,O King is featured as the second movement in dedication to Martin Luther King. The text is based on phonemes of his name. The third movement of the work is abstract and layered and incorporates a collection of musical quotations within a musical current adapted from Mahler’s Second Symphony. The narrative of Irish writer Samuel Beckett’sThe Unnameable is featured. Sinfonia is made up of a total of five movements and was successfully premiered in 1970 by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

The end of Berio’s American years was marked by the completion of his major workOpera, which was premiered in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1970. He returned to Italy in 1971, after gaining a prestigious and admirable reputation around North America and Europe. He wrote hisLes mots allés… for solo cello in 1978. His works were often written for virtuoso performers, hence the performances of his work being of an impressively high standard, adding more appeal to his work. Berio, although associated with avant-garde and modernism throughout his career, also looked to the past for inspiration. In the 1980s, he orchestratedBrahms’ Clarinet Sonata no. 1 in F minor (1986), Mahler ’sSechs frühe Lieder (1987), and Schubert's Rendering (1988). These orchestrations are free of Berio’s modernism.