The Music of Edgar Varese

Chapter I: Historical Perspective

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Edgard Varese was born on December 22, 1883, in Paris and died on November 6, 1965 in New York. Although he was one of the most innovative composers of the 20th century, his musical aesthetics were not universally accepted. During the 1920's he composed a series of works that went far beyond compositional theories of that time, reflecting influential, innovative techniques in rhythmic complexity and tonal diversity. His use of indefinite pitched percussion, free atonality, and forms which exist independent of tradition, made theorists of the 1920's and 1930's question yet admire his progressive compositional techniques.

Varese developed an early interest in musical composition, having completed an opera by the age of seventeen. But, his interest was not well received by his father who expected that, like himself, young Edgard would become an engineer. This became a major source of conflict between them and when Edgard's mother died, he and his father parted company never to resolve their differences. At the age of 21 he entered the Schola Cantorum in Paris, where he studied composition with Albert Roussel and conducting with Vincent d'Indy. His studies there of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music with Charles Bordes made a lasting impression.

After the Schola Cantorum, Varese moved to Berlin and became a protege of Richard Strauss who arranged for his debut as a composer in 1910. The premiere of Bourgogne met with audience disapproval, provoking the first of many controversial reviews. Varese destroyed the score after this performance, claiming it was not a mature representation of his abilities.

During his time in Berlin, Varese regularly associated with artists, poets, and composers; and he was fortunate enough to meet Claude Debussy who encouraged him to compose in whatever manner he wished. Of similar encouragement were the atonal works of Schoenberg and Busoni's Sketch of a New Aesthetics of Music. Despite a difference in musical taste, Varese formed a lasting friendship with Busoni and regarded his work as a milestone in artistic development. Varese eventually returned to Paris and became interested in the dynaphone, an electronic instrument created by Rene Bertrand. Unfortunately Varese left his manuscripts in Berlin where they were later destroyed in a warehouse fire.

In 1915, Varese traveled to America and quickly immersed himself in promoting new music. He joined with Carlos Salzedo in founding the International Composers Guild in 1921. The Guild existed for six years and premiered works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Hindemith, Bartok, Kodaly, Krenek, Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, Webern, Ruggles, and Cowell. Then in 1922, Varese and Busoni formed the Internationale Komponisten-Gilde in Berlin. Through the Guild, Varese was able to premiere four of his major works over a period of 4 years; Offrandes in 1922, Hyperprisim in 1923, Octandre in 1924, and Integrales in 1925.

Returning to Paris in 1928, Varese continued to explore new timbral sound possibilities. He searched continuously for new sounds and came upon two new electronic instruments - the "ondes martenot" and the "theremin" - which he incorporated into his next two works Ameriques in 1929 and Equatorial in 1932.

"While in Paris, several of his works, were played there; for the French premiere of Ameriques in 1929 the siren was replaced by the newly invented ondes martenot.  Varese also continued his work with Bertrand, and he included two theremin parts in Equatorial (1932-34)." [1]

Varese became discouraged by the lack of interest in his work in the 1930's.  He composed only three works during this decade: Ionisation, Equatorial and Density 21.5.

"...I'm afraid I developed a very negative attitude toward the entire musical situation.  After all, great men like Mahler, Strauss, Muck, and Busoni had given me my professional start with their encouragement and esteem for my scores.  By the thirties, these men had all been  replaced by -- in most cases -- much lesser musicians.  Mahler, for example, was kicked out by the New York Philharmonic and replaced by a nonentity, Stransky, and still later by that enemy of modern music, Toscanini, and the only conductor who had shown an interest in my music, Stokowski, stopped playing it...." [2]

Mention should be made at this point that Ionisation was, and is, considered a masterpiece.  Composed in 1931 and premiered in 1933, it was the first piece of Western music written with such grandeur solely for percussion instruments. It has had a significant impact not only in the context of inherent musical value, but in regards to the greater aesthetic questions of the definition of "music" itself.

Varese pressed on in a state of depression.  He sought financial support from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Bell Telephone Company for the exploration of new electronic musical instruments.  But his efforts were unsuccessful.  So great was his frustration from lack of support that after composing Density 21.5 for solo flute in 1936, he didn't complete a work until the mid 1950's.  He tried to persuade film producers to explore his concept of "sound organization" during this period but to no avail.  He remained active by conducting workshops, seminars, and classes promoting new compositional ideas and techniques.  In 1943, he founded the Greater New York Chorus for the performance of Renaissance and Baroque music, which he directed until 1947. 

Though his compositional efforts of this period would prove futile, Varese had begun work on a score entitled Espace for orchestra and chorus. It was a most ambitious concept involving simultaneous broadcasts by performers in various locations around the world.  But the work was never completed.  When Varese looked back on this period he stated:

     "...the frustration of having my music ignored was only a part of it. I had an obsession:  a new instrument that would free music from the tempered system." [3]

Time passed and Varese waited for such an instrument to become available.  Speaking as a prophet in his own time, Varese stated during the early 1930's:

     "We are still in the first stammering stages of a new phase of music.... The instruments that the electronic engineers must    perfect, with the collaboration of musicians, will make possible the use of all sounds -- not only arbitrary ones -- and also, in consequence, the performance of any tempered scale music. They will be able to reproduce all existing sounds and collaborate in the creation of new timbres...." [4]

A breakthrough came for Varese in 1953, in the form of an Ampex tape recorder.  His initial work gathering sounds with the tape recorder led to an invitation by Pierre Schaeffer for him to come to Paris to complete Deserts at the Radio Television Research Center.  Deserts was the first composition to combine natural instruments and prerecorded electronic tape inserts.  He met with additional artistic success in the Philips Laboratory in Eindoven, Holland, with the composition of Poeme electronique in 1957.  Commissioned for the Brussels Exposition of 1958, this composition for electronic tape filled Le Corbusier's Philips Pavilion with innovative sounds.  The music attempted to place the audience within the presence of light, color, rhythm, and tone design.  The fantasy of sound emanated from over 400 strategically positioned loudspeakers to create a sense of spacious distribution.  Wherever a spectator entered the pavilion, he would hear the complete work as he passed through.  The listener was placed within the living sound as various frequencies were distributed throughout the exibit.   It was at this point in his career that attention focused on Varese as a prophet in the musical world.

  "The music [on tape] was distributed by 425 loudspeakers; there were twenty amplifier combinations... the loudspeakers were mounted in groups and in what is called "sound routes" to achieve various effects such as that of the music running around the pavilion, as well as coming from different directions...etc.  For the first time I heard my music literally projected into space." [5]  

Absorbed in seeking freedom above all in his music, Varese never embraced the serialism of his comtemporaries.  Furthermore, composers who were experimenting with electronics were, in his mind, not exhausting the possibilities.  

     "It does not make full use of the unique possibilities of the medium, especially in regard to those questions of space and projection that have always concerned me." [6]

The music of Varese is characteristically organized in blocks of "sound masses" and silence.  These blocks weave in and out of each other and are distinguished by tangible contrast in timbre, texture, rhythm, and pitch.  The compositional goal of music as pure rhythm and sonority allows for sonorous planes to sound, creating the illusion of space.

     "When I was about twenty, I came across a definition of music that seemed suddenly to throw light on my gropings toward a music I sensed could exist.  Hoene Wronsky, physicist, chemist, musicologist and philosopher of the first half of the  nineteenth century, defined music as "the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds."  It was a new and     exciting conception and to me as spatial -- as moving bodies      of sound in space, a conception I gradually made my own." [7]

Throughout his life, Varese pursued the "liberation of sound" and regarded sound as "living matter."  As such, his music was called "organized sound" and he considered himself a composer of rhythms, frequencies, and intensities.  Examination of any Varese score will reveal the detailed attention given to each line of music.  Much has been said about the source of his rhythm and sound palette.  It has been suggested that his love of urban life was expressed in the sounds he employed in his music.  While he was certainly an urban individual, it does injustice to his music to imply that he was merely attempting to recreate the sounds of the city in his music.

Varese kept his compositional goals consistent throughout his life, whether with conventional instruments or with electronic equipment.  He made his views on electronic music clear while giving a lecture at Yale in 1962.

     "... We must not expect our electronic devices to compose for us.  Good music and bad music will be composed by electronic means, just as good and bad music have been composed for instruments.  The computing machine is a marvelous invention and seems almost superhuman.  But, in reality, it is as limited as the mind of the individual who feeds it material."[8]

By the early 1960's, Varese saw his work and musical aesthetics gaining widespread acknowledgement and recognition.  His music was performed and recorded by major interpreters of the 20th century, including Pierre Boulez and Robert Craft.


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