Fifty Modern Classics I saw a live performance of Sinfonia by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop at the Royal Festival Hall last Friday, part of the Rest Is Noise Festival, on this occasion focusing on music from the 1960s. It featured vocals from the Swingle Singers, for which the piece was originally written. The singers are of course from a new generation, but the group has continued without a break since it was formed in 1962, with the remaining members holding auditions for replacements every time an individual member leaves.

The third movement of Sinfonia (according to the Modern World website, from which the graphic above also comes) is “possibly the most exhilarating twelve minutes that modern music has to offer.” I’d certainly agree with that, but there is the question as to how much of that is down to Berio himself and how much is inherited from his sources – particularly Mahler’s scherzo from the second “Resurrection” Symphony – that holds the movement together. The piece is chock full of quotations (ranging from Bach to Beethoven to Ravel, Richard Strauss and Boulez), but Mahler provides the narrative thread – a “river of sound” – that is sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, and which is easily diverted by the introduction of other material. Alex Ross, in the book that inspired the festival, points out that the use of devices such as collage, pastiche and quotation gave contemporary European composers the opportunity “to commandeer tonal music without committing the sin of writing tonal music, as such.”

I agree that Mahler’s material is very central to the piece – even more so when we realize that the scherzo itself is a re-working of earlier material, a song from the cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The song recounts how St Anthony of Padua, discouraged by an empty church, preaches his sermon to the fish. They pay rapt attention (as in the original retelling of the miracle). However, the poem goes on to point out that, while the sermon has pleased the fish, the words themselves make no difference and they carry on exactly as before – the crabs still walk backwards, the pikes continues thieving, the carps remain greedy etc. We don’t hear any of St Anthony’s words directly, instead they are portrayed musically in a series of downward sequences, like bubbles descending into the water past the uncomprehending creatures and dissipating. Berio provides a flood of words on top of his river of music, some of them original, some from Samuel Beckett’s 1957 novel The Unnamable, but all of them striving to comprehend a “meaning” that may not exist. The text is humorous and self-referential as well as sometimes bleak, and like the music, it is woven into the texture as a whole so that the fragments are sometimes only partially audible.

Berio takes maximum advantage of the Mahler scherzo by bringing it to the surface of his texture at its most heightened moments, such as the plaintive slow descending passage for brass over strings towards the middle. And he introduces other very recognizable quotes – from Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, for instance, or his ingenious combination of Strauss and Ravel waltzes – to comment ironically on the text. But it’s the pure sound of the Swingle Singers’ vocals, who contribute to the musical material as well as narrating the text, which really transforms the original Mahler material into something quite different. Berio clearly loved this type of vocal sound, as he used it elsewhere in various other works such as A-Ronne (1974) and the classic 1958 electronic piece Thema (Omaggio a Joyce).