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Born from the tragedies of 1968, Berio’s miraculous ‘Sinfonia’ still resonates

Illustration of Luciano Berio
Luciano Berio
(Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)

Everyone is asking, or predicting, “what’s next.” That’s what you do in a pandemic. But it is also what you do in life and art.

Mahler did it in his “Resurrection” Symphony, his despair being that there is no point in living if there isn’t something beyond our suffering. Samuel Beckett began his novel “The Unnamable” with the questions: “Where now? Who now? When now?”

And Luciano Berio, applying Mahler’s symphony and Beckett’s novel as framework in his “Sinfonia,” took “What next?” to the next step. Written in 1968, “Sinfonia” is the most lasting symphonic work of and about that year — the year in which “What next?” has meant more than any other since the end of World War II. Given the chilling parallels between 1968 and now, “Sinfonia” proved a miraculously exhilarating breath of fresh air, a way forward by remaking the past in our image, or as Berio put it, “remembering the future.”

America then was, like now, a nation riven apart, as was the world. The year began with an uprising in Prague; North Korea seized the USS Pueblo and the Tet Offensive provided a major escalation of the Vietnam War. In April, Martin Luther King’s assassination so traumatized the nation that it led to riots in more than 100 cities. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June while campaigning in Los Angeles, delivering a devastating blow to the year’s presidential election.

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Through those first six months of 1968, Berio was working on a commission celebrating the New York Philharmonic’s 125th anniversary. By August the Italian composer, who was not known for meeting a deadline, was living in America and feverishly finishing his “Sinfonia” just as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley unleashed 23,000 riot police and the National Guard to violently squelch 10,000 antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention. Berio himself had been in Paris during the student unrest that led to weeks of demonstrations and strikes.

May ’68 and that Democratic convention changed history. So did “Sinfonia.” Berio submitted an incomplete first version of the new work Sept. 30, only 10 days before the premiere, which he chaotically conducted in the wake of national chaos. The theatrical disunity on display by the Democratic Party in Chicago was said to have played a decisive role in the November defeat of Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon. What Berio offered, and what sticks, is a path through the fragmentation of the present with a new kind of unity built upon the bones of the past.

“We can refuse history,” Berio said when he delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard 25 years later, “but we cannot forget about it.”

He also said: “A musical work is never alone. It always has a big family to cope with.” Sinfonia means sounding together, and that is the sense in which Berio used the title.

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The third movement of “Sinfonia” made it famous, influencing a generation or two of venturesome composers to put pop and the most rigorous avant-garde in the same stylistic basket, an embrace of anything-goes eclecticism over stark structuralism. The work even became the calling card for retrogressive neo-Romanticism, but Berio meant none of that. He had in mind deeply serious poetic, philosophical, political and philological intent, and he produced a work as profoundly resonant of the question of our very existence as Bach did in his cantata “Ich habe genug,” last week’s offering in this series.

But Berio, the most illustrious Italian composer since Puccini and the most extravagantly theatrical of all the European post-World War II avant-garde, did invite the Swingle Singers into the party. In 1964, he happened to be teaching at Mills College in Oakland (where the likes of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and Steve Reich studied with him), when a professor in the classroom next to Berio’s, tried to enliven an unresponsive music history class with the newly released “Jazz Sébastien Bach,” the Swingles first scat-singing Bach recording.

The late Margaret Lyon, former chairwoman of the Mills music department, recalled Berio storming into her room, grabbing the LP off the turntable and racing out with it. He was working on “Folk Songs” for his wife, Cathy Berberian. With her as his muse, he had already revolutionized writing for the voice, including the use of previously unheard of extended vocal effects and, in works like the 1961 “Visage,” making sterile electronic music scandalously erotic. He was looking for ways of translating the vernacular into something vocally new, and that’s what the Swingles accomplished with their bestselling Bach.

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On the surface, the third movement of “Sinfonia” is the splashiest thing to have come out of the European avant-garde. It proved an immediate sensation, an instantly accessible elaborate layering of music and text, past and present. Berio took the second movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, known as the “Resurrection,” and added musical commentaries in the form of snippets of well-known pieces, spoken text, scat by the Swingles and much else.

Mahler comprises the movement’s skeleton but one so flexible that Berio likened it in his program note for the premiere to a river that flows with varying degrees of perceptibility in its currents, surges and shifting tides. Something from Debussy’s “La Mer” catches the ear like a raft floating on Mahler, whereas Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” overflows Mahler and a waltz from Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” transforms the landscape.

The fragments of text and music are as layered as an over-rich cake. The movement unfolds likes a surreal dream and the ear can’t possibly take it all in. Yet nothing is arbitrary. Every quote, every work, every note is meant to contribute to meaning.

In “The Unnamable,” Beckett attempts a coming to terms with meaninglessness, as did Mahler’s movement, which was based on the composer’s droll song “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish.” Finding his church empty, Anthony attempts to preach to an audience of fish instead. They listen with eager intent, but the pike go right back to being thieves, the eels go back to being lechers and the fat cod and carp never take a break from their gluttony.

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“I am listening,” Beckett’s unnamed narrator announces in Berio’s movement. “Well, I prefer that, so there is an audience.”

But what will listening get us? Berio has an answer with his own text: “We shall overcome the incessant noise, for as Henri says, if the noise would stop there’d be nothing more to say.”

The movement concludes, “We must collect our thoughts, for the unexpected is always upon us, in our rooms, in the street, at the door, on the stage.”

By this point, “we shall overcome” becomes a startling allusion to the murder of King, which is the unexpected core of “Sinfonia.” Berio spent most of the 1960s in America — the first half of the decade in the Bay Area, the second half on the East Coast teaching at the Juilliard School and at Harvard. He became acutely caught up in the civil rights movement. In 1967, he wrote a short piece for soprano and small chamber group, “O, King,” in which the soloist mouths phonemes until they wondrously become “O Martin Luther King.”

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For the second movement of “Sinfonia,” Berio transformed this earlier tribute to the civil rights leader into a profoundly moving and original memorial for the Swingles and full orchestra. Just after the name Martin Luther King comes into focus, the third movement takes off, and the subtext of a preacher addressing impassive fish becomes a parable. By throwing everything in the arsenal of symphonic music throughout its history at us, Berio insists we fish listen. We refuse history that involves racism, but we cannot forget. Throughout the movement, Beckett’s lines, “keep going, call that going, call that on,” become a kind of refrain.

At the first performance, “Sinfonia” was in four movements — the first, pure Berio, music made of percussive sparks and splashes of color brass, with the Swingles reading fragments from anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ “The Raw and the Cooked” about the similarities of Brazilian myths of water. The final movement, a quiet fixation on two pitches, picks up on both Mahler and Lévi-Strauss, tying threads together.

But it is not really an ending so much as a repose after dazzled daze. Three weeks after the premiere, Berio added a fifth movement, which he said he found he needed, but which he more likely simply hadn’t had the time to complete earlier. This becomes the cathartic culmination of King’s tragic death.

Here, “O King” is now the skeleton, although discernible through mainly by the irregular pinprick sforzandos that punctuated the original movement. Layered over that are remembrances and developments of all that had come before in “Sinfonia,” everything now heard through the lens of MLK. Let King be the DNA from which we make something new, he seems to be saying. It is too easy to listen to and ignore. The world is a big family to cope with. Especially in a revolution.

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Coronavirus may have silenced our symphony halls, taking away the essential communal experience of the concert as we know it.

Leonard Bernstein, to whom “Sinfonia” is dedicated, conducted the premiere of the final five-movement “Sinfonia” on Oct. 8, 1970. Exactly 11 months later, he conducted the premiere of his most eclectic, most controversial and maybe most important work, “Mass,” to open the new Kennedy Center. The influence of “Sinfonia” musically and existentially on “Mass,” as Berio’s score is on so much music over the last half century, is unmistakable.

Starting points

Luciano Berio made the first recording of “Sinfonia” with the Swingles and the New York Philharmonic directly after the premiere, and it vibrates with the animation of something being born.

Try to get your hands on the old vinyl release if you can; there are a lot of them still out there. The first recording of the five-movement version was conducted by Pierre Boulez and it uncovers more detail than any other; there is also on YouTube a beautiful live performance of Berio conducting the full score and fascinatingly discursive 1999 Dutch documentary about the movement with Berio. Berio, however, once told me that Semyon Bychkov, who recorded “Sinfonia” in 1996, was his favorite conductor.

The 50th anniversary of “Sinfonia” brought two new recordings: an excellent performance from the BBC Symphony and, from the Seattle Symphony, the one with the best recorded sound, and that matters.

With live concerts largely on hold, Times critic Mark Swed offers a weekly series suggesting ways of listening to indispensable music, focusing on a different piece by a different composer every Wednesday. (This week we are publishing a day early.) Support Mark’s work with a digital subscription.


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