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About this Piece

Composed: 1964 for small ensemble; 1973 for symphony orchestra
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion (2 campane, 2 crotales, 2 spring coils, 2 tamburos piccolos, 2 tamburos bascos, 2 tam tams, 2 woodblocks), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 31, 1974, with the composer conducting and soloist Cathy Berberian (U.S. premiere of the orchestral version)

Folk Songs dates mainly from 1964 and Berio’s residency at Mills College, then a hotbed of progressive music-making, in Oakland, California. It was created specifically for the composer’s then-wife, mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian (1928-1983), a pioneer in the devising and employment of extended vocal techniques. Their marriage was in fact deteriorating at the time and the composer may, according to some reports, have been trying to forestall the inevitable by creating for her this work, so suited to Berberian’s vocal versatility and not excluding some of the texts’ observations on the difficulties of married life. They remained professional colleagues until Berberian’s death in 1983.

In one telling note, Berio described his connection to folk music as follows: “My links with folk music are often of an emotional character. When I work with that music I am always caught by the thrill of discovery… I return again and again to folk music because I try to establish contact between that and my own ideas about music. I have a utopian dream, though I know it cannot be realized: I would like to create a unity between folk music and our music — a real, perceptible, understandable conduit between ancient, popular music-making which is so close to everyday work and music.”

The title of the collection is somewhat misleading. The first two songs, “Black Is the color” and “I wonder as I wander” – which I grew up thinking to be “true” American folk songs — were in fact written by the classically-trained singer and folklorist John Jacob Niles (1892-1980), while Nos. 6 and 7, “La donna ideale” and “Ballo” (originally set down in 1949, when Berio and Berberian first met in Italy), are settings by Berio himself of traditional Italian lyrics.

The third song, “Loosin yelav,” in honor of Berberian’s Armenian heritage, describes the rising of the moon over the top of a hill, “its red rosy face casting radiant light on the ground”; No. 4, “Rossignolet du bois” (France) — asks “Little nightingale of the woods, teach me your secret language, show me how to love.” No. 5, “A la femminisca” (Sicily), is sung by a woman bidding Jesus and Mary to grant fair weather to her fisherman sweetheart. No. 6, “La donna ideale,” lists what a man should seek in a wife — good family, good manners, good figure, good dowry. No. 7, “Ballo,” portrays the lover as a fool — mad, totally bereft of judgment, and No. 8, “Motettu de tristura” (Sardinia), is another nightingale song, but this time sorrowing — “Sing this song when I am buried.” The next two songs were taken by Berio from Joseph Canteloube’s famous collection Songs of the Auvergne: No. 9, “Malurous qu’o uno fenno” — “Wretched is he who has a wife, wretched is he who has not... Happy the woman who has the man she wants, happier one who has no man at all”; No. 10, “La fiolaire,” tells of the girl at her spinning wheel who charitably gives two kisses to the shepherd who has asked for only one. Finally, “Azerbaijan Love Song” was taken down phonetically from an old 78 rpm record by Cathy Berberian, who didn’t speak the Azeri language. It has to this day resisted translation. (Ergo, no supertitles for that song.)

Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.