Luciano Berio Biography

(Italian Composer Noted for His Pioneering Work in Electronic Music)

Birthday: October 24, 1925 (Scorpio)

Born In: Oneglia, Imperia, Italy

Luciano Berio was an Italian composer best known as one of the pioneers of avant-garde Italian music. His first introduction to music happened due to his father and grandfather, both of whom were musicians. He began learning piano at a young age. During his military training, his hand injury caused him to stop playing the piano and he focused on composition. He enrolled in Milan Conservatory to learn music and following his graduation, he began playing music in concerts. Luciano was noted for his experiments with music. He constantly experimented with different sounds in music, instruments and musical styles. He established an electronic music studio in Milan in 1955. There he mixed electronic music with contemporary classical Italian music. He also worked and taught in the USA for a decade in the 1960s. He was a teacher a the Juilliard School, Harvard University and Dartington International Music School. Some of his most popular works are Sinfonia, Sequenza, Circles and Differences. After his return to Europe in the early 1970s, he kept composing and experimented with the Sicilian folk music in some of his final recordings.

Quick Facts

Italian Celebrities Born In October

Died At Age: 77


Spouse/Ex-: Cathy Berberian (m. 1950–1964), Susan Oyama (m. 1966–1972), Talia Pecker (m. 1977–2003)

father: Ernesto Berio

mother: Ada dal Fiume

children: Cristina Berio, Daniel Berio, Jonathan Berio, Marina Berio, Stefano Berio

Born Country: Italy

Atheists Composers

Died on: May 27, 2003

place of death: Rome, Italy

Notable Alumni: Milan Conservatory, Dartington International Summer School

More Facts

education: Milan Conservatory, Dartington International Summer School

Childhood & Early Life

Luciano Berio was born on October 24, 1925, in Oneglian, a town in Northern Italy. He was born to Ernesto Berio and Ada dal Flume. He inherited the musical genes from his father and grandfather, both of whom were organists at a local church. He began learning to play the piano at the age of 6 from both his father and his grandfather.

By the time he was 10, Luciano had also begun assisting his father and grandfather to play music in the church. In addition, he was also performing chamber music with his father at his home.

During the outbreak of the Second World War, Luciano was drafted into the military. But during his initial training, he injured his hand while learning how to use a gun and was admitted to a military hospital for a few weeks. The accident had injured his hand beyond repair, hence, he could not play the piano anymore. Still staunch about his musical ambitions, Luciano focused on compositions.

After the war ended, Luciano enrolled in the University of Milan, where he studied law. During his university years, he was introduced to musical greats such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg, which further ignited his desire to do music. Consequently, he left the law college after a year and began attending Milan Conservatory where he began training under Giulio Cesare Paribeni and Giorgio Federico Ghedini.

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In 1947, Luciano played his first piano suite in front of a crowd. Following his graduation from the Conservatory, he began coaching opera seminars and conducting in multiple Italian opera houses. Around the same time, he was constantly composing new music and finding new ways to redefine his music.

Two of his well-known compositions from the early 1950s are Due Pezzi and Variazioni. Both these compositions were modernist in style but they also gave a nod to classical Italian music.

He met a poet named James Joyce, who was introduced to him by a friend. Luciano was highly impressed with his poems and recoded Chamber Music, based on James’ writings. James’ work would play a key role in Luciano developing a distinct musical style of his own, which later on became his signature.

In the late 1940s, he also met, married and toured with singer Cathy Barbarian, whose voice would further act as an inspiration for many of his later compositions. He went to America in 1950 and met Luigi Dallapiccola there, becoming interested in serialism. All of Luciano’s experiences combined caused him to gain an interest in electronic music.

Collaborating with his friend Bruno Maderna, he established an electronic music studio called Studio di fonologia musicale di Radio Milano. It was only the third studio of its kind in Europe and it focused on producing electronic contemporary classical music, which was of a highly experimental nature. He also invited many esteemed musicians to join his studio to compose their music and he himself composed Incontri Musicali there.

Luciano ran the studio successfully, making it one of the top electronic music studios in the entire Europe. In addition to the recording studio, Bruno and Luciano also ran a publication titled Musical Encounters, wherein they published reviews of avant-garde music.

Throughout his body of work, Luciano had no qualms admitting that he was inspired by Anton Webern and Stravinsky. He wore his inspirations on his sleeves and composed music that was strikingly similar to the music of the two greats. Serenata I, which is also known as his last major serial composition, was dedicated to the musician named Pierre Boulez.

In 1960, Luciano travelled to the USA upon an invitation by Darius Milhaud. There he began teaching at the Mills College, in Oakland, California. In addition, he also worked as a teacher at the Dartington International Summer school and Juilliard School. At the same time, he carried on with his composing career.

In the early 1960s, he kept blatantly experimenting with the style, voices and instruments in his compositions. He composed Circles, which had Cathy Berberian’s voice at the centre, along with harp and percussion, all based on E.E. Cummings’ poetry.

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Another one of his most avant-garde works at that time was titled Visage. It has Berberian singing in different languages without making any sense. The piece had Cathy improving a lot with her voice. Many critics praised Luciano's work on Visage and it remains one of his most revered avant-garde masterpieces.

In the coming years, Luciano went many steps ahead when it came to experimenting with Passagio, which was a libretto piece for theatre. In it, a single female character named Her was being persecuted from all sides. This highly radical piece was composed to invite a provocation from the audience when it was being performed.

In the mid-1960s, Luciano was extremely busy, hopping back and forth between his teaching duties and organising concerts all around the country.

He was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to perform on the occasion of the orchestra's 125th anniversary. Thus, Luciano composed Sinfonia, a long piece which is since known as one of his well-known compositions. As usual, the piece experimented heavily with the human voice, combing elements of the art music of the early 20th century and the highly radical politics of the late 1960s.

In 1972, Luciano returned back to Italy. A couple of years later, he moved to Paris and joined the Electro-Acoustic Department of the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique, as its director. In 1977, he composed the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which was awarded with the Koussevitsky International Recording Award. He worked in Paris until 1980.

During his stay in Paris, he was increasingly inclined toward folk music. In 1972, he composed E vo, which was based on Sicilian folktales and used the words from a Sicilian lullaby. In his later works such as Coro, he went highly political and utilized highly anti-fascist poems written by Pablo Neruda.

In 1988, he was made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music, London. He was also invited to become a part of a Foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1994, he shifted to Harvard and delivered a lecture as a Distinguished Composer in Residence at the university. The lecture was later published with the title Remembering the Future.

Luciano lived until 2003 and kept composing till the end of his life.

Personal Life & Death

Luciano Berio met Cathy Berberian in the late 1940s and married her. Before getting divorced in 1964, the couple had one daughter together. In 1966, Luciano married a philosopher named Susan Omaya. His second marriage also didn’t last long and the couple divorced in 1972. In 1977, he married Talia Pecker, a musicologist.

Luciano passed away on May 27, 2003, in a hospital in Rome.

Luciano was a lifelong atheist.

See the events in life of Luciano Berio in Chronological Order

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