Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio’s biography begins like the story of many Italian (and German, and French…) composers of the past: his ancestors were all musicians ever since the 18th century. He was born in a small town, Oneglia, where his grandfather and his father played the organ in a local church and also composed. (Universal Edition has published some of their works in the volume Berio Family Album where Luciano’s pieces are printed along with Adolfo and Ernesto Berio’s).

While Ernesto Berio was an ardent admirer of the Duce, his son was an equally ardent antifascist – ardent and furious: he could not forgive Mussolini for falsifying music history by suppressing the works of the pioneering composers of the 20th century. Having grown up in the provinces, Berio was in any case handicapped by having been cut off from cultural life but Italian fascism aggravated his isolation by depriving him of access to music which would have been so essential for his development.

Berio was convinced of the need for young composers to come to terms with the achievements of their predecessors by studying their scores and writing music in various styles. He owed a great deal to his teacher Ghedini under whose influence he learned to love and respect the music of Monteverdi (in 1966, he was to make an arrangement of Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda); also to his friend Bruno Maderna (“I learned for instance from the way he conducted Mozart or my works and his own. He had a thorough knowledge of early counterpoint, Dufay and the others, and studied electronic music much earlier than I did”).

Berio and Maderna founded together the Studio di Fonologia Musicale (1955) where Mutazioni, Perspectives and Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) as well as Différences were composed. They also established a journal, Incontri musicali (1956–1960) a title which they also gave to a concert series, with Boulez, Scherchen, Maderna among the conductors. (“We had many enemies. I remember on one occasion, when Boulez was conducting, it came to a scuffle so that the police had to intervene”).

Next to Ghedini and Maderna, Berio also learned a great deal from Pousseur whom he had met in Darmstadt in 1954. “If I look back at those years – he was to say – I feel gratitude to three people: Ghedini, Maderna and Pousseur. After all, I was still the young man from Oneglia and I needed their help to understand many things about music”.

Over the years and decades, Luciano Berio grew to become a towering figure in international musical life. Similarly to a handful of other composers, all born in the 1920’s (including Boulez and Nono), whatever he produced became a milestone in the history of music – whether works for solo instruments and solo voice (the Sequenza-series), pieces for chamber ensemble (including the Chemins based on some of the Sequenze), orchestra (Sinfonia – with eight voices added to the ensemble - is to this day a representative composition of the 1960’s),chorus and orchestra (Coro being an emblematic treatment of folk music within the framework of a contemporary composition), voice and orchestra (such as Epiphanies), solo voice,  chorus and orchestra (Berio’s farewell to composition: Stanze for baritone, male chorus and orchestra) and all his music theatre pieces (Passaggio, La vera storia, Un re in ascolto, Laborintus II…).

He never lost his awareness of and interest in his predecessors – hence his reconstruction of an unfinished Schubert symphony in Rendering, his arrangements and instrumentations of Purcell, Boccherini, de Falla, Verdi, Mahler, Puccini, Weill. Neither did he close his ears to music outside the sphere of the concert hall and theatre: he was an admirer of the Beatles and arranged some of their hits. He also orchestrated a bunch of folksongs under the eponymous title Folk Songs which has in its turn also become a hit.

Luciano Berio was conscious of his responsibilities as a member of society. He said he could not understand composers who deluded themselves to be a mouthpiece of the universe or mankind. As he put it: “In my view it is enough if we endeavour to become responsible children of society”.

Sketches of Coro

Analysis of the Andante from Mahler’s sixth symphony

Work Introduction

In Coro, I returned to folk music which, in an explicit manner, had already been the basis of my Folk Songs (1964) and my Questo vuol dire che (1970). In Coro, however, there are no quotations or transformations of actual folk songs (with the exception of Episode VI where a Yugoslav melody is used and Episode XVI where I quote a melody from my Cries of London of 1974/1976) but rather, here and there, there is a develop­ment of folk techniques and modes which are combined without any reference to specific songs. It is the musical function of those techniques and modes that is continuously transformed in Coro.

by Luciano Berio

There is, in addition to the folk element, a rather wide range of techniques. The general structure of the work is that of a substantial epic and narrative form made up of mostly self-contained and often contrasting episodes. The same text can occur several times with different music, or the same musical model can occur several times with different texts. Coro is also an anthology of different modes of “setting to music”, hence to be listened to as an “open project” in the sense that it could continue to generate ever different situations and relationships. It is like the plan for an imaginary city which is realised on different levels, which produces, assembles and unifies different things and persons, revealing their collective and individual characters, their distance, their relationships and conflicts within real and ideal borders.

Of the different levels in Coro, the harmonic one is perhaps the most important; it is the work’s base but is at the same time its environment and its slowly changing landscape. A landscape, a sound base that generates ever different events (songs, heterophony, polyphony, etc), musical images engraved like graffiti on the harmonic wall of the city. The texts of Coro are set on two different and complementary levels: a folk level based on texts about love and work, and an epic level on a poem by Pablo Neruda (Residencia en la Tierra) which puts in perspective that very love and work.

Text: ©Universal Edition

Click here to download the lyrics of Coro as a PDF.

Letter from Luciano Berio to Talia Pecker about Coro

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