Clive Bradley looks at the life and work of Luciano Berio (1926-2003)
The musical avant garde, like "modern art" in general, has a bad reputation with most people, who hear it as tuneless noise (if indeed it is not, as in one work by John Cage, complete silence, or another by Karlheinz Stockhausen, a group of musicians sitting by themselves in a room for several days doing very little...) It is thought of as elitist, impenetrable, above all boring.
Luciano Berio, who died in May, was one of the architects of the post-war European avant garde (with Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez). In fact, much of his work was accessible and interesting, even without the knowledge of musical history it sometimes drew upon.
"Sinfonia" (1968-69), perhaps his best known orchestral work, centres around the performance of a complete movement from a Mahler symphony; over the top extracts from other pieces of music, from one end to the other of the history of music, are combined with singing and recitation (words by Samuel Beckett) by the Swingle Singers. It's enjoyable, even funny, and at moments powerful and moving.
All his work, much of it very demanding stuff for the human voice, has a lyricism and emotional power that marks him out as typical of the Italian musical tradition.
Forced into Mussolini's army in the short-lived republic of Salo at the end of the Second World War, Berio fled, joined the partisans, and signed up at the Milan Conservatoire, where he studied composition. There he met and married his musical collaborator, the extraordinary singer Cathy Berberian (who died in 1983; they were divorced in the mid 1950s, but continued to work together: I saw her perform at his 50th birthday concert in 1976). He wrote a number of his most important works for her, including "Circles" (1960) (a setting of ee cummings poems), "Epifanie" (1959) and the demented but marvellous "Recital" (1971), in which she plays a concert singer having a nervous breakdown.
Berio was part of the post-war musical revolution which took ideas developed by the composers Shoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and tried to transform them into a new musical language. Attempting to overthrow the "tyranny of tonality", Shoenberg et al worked out a system, called "12-note", or "serialism," in which all 12 notes of the scale are given equal weight (rather than certain notes dominating to form a "key"): this is what sounds "tuneless" to most people. Their post-war disciples, like Berio, extended the system to impose radically new structures on every aspect of music - rhythm, etc, as well as the notes. It was a new world, and they wanted a new music to go with it.
Berio himself quickly moved away from this rigidly pre-determined way of composing. His work was soon recognisable from its lyrical expressionism, and the lurking tonality which always seemed to lie underneath.
His compositions range from solo instruments to full-scale operas, from electronic music to a "Folk Songs Suite" (1964) which is not avant garde at all, just, as it says, an arrangement of beautiful folk songs, from the USA to Azerbaijan.
He saw himself as a political radical - but in practice that doesn't seem to have meant much more than voting Communist.
Berio was an enormous influence on the post-war generation of composers. Where Boulez tends to be deathly serious, and Stockhausen is often just crazy, Berio wrote modernist, demanding music that nevertheless aims to entertain and move. As a kid I loved him. His work with Cathy Berberian is still sometimes on my CD player. His death is a loss to modern music.