Sinfonia (Berio)

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Sinfonia (Symphony) is a composition by the Italian composer Luciano Berio which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 125th anniversary. Composed in 1968–69 for orchestra and eight amplified voices, it is a musically innovative post-serial classical work, with multiple vocalists commenting about musical (and other) topics as the piece twists and turns through a seemingly neurotic journey of quotations and dissonant passages. The eight voices are not used in a traditional classical way; they frequently do not sing at all, but speak, whisper and shout words by Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose Le cru et le cuit provides much of the text, excerpts from Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable, instructions from the scores of Gustav Mahler and other writings.

Leonard Bernstein states in the text version of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures from 1973 that Sinfonia was representative of the new direction classical music was taking after the pessimistic decade of the sixties (Bernstein 1976, p. 423).


Originally commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 125th anniversary, Sinfonia was premiered on October 10, 1968 by the orchestra and The Swingle Singers, with Berio conducting. At the time the work was still in four movements. In the months after the premiere Berio added a fifth movement, which was first played when Sinfonia was performed during the 1969 Donaueschingen Festival by the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ernest Bour. The New York Philharmonic first played the five movement version of Sinfonia on October 8, 1970, conducted by Leonard Bernstein—to whom the work is dedicated.


The Sinfonia is scored for a large orchestra (Anon. n.d.):

  • Piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, clarinet in E, 3 soprano clarinets in B, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon
  • 4 horns, 4 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, bass tuba
  • 3 percussionists, harp, electric harpsichord, piano, electric organ
  • 24 violins in three groups, 8 violas, 8 celli, 8 double basses


The work is in five movements:

  1. I
  2. II - O King
  3. III - In ruhig fliessender Bewegung
  4. IV
  5. V

The first movement primarily uses a French text source and the third movement primarily uses English text sources. The text for the second movement is limited to the phonemes of the title, "O Martin Luther King." The remaining movements are primarily instrumental with occasional vocal elements. The overall form of the piece is an arch form with elements of the first movement reflected in the fifth and connections between the second and fourth. The third movement, a study of inter-relations, stands on its own.

First movement[edit]

In the first movement of Sinfonia, Berio uses texts from Le cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The form of the piece is also inspired by Lévi-Strauss, who in his work on mythology had found that many myths were structured like musical compositions, with some myths having a "fugal" form and others resembling a sonata. One mythical transformation however, had a structure for which he was not able to find a musical equivalent (Lévi-Strauss & Eribon 1991, p. 177), and Berio himself said that he used this form in his Sinfonia—though Lévi-Strauss did not initially notice this. Interviewed by Didier Eribon, Lévi-Strauss said:

[Y]ou know that Berio used The Raw and the Cooked in his Sinfonia. A part of the text is recited, accompanied by the music. I admit that I did not grasp the reason for this choice. During an interview a musicologist asked me about it, and I answered that the book had just come out and the composer had probably used it because it was at hand. Now, a few months ago Berio, whom I don't know, sent me a very disgruntled letter. He had read the interview, several years after the fact, and assured me that the movement of this symphony offered the musical counterpart of the mythical transformation I was revealing. He included a book by a musicologist (Osmond-Smith 1985) who had demonstrated the fact. I apologized for the misunderstanding, which was, I said, the result of my lack of musical training, but I'm still baffled. (Lévi-Strauss & Eribon 1991, p. 178)

Second movement: O King[edit]

In 1968, Berio completed O King, a work dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King (Berio 1986). This movement exists in two versions: one for voice, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the other for eight voices and orchestra. The orchestral version of O King was, shortly after its completion, integrated into Sinfonia. It uses a fair amount of whole tone scale motives (which also appears in the quote from Le Sacre du Printemps in the third movement).

Third movement[edit]

In the third movement of Sinfonia Berio lays the groundwork by quoting multiple excerpts from the third movement scherzo from Mahler's Symphony No. 2 and has the orchestra play a slightly cut-up, re-shuffled and occasionally re-orchestrated version of it. Many have described Berio's third movement as a "musical collage", in essence using an "Ivesian" approach to the entire movement (American composer Charles Ives in his Symphony No. 2 first used musical quotation techniques on a grand scale at the turn of the 20th century about 65 years earlier).

The orchestra plays snatches of Claude Debussy's La Mer, Maurice Ravel's La Valse, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, as well as quotations from Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Johannes Brahms, Henri Pousseur, Paul Hindemith, and many others (including Berio himself) creating a dense collage, occasionally to humorous effect. When one of the reciters says "I have a present for you", the orchestra follows immediately with the introductory chord from Don, the first movement from Pli selon pli by Pierre Boulez.

The quoted fragments are often chosen because they bear a rhythmic or melodic likeness to Mahler's scherzo. For example, Berio uses a violin line from the second movement of Alban Berg's violin concerto with chromatically descending sixteenth notes two measures before a similarly descending line appears in Mahler's scherzo. This is then accompanied by another violin descent, taken from Johannes Brahms' violin concerto (Schwartz & Godfrey 1993, p. 378). The text from Beckett at this point begins, "So after a period of immaculate silence there seemed", but, instead of continuing the quotation ("a feeble cry was heard by me"), Berio substitutes the words "to be a violin concerto being played in the other room in three quarters" and then, after the Berg quotation, alto 2 insists on "two violin concertos", at the point where Berg is interrupted by Brahms (Hicks & 1981–82, p. 214).

The eight individual voices simultaneously recite texts from various sources, most notably the first page of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable. Other text fragments include references to James Joyce, graffiti Berio noticed during the May 1968 protests in Paris and notes from Berio's diary (Schwartz & Godfrey 1993, p. 376). In the version featuring the Swingle Singers,[clarification needed] one of the group's members introduces each one of the members of the group, with a brief bit of the selected members singing a bar from baroque piece of music.[citation needed]

Berio himself describes the movement as a "Voyage to Cythera" (Berio, Dalmonte & Varga 1985, p. 108) in which a ship filled with gifts is headed towards the island dedicated to the goddess of love. This idea is musically implied by the "flowing" multi-quoted excerpts from Mahlers second symphony, the boat drifting past a variety of historical music quotations.[original research?]

Musical quotations[edit]

A partial list of musical quotations used in the third movement of Sinfonia in order of their appearance:


The result is a narrative with the usual tension and release of classical music, but using a completely different language. The actual chords and melodies at any one time do not seem as important as the fact that we are, for example, hearing a part of Mahler or a particular bit of Alban Berg with added words by Beckett. Because of this, the movement is often described as one of the first examples of Postmodern music[citation needed]. It has also been described as a deconstruction of Mahler's second symphony, just as Berio's Visage was a deconstruction of Cathy Berberian's voice.[citation needed]

The third movement is mostly in 3/8 time, although Berio occasionally adds or takes away a beat or two for temporary effect. It's been suggested by Louis Andriessen who was interviewed in Frank Scheffer's short film "Voyage to Cynthera" that the waltz beat pattern was symbolic of the "old school" of composers during the 19th century.[citation needed] Berio's modernistic treatment of it (much the same way Ravel's "La Valse" did earlier in the 20th century) was apparently a statement that the classical music establishment was/is too rooted in its past. It was time to move on from the (as Leonard Bernstein put it) "over-waltzed" Austro-Hungarian empire mentality.[this quote needs a citation]

One of the more neurotic moments of the piece takes place during the Wozzeck drowning quotation late in the third movement. At this point separate individual singers are contesting each other from the text of Beckett, requesting the music to either "stop!" or "keep going!". Another notable quote near the very end of the same movement is when the spotlight tenor voice states "... There was even, for a second, hope of resurrection, or almost". This is a clear reference to Mahler's Second Symphony[original research?] of which the third movement is quoted throughout the entire third movement of Sinfonia.

There are also brief elements of indeterminacy that pop up in the third movement—mentions of another piece on the program just past midpoint and the singers and conductor at the end. These would change from performance to performance as they are variables. For example, the in-print Erato label 1986 recording thanks "Mr. Boulez" not because one of his pieces is quoted but because he is the conductor on that particular recording.

Because Sinfonia directly quotes from other musical sources as far back as the late baroque era (Bach) and as recent as a few years before the 1968 premiere of the piece, it is arguable that Sinfonia uses the widest array of techniques ever employed in a single musical work. Even the latest musical technique to evolve by that time, sound mass from the early sixties (originated by such composers as Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti), is used several times throughout the third movement.[citation needed]

Fourth movement[edit]

The brief fourth movement is a return to the tonality of the second, relatively serene after the frenetic third movement. It begins again with a Mahler quotation—the chorus taken from the end of the "Resurrection" symphony. The voices make use of various vocal effects, including whispers, syllabic fragments, and distortions of previous textual material.

Fifth movement[edit]

This movement was added by Berio a year later, intended to balance the first four. The movement revisits the text from the previous sections, organizing the material in a more orderly fashion to create what Berio calls "narrative substance."

It opens with a quotation from Lévi-Strauss that is at the same time a veiled reference to Mahler's second symphony: the fifth movement of Sinfonia opens with the words "rose de sang" (French for "rose of blood"), and the fourth movement of Mahler's symphony begins with the words "O Röschen roth!" (German for "O red rosebud!") (Berio, Dalmonte & Varga 1985, p. 109).


Further reading[edit]

  • Altmann, Peter (1977). Sinfonia von Luciano Berio. Eine analytische Studie. Vienna: Universal Edition.
  • Bandur, Markus (2005). "'I prefer a wake': Berios Sinfonia, Joyces Finnegans Wake und Ecos 'Poetik des offenen Kunstwerks'". Musik-Konzepte, no. 128 (April): 95–109.
  • Bayer, Francis (1988). Thèmes et citations dans le 3e mouvement de la Sinfonia de Berio. Analyse musicale, no. 13 (October): 69–73.
  • Budde, Elmar (1972). "Zum dritten Satz der Sinfonia von Luciano Berio". In Die Musik der sechziger Jahre. Zwolf Versuche, edited by Rudolf Stephan, 128–44. Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Neue Musik und Musikerziehung Darmstadt 12. Mainz: Schott Musik International.
  • Emons, Hans (1998). "Berios Sinfonia und Mahlers 2. Sinfonie: Re-Komposition als ästhetische Idee". In Musikwissenschaft zwischen Kunst, Ästhetik und Experiment: Festschrift Helga de la Motte-Haber zum 60. Geburtstag, edited by Reinhard Kopiez, Josef Kloppenburg, Heinz von Loesch, Hans Neuhoff, Christian Martin Schmidt, Barbara Barthelmes, Heiner Gembris, and Günther Rötter, 151–60. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann. ISBN 3-8260-1524-X.
  • Goldford, Louis J., Janne E. Irvine, and Robert E. Kohn (2011). "Berio's Sinfonia: From Modernism to Hypermodernism". Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 13, nos. 1 & 2 (Fall): 19–44.
  • Krieger, Georg, and Wolfgang Martin Stroh (1971). "Probleme der Collage in der Musik aufgezeigt am 3. Satz der Sinfonia von Luciano Berio". Musik & Bildung: Zeitschrift für Musikerziehung 3, no. 5 (May): 229–35.
  • Plaza, Eduardo (2009). "La différance y la intertextualidad en el tercer movimiento de la Sinfonia de Luciano Berio". Musicaenclave: Revista venezolana de música 3, no. 1 (January–April): 23.
  • Ravizza, Victor (1974). "Sinfonia für acht Singstimmen und Orchester von Luciano Berio. Analyse". Melos 41, no. 5 (September–October): 291–97.
  • Schnittke, Alfred (2002). "The Third Movement of Berio's Sinfonia: Stylistic Counterpoint, Thematic and Formal Unity in Context of Polystylistics, Broadening the Concept of Thematicism (1970s)". In A Schnittke Reader, edited by Aleksandr Vasil'evič Ivaškin, with a foreword by Mstislav Rostropovich, translated by John Goodliffe, 216–24. Russian Music Studies. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-33818-2.