Sheet Music – £ – Various languages and vocal sounds. Berio, Sinfonia:mvt. 3, mm. IN RUHlG FLIESSENDER BEWEGUNG. Mahler: F o u r t h Sympho measures. D e S ~ s s y: “JeuX de. For eight voices & orchestra. Revised Edition. Published in a new oblong study score, Berio’s tribute to Leonard Bernstein and the th Anniversary of the .
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This week, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia.
That’s no symphony, I hear you cry! But Luciano Berio’s magnum opus – still his single most famous and arguably most important piece – is precisely that: That gives “Berio’s Sinfonia” a veneer of Euro-avant-garde exoticism, but it distances a crucial part of what beri piece is doing from our Anglo-Saxon consciousnesses.
This piece is an astonishingly intellectually rich and seductive commentary on the idea of the multi-movement orchestral work, and a labyrinthine musical-etymological analysis of the very notion of “symphony”. Composed for sinfoniw New York Philharmonic originally in as a four-movement workbut expanded to five movements the year after, Berio’s Sinfonia takes as its starting point the notion, buried in the deep history of the symphony, of “sounding together”.
That’s the Greek root of the word, after all symphony is a combination of Greek words meaning “sound” and “together”and it’s why the genre got going in the first place: Berio simply – well, actually extraordinarily densely, but we’ll come to that – takes that idea as the fundamental aesthetic principle of his Symphony, so that the work is about the sounding together of musical layers and textual references.
It’s a kaleidoscope of musical pasts and presents, including a collage of orchestral music from Beethoven to Stockhausenas well as Berio’s own oeuvre. It’s a symphonic palimpsest that’s both obsessively, microscopically structured, and completely open-ended in the variety of responses it induces in its listeners.
So let’s begin at the beginning: Berio’s orchestra is a multi-layered reference machine that includes a shadowy third section of violins who play at the back of the ensemble behind the percussionists, as well as a couple of electronic organs and saxophones.
Here’s what I mean – Berio’s Symphony is a flabbergastingly rich strata of writings-on and writings-over that includes, but is not limited to, the following: The second movement is an amplification of Berio’s own piece, O King, written in as a memorial to Martin Luther King; it’s a musical meditation that circles around cycles of pitch and rhythm and puts Martin Luther King’s name together from the individual phonemes that make up those words. The short fourth movement returns to a world of myth and reflection, and the fifth movement turns the rest of the piece itself into the basis of an even more extraordinary palimpsest that reviews, re-writes, and reconstitutes the rest of the piece into a seven-minute kaleidoscope that both sums up the project of this symphony, and opens up even more questions about what it all means.
And there’s the third movementthe Symphony’s most famous section. It’s notorious because this entire central panel of Berio’s Symphony is written on top of the scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony. The Mahler is inescapable because Berio makes his music the foundation of a spiralling chaos of quotations, allusions, and transformations of fragments of orchestral repertoire from Ravel’s La Valse to Debussy’s La Mer and Stravinsky’s Rite of Springfrom Berg’s Violin Concerto to Boulez’s Pli selon pli.
And dozens of others. David Osmond-Smith’s detective work in tracking down nearly every reference in this movement is extraordinary and unsurpassed.
Sometimes the Mahler is right there in the musical foreground, almost exactly as it appears in the Second Symphony, at other times, Berio reduces Mahler’s music to a skeletal framework of a melodic line, rhythm, or harmony. And at still other moments, it’s obliterated by Berio’s own idiom – as well as the near continuous textual and vocal polyphony of the eight singers, here mostly concentrating on words from Beckett’s The Unnameable.
Luciano Berio: Sinfonia
The structure of the scherzo is, however, always there in the background, and Berio preserves the shape and trajectory of the Mahler, however subcutaneously. One answer is that Berio wants to reveal the essential palimpsest of listening that defines berik musical experiences. Every time you hear a new piece of music, your brain is filtering it through the works you know already, and the images, experiences, and words that it calls to mind. One way of thinking about the Sinfonia’s third movement is that it writes out that process.
Although in fact Berio’s range of references was limited to the scores he could get hold while composing the piece – he was on holiday in Sicily and had to confine himself to what he’d taken with him and those in the public library. The other reason for the Mahlerian foundation of the third movement is that the Second Symphony’s scherzo fits perfectly into the bigger programme of Berio’s Symphony.
Mahler’s is a piece about water, existential futility, and by extension, death. It’s also itself another palimpsest: Even before Berio’s intervention, Mahler’s scherzo is already multi-layered with musical and extra-musical meanings. Often held up as pre-figuring a joyful postmodernism in music, the expressive effect of the third movement of Berio’s Symphony is, I think, anything but an indulgent wallowing in the mud of musical history.
Sinfonia (Berio) – Wikipedia
There is a funny, punning reflexivity at the end of the movement when the singers list the performers and thank the conductorbut the bleak quotations from Beckett and Berio’s own essay, Meditation on a Twelve-Tone Horse prove Berio’s real point: Yet, “There must be something else, otherwise it would be quite hopeless. But it is quite hopeless Berio’s Symphony is a search for meaning that’s endlessly renewed every time it’s played or heard. If you haven’t listened to it yet, throw yourself into the labyrinth right now; and if you have, listen again – and again.
You will always find something new, I promise. Berio’s original recording of the version – incomplete, as it proved, but essential listening. Boulez gets stuck into Berio’s historical revels, and the results are a revelation. Chailly’s account has a laser-like clarity even in Berio’s densest textures of music and meaning. This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative.
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