Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Peter Schmelz


During her relatively brief career, Cathy Berberian: 1925-83) became arguably the best-known singer of avant-garde vocal music in Europe and the United States. After 1950, when she married Italian composer Luciano Berio, Berberian premiered almost thirty new works by seventeen different composers and received the dedications of several more. Composers connected to her include: John Cage, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Sylvano Bussotti, Henri Pousseur, Bruno Maderna, Bernard Rands, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, and of course, Berio. Berberian's creative activities ranged widely and she participated many of the major postwar musical movements, including tape and electronic music, music theater, the baroque music revival, and baroque-inspired covers of songs by the Beatles, in addition to her ongoing experiments with extended vocal techniques. She also created her own widely acclaimed compositions. Based primarily on archival research, this dissertation examines Berberian's contributions to avant-garde musical culture from the 1950s until her death in the early 1980s. It relies on interviews, correspondence, manuscript scores, personal papers, concert programs, and reviews to argue that Berberian played a vital role in both the creation and reception of the music written for and with her. She was a central figure in postwar musical circles yet her story has been largely neglected. This study situates Berberian as one of the foremost interpreters of contemporary music in the second half of the twentieth century. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of Berberian's musical life, both in relation to the composers in her coterie and as an independent musician. The first chapter questions the nature of authorship by looking at the ways Berberian collaborated with composers on electronic compositions. Two subsequent chapters extend this idea to works meant for live performance by highlighting the specific musical characteristics associated with Berberian, including multilingual texts, extended vocal techniques, and a fundamental visual component. The final three chapters discuss Berberian's activities as a composer and as a creator of wide-ranging recitals that involved diverse repertoire. As a whole, this dissertation challenges the traditional privileging of composers over performers by showing how a performer such as Berberian had a tremendous influence on the sound and image of contemporary music.


Permanent URL: