And Then There Were None; the Death of the Avant-Garde Composer Luciano Berio Has Left a Void at the Heart of Italian Music

By Lebrecht, Norman | The Evening Standard (London, England), June 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

And Then There Were None; the Death of the Avant-Garde Composer Luciano Berio Has Left a Void at the Heart of Italian Music


Lebrecht, Norman, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

The death of the avant-garde composer Luciano Berio has left a void at the heart of Italian music

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 London in the summer of 1946 at an international festival of contemporary music, with a performance of Canti di prigionia (prison songs) by the Florentine Luigi Dallapiccola, who had spent much of the war in hiding.

Canti introduced the atonal serialism of Schoenberg and Webern to the innate lyricism of the Italian language. Dallapiccola, however, was no leader. He left the renaissance to younger contenders, three of whom burst forth simultaneously.

Bruno Maderna, a magnetic Venetian, co-founded (with Berio) Italy's first electronic studio. Luigi Nono, a committed communist, married Schoenberg's daughter and wrote inflammatory Leftwing odes. Both were overtly dogmatic.

Nono became a member of the party's central committee, Maderna a revitalising moral force at the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.

Their third contemporary was musically the most fertile. Luciano Berio, raised in a family of musicians on the Ligurian coast, went to study in America where, in 1952, he met Dallapiccola and composed a set of piano variations on a three-note motif from the older man's opera, Il prigioniero.

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. …

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