"We always experiment with language. Language itself is a ground of experimentation. Every time we talk, we search, we experiment this miraculous connection between sound and meaning. In music, of course this is very fundamental. Sound of voice and clarinet become a meaningful event because they are a part of a vision, of a structure, of a musical thought". Luciano Berio Berio's initial intention for the title "Sinfonia" wasn't analogical with the classical symphony.
It was intended purely etymological: sounding together, here eight voice and instruments. If we take the term in a more general sense, then the piece is more than just sounding together of different parts but the interplay of a variety of things, situations and meanings. However, this seminal, large-scale work of five movements can also be considered as an early postmodern symphony. It blends a universe of musical and literary references and embraces almost 200 years of the Western music. First movement is disposing basic elements, ingredients of the work. The main text used is French anthropologist Claude L'evi-Strauss's "Le Cru et Le Cu it" (raw and cooked).
In these work, L'evi-Strauss analyses the symbolism of Brazilian myths of the origin of water. The quotations are used as literary fragments. They are not developed but suspended. The Movement begins with a blurry tam-tam, then the eight voices emerge harmonizing from the silence. Suddenly they break into a freely muttered syllables and disjointed quotes from L'evi-Strauss. Voices occasionally disrupted by thick clusters form the orchestra.
In this opening section voices and instruments vacillate through a variety of homoryhtmic variations utilizing timbal developments such as slow vowel changes and use of mutes in brass instruments. A second section, which consists of frantic piano stretches and sudden bursts of vibraphone, develop into a orchestral tutti. At the end flute rings after being set in motion by the fast bursts of orchestra. The second part "O King" is a tribute to the memory of Martin Luther King. It was written a year before and incorporated into Sinfonia later. The text used here is only "O Martin Luther King".
In the first part Berio introduces all the vowels of the text. It's only at the end where we hear the full text. The process is to reveal the name gradually. Berio calls it "Little journey from sound to meaning". Musically it's a workout of Berio's "rotating pitch cycles". The vowels that make up Martin Luther King are vocalized in a rotating sequence.
In each cycle, different selection of notes sustained. The effect is that of a harmonic cloud. Piano usually triggers the held notes of the singers. Instruments and voices are integrated, assimilated. It's hard to distinguish what is what.
The whole movement has a quality of immobility. Third movement is the central part of the movement. It's homage to Gustav Mahler. This is probably the most interesting twelve minutes that modern music has to offer. It's a revolutionary masterpiece of composition and libretto that anticipates the postmodernism in music.
Berio uses Mahler's Resurrection symphony's scherzo movement as a meta-form of this third movement of Sinfonia. He even uses the same subtitle as Mahler: In ru hig flies sender Bewegung. Mahler runs throughout the whole movement like a river. Sometimes we see it sometimes it's underground. It's proliferating constantly other references such as Debussy, Bach, Brahms, Ravel, Schoenberg, Boulez, Stockhausen, Pousseur and himself.
Berio first thought of using something from Beethoven especially something from his later quartets. However, what he was interested in Mahler was this type of "stream-of-consciousness", flowing of his music. And also Mahler's music contains totality of history of music. The libretto is as complex as the music. Berio uses Samuel Beckett's The unnamable as the main source.
Dozens of other textual threads are scattered around to form a tapestry of language in all forms: fragments of solfege, slogans, and clich " es from the classical music audience. The whole movement is like a humorous self-awareness. It even expect a review in tomorrow's newspapers. Eventually it introduces the singers by name and finally thanks the conductor by his / her name. Like Beckett's Unnamable, the work has a voice conscious of itself, aware that it only exists in the moment of the performance. Beckett's text works in relation with other texts, just like Mahler's music functions in relation with other music.
Mahler proliferates into different musical regions. Beckett's text also proliferates into other texts (from most simple like everyday speeches to more complex, more hidden) in the same sense. Musical quotations are the signals for the harmonic texture of the work. Every musical reference puts us into a different harmonic region. In other words, every time an harmonic region is touched, there are concrete echoes from history of music.
The movement can be seen as journey of harmony: from simple to complex. Meanwhile the scherzo of Mahler is always the generator musical references, which appear and disappear consistently. Sometimes the text is related to the musical references. For example at the very beginning, Mahler's Fourth Symphony and Debussy's La M'er are recognized by the two sopranos. The quote of the drowning scene form the Berg's opera Wozzeck is the obvious connection between the first and third movement. Berio's own words also reveal that he finds Mahler's presence as a presence of a river.
The theme of water and the image of death underlie much of the work. If I were asked to explain the presence of Mahler's scherzo in Sinfonia, the image that would naturally spring to mind would be that of a river running through a constantly changing landscape, disappearing from time to time underground, only to emerge later totally transformed. Its course is at times perfectly apparent, at others hard to perceive, sometimes it takes on a totally recognasible form, at others it's made up of a m altitude of tiny details lost in the surrounding forest of musical presences". Luciano Berio The second movement "O King" and the Beckett's Unnamable both deal with a hero tu'e. Berg's quote also provides further connection with this motif. The brief fourth movement is a return to the calm region of the second.
It starts again with a Mahler quotation, this time from the chorus of the Finale of the Resurrection symphony. Whispers flutter around individual voices. The material grows higher as in the second movement, particularly covering major second / major third intervals. Sudden burst of the orchestra suggests a return to the second part of the first movement. However the orchestra is less aggressive and insists to remain below the chorus. The treatments of the vocal parts in the first, second and fourth movements resemble each other.
The text is not immediately perceivable. The experience of not quite hearing them is an essential to the nature of the work. The fifth movement was added a year later to balance the other four movements. The premiere of the work included the first four movements of the work. Fifth movement is a real conclusion of the work. It combines all the previous movements.
Everything is revisited again. The instrumental texture resembles the first movement, and it uses the pitch cycle from the second movement to generate the vocal harmonies. The music is more integrated and involves less contrast than the first movement. The text continues to expose heterephonic multiple language collage. The text of the fifth movement develops the texts of the previous movements, and above all give these fragments a narrative substance (especially drawn from L'evi-Strauss's text). The first four parts of the Sinfonia is obviously very different from each other.
The task of this last movement is to develop a unity in the work. In its five movements Sinfonia resembles an arch form. First and last movements are two agitated and dramatic movements, while second and fourth are calm quiet and passive movements. The center movement is a striking compilation of diverse elements. Sinfonia is a prime example of a post-avant garde work. The total organization and the intentional avoidance of historical elements in music after the second world war are clearly disobeyed here.
Sinfonia is one the pioneer works that announces postmodernism. It defines one of the most distinctive aspects of postmodernism. The absorption of historical references was actually a part of a general trend that resulted in a playful mix of styles, otherwise called 'pastiche' or 'eclecticism'. This meant a coexistence of the past and the present on the one hand, and a mix of popular and modern forms on the other.
In Sinfonia, eclecticism abounds in both text and music. In his words "I consider this Sinfonia also an exercise on -relativity- of perception of music history", Berio clarifies that his intention was postmodern.
Berio, Luciano. Linear notes in accompanying booklet, Berio: Sinfonia, Eindrucke, French National Radio Orchestra conducted by Boulez, Erato CD#2292-45228-2, compact disc. Brindle, Regional Smith. The New Music. New York: Oxford University press, 1987 Griffiths, Paul.
Modern Music and After: Directions since 1945.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1995 Scheffer, Frank.
Voyage to Cythera: Document aire over Luciano Berio's composite Sinfonia. 1999, video recording.