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The American singer, a leading figure of avant-garde music in the second half of the 20th century, died on 6 March 1983 in Rome.

Forty years ago today, Cathy Berberian (Attleboro, Massachusetts, 1925-Rome, 1983), the American composer and mezzo-soprano known for her fascinating and unorthodox interpretations of contemporary music, passed away. She was only 57 years old. Although commonly described as a mezzo-soprano, Berberian had an extraordinary vocal range spanning three octaves, which would have allowed her to sing Tristan and Isolde with ease. However, she decided to devote herself to the music of the avant-garde, of which she became for more than twenty-five years its leading figure, thanks to her vocal mastery, combined with a remarkable collection of laughs, grunts, shrieks, whistles and gurgles. Among the composers who wrote for her were Darius Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, Hans Werner Henze, John Cage, Sylvano Bussotti and Luciano Berio, to whom she was married from 1950 to 1966. Of Armenian parents, her training included courses in mime, writing and opera at Columbia and New York Universities. Berberian made her debut in Naples in 1957 and became famous after a 1958 performance in Rome of John Cage’s Fontana Mix, in which she sang and shouted in five languages. But her fame is mainly due to her performances of Berio’s music, including compositions such as Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958), Circles (1960), Visage (1961), Sequenza III (1965) and Recital I (for Cathy) (1972). She also recorded songs by the Beatles and was in Rome to take part in an Italian television programme commemorating the centenary of the death of Karl Marx (who died on 14 March 1883), in which the Berberian was to sing The Internationale, but a sudden heart attack prevented it…

© Cathy Berberian and John Cage, during the recording of Aria & Fontana Mix. Photo downloaded from the Cathy Berberian Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel.