In the third movement of Sinfonia Berio lays the groundwork by quoting multiple excerpts from the third movement scherzo from Mahler's Symphony No. 2 and has the orchestra play a slightly cut-up, re-shuffled and occasionally re-orchestrated version of it. Many have described Berio's third movement as a "musical collage", in essence using an "Ivesian" approach to the entire movement (American composer Charles Ives in his Symphony No. 2 first used musical quotation techniques on a grand scale at the turn of the 20th century about 65 years earlier).
The orchestra plays snatches of Claude Debussy's La Mer, Maurice Ravel's La Valse, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, as well as quotations from Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Johannes Brahms, Henri Pousseur, Paul Hindemith, and many others (including Berio himself) creating a dense collage, occasionally to humorous effect. When one of the reciters says "I have a present for you", the orchestra follows immediately with the introductory chord from Don, the first movement from Pli selon pli by Pierre Boulez.
The quoted fragments are often chosen because they bear a rhythmic or melodic likeness to Mahler's scherzo. For example, Berio uses a violin line from the second movement of Alban Berg's violin concerto with chromatically descending sixteenth notes two measures before a similarly descending line appears in Mahler's scherzo. This is then accompanied by another violin descent, taken from Johannes Brahms' violin concerto (Schwartz & Godfrey 1993, p.378). The text from Beckett at this point begins, "So after a period of immaculate silence there seemed", but, instead of continuing the quotation ("a feeble cry was heard by me"), Berio substitutes the words "to be a violin concerto being played in the other room in three quarters" and then, after the Berg quotation, alto 2 insists on "two violin concertos", at the point where Berg is interrupted by Brahms (Hicks & 1980–81, p.214).
The eight individual voices simultaneously recite texts from various sources, most notably the first page of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable. Other text fragments include references to James Joyce, graffiti Berio noticed during the May 1968 protests in Paris and notes from Berio's diary (Schwartz & Godfrey 1993, p.376).
Berio himself describes the movement as a "Voyage to Cythera" (Berio, Dalmonte & Varga 1985, p.108) in which a ship filled with gifts is headed towards the island dedicated to the goddess of love.
A partial list of musical quotations used in the third movement of Sinfonia in order of their appearance:
- Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, fourth movement, "Peripetie" (violent scale from bars 2–3 played by the brass), in bars 1–6
- A brief quotation from the beginning of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 in bars 2–10
- Claude Debussy's La mer, second movement, "Jeux de vagues" (opening measures), in bars 4–5
- Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection), third movement (the only quotation that is ongoing) entering in bar 7, from where it continues to the end of the movement, though not always audibly (Hicks & 1980–81, p.212)
- Paul Hindemith's Kammermusik Nr. 4
- Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, flute solo from the Pantomime
- Debussy's "Jeux de vagues" returns
- Berlioz's idée fixe from the Symphonie Fantastique (played by the flutes and oboes), in bar 106
- Ravel's La Valse (orchestra plays octave motif with piccolo playing a chromatic scale)
- Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (the "Dance of the Earth" sequence at the end of the first tableau), bars 170–85
- Stravinsky's Agon (upper oboe part from the "Double pas de quatre")
- Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (one of the waltzes composed for the opera)
- a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach
- the end of the second movement of Bach's First Brandenburg Concerto
- Alban Berg's Wozzeck (the drowning scene late in the third act)
- Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, second movement (melody stated with the clarinets)
- Resumption of Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 4 in the solo violin, starting in bar 429
- Another quotation from Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, ending in bar 448
- Brief recapitulation of the opening of the movement: Schoenberg's "Peripetie", Debussy's La Mer (this time from the third movement "Dialogue du vent et de la mer"), starting at bar 488
- Boulez's Pli Selon Pli, very first chord of the entire piece from the first movement ("Don")
- Anton Webern's Cantata No. 2, Op. 31, fifth movement (opening), in bars 547–54
- Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen for three orchestras (during the introductions of the vocalists near the end, bars 555–60)