Born on October 24, 1925, in Oneglia, Italy; married Cathy Berberian, 1950; divorced, 1963, one daughter; married Susan Dyama, 1964; divorced, 1971, one son, one daughter; married Talia Pecker, 1977, two sons. Education: Conservatorio Guiseppe Verdi, Milan, Italy, degree in composition, 1951. Addresses: Office--Il Colombaio, Radicondoli, Siena, Italy.

One of the most important composers of the twentieth century, Luciano Berio took classical music out of the age of the traditional orchestral instruments and into the world of electronic music made with computers and tape. Not only did he combine instrumental performance with pre-recorded sounds and/or music on tape, giving the tape recorder an role equal to other instruments, he also created new kinds of pieces by electronically manipulating recordings of instruments or voices.

Ironically, Berio's interest in electronic music--he saw it as the musical wave of the future--was accompanied by a deep interest in traditional folk music and in singing. His goal was to extend the range of vocal music and the spoken word by meshing them with the musical structure. To achieve this, he frequently set to music experimental literary texts, by writers like James Joyce, Italo Calvino, e.e. cummings, and Samuel Beckett.

Berio was born on October 24, 1925 in Oneglia, Italy, to a family that traced its musical lineage back to composers in the mid-eighteenth century. Both his father and grandfather were organists and composers. From the time Berio was six years old, both contributed to his musical education, teaching him to play piano and organ. Even as a child, they allowed him to assist in their musical duties at church. When his skill on the piano was far enough advanced, he performed chamber music at home with his father.

After the end of World War II, 20-year-old Berio enrolled as a law student at the University of Milan. While studying there, he was exposed for the first time to the music of the great avant-gardists of twentieth century music: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Milhaud, and others. Berio was awestruck by this music that for decades had gone unheard in Mussolini's Fascist Italy. He left law school after one year and enrolled in the Conservatorio Guiseppe Verdi in Milan. There he studied composition with Giorgio Ghendini and Giulio Cesare Paribeni, and conducting with Carlo Maria Giulini. He was a brilliant student and graduated with highest honors.

Once out of school, Berio supported himself for a short time by coaching opera seminars and conducting for various Italian opera houses. He was composing as well. Works from this period, such as 1951's Due Pezzi for piano and violin and 1952's Variazioni, are clearly Modernist in intent, but are nonetheless written using the framework of traditional classical music. Another work hinted at things to come. In 1952, Chamber Music used poems by James Joyce, a writer his friend Umberto Eco introduced him to and whose work would play a tremendously significant role in Berio's later compositions. In 1950, Berio began to tour as the piano accompanist for American soprano, Cathy Berberian. Her remarkable vocal abilities would inspire some of Berio's later experiments for the human voice.

In 1952, Berio received a Koussevitzky scholarship to Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, where he continued his studies in composition. At Berkshire, he was introduced to serialism, a highly influential technique developed by composers such as Anton Webern and Alban Berg earlier in the century. Berio later rejected strict serialism. However, this technique influenced most of his subsequent compositions for instrumental ensembles Variations for Chamber Orchestra in 1953, Nones in 1954, Allelujah I, in 1956, and the Sequenza series.

A visit he paid to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City while in the United States had a much more profound impact on his composing. There, he attended the first concert of electronic music given in the United States. Berio was captivated by the possibilities that electronics seemed to offer and returned to Italy in 1953 determined to explore them more deeply. He began working at RAI, the Italian radio network, where the following year he founded the Studio di Fonologia Musicale, an electronic music center. He began producing his own radical works using electronics and tape, such as Mutazioni in 1955, Perspectivesin 1956, and Momento in 1958. These works further loosened the already tenuous bonds of avant-garde music to melody, pitch, and traditional musical sound.

Thema (Omaggio a Joyce), composed in 1958, is a prime example. Considered to be Berio's first important electronic work, Homage to Joyce was written for a single voice reading the first 40 or so lines of the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce. Berio taped Cathy Berberian's voice reading the passage, then modified the sound of her voice electronically, to explore the borderlands between speech and music. For example, he would alter a taped sequence, then superimpose it back onto the original version. The result, wrote Alfred Frankelstein in High Fidelity magazine, "is a rich, elaborate and dramatic polyphony of pure sound."

The 1960s represented a high water mark for Berio's work for voice. He continued his literary-musical experiments, premiering on his next trip to the United States Circles, a work for voice, harp, and percussion based on the poetry of cummings, a performance that was also Cathy Berberian's American debut. His next great work was Visage, a work in which Berio had Berberian improvise various monologues, which were based on the pure sound of various languages but which did not possess any sense at all. The only word used in the entire piece was "parole," Italian for "words." David Ewen quotes Berio himself on this work: "Visage is a purely radio-program work: a sound track for a drama that was never written.... Visage can be heard also as a metaphor of vocal behavior."

Two years later, in 1963, Berio presented an even more radical work, Passaggio, a theater piece with a libretto by Edoardo Sanguineti. In it, a single female character called "Her" is, for reasons never explained, being persecuted on all sides. Two sets of vocal choruses are part of the piece. One sings from the orchestra pit. The other chorus is scattered throughout the audience and continually interrupts Her's screams and cries with spoken insults and commentary in various languages, including Latin. The piece was designed to provoke the audience, and indeed some listeners in the first night crowd responded to the work with indignant catcalls. However, "as the more vocal members of the audience began to protest," wrote David Osmond-Smith in Berio, "they heard their exclamations echoed and transformed by the speaking chorus, whom Berio had instructed to improvise in this fashion whenever appropriate. With their favorite weapon neutralized ... the Milanese audience was compelled to endure the authors' barbs as best they might." The work ends with Her triumphantly casting her persecutors from the theater.

In 1961, Berio resigned from the Studio di fonologia and in spring 1962 accepted an offer to teach composition at Mills College in Oakland, California. Berio lived and worked in the United States until 1971. Divorced from Berberian in the early 1960s, Berio met his second wife at Mills and married her in 1965. He continued to write for Berberian, however, including works such as Folk Songs of 1964 and Sequenza III, a work he later considered rescoring for three voices. Few singers besides Berberian, he felt, could manage it alone.

In the fall of 1964, Berio's wife began her doctoral work at Harvard University and Berio began teaching music there. The following year, he accepted a teaching position at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and between 1965 and 1967 commuted between the two schools, while at the same time maintaining a busy schedule of concerts and appearances throughout the world.

The New York Philharmonic commissioned a work from Berio to commemorate the orchestra's 125th anniversary. Sinfonia, premiered in 1968, was a vast work that reflected Berio's interest in linguistic phenomena, the human voice, the avant-garde music of the early twentieth century, and the radical politics of the late 1960s. Composed for orchestra and the eight-voice group, the Swingle Singers, Sinfonia consists of four sections. The first is based on a number of fragments from the writing of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. The second section is a tribute to Martin Luther King who was murdered earlier the same year. The third section is a collage of fragments from the writings of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, graffiti from the 1968 student uprisings in Paris, and of quotes from the music of composers Alfred Schoenberg, Claude Debussy, Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky, and Gustav Mahler. In fact, the section has been called a tribute to Mahler. The final movement combines the themes of the preceding sections.

The piece was well-received by critics. Harold C. Schonberg described it in the New York Times, as"music of the absurd, perhaps, or a new kind of Walpurgisnacht. But it moves, and it has a force and it never lets the attention down.... [It is] one of the musics of the future." Berio's subsequent work was not as successful. When This Means That was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1970, it drew a hail of boos and some members of the audience even stormed out in the middle of the performance. Critics were also dismissive of Opera--which was not an opera--an overly complicated work that used the sinking of the Titanic as a metaphor for the destruction of humanity by the technological age.

Berio left Juilliard in 1971 and returned to Europe. In 1974, he took over leadership of the Electro-Acoustic Department of the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique (IRCAM) in Paris where he worked until 1980. He also became the director of the Accademia Filharmonica Romana, the Rome Philharmonic. In 1977, the recording of his work "Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra" was distinguished with the Koussevitsky International Recording Award.

From the 1970s on, traditional folk music played an increasingly important role in his work. In 1972, he completed E vo, for soprano and instrumental ensemble. It is based on the sound and techniques of Sicilian folk tunes and uses the words to a Sicilian lullaby. He was also interested in the music of Croatia, Brittany, and the Balkans. In 1978, Berio composed Coro, a work for vocal ensemble and orchestra. In it, he paired off 40 vocalists with 40 instrumentalists, to emphasize particular sonic textures. The piece utilizes folk texts and highly political, anti-fascist poems of Pablo Neruda about the Spanish Civil War. Almost no real folk tunes are used in the piece; instead, Berio composes sounds that are reminiscent of various folk musics.

In the 1980s, with Italian writer Italo Calvino, Berio composed an opera, Un re in ascolto, or "A King Listening." The story, based on The Tempest by Shakespeare, concerns a theatrical impresario, Prospero, searching for the voice that will perfectly suit a character he has imagined. Over the course of the drama, Prospero "auditions" various voices, until the one he is looking for arrives and sings a tour de force aria. Besides Shakespeare, the opera was inspired by the work of French philosopher Roland Barthes and English poet W.H. Auden.

Sequenza was a series of solo works begun by Berio in the late 1950s. They include works for flute, harp, voice, piano, trombone, viola, oboe, violin, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, and in 1988, guitar. Ideal for virtuoso performers and not requiring the long rehearsal time required for Berio's larger scale works, the Sequenza were probably the most frequently heard pieces of all the Italian composer's music. Berio's output slowed in the 1990s, but not his conviction in the importance of music. As he told Rossana Dalmonte in Two Interviews, "It is obvious that the edifice of our culture would make no sense without the bricks of music."

by Gerald E. Brennan

Luciano Berio's Career

Received Koussevitzky scholarship, studied at Berkshire Music Center, 1952; heard first performance of electronic music at New York Museum of Modern Art, 1952; attended Darmstadt School for first time, 1953; established studio for electronic music at RAI in Milan, 1955; composed Thema (Omaggio a Joyce), 1958; edited contemporary music journal Incontri musicali, 1956-60; composed the first of his Sequenza, 1958; began teaching composition at the Berkshire School, 1960; composed Passaggio, 1961-62; taught at Mills College in Oakland, California, 1962; taught at Harvard University, 1965-66; taught at the Juilliard School of Music, New York, 1965-71; composed Sinfonia for 125th anniversary of New York Philharmonic, 1968-69; moved back to Italy, 1972; assumed directorship of Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique Musique (IRCAM) in Paris, 1974; resigned IRCAM position, 1980; founder and director, Tempo Reale, Florence, Italy, 1987--; Distinguished Composer in Residence, Harvard University, 1994--.

Luciano Berio's Awards

Grammy Award (with New York Philharmonic, Swingle Singers), Best Choral Performance, Classical (Other Than Opera) for Sinfonia, 1969; Koussevitsky International Recording Award for "Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra," 1977; Siemens Prize, 1989; Wolf Foundation Prize of Jerusalem, 1990; Imperial Praemium prize, 1996.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 8 years ago

Hello - I would like to point out a mistake (possibly a typo) on your bio of Luciano Berio. The name you give for his second wife should read Susan Oyama, not Dyama. Also, you show at the top of your piece that Luciano and Susan married in 1964, but later in your article you state they married in 1965. From my sources, 1965 is the correct year. Cordially, Dave Bubsey East Tennessee State University Dept of Music