An Encounter with Luciano Berio

One of the world's great modern composers is Luciano Berio, who died in May, 2003, but before that lived in Firenze (Florence), Italy. His music falls in the "avant garde" category, the sort of music that people who don't know or understand contemporary music automatically dislike. To reject Berio on the basis of genre, however, is to subject oneself to grave loss, because his music is extraordinarily rewarding.

My first experience with hearing Berio's music was in high school. (I graduated in 1961.) I admired him all through college, when I was a music composition student. When I applied for a Fulbright fellowship to study in Italy, I originally wanted to study with Berio, but he was in the US at the time, teaching at both Harvard and Julliard. Besides, I never knew whether he even took students. Ultimately I did get a Fulbright, to study at Saint Cecilia Academy in Rome, but due to personal circumstances I turned it down and never went to Italy.

Time went on, life changed, and I wound up abandoning music for a living. But I've always been an earnest listener.

One day in October 1999, I got email from a man at Universal (pronounced oo-ni-ver-SAHL) music publishers in Vienna, perhaps the best music publishing house in Europe, certainly so for contemporary music. They have been Berio's publisher since I ever heard of him. (Universal has been in business over 100 years.) The writer of the email said he noted that my catalog listed a certain CD of music by Berio, including the work Voci for solo viola and two chamber ensembles. Berio himself is the conductor. By some quirk of circumstances, Mr. Berio never received a personal copy of that disk from Sony, the record company, and it is now unavailable. Berio wrote all the music on the recording, was principal performing artist, and Universal owns the publishing rights, so there surely could be no legitimate complaints regarding copyright issues. Would I consider possibly making a copy of the CD for Mr. Berio's archives?

I was delighted to do this for Berio. Actually, at this time I did not yet own a CD burner, but I asked a friend at work if he would be willing to do this for me as a favor, and he was happy to do so. My friend was also able to scan the cover art, duplicating it almost perfectly.

In my response to Universal, I asked whether it might be possible to acquire in return a score of one of Berio's works, possibly even autographed? They said this would be no problem.

So I sent the copy to Universal in mid-November 1999, along with a personal letter to Berio telling him that I've always admired his work, wanted to study with him at one time, and once barely missed an opportunity to meet him when he visited where I went to school, but his time and attention were being monopolized at the time by my composition teacher at the time, Salvatore Martirano, who is also Italian. (Italian-American, that is.)

Berio visited Universal in Vienna in late November and picked up the CD copy. A couple of weeks later, I received in the mail an autographed copy of Voci, a 28-minute work of immense difficulty and technical complexity. I was very glad to receive this!

In mid-January I got a short but very warm personal letter from Mr. Berio himself, which is how I know, from the return address, that he was then in Florence. He said that if I ever come to Italy to look him up and we would talk without interruption from Salvatore Martirano (who has died)!

That's not the end of the story. In early February 2000, I got email from someone who works for Motorola in Milano. It seems that Motorola was responsible for sponsoring a Berio festival there. He had received from Berio a copy of the letter I sent him, in which I mentioned that I then worked for Motorola. So this person said that if I would like, he would send me a program from the Berio festival. I wrote back saying sure, I'd love to see it.

A short time later it arrived. I was astounded. I expected some sort of small brochure at best. Instead I received a nicely bound glossy full-color 7"x10" book of 190 pages. It's written in Italian, so I can't get much out of it, but there are also many pictures of Berio and other well-known composers. So this will be added to my shelf right next to my other Berio treasure.

Postscript, May 29, 2003

This morning I learned the sad news that Luciano Berio died two days ago, at age 77, possibly from complications following spinal surgery. He was no longer in Florence, but in Rome, where he had been a director at St. Cecilia Academy, where had been slated to go as a student so many years ago.

Luciano Berio was one of the great composers of the twentieth century, and although elderly, apparently his death was unexpected. He will be greatly missed.