Luciano Berio

Towering figure of musical modernism

Luciano Berio, composer, conductor and teacher: born Oneglia, Italy 24 October 1925; founder and co-director, Studio de fonologia musicale, RAI broadcasting 1955-60; teacher, Berkshire Music Center, Tanglewood 1960; teacher, Dartington Summer School 1961-62; teacher, then professor of composition, Mills College, Oakland California 1962, 1963-64; teacher, Juilliard School of Music, New York 1965-71; director, electro-acoustic section, IRCAM, Paris 1974-80; artistic director, Israel Chamber Orchestra 1975; artistic director, Accademia Filarmonica Romana 1976; artistic director, Orchestra Regionale Toscana 1982; artistic director, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino 1984; founder, Centro Tempo Reale 1987; Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetics, Harvard University 1993-94; President and Artistic Director, Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome 2000; married 1950 Cathy Berberian (died 1983; one daughter; marriage dissolved 1964), 1964 Susan Oyama (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1971), 1977 Talia Pecker (two sons); died Rome 27 May 2003.

Among serious composers working since the Second World War, Luciano Berio wrote the music which comes across most clearly as compassionately human.

This won him a large following - for his field - and made him, from the Fifties to the present, the Godfather of Italian composition. This position was augmented by a busy associated career as conductor and teacher, which he pursued most assiduously in early middle age. Musically and intellectually, Berio's inspiration was eclectic, and both the style of his work and the way he notated it were, to some, unnervingly experimental. His innovations, however, generally had an expressive aim. As an artist with so human an agenda, it was no accident that Berio frequently wrote theatre pieces and works for voice, nor that these were his compositional strengths.

The Berio family had been active musicians for generations before Luciano was born in 1925. Luciano's grandfather, Adolfo, was an organist in their home town of Oneglia (a small town in Liguria in Italy). Ernesto, the boy's father, played the organ too, and had studied at the Milan Conservatorio.

Luciano's musical studies consequently began early (at the age of six). Adolfo introduced him to the basics, then Ernesto moved him on to piano playing, harmony and counterpoint. When he was 12, a Romain Rolland story about an imaginary composer prompted the boy to write a Pastorale for piano.

Composition, though, was initially just one aspect of general musicality; Luciano's speciality was the piano. Before he could pursue his interest at college, he was conscripted. He considered joining the partisans, but feared the consequences for his family.

Entering the Italian army towards the end of the Second World War, he found arrangements as chaotic as the corresponding situation in Germany. As his début, he was given a loaded rifle and no instruction. While he examined the weapon, it exploded in his hand. Three months later - time spent in a military hospital absurdly short of medicine - he faked a discharge and followed his initial inclination to join the partisans.

Berio moved to Milan after the war. His early training meant he could pass the fourth-year music exam immediately, joining the fifth year of the 10-year Conservatory course. His hand injury ruled out a piano career; and composition became his focus.

In 1950, the year Berio graduated, he accompanied a young American-Armenian singer making a recording for her Fulbright application. Cathy Berberian was her name; she won the scholarship. A few months later, she and Berio married.

It was in Milan that Berio had his first real chance to hear the music of his own century. Like his German contemporary Karlheinz Stockhausen, he was gripped by Béla Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Berio's breakthrough into the music of his own generation came in 1951, when the Koussevitzky Foundation sent him to the United States for four weeks, to study with Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. The meeting was significant, but dwarfed by his contact with America at large. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, he heard the first public concert in the States to include electronic music.

In Basle in 1954, Berio met some of the bright young things of the European avant-garde: Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna and Henri Pousseur. Maderna and Berio shared an interest in the potential of electronic music. They persuaded the state network, RAI, to found Italy's first electronic music studio, the Studio de fonologia musicale, at its station in Milan, and it opened in June 1955.

John Cage, the controversial American composer, worked at the studio at the end of 1958. Cage encouraged Berio to exploit the striking vocal talents of his wife, who had hardly sung since their daughter Christina was born five years earlier. "You have that fantastic voice right here in your own house," Cage told Berio. "Why don't you write something for her?"

Berio had long been drawn to vocal writing, and Cage's words crystallised the possibility of the couple starting a new professional relationship. At the end of the decade, Berio's vocal writing was in full spate; he produced Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958), an electronic composition derived from the "Sirens" chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, read by Berberian; Circles for voice, harp and percussion (1960), Epiphanie for voice and orchestra (1959-62) and Visage, a stereo tape piece based on Berberian's voice (1960-61).

As with many of his peers, Berio was exploring the new possibilities offered by experimental notations for the way listeners heard musical organisation, and for the way performers approach a piece. Circles, for instance, uses box notation, bracketing material which can be played at will within a defined section.

Berio started the Sixties, as he had the Fifties, at Tanglewood, this time as lecturer and composer-in-residence. He taught, too, on Stockhausen's Cologne courses, and appeared at the Dartington summer school in England in 1961 and 1962. The increasing number of such invitations, and his bureaucratic squabbles with Italian radio, led Berio to resign from the studio. For the next decade he supported himself mostly by teaching composition.

Darius Milhaud asked Berio to cover his spring semester courses at Mills College, California, in 1962. Berio was then invited for a year. During his first visit, he met a psychology student, Susan Oyama. When he returned, they began living together; Berio and Berberian divorced, and in 1965 he and Oyama married. This did not, however, inhibit the working relationship of the estranged couple. Folk Songs was written for Berberian in 1964, and Sequenza III the following year.

So began the life of an itinerant New Music star, with work at Harvard, the Juilliard School in New York, and stays in Berlin and Paris. Berio and Oyama had a daughter, Marina, in 1966, and Stefano, their son, was born in 1968. That year, perhaps his most important work of the Sixties, Sinfonia, was premiered in the New York Philharmonic's 125th anniversary season.

By this time, Berio saw himself as committed to a traditional view of how listeners relate to music, and of the best way to organise musical material. To a large extent, this commitment emerged from pre-existing leanings. Vocal writing, his speciality, suggested lyricism and emotion; even his experimental techniques tended to serve expression. This turn in commitment explains his growing use of folk material. Folk Songs is a landmark here, setting tunes from various countries, such as "I wonder as I wander" and "Rossignol". His hope, he said, was to unite folk and art music, to create "a real, perceptible, understandable continuity between ancient, popular music-making which is so close to everyday work, and our music."

"It is not my intention to preserve the authenticity of a folk-song," he qualified. "My transcriptions are analyses."

His new commitment can also be seen in his use of classical music as a source of quotations or melodic skeletons for his composition - a postmodern tendency that links him to numerous composers since the Sixties. The most famous example is the third movement of Sinfonia, which has the Scherzo of Mahler's Second running through it.

In 1971, Berio's second marriage was dissolved. He resigned, too, from the Juilliard: teaching, he said, had begun him make him "feel like a dentist". He returned to Italy and bought two neighbouring farm buildings below Radicondoli, a hilltop village near Siena. Over the next few years, he had them restored; fruit trees and vines were planted in the surrounding land. Meanwhile, life was more nomadic than ever. At this time, Berio observed, he spent his life in hotels. On one occasion he was stopped at the airport for his autograph - the fan thought he was Peter Sellers.

Beginning with his ambitious failure Opera for the Santa Fe opera in 1970, and continuing with Un re in ascolto (1979-83) and his opera for children Wir Bauen eine Stadt (1987), Berio shifted the emphasis of his music from the lyricism represented by solo voice to dramatic works. Again, this showed a continuity; he had been drawn to the theatre from an early age, and pieces such as Circles and Sequenza III involve theatrical as well as musical elements.

At the end of the Seventies, Berio was one of the most highly paid composers of art music, and was much sought-after for his conducting and organising talents: he was artistic director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra Regionale Toscana and of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. In 1974 Pierre Boulez offered Berio a post at IRCAM, the prestigious new centre for electronic music in Paris.

In 1977 he had married again - Talia Pecker, an Israeli musicologist - and they had a son. It was around the same time, especially after leaving IRCAM in 1980, that Berio settled properly in Radicondoli.

From there he oversaw the setting up in 1987 of a new studio and research centre. Tempo Reale, at the Villa Strozzi in Florence, was very much his brainchild; his work at IRCAM fed into TRAILS, the Tempo Reale Audio Interaction Location System, which allowed up to two dozen simultaneous live sounds to be processed and moved through up to eight directions between loudspeakers. His first significant work to use his system was Ofanim (1988), for a Hebrew singer-dancer, children's choir, and orchestra.

David Revill

The presence of Luciano Berio as featured composer at last September's Trondheim Chamber Music Festival obviously thrilled his Norwegian hosts. The local students performing his music, incredulous of their luck, revelled in his sometimes tartly critical remarks - the opportunity of playing such a towering figure his own music is not one they would soon forget, and his constructive criticism was lapped up with obvious delight, no matter how frank his language.

But Trondheim was only the most recent of a long line of such homages. For the past 15 years or so, festivals and committees had been showering decorations on Berio: the Siemens Prize in Munich in 1989, the Wolf Foundation Prize in Jerusalem in 1991 (the citation called him "one of the greatest composers of our generation whose new ideas, in an age of devaluation of human values, help to unify nations, cultures and generations"), an appointment as the Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard in 1993-94, the "Leone d'oro" at the Venice Biennale in 1995, the Japanese Imperial Prize for the Arts in 1996; featured composer at the Musica festival in Milan in 1996, at Présences in Paris in 1997, at Schleswig-Holstein in 1998 and Salzburg, Geneva, Lisbon and Gütersloh in 1999; honorary degrees from the universities of Siena in 1995 and Edinburgh and Turin in 1999 - Berio's last decade saw him firmly enthroned alongside Stockhausen as musical modernism's dominant icon.

He continued his work in music administration, too, accepting the position of President and Artistic Director of the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome in 2000, having acted as interim director since the previous year. He hit the headlines a month ago when a series of disagreements with Myung-Whun Chung, conductor of the Santa Cecilia orchestra, led to Chung's resignation; diplomatically, Berio publicly announced his gratitude to Chung.

Most of all, he continued to compose. His last two operas, Outis and Cronaca del luogo, were written in 1996 and 1998-99. The long string of solo Sequenze, each expanding the technique of its instrument, reached No 14; this final one, for solo cello, was premiered by Rohan de Saram in April last year. The seventh and last of his series Chemins, most of them concertante pieces for solo instrument and chamber ensemble, appeared in 1996.

The Chemins are often commentaries on the Sequenze: Berio didn't see why his existing pieces shouldn't generate new ideas, and he applied this logic to other composers' music, too, beginning with Mozart in 1956 and Monteverdi in 1966. The best-known result is Rendering (1989) which incorporated Schubert's sketches for his Tenth Symphony. This inveterate re- examination continued with an arrangement, first heard at Spoleto in 2001, of the unfinished Contrapunctus XIV from Bach's Art of Fugue. And his new conclusion to Puccini's Turandot was premiered in Amsterdam last year and given its first UK performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin at the Barbican in March.

His fascination with folksong endured, too: in 2002 he set a "Sicilian love-song", "E si fussi pisci", for a cappella mixed chorus. His last work, Stanze, a commission from the Orchestre de Paris, was completed only two weeks ago and demonstrates that his ambition was unbowed: an estimated 25 minutes in duration, it is scored for baritone, three small male-voice choirs and orchestra.

The permanent presence of a neckbrace for Berio in Trondheim had indicated that something was amiss - although it didn't stop him enjoying a boat trip on the fjord. Cancer of the spine was diagnosed, and his death was expected - and bravely faced.

When Stravinsky died in 1971, Berio sent a telegram to the funeral. It read simply: "Adieu, père, et merci." The world of modern music will now line up to pay like respect to Berio.

Martin Anderson