"Sinfonia for Eight Voices and Orchestra"
Deutsche Grammophon (2005)
1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
Music has traditionally told the story of the era it was created in. The message is often political, sometimes cultural, occasionally just a reflection on one's life and times. Folk music is a genre that is entirely based on the concept of narrating the story of the day. One style of music that commonly hasn't reflected its place in time is classical. During the baroque and classical eras, works were commissioned by the wealthy and therefore reflected the grandiosity of the upper class. Of course, there were just as many poor folk back then, probably even more, but this isn't demonstrated in orchestral music. Romantics were less glitzy, but still tended to deal in imagination and magical realism, not real world events. Of course, it's tough to comment on current events from a strictly instrumental platform. Luciano Berio just added a few voices to create a salient and excellent impression of the turbulent late '60s in "Sinfonia for Eight Voices and Orchestra."
I try not to steal Tom Moon's ideas wholesale, but I like his interpretations of the five movements within "Sinfonia," so I'm going to stick with them. Moon suggests that movement "I" is a meditation on the lingering fear of nuclear annihilation bred by the Cold War. There is an overlap of languages among the London Voices, but the one that sticks out most is the German bit. I hate to admit it, but German, when delivered strategically, is among the most intimidating languages. That and the fear of Soviets in East Germany at the time add to the mood. The orchestra rises dramatically and abruptly throughout the piece, perhaps representing the specter of a surprise attack.
The second movement is more somber and less tense than the opener. Its title, "O King," is a clear indication that it is memorializing the then recently assassinated Martin Luther King. This and the fourth movement, simply titled "IV," work well as buffer zones between the tenser first, third and fifth movements, but the nature of the piece as a whole is best captured in those three.
The third movement, "In ruhig fliessender Bewegung," is the longest of the five, and also the highlight of the piece. The eight vocalists again assault the listener with a mishmash of languages at the opening before settling into English. Even when the language is understood, the dialogue is bizarre, floating between quotations of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. The instrumental portion is just as chaotic, consisting of musical quotations from more than 20 pieces, including both Berg works we recently looked at, plus a quotation from Berio himself. Moon suggests the lyrics reflect the confusion amid the great blending of cultures during the '60s, and I would argue the casserole of musical quotations was an indication of Berio's own feelings on the matter.
Moon was alive and culturally aware in 1968. I was neither of the above. And yet I still enjoyed "Sinfonia." Part of it is that Berio's technique of overlapping vocals appealed to the fan of modern classical music in me. But more importantly, I think the themes expressed here still apply to the modern generation; there may be no Soviet Union, but fear of terrorism looms. The theme of new cultures and ethnicities entering the United States is, if anything, even more relevant today. It won't be hard for today's listeners to sympathize with Berio.
INTERESTING FACT: The form of movement "I" is based on French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss' "The Raw and The Cooked." Strauss had commented that Berio probably only chose the book because it was lying nearby, to which the composer hotly disagreed. Lévi-Strauss later told a biographer that he apologized profusely to Berio, but admitted that he had "no idea what the man was talking about" with regards to Berio's musical explanations.