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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The death of Luciano Berio - And then there were none

By Norman Lebrecht / June 11, 2003

The recent death of Luciano Berio leaves Italy without a single composer of world renown - indeed, without one composer whose name might elicit a flicker of ragazzi recognition in any town piazza from Milan to Palermo. Italy has become overnight a land without music, a calamity of uncalculated cultural magnitude.

Since the dawn of European music, Italy has been its chief wellspring of melody and imagination. Johann Sebastian Bach learned his craft copying out concertos by Vivaldi and claiming them as his own. Mozart wrote his operas to Italian texts by Varesco, Calzabigi and da Ponte.

Nineteenth-century nationalists from Chopin to Wagner inscribed the rhythms and mood swings of their music in the lingua franca of their art, which was consensually Italian.

Brahms, Elgar and Sibelius embarked on the Grand Tour, returning with a sunnier aspect to their symphonies. Richard Strauss, frolicking in Naples, trilled "Funiculi, funicula" in his symphonic poem Aus Italien, imagining it was a folksong until he was sued by its enraged composer, Luigi Denza.

Opera, an Italian invention, was ruled at high noon by Verdi and steered through its twilight by a subgenre of verismo - gritty realism - which took Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini across the threshold of modernity. Puccini, at his death in 1924, closed the canon with the unfinished Turandot, the last Italian opera to enter world repertoire.

Mussolini, from 1922, reduced the country's composers to grovelling collaborators or penniless exiles. To rise again, Italian music required reinvention from scratch.

The spark of regeneration flared in iero. Berio's piece was remarkable for its liquescent beauty, rare in a punitive era of squeaking gates and squawky sopranos.

His second asset was his young wife, the American-Armenian soprano Cathy Berberian, whose astonishingly flexible thorax led her husband into unexplored vocal realms.

Fully formed, Berio returned to Milan in the mid-Fifties to make strange noises with Maderna and discuss semiotics with his new best friend, Umberto Eco. A public reading of Ulysses by Berberian resulted in the electronic Omaggio a Joyce. For Berio, the creative stimulus was as much intellectual as it was musical.

His most celebrated work, the Sinfonia, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for its 125th anniversary in 1968 and involved the hubbadubba Swingle Singers in a babble of campus slogans, Beckett quotations and meditations on the Amazonian mythology of water.

Its third section (of five) overlays the third movement of Mahler's second symphony with Swingley textual quirks. Veering from engaging to engrossing, amusing to mildly irritating, the Sinfonia marked the apex of Berio's impact.

But instead of making hay in America he returned again to Europe to meddle with multimedia and, from 1974, to partner Pierre Boulez in his IRCAM laboratory of musical futurism, an institute that over the next quarter-century delivered fewer worthwhile works of new music than Mozart in a winter's morning.

With Maderna's early death in 1973 and Nono's in 1990, Berio stood alone at the helm of Italian music, burdened with a legacy of ambivalence. Maderna had renounced modernism and Nono had lived just long enough to see communism collapse. Berio was left steering the ship without a trustworthy compass.

He veered from the radical to the reasonable and back again. One work would be electronic, the next acoustic. He became self-derivative, so much so, that he once had to withdraw a work because it too closely resembled his last commission. Running out of ideas he took to orchestrating songs by Mahler, Schubert and de Falla. He attempted a completion of Mozart's opera Zaide and a new ending for Turandot that was premiered without much enthusiasm last summer at Salzburg and repeated in London. He was not so much composing as commentating, a failure of inspiration.

He wrote two plotless operas to texts by Italo Calvino and a third to a Biblical idea by the last of his three wives, an Israeli musicologist. In any work of Berio's there was always much to marvel at by way of exquisiteness, but only in his music for solo instruments and small ensembles - notably, in the sequence of 14 works known as Sequenza - was the voice of Berio heard with Ligurian clarity, as if he still knew where his music was heading.

I met him a couple of times, once in the Dolomites and briefly in London when his opera Un re in ascolto was done at Covent Garden, where the sets and calisthenics earned more applause than the arias.

He seemed convivial, astute, intensely private and demonstrably lacking in the monumental self-assurance of his revolutionary contemporaries. He died, aged 78, more with a whimper than a bang.

What he leaves behind is a musical wasteland. The house of Ricordi, which nurtured native talent for two centuries, has fallen into German ownership. Its only recognisable composer is the preposterously dreary Ludovico Einaudi, who churns out stylish imitations of Muzak.

The renaissance, for all its glories, proved chimerical. A dozen works of Maderna, Nono and Berio entered the musical consciousness and the future, for Italy, is barren.

Scholars will squabble happily over where it all went wrong, but the inescapable truth is that avantgardism was unsuited to Italy. Setting intellect above musical instinct was an un-Italian act.

Berio, for all his manifold beauties, mistook idea for inspiration. Like many literary authors of his time, he wrote critical tracts in place of narrative novels, escorting the innate art of his native peninsula to its final resting place.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001