Luciano Berio
Epifanie
1959-61/65. For female voice and orchestra. (40 min.)

Luciano Berio's Epifanie
I have never heard a recording of Epifanie, a vocal setting of five literary passages including the "bird-girl" passage from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. All I know about this work comes from Timothy Murphy's excellent article, "Music after Joyce: The Post-Serial Avant Garde." Until I find more detailed information about Epifanie, Mr. Murphy's explanation will serve to explain the piece.

Excerpt from Timothy Murphy's "Music After Joyce: The Post-Serial Avant-Garde"

In Thema, Berio claims, "we pass from a 'poetic' listening space to a 'musical' listening space. This musical listening space is based on the poetic material, on an object which is transformed and becomes music" (Berio, "Entretien" 63). Berio's most recent directly Joycean work, Epifanie (1959-61), also uses "the voices of poets to make music" as Eco says, but in a very different way than Thema did. First of all, despite the Joycean title, he does not limit himself to Joyce's writing, but works with a variety of texts in five languages. In addition to the bird-girl passage from chapter IV of Portrait, Berio also uses Brecht's poem "An die Nachgeborenen," a passage from Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, and texts by Machado, Sanguineti and Claude Simon. He does not transform the words through tape manipulation, but simply sets them to music that moves from tonality through free atonality to serialism and back with grace and clarity. The true novelty of Epifanie for Berio, however, lies in its large-scale structure, which is reminiscent of Boulez's Third Piano Sonata:  it is an open-form work, though one that is fully composed like Boulez's rather than indeterminate like Cage's. Epifanie consists of seven orchestral sections divided into three "Quaderni" or "Notebooks," and five orchestral song segments, labeled "a" through "e." These twelve elements, which comprise "two cycles -- one vocal, one orchestral -- which are performed simultaneously" with the vocal cycle acting as "an epiphany, that is, as a kind of sudden apparition, in the more complex orchestral structure" (Berio, Two Interviews 147), can be arranged in ten different ways, according to Berio's instructions in the score (Berio, Epifanie notes), this number of arrangements being defined by his insistence that "The result should always suggest a process or development...based not only on the music but also on the content of the poems used" (Berio, Two Interviews 146). The Joyce passage, for example, which is set in "madrigal" fashion to an accompaniment of violins, cannot begin the vocal cycle of the work, but it can conclude it. In this rather Boulezian manner, Berio too resolves the apparent contradiction between authorial control and openness of form that drove the Darmstadt group's aesthetics by inserting points of choice or responsibility for the performer into a fully composed work.
Though he has not returned to direct work with Joyce's texts since Epifanie, Berio has continued to be profoundly influenced by them. David Osmond-Smith, the leading scholar of Berio's work, claims that the experiment of Thema "provided a basis for the treatment of Dante in [Berio's] Laborintus II (1965) and of [Beckett and] Lévi-Strauss in Sinfonia (1968-69)," and further that "it was in the major instrumental works of the Sixties that Berio really arrived at more general Joycean working methods" (Osmond-Smith 84, my translation). Osmond-Smith likens Berio's method of elaborating the solo Sequenza VI (1967) for viola into the concerto-like Chemins II (1967), IIb and III (1968) to the procedure of "stratification" that Joyce used to elaborate the originally rather conventional language of Finnegans Wake into its final hyper-determination. "If the stratification process of Finnegans Wake suggests...self-perpetuation, then the many proliferations from Sequenza VI for viola insist on the temporary nature of creative solutions, and demand from listeners and readers of the score, not passive consumption, but active criticism" (Osmond-Smith 88, my translation). The circular phonemic structure of the a capella vocal work A-Ronne (1974-75) as well testifies to a continuing debt to Finnegans Wake, which Berio once described as manifesting a "richness of relations...so complex that the reader gives a new interpretation at each reading, discovering not only allusive bonds, but also a continually changing concrete reality" (Berio, "Forme" 39). This debt also remains evident in his later vocal and operatic collaborations with Eduardo Sanguinetti and Italo Calvino.

--Timothy Murphy
You may read the full text of his paper at Hypermedia Joyce Studies.

Recording Information

Epifanie is not currently available on CD, but you might be able to locate this LP recording:

Luciano Berio conducts Epifanie & Folk Songs
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Julliard Ensemble
Cathy Berberian soprano
RCA RED SEAL LSC 3189
(October 1971)

If anyone has any information about other recordings, please feel free to email it in!

More Berio

Chamber Music -- (1953) Three songs adapted from Joyce's Chamber Music poems.

Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) -- (1958) An electronic transformation of the opening text from the "Sirens" episode of Ulysses, as read by Cathy Berberian.

Berio and Beckett -- This is the Luciano Berio page at Apmonia, which details his Beckettian composition Sinfonia.


--Allen B. Ruch
1 June 2003
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