Luciano Berio and Sinfonia

1968-69. For eight voices and orchestra.
I -- (6:15)
II -- O King (4:58)
III -- In ruhig fliessender Bewegung (12:26)
IV -- (2:23)
V -- (7:08)

Luciano Berio's Sinfonia
Berio's seminal Sinfonia is an amazing piece of music, a modern masterpiece that stands at the crossroads of avant garde innovation and postmodern pastiche, academic experimentation and popular accessibility. Written at the end of the 1960s, Sinfonia virtually embraces the last few hundred years of Western music from Bach to the Beatles, and incorporates a universe of references from Beckett to the audience itself -- it even looks ahead to the review in the next morning's paper. And yet it's much more than the clever sum of its eclectic parts; it is also masterfully written, astonishingly orchestrated, and brilliantly engaging. And unlike many other equally deserving modern works, it has also made a dent in the repertory; there were several performances of Sinfonia in New York City over the last few years alone.
As Sinfonia is one of my personal favorite compositions, allow me the pleasure of providing a guided tour....
It begins in a hush of mystery, born from a blurry gong. The eight voices emerge harmonizing from the silence, suddenly breaking free in a flurry of muttered syllables and disjointed quotes from the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist. Concerned largely with Brazilian water myths, the quotations are used as "poetic fragments," at first articulated over bursts of percussion and waves of amplified harmonizing. Occasionally disrupted by thick clusters of music from the orchestra, the voices unspool their text in dizzying patterns, at times in unison, at others pursuing individual courses, teasing and deforming the words like verbal taffy. The orchestra is never at rest; connecting its periodic explosions with frantic stretches of piano, spasms of vibraphone, warbling flutes, rippling fanfares....
The next section, "O King," was written in 1967 as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., and incorporated into Sinfonia a year later. A workout of Berio's "rotating pitch cycles," the phonemes making up King's name are vocalized in a rotating sequence anchored in F and A, with a different selection of notes sustained each cycle. The effect is the creation of an eerie "harmonic cloud," oscillating between two whole-tone areas, all of which means that it sounds pretty spooky. Initiated with a sharp blare from the horns, the voices build up in soothing but eerie waves of otherworldly reverence, bringing to mind Ligeti's Requiem (familiar to many from Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey). The syllables float above a layer of shimmering music, piling up like clouds of incense, with frequent spikes of brass and piano shooting through the haze like needles. By the time Martin Luther King's name is finally spoken in full, a hesitant drumroll underpins the voices, bringing everything just to the edge of an uncomfortable tension -- a bizarre Mass fraught with the potential for violence.
The third section is the most famous movement of the piece, a tour de force of experimental composition, and possibly the most exhilarating twelve minutes that modern music has to offer. A merry, freewheeling circus of music and language, it seems to reel perpetually around the edge of a chaos that threatens to hurl it into pieces; but like a ride on a roller-coaster, all comes out safe and sound in the end. And like any good thrill ride, part of the secret lies in a carefully engineered structure, and here Berio borrows blueprints from two masters -- Mahler for the music, and Beckett for the text.
The swinging scherzo from Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony (its first part subtitled "In ruhig fliessender Bewegung") is used as the basis for the section's musical form. Despite the subtitle lifted from Mahler, this river of music is anything but "calmly flowing;" it rushes on like a torrent, occasionally smashing up against Berio's sudden chord clusters, only to untangle itself and swirl away in a slightly different direction. Berio uses the turbulent flow to spin off countless eddies of musical allusion and quotation, from Bach to Stravinsky to Stockhausen. As with the previous excerpts from Lévi-Strauss, many of these involve water, such as the drowning scene from Berg's Wozzeck, and Mahler's scherzo itself, which is based on the Wunderhorn song "St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes." True to this movement's obvious postmodern idiom, Berio even quotes from his own work at one point, as well as that of Boulez, who conducts the piece on its most famous recording.
The libretto is just as complex as the music. Using the self-reflexive monologue from Beckett's The Unnamable as a basic pattern, dozens of other textual threads are shuttled through the narrative loom to form a dazzling tapestry of language in all its forms. Fragments of German, Yuletide solfège, snippets of song, radical slogans, clichés from the classical music crowd, gobbles and grunts, and perhaps most striking of all, the insistent command to "Keep going!" -- all rise and fall in a babelogue carried along by the music, punctuated by orchestral gestures that just as often provide ironic counterpoint as they do illustration. The whole movement surges to a sort of humorous self-awareness, the principle speaker frequently addressing the audience in the sardonic lilt of an old tour guide: "Well, well, so there is an audience!... You can't leave, you're afraid to leave, you make the best of it... While every now and then a familiar passacaglia hunkers through the other noises... And now it's done, it's over, we've had our chance, there was even for a second hope of resurrection..." At one point the libretto instructs the speaker to say, "And tomorrow we'll read that X made tulips grow in my garden, and altered the flow of the ocean's currents," where X is the next work on the evening's program. Eventually he introduces the singers by name, and finally thanks the conductor, bringing the movement to a most satisfying conclusion. Like Beckett's Unnamable, the work has a voice conscious of itself, aware that it only exists in the moment of performance. Unlike the Unnamable, however, it seems to revel in an eccentric sense of joy, and the fun is certainly contagious. ("Thank you, Mr. Boulez.")
The brief fourth movement is a return to the relative calm of the second, a welcome break after the giddying scherzo. It begins again with a Mahler quotation -- the lovely, undulating chorus taken from the end of the "Resurrection" symphony. Whispers flutter around individual voices, which detach from the general hum in syllabic fragments, distortions of previous textual material. Unlike the second movement, the orchestra is less aggressive, more content to remain below the drifting chorus.
Sinfonia comes to a conclusion with its fifth movement, which Berio added a year later to balance the other four. Somewhat similar in instrumental texture to the first section, it actually uses the pitch cycle from the second to generate the vocal harmonies. The movement revisits the text from the previous sections, organizing the material in a more orderly fashion to create what Berio calls "narrative substance." Here the voices are more disciplined, more subject to synchronization and perceivable patterns; though the music is as thorny as ever. Building up in tense spasms, sending spirals of sound from instrument to instrument as it gathers itself together, the orchestra seems to be awakening for one last crescendo as the pitch sequence nears completion. As increasingly more brass enters the mix, both orchestra and chorus rise to a protracted, rolling climax, followed immediately by a sense of dissolution and winding down. With same hushed gong that began the work, Sinfonia returns back into the silence from which it came.

Liner notes from the Erato CD

Liner notes written by Luciano Berio:
The title is not meant to suggest any analogy with the classical symphonic form. It is intended purely etymologically: the simultaneous sound of various parts, here eight voices and instruments. Or it may be taken in a more general sense as the interplay of a variety of things, situations and meanings. Indeed, the musical development of Sinfonia is constantly and strongly conditioned by the search for balance, even identity between voices and instruments; between the spoken or the sung word and the sound structure as a whole. This is why the perception and intelligibility of the text are never taken as read, but on the contrary are integrally related to the composition. Thus, the various degrees of intelligibility of the text, along with the hearer's experience of almost failing to understand, must be seen as essential to the very nature of the musical process.
The text of the first part is made up of a series of extremely short extracts from Claude Lévi-Strauss's Le cru et le cuit, and one or two other sources. In these passages, Lévi-Strauss analyses the structure and symbolism of Brazilian myths of the origin of water, or other similarly structured myths.
The second part of Sinfonia is a tribute to the memory of Martin Luther King. The eight voices simply send back and forth to each other the sounds that make up the Black martyr, until they at last state his name clearly and intelligibly. The main text of the third part is made up of fragments from Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable, which in turn generate a large number of references and quotations from day-to-day life.
The text of the fourth part mimes rather than enunciates verbal fragments drawn from the preceding parts (with, at the beginning, a brief reference of Mahler's Second Symphony).
Finally, the text of the fifth part takes up, develops and compliments the texts of the earlier parts, and above all gives these fragments narrative substance (being drawn from Le cru et le cuit), whereas in the first part they were presented merely as poetic images.
The third part of Sinfonia calls for more detailed comment, since it is perhaps the most experimental work I have ever written. The piece is a tribute to Gustav Mahler (whose work seems to carry all the weight of the last two centuries of musical history) and, in particular, to the third movement of his Second Symphony ("Resurrection"). Mahler bears the same relation to the whole of the music of this part as Beckett does to the text. The result is a kind of "voyage to Cythera" that reaches its climax just before the third movement (the scherzo) of the Second Symphony. This movement is treated as a generative source, from which are derived a great number of musical figures ranging from Bach to Schönberg, Brahms to Stravinsky, Berg to Webern, Boulez, Pousseur, myself and others. The various musical characters, constantly integrated in the flow of Mahler's discourse, are combined together and transformed as they go.
In this way these familiar objects and faces, set in a new perspective, context and light, unexpectedly take on a new meaning. The combination and unification of musical characters that are foreign to each other is probably the main driving force behind this third part of Sinfonia, a meditation on a Mahlerian "objet trouvé." If I were asked to explain the presence of Mahler's scherzo in Sinfonia, the image that would naturally spring to mind would be that of a river running through a constantly changing landscape, disappearing from time to time underground, only to emerge later totally transformed. Its course is at times perfectly apparent, at others hard to perceive, sometimes it takes on a totally recognisable form, at others it is made up of a multitude of tiny details lost in the surrounding forest of musical presences.
The first four parts of Sinfonia are obviously very different one from the other. The task of the fifth and last part is to delete these differences and bring to light and develop the latent unity of the preceding four parts. In fact the development that began in the first part reaches its conclusion here, and it is here that all the other parts of the work flow together, either as fragments (third and fourth parts) or as a whole (the second).
This the fifth part may be considered to be the veritable analysis of Sinfonia, but carried out through the language and medium of the composition itself.
Sinfonia, composed for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic is dedicated to Leonard Bernstein.

Program notes from the Brooklyn Philharmonic performance of Sinfonia, "A B & C," 1998

Program notes written by Michael Steinberg:
The original version of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia, composed in 1968, was first performed on October 10 of that year by the New York Philharmonic and The Swingle Singers, under the direction of the composer. The 1969 version, expanded from four to five sections, was performed in New York for the first time on October 8, 1970 by the same forces under Leonard Bernstein. The published score carries the inscription: "Written for (and commissioned by) the New York Philharmonic and dedicated to Leonard Bernstein." The work is scored for three flutes and piccolo, four clarinets, two oboes and English horn, alto saxophone and tenor saxophone, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trombones, tuba, percussion (timpani, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, tam-tams, snare drums, bass drums, cymbals, sizzle cymbals, tambourines, wood-blocks, bongos, guiros, frusta, grelots, castanets and triangles), harp, piano, electric organ, electric harpsichord, strings (with one solo violin and violins divided into three sections) and eight singers.
Luciano Berio's music displays a constant obsession with language and the many possibilities by which language can be presented in a musical context. Fragmentation into phonetic sounds, emblematic quotations, traditional vocalism and anti-academic (or pop) vocalism, musical, physical and semantic gesture: these are some of the many devices the composer has used in his scores.In Sinfonia, the texts are taken from a number of sources, including Claude Lévi-Strauss' Le cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked), Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable, Joyce, revolutionary slogans, recorded conversation and the name Martin Luther King. But as the composer notes: "The treatment of the vocal part in the first, second, fourth and fifth sections of Sinfonia is similar in that the text is not immediately perceivable as such. The words and their components undergo a musical analysis which is integral to the total structure of voice and instruments together. The fact that the varying degree of perceptibility of the text at different moments is part of the musical structure is the reason why the words and phrases used are not given in the program. The experience of 'not quite hearing,' then, is to be conceived as essential to the nature of the work itself."

Gramophone Review of the Sinfonia Erato CD. February 1986.

Here at last is a complete recording of Berio's Sinfonia. Until now, this absorbing and bewilderingly complex work has been available only in the four-movement version that Berio himself prepared in 1969 for the first performance with the Swingle Singers and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (CBS 60259, 11/83; less than happily coupled with Bartók's Music for strings, percussion and celesta). Within a few months, Berio had completed a fifth and final movement which, though ostensibly an appendix, arguably stands as the apotheosis of the entire work; for it is genuinely a 'sounding together' (sinfonia) of the preceding movements, a rich sequence of reminiscences, just as the celebrated third movement leads us through memories of the standard orchestral repertoire in a kind of stream of subconsciousness. To hear the work in its completed form is nothing short of a revelation, and for this reason alone Boulez's new performance must be said to supersede Berio's own.
In all other respects, it's difficult to make a choice between the two versions. A score as multi-layered and rich in detail as this poses the engineers with problems that are literally insuperable, and it's hardly surprising that each recording has its own advantages and problems of balance. On the whole I prefer the marginally superior clarity of Berio's 1969 reading, in which the sound of the amplified voices merges subtly into the orchestral texture. In Boulez's recording, the distinction is often more marked, to the extent that in the third movement the dominant speaking role of the first tenor is perhaps overemphasized. Devotees of the work will probably find it helpful to have both versions; the newcomer, on the other hand, need have no hesitation in opting for Boulez, whose authority and sympathetic response to the score is evident throughout. To complete the record he has chosen one of Berio's less-familiar orchestral works, Eindrücke ("Impressions") of 1973-4. This is a complete contrast: a vast monody, projected by the string orchestra against the stuttering interjections and lingering trills of the wind and percussion, as stark and uncompromising a conception as is Stockhausen's Trans of three years earlier. Again, the reading is a powerful one. This is a most important issue. Buy it now, since all too often records of contemporary masterpieces are deleted almost as soon as they have appeared, and this one is far too good to miss.

CD Information

The original release of Sinfonia was the four-movement version, released on LP in 1969. Played by the New York Philharmonic, it was conducted by Berio himself. In 1983 this version was remastered for CD and paired with Bartók's unsettling Music for strings, percussion and celesta on CBS DC 60259. This has unfortunately been deleted. Sinfonia is now most readily available on Erato, CD # 2292-45228-2, as performed by the French National Radio Orchestra and conducted by the incomparable Pierre Boulez. It is paired with the short composition Eindrücke, a tense, revolving work that drives the orchestra along in loping spasms, drawing inspiration from the rolling monody that ended Sinfonia. See the above Gramophone review for details.

Berio: Sinfonia, Eindrücke / Boulez, French National RO
Luciano Berio (Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1991

More Berio

Berio and Joyce -- This is the Luciano Berio page at Bronze by Gold, which details his Joycean compositions Chamber Music, Thema, Epifanie, and Outis.

--Allen B. Ruch
1 June 2003
Send email