Thomas Stevens

Berio Sequenza X (Part I)

  • For Trumpeters Only

A History of My Participation in the Berio "Sequenza X"  (Part I)

The "Sequenza X", for Solo Trumpet and Piano Resonance, by Luciano Berio, commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1984, has now become one of the most respected works in the modern day repertoire for solo trumpet, and, as such, in addition to many performances and recordings, it has generated in the predictable residue (hubris?) of serious study and analysis, most notably in academic circles.
Because the work was written for me, over the years there have been numerous inquiries sent my way concerning the piece and my participation in its development. More importantly, there have also been numerous questions posed with respect to the composition itself that have produced varied results ranging from musicians displaying incredibly perceptive analytical skills to some off-the-wall interpretations reminiscent of those types of eye-rolling interpretive excesses that routinely reduce university English literature professors to the point of invoking the clichéd “maybe it was just a cigar” types of arguments.
The misinformation in circulation concerning the work and its origins that have been floating in and around the trumpet community in recent years has reached a point where I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight, at least with respect to those issues with which I was directly involved. The following is a personal history of that involvement with the "Sequenza X", such as it was, and the material included herein is based on notes originally prepared for a 2003 master class on the subject.

During June of 1984, Ernest Fleischmann*, then managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, called me aside following a rehearsal at the Hollywood Bowl and informed me Luciano Berio had agreed to write a trumpet Sequenza, with the premier performance scheduled for "sometime later in the year."

The prospect of having such a work was overwhelming. As Ernest was quite aware, a small group of us had been trying, for nearly two decades without success, to get a Sequenza, but Berio had always insisted he  was not interested in writing one for the trumpet. During that same time period, Ernest had often expressed an interest in commissioning a concerto for me, something I had always resisted due to a serious dislike, for reasons musical and otherwise, of playing serious new solo works with symphony orchestra, an attitude he didn't quite understand but nevertheless graciously accepted.

There also was the unfortunate episode when the leadership of the International Trumpet Guild, in its infinite wisdom, decided not to pursue a Sequenza that only a few players might be able to play, deciding, instead, to commission what turned out to be an undistinguished, routine, ho-hum (but accessible!) offering by the American composer, Norman Della Joio. In my view, this was a particularly shortsighted decision on the Guild’s part, since historically, player’s abilities have always eventually risen to meet any and all technical/musical challenges, and as some of us pointed out at the time, if there were a Sequenza, regardless of its difficulties, in twenty years, college players would be playing it on a regular basis, something that has now proven to be the case-even with some high school trumpeters! On the other hand, if the inside-the-loop rumors regarding the cost of the Berio commission are true, Luciano's fee was probably far higher than the ITG would ever have been willing to allocate for any new work; so, in the final analysis, that point may be academic.

* Credit where it is due: (the late) Ernest Fleischmann, a legend in the arts management field, represented the ultimate “can-do” type of business executive. If he wanted a trumpet Sequenza, he would get one. To this day, there are those who remain convinced that had it not been for his preeminence in the music world, his personal friendship with Luciano Berio, and the financial resources of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Sequenza X would never have come to exist. Many musicians who were around during the 1960s and 70s recall Berio's expressed lack of interest in ever doing a solo trumpet work. It took a man of Fleischmann's stature and influence to break that impasse, something that is particularly significant to note today due to the composer's belated interest in the trumpet (and renewed interest in the trombone) during his later years.