Atonal Intonation in Light of Berio’s Sequenzas

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Luciano Berio‘s Sequenza no.1 for flute is one of my favorite pieces. I also love teaching it; it has so much to offer in terms of technique (especially articulation!), style and presentation. There is an unwritten book inside me about this work, but for now I would like to consider one aspect of the work that often gets ignored: Intonation.

This is one reason it is not my favorite piece to listen to. If you know me, you know I don’t have perfect pitch, or even flawless intonation. Nevertheless, neither you nor I can assume that a work without a traditional tonal center and without traditional harmonic relationships is devoid of centers and relationships entirely. I would argue that in this context, these matters require even more consideration. I’d like to address this generally and specifically, not as a how-to guide, but as food for thought in your own practicing.

In general, there are rules of thumb for atonal solo works. Here I quote Doris Geller’s “Praktische Intonationslehre“, page 117 (my translation):*

In free-tonal music there is also a hierarchy of intervals, the most important points of orientation being the prime intervals (octaves, fifths, fourths), especially when they form tones that draw attention to themselves. These could be, for example, long, held-out notes or notes that follow a rest.

Here she is referring to Debussy‘s Syrinx, and gives specific examples. However,  these words and her further advice to analyze goal notes, high points, low points, and melodic turning points can apply to all solo works. Edgar Varèse‘s Density 21.5 especially offers the same points of consideration.

Specifically for the Sequenza, I consider the soul of the work to be in the long, held-out notes. If you listen to the other Sequenzas of Berio,  you will hear this particular pattern of drawing the listener in. Often there are rapid, virtuosic passages punctuated by the stillness of a single note, where the quality of sound and the relationship to its environment are of utmost importance.

*In a previous entry, I write more about Doris Geller and the intonation of melodic intervals.


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