First, I’ll try to generalize. The Folk Songs by Luciano Berio are really hardly either – by Berio or folksongs. (Ah, but already we run into problems with this statement – Nos. 6 and 7, “La donna ideale” and “Ballo” are, in fact, both freely composed settings of traditional Italian texts.) Neither, though, would it be accurate to call them simply “transcriptions” or “arrangements.” Too many strange things happen, and Berio’s personality is too present. Just when a listener thinks he’s gotten his mind around the style or harmonic language of a certain song, something bizarre happens, like, say, the completely contextless coda of “I wonder as I wander” (is it about the bird mentioned in passing in the text? If so, why that detail?) What in the world is the harp doing there at the end of “Lo Fiolaire?” In short, there is something, like so much of Berio’s music, that is elusive and complex – that resists reductiveness and straightforwardness… that seems to demand interpretation and work on the listener’s part, no matter how initially unproblematic things may seem… and that is ultimately not-fully-knowable. (If one is being uncharitable, one might posit that it is an intentional deception by Berio; I would be hard pressed to imagine a more innocent title than Folk Songs.)
One thinks of the chaos of the third movement of another well-known work by Berio, namely, Sinfonia – the Mahler 2 Scherzo overlaid with countless other references to the standard rep, plus eight singers chanting, chatting, scatting, talking, whispering, shouting all manner of thing you can’t quite understand (and they’re using microphones, acting as visual cues that you should understand them; how frustrating!). No kind of repetitive listening, no amount of score study, no degree of sympathetic perception can parse all of that minutiae. The Folk Songs, of course, don’t have the same level of overwhelming detail; if for no other reason than that the instrumentation is smaller and the size of each song much more modest. Similarly to Sinfonia, though, you just can’t quite penetrate the whole thing. Your experience with it is fragmentary. If you’re American, you probably have already have heard versions of “I wonder as I wander” in your life, and you know the tune. And maybe you’ve heard “Black is the Colour...” (both, incidentally, not folksongs at all – but “composed” by the “classically trained” singer/folklore enthusiast from Kentucky called John Jacob Niles). You probably don’t speak French (“Rossignolet du Bois” – “Little Nightingale of the Woods”) and Italian (“Ballo”), though; and if you do, I’d be completely shocked if you know both of those languages in addition to Armenian (“Loosin Yelav” – “The Moon has Risen”). Still, if you are an insanely erudite person that is familiar with all of those (in addition to the English, Sardinian, Sicilian of the other songs) you definitely won’t understand the “Azerbaijan Love Song” even if you speak the language. Cathy Berberian, the singer for whom Folk Songs was written, still Berio’s wife at the time though not for long – transcribed the words from a scratchy old Soviet 78 the couple found while perusing a record store in Moscow. She herself didn’t speak the Azeri language, rendering the transcription highly inadequate; and even the ending, actually in Russian, is comprehensible but hilariously mangled by the transliteration, like a small child, struggling to learn its own language, imitating its parents’ speech.
Berio did write a program note about these works. I don’t think what he has to say, though, is quite right:
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.
“Unity” seems like the wrong word, doesn't it? After all, how can these songs possibly be thought of as unified? They are from different places, times, musical/cultural traditions; the subject matter varies (though many are about love – more on this later); the languages represent widely varying degrees of comprehensibility. In fact, there are strikingly few things about this work that are unified – perhaps a resonance between the opening viola solo and the cello at the beginning of “Lo Fiolaire,” maybe resemblances of various melodic lines to one another (or are we imagining that because we’re looking for it? Might it be, just as plausibly, that they simply share a melodic vocabulary given that they are mostly folksongs?). But that is precisely why it is interesting. It is its very disunity that makes it resonate with our experience. Cathy Berberian’s messy, non-sensical transliteration is a figure for our understanding of this piece, a figure for the late 20th/early 21st century listener, and a figure for the piece itself. It is the same basic experience we have of mishearing lyrics to radio songs (I only recent came to realization that the first line of the chorus of Brad Paisley “Crushin’ It” is not the acceptingly stoic Heidiggerian tautology “Every weekend’s a weekend,” but rather the rather commonplace, ordinary, pedestrian, almost nauseatingly Panglossian “Every week has a weekend.” I have been mishearing this line for months, and developed a whole theory around the song based on it. Does this mishearing render my reading invalid?). But it is also fundamental to nearly every way we experience the world. We work with incomplete information, and no matter how hard we try, we don’t (can’t) understand everything.
To narrow my claim a bit, and restrict it to the present work rather than the meaning of existence – Berio sets you up to fail as a listener. He has composed in your inadequacies by his choice of styles, languages, and traditions. Schubert, when he writes a song, imagines (expects?) that it is possible for you to fully understand what he’s doing (even if his expectation is unrealizable). Berio doesn’t. He himself doesn’t fully understand what he’s doing, and this might have to do with the speculation in some corners that this piece is an attempt to save his marriage. These are not precious, Disneyfied folksongs, whose source materials are were created by noble savages in Technicolor. These are confusing utterances, divorced from their context, that make half-sense, and whose sum total is not a unified experience, whatever the composer says. Put another way: Berio, a composer associated with various acts of “transcription” or “arranging” or “recomposition” throughout his long career (one of his last works, in 2001, was a completion of Puccini’s unfinished Turandot), makes his art out of forcing us feel the holes and gaps in our experience much more than he does in "tidying up" works that lack a written-down tradition.
There is something in Berio’s statement that is correct, though: “a real, perceptible, understandable conduit between ancient, popular music-making...” While it is not unified, Berio does successfully create the “conduit” he’s looking for. He does connect “folk music and our music.” But he does so by thematizing our (and his own) experience with music in a world that is too big for us. In a sense, he thus makes this music much more our own than it could ever have been otherwise. He reminds us that we are sitting in the concert hall listening to fellow humans make sounds, and that however much we miss in the interpretation of the authorial intent or the context of the original versions, we nevertheless cannot avoid encountering the performance we are listening to. To me this invites an imaginative mode of listening that is much richer and more sympathetic than an imperialism that paternalistically appropriates its source materials.
Speaking of unknowability, one final word about the Berio-Berberian marriage. Though the composer got remarried (to philosopher Susan Oyama) in 1966, scholarly work appears to disagree about exactly when the initial couple divorced. Reading a connection between the text of so many of the Folks Songs (premiered in 1964) and the couple’s romantic dynamic seems too tempting to resist. One thinks immediately of lines from certain songs, “Ballo,” for instance: “Love makes even the wisest mad, and he who loves most has least judgement...” or “Malurous qu’o uno fenno” (“Wretched is he”), even more to the point: “Wretched is he who has a wife, wretched is he who has not! He who hasn’t got one wants one, he who has not, doesn’t!” Is the work partially an ironic commentary on the couple’s personal situation? Is it an attempt by Berio to save their marriage? Or is that all just a coincidence, since surely the pains and joys of love are some of the most universally sung-about topics in the history of music(s)? Again, perhaps this turns our ostensible weakness into a strength. We don’t know, we can’t know; so let us accept that the tension of guessing, of trying to examine the inherently obscure, is one of the things that makes listening to – or rather, engaging with – this work so stimulating.