On Sequenza IV

Gregory DeTurck will play the bulk of  this coming Wednesday’s Eighty-Eight Lately concert (Feb. 17, 8 pm, Rose Recital Hall, 34th and Walnut on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia). Greg will play music by Perle, Dutilleux and the first book of Makrokosmos by George Crumb. My contribution to the program will be Sequenza IV by Luciano Berio. Here is a program note on the piece.

In the program note on Sequenza IV included in the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the complete Sequenzas, Berio writes (as translated by David Osmond-Smith):

Sequenza IV can be viewed as a voyage of exploration through diversely characterized instrumental articulations, and as a dialogue between chordal development and linear development of the same material. Two independent harmonic sequences are developed simultaneously and at times interpenetrate: one of them real and assigned to the keyboard, and the other in a certain sense virtual, and assigned to the sustaining pedal. Sequenza IV was written in 1966 for Jocy de Corvalho.

Although Osmond-Smith chose the words “sustaining pedal”, the term more commonly applied to the pedal in question is “sostenuto pedal” – the middle pedal of the piano’s three. This pedal does not permit all the strings of the instrument to vibrate freely as does the right pedal, but only those strings whose keys are being depressed at the moment the pedal is applied. This selective sustain permits the intermingling of resounding and detached sounds characteristic of the work.

The “linear development” to which Berio refers involves much high-speed figuration, sometimes bound closely to the underlying harmonies, at other times spinning in wider, more eccentric orbits that include chromatic clusters played with the palm of the hand. These are sometimes arpeggiated by rotating the hand, and the effect recalls the cluster glissandi in Stockhausen’s Klavierstuck X of 1961. The chattering textures and rapid juxtapositions of contrasting character bring to mind the mercurially shifting gestures of which singer Cathy Berberian was capable, and which Berio exploited in Sequenza III for solo voice, written for Berberian. Amidst the clusters and dense chords, there is something lyrical – or at least vocal – at play in Sequenza IV.

The program notes for the DG recording mentioned above offer prefatory verses by Edoardo Sanguineti for each piece. For Sequenza IV, Sanguineti writes (as translated by Stewart Spencer):

I draw myself against all your many mirrors, I transform myself with my veins, with my feet: I shut myself up inside all your eyes.

The work’s “many mirrors” reflect back to us our memories of past harmonic blocks and ephemeral figurations with uncommon solidity. Through this dialogue between event and recollection, Berio’s “voyage of exploration” traverses the ocean of what Sanguineti calls (in reference to the entire series of Sequenzas) “the music of music.”

I recommend Philip Thomas’s excellent 2007 article “Berio’s Sequenza IV: Approaches to Performance and Interpretation”, found in the journal Contemporary Music Review.