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From the Archive

Berio's "Sinfonia" [by Lewis Saul]

One day during my short stint at Juilliard, the composer Milton Babbitt came as a guest lecturer in one of my composition classes.

Mr. Babbitt gave us a nice lecture on 20th century music and how serial music (12-tone) was here to stay and it shouldn't be "our" problem if people don't enjoy it or "understand" how to react to it...

I recall that my friends and I were horrified at such elitism. Although I had learned a great deal of serial technique my senior year in high school at IAA, my own inclination led me to reason that music should always sound interesting and should completely engage an audience. Certainly, we all toyed around with trying to write "interesting" 12-tone music.

And then one day ...


I heard this piece. Actually, Berio was one of my professors, but alas, I had only one session with him and he barely spoke three words to me (he was still working on the Fifth Movement, which not completed at the premiere). I was only at Juilliard for 14 days before I was nearly killed by a drunk driver . . .The piece with the just-completed Fifth Movement was premiered eight days before my accident.

If you have been reading my previous posts, you will recall that I had the honor of performing Mahler's Second Symphony at IAA. So naturally, this piece had an extra added meaning for me:


Allen B. Ruch has written such a wonderful description of this piece ~ I could not do better. I hope you will read it.

Because the oversized score is so huge, it will not fit nicely into my scanner, I can only provide the first page (above).

Take a look at what the Swingle Swingers are singing! Just varied vowel-sounds -- pppp -- which quickly morphs into a frenetic text by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss from Le cru et le cuit ("The Raw and the Cooked").

By the way, Berio (may he rest in peace) could be a real asshole:

"[Y]ou know that Berio used The Raw and the Cooked in his Sinfonia. A part of the text is recited, accompanied by the music. I admit that I did not grasp the reason for this choice. During an interview a musicologist asked me about it, and I answered that the book had just come out and the composer had probably used it because it was at hand. Now, a few months ago Berio, whom I don't know, sent me a very disgrunted letter. He had read the interview, several years after the fact, and assured me that the movement of this symphony offered the musical counterpart of the mythical transformation I was revealing. He included a book by a musicologist ... who had demonstrated the fact. I apologized for the misunderstanding, which was, I said, the result of my lack of musical training, but I'm still baffled." (Wikipedia article)

The Second Movement's text is simply a name, broken down into its tiniest components of vowel/consonant-sounds: MARTIN LUTHER KING. 

The Third Movement is perhaps the reason why this piece achieved such universal acclaim. Berio did something so unique and interesting that it would be impossible not to simply sit back and admire it:

He re-orchestrates the Third Movement of Mahler'a 2nd Symphony (the Resurrection) in his own style -- although it is clearly distinguishable amidst the sometimes cacophonous explosion of sound and fury which is layered in and around the Mahler quote.

In addition to the Mahler symphony, Berio has inserted "quotes" (reorchestrated and carefully and cleverly inserted into the flow). Here's the complete list:


The eight vocalists are not soloists! They are meant to be integrated into the mix as Berio says: "a vocal group among instrumental groups" (score).

The Fourth (and later Fifth) are meant to be sort of codas to the earlier movements. They quote previous material, including bits of the First Movement and the whole-tone feel of the Second Movement.


I am completely baffled as to why there is not a CD of the premiere recording, with Berio conducting the NY Phil. It is still available on vinyl (used).

I own every CD available of this piece. None compare to Berio's premiere, which I consider to be a major artistic tragedy. These two are pretty good, although I am astonished that Boulez failed to follow Berio's instructions regarding microphones and mixing. Much of the textual (and occasionally musical) details are either buried deep in this mix, barely audible, or missing entirely.

I actually attended a performance by this orchestra with Boulez conducting in Paris in 1972. It suffered from the same type of problems.

Boulez/Swingle Singers/Orchestre National de France
Eötvös/Göteborgs Symphony

Eötvös, on the other hand, gives a unique interp which is unusually intimate. Quite different from the Berio, but much more thoughtful than the Boulez...


Thank you, David Lehman, for giving me the opportunity to share these musical passions of mine. I enjoyed sharing my ideas and I hope some of you enjoyed some part of it.

Thank you and I wish it would rain already.

Lewis Saul

Ed. note: from the archive; first posted on July 16, 2010, as the seventh in a series in honor of the seven orchestral pieces the author vows to love forever. 

January 23, 2021

January 22, 2021

January 20, 2021

January 18, 2021

January 17, 2021

January 15, 2021

January 14, 2021

January 13, 2021

January 11, 2021

January 10, 2021

January 07, 2021

January 05, 2021

January 04, 2021

January 03, 2021

January 01, 2021

December 31, 2020

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I left it
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"After You've Gone"
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