This month (and year so far) I’ve been focusing on practicing, building consistent practice habits, finding exercises and a routine that keeps me at the top of my game technically, and also creatively. To that end, I’ve been playing Berio’s Sequenza I for solo flute. I find it extremely valuable to do some research about the composers whose music I’m playing, and I wanted to share the fruits of my labor with the internet.
Luciano Berio, born in 1925 in Oneglia, was an Italian composer. As a young man, he studied with Giorgio Federico Ghedini and was close friends with Bruno Maderna. With Maderna, he founded a concert series and a journal both titled Incontri Musicali (1956-1960). Another big influence on the young Berio was Henri Pousseur, who he met at Darmstadt in 1954. Berio later stated, “If I look back at those years, I feel gratitude to three people: Ghedini, Maderna, and Pousseur. After all, I was still the young man from Oneglia and I needed their help to understand many things about music.”
Berio’s music was heavily influenced by what came before, and he considered it essential for young composers to understand the music of their predecessors. To that end, he reconstructed an unfinished symphony of Schubert’s in Rendering and wrote arrangements of Purcell, Boccherini, de Falla, Verdi, Mahler, Puccini, and Weill. About his original compositions, he stated, “each new piece wasn’t so much a sallying forth into oceans of new musical possibility so much as writing on, over, and with the music of the past.” Berio was also interested in non-classical music: he wrote several arrangements of folk songs, and also orchestrated some Beatles tunes.
The Sequenzas, build on the legacy of virtuosic solo works of the Baroque and Romantic eras, such as the Bach Partitas for violin, Paganini’s Caprices, and many others. These works push the performers to discover the very edge of possibility. The flute Sequenza I is the first piece in the canon to use a multiphonic, at the time a very new idea. Sequenza III, for female voice, changed the way people thought about writing for voice, and is possible one of his most important works.
Sequenza I was written for Severino Gazzeloni in 1958, and has become one of the most standard works in the twentieth century repertoire. It was first written in spatial notation, where the placement of the notes in relation to each other, (how visually close or far apart they are) create the rhythms. This was very unusual at the time, and is still uncommon today. Later in his life, Berio went back and rewrote this piece in standard notation, lamenting how poorly and inaccurately most performers played it. I consider this a great shame – the rhythms of the Sequenza are so complex, and do not fall into symmetrical patterns – so I play off the first version.
Essential to learning Berio’s music is understanding his language, and to do that, I turn to listening. A teacher once recommended I listen to at least ten non-flute works by a composer I’m learning to truly get a feel for his style and compositional language. To that end, here are a couple works I’d recommend.
Sequenza III for female voice, I believe the vocalist is Cathy Berberian, but can’t be 100 percent
Omaggio a Joyce
Sinfonia-this one is long, be prepared to spend some time with it.
Sequenza I for flute, Gazzeloni’s recording
Sequenza IV for viola
If you’d like some more info, I came across this very good article on the Guardian’s site: http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2012/dec/10/contemporary-music-guide-luciano-berio
It has some more listening recommendations, and gave a good picture of his music and legacy.