Message in a bottle

It was Bernard Rands, my composition teacher, who in 1971 introduced my family to the Italian aperitif Punt e Mes, a dark vermouth with a slightly bitter taste.  It became a favourite in our house for a few years, and a kind of family secret because in London at that time (and still today) it was not a well-known drink.  At the start of our relationship in the late eighties, Anna (now my wife) and I, rediscovered Punt e Mes and would always have a bottle in the house.  When in 1987 I was asked to take part in a live radio chat during the interval of a BBC concert which included the London premiere of Berio’s orchestral work Formazioni, I asked Anna to give me a word or phrase to slip into the discussion as a secret message across the airwaves: something challenging.  Yes I was that unprofessional.  Anna immediately suggested ‘Punt e Mes’.

As preparation for the radio show, Universal Edition sent me a concert recording on cassette of the Dutch premiere a few weeks earlier.  Formazioni (Formations) is a remarkable work in which Berio splits the orchestra into two and makes great play of antiphony between choirs of wind and brass, with two harps placed either side of the orchestra.  The piece began, in the Dutch premiere, with a sudden and fierce attack by full orchestra sounding a dense chord spread across several octaves. But by the time the piece had reached London, Berio had added several pages of more exploratory music – false starts and swelling chords before the dramatic opening I had heard on the recording.   During the interval conversation, which followed the London premiere, I mentioned this reworking of the opening.  I said that Berio had added a pre-amble to the work; an Italian composer offering us a glass of Punt e Mes as an aperitif before the main course.  I was pleased with myself for that of course, and even more pleased that the Berio scholar David Osmond Smith then repeated the words: “ Yes, but I wish composers would sometimes not give us Punt e Mes and just get on with it!” I couldn’t agree more, actually.  In fact Formazioni now, almost double the length of the original version, no longer has the chordal attack which I liked so much – I suspect because Berio thought it sounded too much like the chords in the first movement of Sinfonia. Personally I think he should have left the piece alone – it was much stronger at its premiere.

Berio was an inveterate tinkerer. He re-worked many of his pieces, usually dressing them up to become new works, as in the series of Chemins pieces, which add an ensemble to a solo Sequenza. Concerto II (Echoing Curves)(1989) is ostensibly a piano concerto, but it takes the earlier piece ‘Points on a Curve to Find’ (1974) and simply adds a prologue, cadenza and postlude. In the case of his most famous work Sinfonia, I was not alone in imagining it to be a four movement piece for the first few years, because it was premiered and recorded in New York without the fifth movement.  I still find the fifth movement a bit irritating, because it adds little new material and simply plays in virtuosic fashion with the material of the first four movements.  Also, I still find that the calm fourth movement makes a perfect ending.

This idea that a piece can have many possible endings and might be picked apart and made to take a different course, was central to Berio’s thinking.  He hated Schenkerian analysis because of its certitude and implication of correctness, and I heard him tell a class at Harvard that if he were given any piece of classical music he would be able to make it end convincingly in a completely different key!  I received typical advice from him on the only occasion I got to talk with him about my own music.  I might as well tell the whole story of this meeting as a pre-amble. In 1993 I was employed for three months at Harvard as a temporary Senior Professor to cover a period between appointments.  It was an amazing three months, not least because Berio was in residence at the same time as Visiting Professor and Norton Lecturer.  Though we notionally shared an office, we didn’t meet very much because he never used it.  But on one occasion at a social gathering I asked him if he would be kind enough to look at some of my work, and he invited me to come to his house the next day.  I arrived at the appointed time with my portfolio and rang the door-bell. No-one answered, and I went away.  But a couple of days later he called me to apologise, saying something about a dentist appointment and inviting me round again straightaway.  He generously listened to my work for piano and orchestra Stepping Out, which had been premiered at the 1990 BBC Proms.  It’s a single movement work lasting 15 minutes, in which I divide the orchestra into two (rather like Formazioni).  Berio was complementary about the work, and about the performance (Martin Roscoe), but he said it was too short and that I should extend it.  He said that if you are going to ask for the orchestra to be re-arranged it needs to be longer, or the orchestra will not want to know (is that why the 10 minute Formazioni became 22 minutes long?).  ‘So’, I asked, ‘should I add another movement?’  He dismissed that idea.  ‘No’, he said, ‘we don’t write movements any more, just make it longer’.  ‘But what about Sinfonia?’ I protested. ‘That has five movements’.  ‘Ah Sinfonia is a special case’.  Yes I see.  In any case he was absolutely right, and Stepping Out has not had further performances.

Stepping Out was itself a reworking, in Berio fashion, of an earlier piece for solo piano called Easy Steps.  In that piece I shared another musical secret with Anna, when I included a Morse-code version of her name as a structural feature.  The Morse system of communication represents letters by combinations of short and long impulses. The letter A is .-  and N is -.  So ANNA becomes  .- -. -. .- (and now I need to write a full stop…..).  This becomes the rhythm of the final chords of the short coda, with single ‘letters’ appearing regularly during the piece in preparation for the full statement at the end.  I have never included that information in the programme note; it was our secret – until now.

Listen to Stepping Out for piano and orchestra






2 responses to “Message in a bottle”

  1. Robert Hollingworth Avatar
    Robert Hollingworth

    Mm. Same thing in ‘cries of london’. Added an extra movt at the end – also 2 sop parts to each movt tho that was because he re-wrote it for the Swingle Singers.


    Dear Roger, many thanks for this blog and for sharing with us both the secret into the piece and the Soundcloud link to listen to it.
    I usually get in trouble for saying that famous people are wrong, but I’ve got to say that Berio couldn’t be more wrong about Stepping Out. It will be a good example to follow when I face my own piano concerto. I meant your piece, not the Berio’s commentaries.

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