Luciano Berio, 77; Groundbreaking Italian Composer

Times Staff Writer

Luciano Berio, one of the great figures in 20th century music and widely regarded as the most important Italian composer since Puccini, died Sunday night at a hospital in Rome. He was 77.

The cause of death was not announced, but Berio had been suffering from spinal problems and his health had been failing in the last six months.

Berio, a composer whose work included orchestral pieces, electronic experiments, a series of famous works for solo instruments, operas and chamber works, viewed music in the broadest of historical perspectives. He used the phrase “remembering the future” to describe his musical philosophy. He made his name as an avant-gardist and he remained a Modernist throughout his career, but he also saw himself as reinventing the past.

In one of his most famous works, “Sinfonia,” which was written for the New York Philharmonic and the Swingle Singers in 1969, Berio layered onto a movement from Mahler’s Second Symphony quotes from other famous musical works as well as spoken and sung texts taken from Samuel Beckett’s novels. The result was Mahler transformed, and a work that was credited with kicking off the contemporary genres of post-Modernism and New Romanticism.


French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, a peer of Berio’s, on Tuesday cited his unique gifts as a composer.

“Berio had a theatrical genius that made his music very accessible and free from dogma,” said Boulez, in Southern California where he is acting as guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and as guest artistic director at the Ojai Music Festival. “We all had a problem with trying to get free of the rules, and he found a way to do it.”

Berio’s ability to break free of musical dogma, whether associated with traditional music or the avant-garde, helped make him especially at home in freewheeling California. He taught at Mills College in Oakland from 1962 to 1964, and his students ranged from the Minimalist Steve Reich to the Grateful Dead’s bass player, Phil Lesh. In the 1970s and 1980s, Berio became a regular visitor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His work was admired by then-music director Zubin Mehta, as it is by the current music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Berio conducted the orchestra on several occasions.

Berio also had a close relationship with Los Angeles Opera under Placido Domingo. His orchestration of Monteverdi’s opera “The Coronation of Poppea” was supposed to have premiered in February with Domingo as the star. In November, Berio informed the company that he was too ill to complete the orchestration.

“He was a genius,” the company’s music director, Kent Nagano, said Tuesday, “a strong individual whose roots in European culture and relationship to the West Coast made him exactly the kind of composer I envisioned helping give the company a strong and relevant historical perspective as well as taking it into the future.”

Nagano was instrumental in commissioning Berio to write an opera, still in the idea stage, based upon the career of Domingo for L.A. Opera. Domingo said Tuesday he was particularly disappointed in not having that opera come to fruition. He called Berio “one of the outstanding figures in 20th century music and opera.” Domingo said he liked to kid Berio about his avant-garde past. “ ‘Luciano, write for me some melodic music that I can sing,’ I would say to him. And he would reply, ‘Placido, everything I write sounds melodic to me.’ ”

Berio was born Oct. 24, 1925, in the Ligurian port city of Oneglia, Italy, to a family of organists and composers. He might have become a pianist had he not injured his hand as an unwilling conscript in Mussolini’s army.

After World War II, in which he never fought, Berio turned to composition, studying at the Milan Conservatory and at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. In 1950, he married the American singer Cathy Berberian in Milan, and soon became interested in exploring the new directions music was taking. He experimented with electronics and became fascinated with the possibilities of expanding the techniques of standard instruments and voice.

In 1955, Berio helped found Italy’s first electronic music studio in Milan, and that experience led him to want to invent new sounds for acoustical instruments and voice as well. In 1958, he wrote a solo piece for flute, “Sequenza,” that became the first in a series of ongoing works for different instruments, the last being “Sequenza XIII,” for accordion. In these pieces, the performer is not only given a virtuosic workout but also expected to assume a persona.

Berio was a devoted intellectual and student of literature. He was a friend of the writer Umberto Eco, with whom he produced an electronic work for radio that musically deconstructed James Joyce, one of their shared passions. He worked several times with the Italian poet Edoardo Sanguineti. In the 1980s, he wrote two operas -- “La Vera Storia” and “Un Re in Ascolto,” to librettos by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino. One of his best known early works, “Circles,” is a set of songs to poems by e.e. cummings.

Berio had a popular touch as well. In 1964, while at Mills College, he wrote new accompaniments to a set of folk songs from different countries for Berberian and a chamber ensemble. “Folk Songs” is his most performed piece, and its premiere was an example of Berio’s colorful personality. It was a stormy performance: He worked right up until curtain, and Berberian and he were in the midst of breaking up. He had met a student at Mills, Susan Oyama, whom he would marry in 1965.

Berio spent the remainder of the 1960s teaching at Harvard and the Juilliard School in New York City before returning to Italy and settling in Radicondoli near Siena. His marriage with Oyama ended in divorce, and in 1975, he married Israeli musicologist Thalia Pecker.

Around that time, Boulez invited Berio to oversee the electrono-acoustic department of IRCAM, the Parisian new music institute that Boulez opened in 1976. Berio’s career was too wide-ranging for him to settle down, and he did not remain long.

But Berio was not through with administration. At the time of his death, he was the president of the National Academy of St. Cecilia, the major orchestra of Rome. In that position, Berio had helped realize the new Renzo Piano-designed performing arts center in Rome that opened last year and is run by the Academy.

Berio’s style of music cannot be pinned down. He could be a trickster avant-gardist and he also made respectful arrangements of Verdi and Kurt Weill songs. At Berberian’s behest, he even arranged Lennon/McCartney tunes. He could be inconsistent. He wrote a clarinet concerto for the New York Philharmonic in 1986 that was nothing more than a straightforward orchestration of a Brahms clarinet sonata. He angered more than one institution by submitting as new work previous pieces with additions for more instruments.

But the number of Berio pieces that break new ground or that have enormous emotional, technical and theatrical sophistication and depth far outweigh those that are disappointingly derivative. He could always be counted upon to process music and ideas in intriguing ways.

Still, it is probably the sheer sensuality of Berio’s music, its Italianate lyricism, that may be its most memorable quality. A larger-than-life personality, Berio enjoyed fine wines (he had his own Berio label in Radicondoli), cigars and other luxurious indulgences, and that love of pleasure is unmistakable in his music.

Berio is survived by Pecker and five children from his three marriages.