Luciano Berio, Rendering

by Nathan Cornelius

Most classical musicians know Franz Schubert as the author of nine symphonies, one famously left unfinished, and Luciano Berio as the author of fourteen incredibly difficult solo pieces entitled Sequenza. Less known is the fact that Schubert also left sketches for a tenth symphony unfinished at his death (as opposed to his eighth, which he simply abandoned for other projects), or that in the 1980s Berio orchestrated these fragments, assembled them into a continuous piece, and published the result as Rendering.

Berio was no stranger to inserting bits of canonical works into his own music; in the third movement of his Sinfonia, for example, he has vocal soloists singing and speaking a collage of absurdist texts over a complete performance over the corresponding movement from Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony. But the treatment of old and new music in Rendering tends toward juxtaposition rather than overlapping, alternating between passages of Schubert’s music, scored for standard late-classical orchestra, and eerie, dense webs of sound-mass by Berio featuring numerous divisis and a prominent celesta part. Berio describes them as “a kind of connective tissue which is constantly different and changing, always pianissimo and distant,…performed quasi senza suono and without expression.”

These interstitial passages have a gauzy, colorless effect, both timbrally and harmonically: by having almost the entire orchestra playing, but extremely softly, Berio dilutes the vibrant colors of Schubert’s orchestra. Likewise, his static harmonies serve not so much to negate Schubert’s bold harmonic progressions as to freeze them in a sort of suspended animation until the next fragment can pick them up. In addition, the distinctive timbre of the celesta, so anachronistic to Schubert’s sound-world, clearly announces the beginning of each Berio interpolation, making the structure of the work audible on a very basic level, without even requiring harmonic or formal analysis on the part of the listener.

And this is probably for the better, as any listener expecting a sonata-allegro form in the first movement would be deeply confused when what seems to be the beginning of the recapitulation launches into a rapid coda and then abruptly ends! It is unclear whether Schubert simply had not written out the recapitulation or whether he actually intended to use such an unconventional structure. Similarly, the third movement as it stands combines elements of the Classical scherzo and finale tropes, a move which Berio appreciates as forward-looking. Indeed, Berio’s interest in the work itself seems to be primarily historical, seeing it as an interesting (and sadly, a final) stage in Schubert’s evolution as a composer.

On another level, Schubert’s sketches, reproduced on a separate staff in Berio’s score, provide a fascinating window into his compositional process: we see the composer hastily writing out a short score with only melody and bass lines for the entire first movement. Schubert apparently wished to strengthen his counterpoint skills and was working his way through counterpoint exercises in the last weeks of his life. Thus, Berio’s second movement opens with an orchestration of a two-voice canon found on the same page of Schubert’s manuscript, which gradually morphs into the paired melody and countermelody of the second movement. Then Schubert puts his learning into practice in the third movement, writing several boisterous fugato passages.

Yet perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Rendering is how it problematizes the issue of its own authorship. Clearly, the majority of the musical content is either Schubert’s own or Berio’s pitch-perfect imitation of him. Nevertheless, the expressive meaning of the piece as whole derives from the fact that Schubert’s music is broken up and interspersed with bits that sound utterly modern. This is neither a transcription nor a paraphrase nor a scholarly completion, and simply attributing the authorship to “Schubert – Berio” as the published score does seems to obscure more than it reveals about the piece. Instead, Berio has resurrected a not-quite-dead work to create something which is neither old nor new, a uncanny yet strangely attractive musical zombie inhabiting its own time, its own context, and (for now at least…) its own genre.

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