Luciano Berio: Opus Number Zoo, Children’s Play for Wind Quintet

performed by Quintette Nielsen & Pierre Roullier, or below by The Philharmonic Five


I feel a little bit bad that this is the first representation that Berio will be getting in our series here, but while he is a critically important name in the history of 20th century music, his influence comes along a little bit later in the story of what developed at Darmstadt, and is considered on some lists to be one of the secondary composers to people like Boulez and others who we will discuss more fully this month. His Sinfonia and series of Sequenza are very famous, but they fall outside the time period we’re discussing now.

But for now, we address one of his earliest works, something that I almost think doesn’t belong with the rest of the month’s works. For one, it’s clearly very neoclassical in expression and form. There’s not much information online about Berio’s pre-serial years, and I haven’t done a ton of digging, to be honest. This work, though, was written apparently just prior to the Italian composer’s moving to America to study with another  Italian composer, one Luigi Dallapiccola, who was at Tanglewood, and stirred up an interest in the young composer (Dallapiccola was about two decades Berio’s senior. Of him, Wikipedia says “His works widely use the serialism developed and embraced by his idols; he was, in fact, the first Italian to write in the method.” But that’s for another time.)

The work is in four movements:

1. Barn Dance (Tanz in der Scheune)
2. The Fawn (Das Reh). Calmo
3. The Grey Mouse (Die Maus). Presto
4. Tom Cats (Die Kater)

IRCAM lists the dedication to the work as “to Aaron Copland for his 70th birthday, (and, as an afterthought, also for his 51st birthday)”, and I assume the dedicatee was an acquaintance he met in America, except that this was written before he moved there, but maybe not published. It was also revised in 1970, and that may have been when the dedication was made. I can’t say.

Luciano Berio’s official website (?) states that it was written:

for an audience of young people, and revised in 1970. The work is composed of four movements, each corresponding to a text read by the musicians, isolated or together. The four poems were written by Rhoda Levine.

I added that link. Seth Brodsky has a nice little write-up of the work at AllMusic, but you should listen to the work first and then do any reading about it. The YouTube recording above is quite nice, but sometimes a bit difficult to hear exactly what’s being said. The Quintette Nielsen recording is in French (from whence this version comes I know not).

In any case, the result is… something similar to mixing together neoclassical Stravinsky, Disney’s Fantasia and/or Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, (Stravinsky already has Fantasia  connections). That all seems pretty simple so far, but we’re missing the last, crucial ingredient of the work: Orwell’s Animal Farm. I say that not because the piece is political or has any of the same message, but that the overall feel is quite dark. There’s an undercurrent of sharp irony behind the jumpy, friendly character of the music. While the work was apparently written for children, there appears to be a darker side to the piece that children wouldn’t necessarily catch on to.

The first piece is catchy and bouncy enough, but ends with an abrupt “that’s all,” suggesting it ended less than amicably… maybe? The other three are more directly ominous, with Brodsky (linked above) quoting part of the text for the second movement, from the fawn’s mouth:

the cry of bombs…the scream of distant fields…[thinking] what madness of men…to blast all that is lively, lively, proud and gentle. What can the reason be?

Is even the title of ‘children’s play’ a statement of irony? Wouldn’t surprise me. The other two movements (should they be called scenes?) aren’t any more feel-good, one a soliloquy from an old mouse, the final one some kind of territorial battle between stray cats. As Brodsky says at the close of his article, “In echt-O. Henry fashion, their combat rids them both of the thing they endeavored to usurp from each other.”

Lots to chew on for a little kid’s play.

But what makes this a play? Well, if you did your seven minutes of homework by watching the above video, you’ll see there’s some interaction between the performers. They take turns giving narration, sometimes switching voices mid-sentence, so the speaking part hops nervously throughout the quintet. In the final scene/movement, there are points when they all stand up, clarinet goes bell up, reseated, up again, etc. I’m not sure how well young kids would catch on to or keep up with a work like this. I don’t understand kids, and the narration is delivered pretty quickly, and without any of the typical warm, friendly intonation a mother or teacher would have when reading a bedtime story hopefully far more cheerful than this work.

In any case, I thought I’d include this just because I found it interesting. It doesn’t really  belong as part of the canon of Darmstadt works, as is plainly obvious, but I feel bad for excluding Berio too entirely from the series. It’s also perhaps a little insight into where Berio might have ‘come from.’ You can read frustrating comments online (in YouTube videos or ratings of albums on Amazon or whatever) about how “[composer at hand] clearly had no talent for music so tried to wield his superiority in pedantic musical processes” or “had to create his own system of composition since he didn’t know how to work in traditional means” or something, but having a look at the earliest works of Schoenberg and Webern and many others (even Scriabin, totally unrelated) shows that these people were geniuses with plenty of talent who fully decided on going in a different direction and doing something new. You might not like anything we talked about of Messiaen’s but it’s hard to listen to his preludes and say he had no talent as a composer.

Other folks, like Boulez or Nono, jumped onto the music scene as pretty fully-formed serialists. There wasn’t a single thing Boulez wrote that didn’t have at least the simplest of twelve-tone ideas already present. But here, we have a glimpse into Berio’s work before his Darmstadt days. Granted, this isn’t the only work before that period, but it’s the one I chose. Stay tuned for more.

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