The Background Analysis And Performance Suggestions

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Luciano Berio’s Sequenza IXa is a work of increasingly great significance for the clarinet repertoire. In the past few years, numerous international music competitions, including the prestigious Geneva, Munich, and Nielsen competitions, have included the Sequenza in the repertoire for their first rounds. In addition, it has become an integral part of the unaccompanied solo standard clarinet repertoire in the twentieth century, and it provides clarinetists with a wealth of opportunities for exploring new techniques and freedom for musical interpretation.

Upon first hearing it, the Sequenza intrigues, but challenges the listener to accept a new musical language. A glance at the score immediately reveals a host of difficulties for the performer, including a variety of rhythmic patterns, dynamic changes, and multiphonics, as well as the physical stamina required over the length of the piece. Apart from the score itself, little information is available about the history and construction of the piece from scholarly sources. This limited literature cannot satisfy the curiosity that the composition inspires. [1] Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to provide a more comprehensive aid to the study and performance of this piece, in order to make approaching the work more feasible and also more attractive to a wider breadth of clarinetists.

My examination of the Sequenza will begin by contextualizing the work within the composer’s life and background, including a consideration of his statements about music and about the Sequenzas in particular. This will be followed by analysis of Sequenza IXa investigating the diverse array of musical elements, including harmonic fields, rhythmic patterns, transformational processes, structure, and multiphonics in the second part. To conclude, I will explore some of the difficulties in performing the piece and offer potential solutions.


Berio is considered the foremost Italian avant-garde composer of his time, and one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. He is particularly well known for his modernist approach and his extensive and experimental use of electronic instruments in art music. Born in Oneglia, Italy, he studied music with his father, an organist, before enrolling in music school in Milan. [2] In 1950, he married the American singer Cathy Berberian, a soprano who subsequently performed many of his works. [3] He traveled to the United States in 1953 to study with Dallapiccola, who he was introduced him to serialism. However, the most important aspect of his trip to the United States was his exposure to electronic music. In 1952, he attended the first public concert of electronic music in the U.S. At New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the concert featured tape pieces by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky. [4] After returning to Italy, he co-founded the noted electronic music center Studio di Fonologia Musicale in Milan in 1955, directing it from 1955 to 1961. [5] From 1965 to 1972, he taught at the Julliard School in New York City; during this time, he also held a number of international teaching responsibilities. [6] In addition, Berio served as a director of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. In 1980, he accepted an honorary Doctorate of Music Degree from City University in London. Two years later, he became the Artistic Director of the Orchestra Regionale Toscana and in 1984, Artistic Director of the Maggio Musical Fiorentino. [7] 

Berio’s musical style may be seen as engaging and an extending of European and Italian classical traditions. His many years of education and his long career demonstrate this, as do the statements he has made about music and his own music in particular.

Berio has described music as “…the constant search for an answer to something that continuously shifts.” [8] He has further stated that “the search for a deep unity, is maybe the most exciting, the most profoundly experimental and the least functional aspect of its presence.” [9] These descriptive words are useful in understanding what Berio has said about the Sequenzas.

The series of fourteen Sequenzas was a long-standing project, spanning 30 years. Each of these pieces is written for a solo instrument, and demonstrates extensive performance techniques. In virtually all of the Sequenzas, these techniques are intended to expand the boundaries of what was playable or singable on the respective instrument. The Sequenza series can be considered a manual of instrumental composing in the twentieth century. The majority of the Sequenzas were commissioned by or composed for a certain performer, and Berio often collaborated closely with these performers to understand the particular abilities and limitations of the instrument. [10] For example, one of his most successful Sequenzas is Sequenza III, for female voice, written for and dedicated to Berberian, a pioneer in avant-garde vocal techniques.

Sequenza IXa was commissioned and premiered by the French clarinetist Michel Arrignon in 1980. Between 1977 and 1983 Berio worked on a piece entitled Chemins V for clarinet and real-time digital filters, [11] but it was never completed. Later, Berio withdrew Chemins V, and titled the extracted clarinet part Sequenza IXa. [12] 

Berio says that, “All the…Sequenzas for solo instruments are intended to set out and melodically develop an essentially harmonic discourse and to suggest, particularly in the case of the monodic instruments, a polyphonic mode of listening…” [13] As he described further in regards to his flute Sequenza:

I wanted to establish a way of listening so strongly conditioned as to constantly suggest a latent, implicit counterpoint. The idea was the ‘polyphonic’ melodies of Bach. An inaccessible ideal, naturally, because what implicitly guided polyphonic listening in a Bach melody was nothing less than the history of baroque musical language, whereas in a “nonlinguistic” melody like my Sequenza for flute, history provided no protection, and everything had to be planned out explicitly. [14] 

In Sequenza I, various procedures project the concept of polyphony, largely based on Bach’s polyphonic melodies. However, Berio soon came to realize the impossibility of achieving this goal, partially because Bach’s polyphony was made possible by the universal tonal language of the time. Without the use of Baroque harmonic conventions, Berio relies on another way of implying underlying counterpoint. To achieve this, he explored the idea of a single instrument producing more than one voice. In this way, a monophonic instrument becomes capable of implying not only a dialogue, but also the sounding together of more than one voice.

Sequenza IXa, like the flute Sequenza, can be said to use the same “nonlinguistic” type of melody. The most obvious and literal manner of achieving more than one voice with a monophonic instrument is through multiphonics. Another way to simulate polyphony in a monophonic instrument is to use a type of technique Bach uses in his pieces, “compound melody.” Following the idea of using two pitch-class collections differently, one melody tends to appear in the same register, whereas the other traverses the range of the instrument in very wide leaps and with great variety. [15] Berio developed these two pitch-class collections experimenting with “temporal, dynamic, pitch, and morphological dimensions” to generates a type of polyphony. These different musical elements are recognizable through the transformational processes, which will discuss later in the paper.

In a discussion of the form of Sequenza I, Berio said, “The title was meant to underline that the piece was built from a sequence of harmonic fields…from which the other strongly characterized musical functions were derived.” [16] In the same interview, Berio continued:

The temporal, dynamic, pitch and morphological dimensions of the piece are characterized by maximum, medium and minimum levels of tension. The level of maximum tension within the temporal dimension is produced by moments of maximum speed in articulation and moments of maximum duration of sounds, the medium level is always established by a neutral distribution of fairly long notes and fairly rapid articulations, and the minimum level entails silence, or a tendency to silence. The pitch dimension is at its maximum level when notes jump about a wide gamut and establish the tensest intervals, or when they insist on extreme register: The medium and minimum levels follow logically from this. The maximum level of the dynamic dimension is naturally produced by moments of maximum sound energy and maximum dynamic contrast. What I call the morphological dimension is placed, in certain aspects, at the service of the other three and is, as it were, their rhetorical instrument. [17] 

This statement can further be applied to Sequenza IXa for solo clarinet, as it is also “an essentially harmonic discourse” which is melodically developed by “temporal, dynamic, pitch and morphological dimensions…” [18] in order to suggest “a polyphonic mode of listening.” Analysis of the piece shows that Berio’s statement does in fact apply and is of use in understanding Sequenza IXa.


Harmonic fields

As Berio states, the title Sequenza “was meant to underline that the piece was built from a sequence of harmonic fields…from which the other, strongly characterized musical functions were derived.” [19] In his Berio, David Osmond-Smith observes that the “harmonic field” can be defined as a temporary emphasis on a single pitch or on a collection of pitches. [20] Berio uses both options to establish a harmonic field, similar to the function of chords in tonal music. Thus, when Berio moves from one field to another, it can be said that there is a shift of harmony.

Andrea Cremaschi explains that Berio does not use a dodecaphonic series, but rather divides the twelve notes into two separate pitch-class collections: a five-note collection and a seven-note collection. The first collection traverses the instrument’s range, is used melodically, and is characterized by wide, varied leaps (see Fig. 1a). The seven-note collection, in contrast, tends to appear in the same register and generally appears with less variety (see Fig. 1b). [21] As the piece develops, these two distinct pitch-class collections appear in contrast, in alternation, or, in some cases, interlaced with each other. As shown in Figure1, while the two pitch-class collections are distinct, both are characterized by multiple occurrences of the tritone.

Figure 1. The five-note (a) and seven-note (b) collections of Sequenza IXa. [22] 

Sequenza IXa moves through a sequence of harmonic fields which are defined by the use of one or more of the following devices among the two contrasting pitch-class collections: 1) the use of the two pitch-class collections in rapid succession; 2) the use of the first pitch of each collection as the beginning and ending note of a phrase; and 3) the use of what Berio calls “tense intervals which suggest harmonic tension and resolution.” [23] 

The two different pitch collections appear at the beginning of the work. The melody shown in Ex.1 is primarily based on the five-note collection, whose pitches move between three registers with relative freedom. The seven-note collection ornaments the melody, with only two notes from it, F# and D, appearing. These two notes function not only as passing notes, but also as ornamentation, similar to the grace notes in the second and third line.

The ascending grace notes at the beginning of line 2 occur in rapid succession. Most of the notes are still based on the five-note collection, except for three notes from the seven-note collection, still F#, D, and now D#. Similar grace- note passages are prevalent throughout the piece. Berio uses this blending of the two pitch-class collections to establish the harmonic field.

Example 1. Sequenza IXa, Page 1, Lines 1-3. Circles indicate pitches from the seven-note collection used as passing tones.

The second device, the repetition of the first note, is illustrated in Ex. 2a, lines 4-8. The rehearsal A section consists of four melodic phrases, each phrase separated by a fermata and silence. The four melodic phrases are based on the seven-note collection, with the seven notes largely fixed in the same register. Now there are only two pitches chosen from the five-note collection, G and Bb. Here, the seven-note collection previously used for ornamentation becomes the principal pitch-class collection, which indicates movement away from the previous harmonic field. The starting tending pitches of the 4 phrases compose out the 1st 4-note motive, G#, F#, D, A. Berio unifies the four phrases here, beginning each subsequent phrase on the next of the first four notes (G#, F#, D, A) of the first phrase. As with the G# in the first phrase, the F#, D, and A serve as the beginning and ending notes of the second, third and fourth phrases, respectively.

Example 2a. Sequenza IXa, Page 1, Lines 4-8: Circles highlight the repetition of pitches at the beginning and ending of phrases.

In addition, the repeated use of a series of several notes drawn from both pitch-class collections in a fixed order establishes a new harmonic field. In Ex. 2b, the first phrase establishes the following sequence of pitches: G#, F#, D, A1, D#1, C#2, G2, C2, A1, Bb2, D. Subsequent phrases rotate these pitches, moving the first note of the previous phrase to the end of the sequence, though not the end of the phrase. That is, the order of the pitches remains fixed, though their relative position in the sequence changes. Thus, the repetition of this note order establishes the harmonic field.

Example 2b. Sequenza IXa, Page 1, Lines 4-8: Circled pitches reveal the fixed sequence, while boxes indicate discreet phrases.

Berio expands the device of repetition as the basis of a harmonic field later in the piece. In Example 3 a brief sequence of pitches from the third line of the work, D1, A1, D#1, C#1, B1 is extracted and subsequently repeated. The appearance of this fragment implies the earlier harmonic field seen in Ex.1, line 3, but the addition of other pitches in addition to its repetition implies movement to a new harmonic field.

Example 3. Sequenza IXa, Page 2, Lines 1-3: The circled portions show the repeated pattern from the previous harmonic field.

The third way in which Berio establishes a harmonic field is by the use of tense or dissonant intervals. As discussed previously, the piece changes harmonic fields by moving to different pitch-class groups. In Example 4, line 2, the dotted quarter-note G# is the first note of substantial duration in the new harmonic field from the seven-note collection. It is preceded by a leap of a major 7th and followed by a diminished 5th, minor 7th, minor 2nd and minor 7th, in that order. The minor 2nd, between the eighth-note E and the quarter-note F, functions as leading-tone to tonic relationship resolving back to the five-note collection. The sense of harmonic tension and resolution created by these interval relationships thus implies the harmonic field. Each subsequent harmonic field uses the same idea of tension and resolution, thus implying harmonic shift.

M7 m7 m7

d5 m2

Example 4. Sequenza IXa, Page 1, Lines 1-3: Use of tense or dissonant intervals

All of the above methods define the sequence of harmonic fields in Sequenza IXa; therefore, this piece conforms to Berio’s description of his Sequenzas as a sequence of harmonic fields.


In Sequenza IXa, there are many places on the score where Berio specifies tempos. At the beginning of the work, the tempo is marked as a quarter note equals sixty. At letter A, it increases to a value of seventy-two. Berio also gives specific durations for the fermatas, placed at the ends of most phrases. Despite these specific tempo markings, the composer places the expressive marking “ma sempre un poco instabile” (but always a little bit unstable) at the beginning of the score. Perhaps Berio wanted to give the liberty to the performer to vary the tempo within the phrase.

In this piece, Berio does not use complex rhythmic techniques, but instead creates a lot of variety using simple rhythms. Although using a limited number of distinct rhythmic figures, Berio rarely repeats the same groupings. Through this rhythmic variety, he creates a feeling of unpredictability. This can be found in Ex.5 and 8.

Example 5. Sequenza IXa, Page 8, Lines 1-4: The representative of the rhythmic figures

Berio has an extraordinary range of rhythmic arrangements. Below is a list of the four most frequent rhythms used in the piece. There are additional rhythms used in the piece, such as long notes and grace notes, but shown below are the most prominent rhythms.

Figure 2. Four rhythms

He applies the idea of a rotating sequence, as he did for pitch, to arrange the rhythms in the A section. He uses these four rhythms to create a rhythmic sequence. The following graph reflects the use of the rhythmic sequence (see Fig.3). In the first line of the graph, there are four melodic phrases with each phrase containing all four rhythms (ⓐⓑⓒⓓ ). As indicated in the second line, each of these rhythms begins and ends a phrase. In addition, the first phrase begins with the sequence of rhythms

( ⓐⓑⓒⓓⓐ ) . The subsequent phrases rotate the rhythmic sequence by moving the first rhythm of the previous phrase to the end of the sequence, though not the end of the phrase. (see Ex.6)

First phrase

Second phrase

Third phrase

Fourth phrase


long note


long note, rest


long note


long note





Figure 3. The graph of rhythmic sequence in Sequenza IXa, Page 1. Lines 4-8.

ⓐ ⓑ ⓒ ⓓ


ⓒ ⓓ ⓐ ⓑ ⓒ

ⓑ ⓒ ⓓ ⓐ ⓑ

ⓒ ⓓ ⓐ ⓑ

ⓐ ⓑ ⓒ ⓓ ⓐ ⓑ

Example 6. Sequenza IXa, Page 1, Lines 4-8: The circled letters indicate the rhythmic sequence

Transformational process

As Berio discusses “a polyphonic mode of listening,” the piece “set out” and is”melodically” developed by “altering time, dynamic, pitch, and morphology.” It uses a transformational process that suggests a polyphonic mode of listening rather than creating actual polyphony. Each of these unique layers develops and presents material in a different way. Even though each layer develops differently, they combine to create a unified whole. This is the way to understand “a polyphonic mode of listening,” in Berio’s concept.

The first stylistic feature is the tempo at the highest level of intensity, when there are passages with either very rapid articulations or very long notes. Ex. 1, line 1, at the fermata, shows the temporal dimension at a very high level of intensity because of the length of the held note. Ex.7 shows an example of the temporal dimension at a high level of intensity that is transformed from the held note into a passage of ascending and descending, rapid, staccato articulation, which eventually becomes an extended chromatic passage lasting fifteen seconds at letter E.

From example 1. Sequenza IXa , Page 1, Line 1.

Example 7. Sequenza IXa, Page 3, Lines 3-9: the transformation of the tempo.

The transformation of pitch, the second stylistic feature, can be heard in ascending grace-note figures such as at the beginning of line 2 in Ex. 1. The grace- note figures transform at the end of the same line, altered by the removal of the last two notes, which is pitches G1 and B1. This feature is seen again in line 3 of Ex 1, where the pitches are altered to imply a new harmonic field.

The transformation of the dynamics, the third stylistic feature, is demonstrated by the staccato grace notes seen in Ex. 8. In the first line, the first staccato grace note is a G# and the next is a D. Both are played piano in the midst of a fortissimo, which interrupts the dynamic level with a very short and quiet note. This feature is used several times in Ex. 8. At the beginning of line 5 in Ex.8, this feature is seen in the p grace notes continuing to interrupt the ff dynamic level. As the piece develops, this feature transforms when the grace notes becomes a mezzo forte interruption of a pianissimo dynamic level. (See Ex.8)

Example from Sequenza Ixa, Page 4 line 1-6

Example 8. Sequenza IXa, Page 6, Lines 7 : The transformation of the dynamics

The rapid 32nd -note figure in Bb shown in Ex. 8, lines 2-7, appears four times. In the final pages, when Bb recurs, it transforms into a fermata with a specific duration. Although the Bb does not belong to the main harmonic field here, it plays an important role in the final pages. The tritone effect between Bb and the ending E is almost directionless, in a way that seems to recall the opening of piece. [24] (see Ex. 9)

Example 9. Sequenza IXa, Page 10, Lines 4-8: The tritone effect between Bb and the ending E.

The last stylistic feature is morphological tension, which is demonstrated in the multiphonics and microtones within the trills and tremolos of Ex 11, the C1 to C1-multiphonic passage. This relationship of C1to B is explored by a trill from B to C1 two notes. The use of multiphonics and micronotes is especially significant because they create the greatest pitch and morphological tension in the trill. The multiphonic passage shown in Ex 10 is transformed rhythmically and dynamically by becoming more active when it returns. Like the other stylistic techniques, multiphonics and micronotes are transformed by each recurrence.

Example 10a from Sequenza IXa, Page 2, Line 3.

Example 10b. Sequenza IXa, Page 10, Lines 4-8: The transformation of morphology

Structure chart of Sequence IXa

Just like most classical works, this piece also includes an exposition, development and ending ― three major parts. However, the process of this whole piece creates a sequence of harmonic fields by alternating, blending, and transformational processes among the two contrasting pitch-class collections. The chart below clearly shows how Berio uses these pitch-class collections as a motivation throughout the whole piece.


Two pitch-class collections appear: a five-note collection and a seven-note collection






Primarily based on a five-note collection with a wide range, activated rhythm, and big leaps to start transformation and development

Development I


Primarily based on a seven-note collection with rapid grace notes gradually transforming to a passage of thirty-second notes


Primarily based on a five-note collection, similar to the C section; Bb appears as a thirty-second note to foreshadow the climax


Two pitch-class collections alternating and blending with each other. The rhythm becomes more agitated, to further indicate the climax is coming



Transition, similar to the B section



Primarily based on a seven-note collection. The rhythm figure is similar to the F―G section

Development II


Multiphonics, two pitch-collections further develop and blend with each other. Transition to next section



Cadenza, two pitch-class collections alternating with each other as a preparation for the climax of the piece

Development III

(Climax of the piece)


Climax of the piece, two pitch-class collections present at different ranges, dynamics, and rhythms, which alternate between calm and frenzied phrases


Epilogue, ending


Figure 3: The structure of Seuquenza IXa

Solutions to problems of performing multiphonics Sequenza IXa

Clarinetists who use an instrument without an Eb key will have a difficult time performing this piece, since there are some multiphonics that appeared on page 6, lines 4, 5 and 6 (see Ex.11) playable only on a clarinet with an Eb key. For those without the Eb key, there are a few techniques to recreate these multiphonics. One may be the use of the performer’s voice to sing one of the desired pitches. This solution might change the idea of the solo work, but the notes can be produced and the piece would be complete.

Another way is the use of a tube to extend the length of the clarinet, effecting an instrument very similar in pitch to one with an Eb key. With regard to the multiphonic fingering applied to the two-note chords in the section around K, the player could use a low E fingering (without the thumb key in the left hand) plus the throat G# key in the left hand for the first multiphonic at line 6. The low E fingering (without the thumb key in the left hand) plus the throat A key in the left hand for the second multiphonic at line 7. The problems with this solution are, first, the tone of the clarinet will be different; second, the player must quickly insert and remove the tube during the performance, which could be clumsy and awkward; and third, the player would have to use an alternative fingering for the B natural at line 4. However, the most difficult thing is getting the chords to speak reliably ― this will require practice.

A final solution could be the substitution of other multiphonics which are playable on the performer’s instrument. However, the problem with this alternative is at least one of the pitches must be transposed, resulting in changing the piece somewhat.

Example 11. Sequenza IXa, Page 6, Lines 4-6: The fingering for the multiphonics

After hearing and seeing several clarinetists perform this piece, it seems that switching to the alternate multiphonics is preferable because this does not interfere with the natural sound quality of the clarinet. On the other hand, Berio specified different fingerings on the music, and he did not provide an alternate version of multiphonics in subsequent editions since the piece was written 20 years ago. Maybe Berio did not consider this a major issue, and wanted to give the clarinetist the freedom to imagine ways of solving the problem.

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