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About this Piece

Composed: 1989
Length: c. 33 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Luciano Berio, as much as any composer of recent times, managed to balance the seemingly conflicting demands of art and politics, of avant-garde selectivity and musical populism. He was active and an influential force in the fields of opera, electronic music, and chamber music — his Sequenze in particular are widely performed and imitated, in addition to making arrangements of folk songs (heard on the present program), songs of Kurt Weill, and music of Boccherini, Mozart, and Monteverdi, as well as creating the “composed completion” — rather than employing existing sketches — of Puccini’s opera Turandot. In addition, he produced two widely-disseminated patchwork compositions of extraordinary brilliance and originality, Sinfonia (1969), with its musical quotations of Mahler and the words of Martin Luther King Jr., Samuel Beckett, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the Schubert-based Rendering (1989), first performed in 1990 by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

The score bears the following foreword by Berio: “During the last few weeks of his life Franz Schubert created many sketches in preparation for a Tenth Symphony, in D major. These sketches are fairly complex and of great beauty; they add a further indication of the new paths that were taking Schubert away from Beethoven’s influence. Rendering, with its dual authorship, is intended as a restoration of those sketches. It is not a completion or a reconstruction. This restoration is made along the lines of the modern restoration of frescoes that aims at reviving the old colors without, however, trying to disguise the damage that time has caused, often leaving inevitable empty patches in the composition (for instance as in the case of Giotto in Assisi).”

The sketches for the Tenth Symphony were first made available for general examination in 1978, the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death, by the City and State Library of Vienna. This resulted in a number of “interpretations” of said sketches, two of them impressive indeed, each in its way: the British Schubert scholar Brian Newbould’s unashamed “realization” — we might also call it a completion — in three movements, running to a half-hour’s playing time and employing a wealth of (informed) speculation as to what Schubert would have done with the sketches had he lived — and mastered counterpoint. And Berio’s slightly longer, more personal three-movement Rendering: Schubert’s sketches expanded, employing the orchestra — with its prominent trombones — of the canonic “Unfinished” Symphony which closes this program. But unlike the entirely Schubertian-in-style Newbould effort, Rendering is spiced with dreamy interjections and inventions of Berio’s own to create an unusual picture, part Schubert, part deconstructed Schubert, and lots of Berio.

The piano sketches referred to are extensive and complex, and Berio employs a substantial portion of them in Rendering, orchestrated in the Schubertian manner but with lashings of 20th-century dissonance and rhythmic complexity. It might be noted, too, that at the end of his life Schubert was troubled by a great deficiency in his education, the lack of even a basic notion of counterpoint. Thus, in October of 1828, a few weeks before his death, he arranged to take counterpoint lessons with Vienna’s foremost expert on the subject, Simon Sechter. But the composer’s extreme ill-health ruled out more than a single lesson, a tangible result of which was an exercise — perhaps a homework assignment — which Schubert jotted down in the margin of the manuscript of what would have been the Tenth Symphony. This, too, Berio includes in Rendering — in the second movement as an isolated, otherworldly passage.

What no listener will miss is the disembodied effect of the celesta, employed in all three movements of Rendering, most dramatically in the first movement, to fill in gaps in Schubert’s sketches and at the opening of the Andante second movement, before the movement’s theme is even announced by the oboe — a ghostly presence reminding us that we are, whatever the roots of Rendering, listening to Schubert in the present, not in the composer’s time.

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