Cathy Berberian: Stripsody

Program Note

Cathy Berberian (1925-1983)
Stripsody (1966)

Catherine Anahid Berberian was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts to Armenian parents. The family moved to New York in 1927 and lived in New Rochelle before settling in the Bronx. From an early age she took an interest in traditional Armenian music and dance, and demonstrated a proclivity for popular song and the dramatic arts, often performing with her father to entertain family and friends. It was ultimately her mother’s record collection that led Berberian down “the long rabbit hole into the wonderland of music” when she was seven years old.

At Columbia University, Berberian studied under Milton Smith, Herbert Graf, and Getrude Keller. In 1949, Berberian traveled to the Conservatorio di Musica Giuseppe Verdi in Milan and received vocal training from Giorgina del Vigo. While looking for a pianist to play at her audition for a Fulbright Fellowship in order to continue her studies in Milan, she was introduced to Luciano Berio, at the time a composition student and vocal accompanist at the Conservatorio. According to Berberian, “He spoke no English and I spoke no Italian. We had no contact but music.” Though Berio was unable to accompany Berberian on the recording, by spring 1950 he proposed marriage and she received the Fulbright award. They married the same year and settled in Milan, where Berberian would make her permanent home. The start of their personal and professional union was auspicious, and the collaborative relationship that burgeoned over the decades enabled some of their most significant achievements.

Berberian’s formal debut came in Naples in 1958 for the closing concert of Incontri Musicali, and her reputation as a recitalist of new music was firmly established after her performances at the International Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Germany in 1959, and she quickly became the muse to numerous composers who wrote new works for her, including Bruno Maderna, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Henri Pousseur, and William Walton. Though her marriage to Berio ended in 1964, their professional relationship flourished during the 1960s, marked by a succession of groundbreaking works for voice that remain essential to the vocal repertoire today: Circles, Epifanie, Visage, Folk Songs, and Sequenza III.

Berberian gained notoriety as a virtuosic interpreter of new music and was esteemed for the extraordinary wit and intelligence with which she approached any project. She possessed an astonishing “rapid-reflex” technique by which she shifted seamlessly between disparate music styles, invoking Marlene Dietrich, baby talk, bird call, and Sprechstimme in one musical line, and her impeccable vocal technique also lent insight to stylized trilling and ululation.

In 1966, Berberian composed her first musical work, Stripsody for solo voice, an exploration of the onomatopoeic sounds of comic strips, which she used to convey a succession of amusing vignettes, illustrated by Roberto Zamarin.

After her death, as a testament to the vacuum she left in the musical world, Berio utilized multiple singers to satisfy the single role Berberian had once filled in the performance of Folk Songs at a 1994 memorial concert at La Scala.

—Rebecca Y. Kim