Berio: Quartetto (1956)

performed by the Arditti quartet


The string quartet under discussion begins at this point in the above video, or from here

In searching for information about this quartet, I came to find that there is very little discussion virtually anywhere of Berio’s almost-earliest work for string quartet. There was a ‘study’ for string quartet published in 1952, but this was the one I could get my hands on.

Like yesterday’s work, I was unable to dig up anything to give me some kind of insight into this piece, so we’re going to resort to quotes from others and some references to try to get our heads around this short eight-minute work. Tom Service, in his fantastic introduction to Berio and his music, gives not a single word to today’s work. Richard Whitehouse at Classical Source says the piece is “an elegantly Classical approach to quartet writing at the height of the avant-garde,” but not much else, in a review of a live performance of the works by the Arditti Quartet.

Gramophone says of the early work:

The Quartetto from 1956 is virtually an apprentice work, though this apprentice already has a distinctive personality, despite the dutiful echoes of Webern and Boulez. What Quartetto lacks is the imaginative fluency which the most recent score in this programme, Glosse (1997), has in abundance…

So… on the one hand it would be easy to say it’s another avant-garde, sparse string quartet that sounds pretty similar to yesterday. I’d also like to say I’m not nearly that ignorant of this work, but… sadly, I don’t have much more to say about than that, so we’re going to stoop to quoting Amazon.com reviews of the Arditti quartet album on which this work occurs. What I will say is that the fact that it sounds similar might not necessarily mean that it’s derivative or insignificant or uninspired.

It was written (or completed, at least) in 1956, the year after yesterday’s piece, and dedicated (perhaps reciprocally) to Bruno Maderna. Its eight minutes are not divided into distinctly separate movements (as far as I can tell) but there may be separate sections.

do have a very few informed things to say about the quartet here, or rather about its apparent lack of attention as far as analyses and recordings and program notes go. For one, it’s a mid-50s work that embodies the ideas of the Darmstadt crew: serialize elements, make nothing similar, completely re-invent musical ideas, all that. But I (would like to) think, then, that it also might be described as a pretty…. immature (as in early), or at least  less mature effort. That’s not to say that all first efforts are immature guinea pig pieces, no, but it does bring me to my second point.

Fortunately for Berio (and probably unfortunately for this work), he would later go on to write genius works for the string quartet that it seems are generally accepted as far more memorable than his first effort. Notturno is a piece I’d originally thought about including in this series to represent Berio because it’s such a fascinating listen, but it’s decades  ahead of what we’re discussing in the series, so… later gator. Most of the quoted excerpts from reviews or other writing go on to describe in far greater detail works like Notturno and Sincronie.

In fact, it seems that the Arditti album linked above is the composer’s complete works for string quartet, or was referred to that way, even with the ‘study’ missing, and while there’s only four of them, some quite recent, Quartetto is the shortest and earliest by some margin. It would be nearly a decade before he would write Sincronie.

At first pass, the thing you’ll notice about this work is that it’s full of texture, much like yesterday’s work, except that instead of being a rich, warm, expressive, and even lyrical thing, this one seems much more unsettled. It’s busier, and while it might seem logical to attribute this restlessness to a kind of youthful expression on the composer’s part, he was only five years Maderna’s junior, meaning he was about 30 years old when he wrote this piece.

I should also make note that it’s lightyears away from Berio’s piece we discussed last week, the wind quintet. That should be rather obvious. Again, to be honest, I’m not that familiar with Berio’s works outside of a few of these earlier ones (and Notturno), not even Sinfonia, really, but my ignorant assumption would be that this might have also been an early exploration of serialist styles not only for the world in general, in the 50s, in Darmstadt, after the war, but specifically for the composer himself.

Like I said, we’ll look to some other people’s comments. If you visit the Amazon link above, where the Arditti album is sold, you’ll see a handful of comments from various folks. I’m not sure what the MLA standard is for citing reviews of products on Amazon, but here we go:

From Autonomeus:

Following the others, the 1956 work sounds the most random, the purest example of using the new serialist language to utterly pulverize all conventions, leaving a fragmented pointillism.

From David D. Gable:

…the Quartetto per archi was written in response to Maderna’s explorations of an integral serialism and specifically to Maderna’s String Quartet of 1955. Nevertheless, Berio breathed life into his system and made of it a vehicle for music far more successfully than Boulez in the first book of Structures, for example: with the Quartetto per archi integral serialism breathes and sings. With the pointillist textures characteristic of integral serialism the rhetoric of traditional music was deliberately “pulverized,” as Berio has remarked. “With the serial experiment [. . .] we were operating in something of a vacuum,” but Berio “naturally went in search of deeper and more concrete points of reference.” In short, he never abandoned the quest for audible relationships that constitutes music composition.

I believe some of those comments (referenced here and there elsewhere) must come from the liner notes. It’s a shame you’re not required to cite sources in product reviews, because that’s some good information, and I’d be curious to know from whence it came, but it’s enlightening enough. I tried (rather weakly) to find out who this Mr. Gable was, but to no avail.

To be honest, this is a work I have spent less time listening to, partly discouraged by the almost complete lack of resources or discussion in any manner of the work. If I only had the score, I might be able to make something of it, but at least with the Boulez pieces, I had textbooks and some other reviews to give me an idea of where to look and what to be looking for. It’s like letting a wine breathe… the piece can open up, and that insight informs the listener, elucidates the structure or ideas behind the piece so that it can be enjoyed much more easily. I struggled enough with Maderna’s work yesterday, and I warmed up to it to a degree, but didn’t have either the inspiration or attraction to Berio’s work. Sorry.

But I also couldn’t leave him represented with only the wind quintet, so we added one of his other less significant works. There’s plenty more to get to from him, and we will eventually get to the Sequenza collection, Notturno, and the Sinfonia, but for now, we’re sticking to stuff before 1960. Stay tuned for more from the fifties next week.

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