Thomas Stevens

Arrangements and Transcriptions (Luciano Berio)

  • General Quotes

........."If the purists had their way, I would be forbidden to redo [arrange/transcribe] even my own music!" -Luciano Berio

…………… “If the purists had their way, I would be forbidden to redo [arrange/transcribe] even my own music!”

These words were uttered by Luciano Berio in 1984 at one of those “meet the composer” types of events that have become a part of the culture of the classical music world, usually presented in coordination with performances of the composer’s works.

Luciano Berio (1925-2003) was one of the most influential composers of the latter part of the twentieth century. He was also noted for having arranged/transcribed his own compositions as well as the music of others, from his original Folk Songs, which were themselves musical adaptations of traditional folk songs, to creating an ending for the Puccini opera, Turandot. The third movement of his Sinfonia, the so-called "Mahler" movement, has been widely acclaimed as a classic example of a successful derivative (deconstructionist?) work. Indeed, there are those who believe Luciano Berio’s outstanding contributions as an arranger and transcriber are among the most persuasive arguments in support of such practices.

During the week following the meet the composer festivities, Berio and a number of participants in a chamber music concert of his works (which included the world premier of the Sequenza X) were having a post-concert meal at an obscure Russian deli located deep within the bowels of downtown Los Angeles. Even in this casual atmosphere, Berio was able to get off some good comments on the subject of modifying the works of others:

“The premier performance of Beethoven’s Eroica [Symphony #3] was played by only 33 musicians." [When compared to that that standard]... "[A]ll performances of the piece are transcriptions.”

“ ….[M]any great composers have done this, including Bach and Schoenberg.”

The most memorable and possibly controversial comment, however, came in an answer to a question posed by a young Hollywood film composer who asked Berio if it were true that he had said great arrangers and performers were responsible for the success of many the well known (pop) songs of such Broadway tunesmiths as Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin because the composers’ original versions of many of those songs were not memorable. Berio’s response was he hadn’t made such a statement and had never given the subject much thought, but allowed that it could be a very valid point.