Edgard Varèse

By Eric Salzman

Stereo Review, June, 1971

Stereo Review presents the nineteenth article in the American Composers Series


In 1919 he also began, at thirty-six, a wholly new composer's life. It was as if all Europe, its history and its training and its valued friendships among both classical and modernistic artists, were merely a prelude to America. His first piece composed in the new and now definitive residence he called, in the plural, Amériques, meaning, in both the historical and the personal sense, discoveries ."

– Virgil Thomson: American Music Since 1910 ( Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971)

EDGARD VARÉSE was born in Paris on December 22, 1883, and died in New York on November 6, 1965. The first part of his career is a footnote in the history of European late Romanticism; the second, an essential part of the history of music in the New World and new music everywhere. Long after the battles of Expressionism, neo-Classicism, serialism, and aleatory have ended, the music of Varèse continues to be a potent force. His influence is felt from Gilbert Amy to John Cage to Yannis Xenakis to Frank Zappa. He widened our notion of music to take in noise and the sounds of the human and natural worlds around us – never arbitrarily, but always with the highest artistic and expressive goals. He created a new kind of instrumental and percussion music that is as contemporary now as when it was written. He predicted the advent of electronic music, musique concrète, and multimedia, and, having worked much of his life toward achieving these new means, lived long enough to create the first masterpieces in the new music.

As is the case with many of his contemporaries, his mature output was small. Each work is a probe into the future: dense, intense, complete in imaginative conception, powerful yet controlled. He suffered immensely from his voluntary transplantation to this country – there has never been much of a place for powerful and original musical minds in established musical life here – but to the end he considered himself an American composer; the concept of New-World music had both literal and symbolic meaning for him.

Through all his triumphs and setbacks, Varèse remained an extraordinary presence in American musical life. From just after World War I until the middle of the Thirties, he spearheaded the performance of new music in this country. He was a central figure in the American experimental movements of the Twenties and was in the closest rapport with the leading intellectual and artistic currents of the day. Later, in tragic eclipse and neglect, he somehow remained a force, organizing a chorus of workingmen, encouraging a new generation of experimental composers, and continuing his search for the new means necessary to achieve his ideals. After his startling re-emergence, his influence spread from New York to Warsaw to Tokyo to California; indeed, the direct impact of his work and his ideals on far-out and electronic art, pop and non-pop, has not yet waned.

Varèse the man was every bit as imposing as his music. In his youth he was – if we can judge by the photographs – more than ordinarily handsome, with a burning, visionary intensity in his eyes. In his last years he was hardly less striking, with a great shock of white hair and bushy questioning eyebrows over a massive, craggy face. People were always confusing him with one of his greatest supporters, Leopold Stokowski. But there was nothing of the noble, posed Stokowskian profile about Varèse's musique concrète features.

People said he was difficult, crotchety, and uncompromising when in fact he was only sure of himself and what he had to do. It is true that he had no patience with the small-minded and the mediocre and that he made enemies among that large and powerful tribe. He had a plainness of speech – no bull – that expressed itself in a strong, rough French and an accented English that had nothing in common with the usual conception of an elegant French accent. But he never ranted and he was never dogmatic. He was strong and full of a kind of peasant dignity – much more common among painters and sculptors (who work with their hands) than among composers (who are generally middle-class and intellectual). This earthy, proletarian quality – almost unknown in European music after Beethoven – was a quality that Varèse shared with the other pioneering American composers of the period. It was an essential part of his vitality and defined his anti-establishment position in the New World. In one way it was very American; in another, the expression of his deep roots in the Old World. Varése was born in Paris, but he was brought up largely in Villars, a small village in Burgundy. He was the oldest of five children. His father, Henri Pie Jules Annibal Varèse, was from Piedmont – hence the Italian name. His mother, Blanche-Marie Cortot, was a cousin of the famous pianist Alfred Cortot. Varèse's father was away a great deal on business, and the child was sent to live with his mother's family in Villars. The Burgundian countryside and, above all, the great Romanesque church at nearby Tournus made a profound impression on the young Varèse. Years later he was to say that he wanted to write music with the power and strength of that Romanesque church. Varèse's grandfather Claude Cortot took the place of his absent father. "I inherited only one thing of value," he once said, "my Burgundian grandfather."

His relationship with his real father was nothing less than traumatic. In 1892, the elder Varèse moved his family to Turin, Italy, and his oldest son was put into the Polytechnical Institute to study engineering. Varèse disliked Turin intensely, and like Berlioz before him and Boulez after him, he rejected a "scientific" career for an artistic one. Turin had concerts, an opera house, and a conservatory; the reluctant Polytechnic student became passionately involved in music. He taught himself the rudiments; later, the director of the Turin Conservatory, Giovanni Bolzani, gave him free private instruction. The first concert he ever attended included works by Franck, Dukas, Strauss, Wagner, and the Afternoon of a Faun of Debussy, then quite new and, to Varèse, overwhelming.

Varése's mother died in 1900 or 1901. His father remarried, and the father-son enmity worsened. In 1903 he left his family and his engineering career and went to Paris to become a musician. He had no money and virtually no musical credentials at all. Yet, within hardly more than a decade, he had impressed the best musicians and critics of Europe – as a conductor and as the promising composer of unusual late-Romantic tone poems, all now lost or destroyed. Varèse's Old World career belongs to another era, the twilight of a golden age that was to be shattered by World War I.

In 1904, Varèse was admitted to the Schola Cantorum in Paris – heaven knows on what basis – where he studied conducting and composition with Vincent D'Indy and counterpoint with Albert Roussel, as well as medieval and Renaissance music. A year later he was admitted to Charles Widor's master class at the Paris Conservatoire. He did not take very kindly to his teachers and, later on, often spoke scornfully of them ("D'Indy's vanity would not permit the least bit of originality or independent thinking. I didn't want to become another D'Indy; one was quite enough."). Nevertheless, it was at the Schola that he made his first acquaintance with early music. And he was, by all accounts, a remarkable student with a particular facility in a discipline not considered important in his later music: traditional counterpoint.

At this time he frequented a circle of young avant garde artists, musicians, and poets which included Picasso, Julio González, Modigliani, Erik Satie, Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, and others. By 1905 he had already composed the Three Pieces for Orchestra, La Chanson des jeunes hommes, and the Prélude à la fin d'un jour after a poem of his friend Léon Deubel. A year later he wrote a Rhapsodic romane inspired by his beloved Burgundy; a piano version of it was performed in 1906. That same year he founded a chorus at the Université Populaire in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, an organization whose membership was drawn largely from the working class slums of Paris. In 1907 he married a young actress, Suzanne Bing, later to become famous as the leading actress of the Vieux Colombier. That same year he received the Premiere Bourse (First Prize or Fellowship) of the City of Paris, awarded to him on the recommendation of Jules Massenet (!) and Widor. Nevertheless, Varèse was repelled by the mediocrity of French musical life, and, exactly as Boulez was to do half a century later, he exiled himself from France to Germany, taking up residence in Berlin, where he spent the greater part of the next six years.

The seminal figures in German musical life at this time were Richard Strauss and Ferruccio Busoni, and both befriended Varèse. Busoni's personality and thought were very influential on the young composer; indeed, Varèse's later work could almost be said to represent the working out of ideas that Busoni proposed but was incapable of realizing (the use of machines in music, the freedom from scale systems, and tempered tuning). Varèse's exile did not prevent him from revisiting France and making the acquaintance of Romain Rolland, Rodin, Debussy, and Ravel. Although his contacts with Debussy were mainly by mail, the two men were close, and the older composer 's influence on the younger is palpable. Varèse's friendship with the writer Romain Rolland is an even more remarkable story. Rolland saw in Varèse the incarnation of Jean-Christophe, the hero of his famous and monumental novel about a composer, which was then in progress. Incredibly enough, Varèse, like Jean-Christophe, was working on a symphonic poem after Rabelais' Gargantua ! There seems little doubt that, in the course of the completion of the novel, Jean-Christophe came to resemble Varèse more and more.

Rolland was well connected in Germany and helped his friend to become acquainted with the conductor Karl Muck, with Richard Strauss, and with Strauss' librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss helped Varèse get his first major performance: the orchestral fantasy Bourgogne – another echo of his beloved Burgundy – was performed in 1910 by the Bluthner Orchestra of Berlin under Josef Stransky. It provoked the first of many Varêsian scandals, but it also won him some adherents. Varèse's major early work was an opera with Hofmannsthal called Oedipus and the Sphinx . Another important composition, Mehr Licht, seems to have been transmuted into the work called Les Cycles du Nord, inspired by the phenomenon of the aurora borealis, a typically Varesian interest. At this time, Varèse was in the closest touch with the fast-breaking developments in European art. He knew the futurists and was influenced by them (although he rejected their literalism and commonplaceness), and he was acquainted with the newest and most revolutionary works of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He founded another chorus in Berlin, conducting early music and participating in several of Max Reinhardt's famous theater productions. He made his debut as a symphonic conductor with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague at the beginning of 1914.

THE outbreak of World War I was a tremendous blow to a French composer just achieving major recognition in the Germanic world. Varèse was visiting Paris at the outbreak of hostilities and served briefly in the French army before receiving a medical discharge. On December 8, 1915, he embarked for New York. The break had an extraordinary finality. His wife, Suzanne Bing, had already left him to pursue her career in the theater, and she took custody of their child. All the composer's manuscripts were lost or, as he was later to discover, burned in a Berlin warehouse fire during the war. Only Bourgogne survived – until 1962, when Varèse pulled it out of a desk drawer and destroyed it himself.

Varèse came to New York as poor, as unknown, and as devoid of provable accomplishment as when he had arrived in Paris twelve years earlier. But his almost incredible ability to inspire confidence soon won him a substantial place in New York artistic life. Above all he had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish: "I dream of instruments obedient to my thought and which, with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm." A little later he was quoted as saying: "What we want is an instrument that will give us a continuous sound at any pitch . . . not necessarily conforming to the traditional half tone . . . the composer and the electrician will have to labor together to get it . . . speed and synthesis are characteristics of our own epoch. We need twentieth-century instruments to realize them in music." He spoke again and again of "musical space as open rather than bounded," of "the liberation of sound," of "throwing open the whole world of sound to music." "I refuse to submit myself only to sounds that have already been heard," he told a New York Telegraph reporter in 1916. "What I am looking for are new technical mediums which can lend themselves to every expression of thought and keep up with thought." Significantly, Varèse's first work in the New World was Amériques – Americas, or new worlds of the mind and spirit.

On April 1, 1917, shortly before the United States entered the war, Varèse conducted a performance of the Berlioz Requiem at the Hippodrome before an audience of five thousand. Characteristically, the work was performed as a memorial for the dead of all nations. There was an orchestra of 150 musicians and a choir of three hundred. The performance made an enormous impression (links between Berlioz and Varèse are not hard to find), and Varèse could certainly have moved on to a substantial conducting career if he had been willing to compromise his musical views a little to suit the taste of the conservative musicians and wealthy patrons who flocked to this handsome and exotic foreigner. He actually raised the money to found an orchestra ostensibly to be devoted to contemporary works. The New Symphony Orchestra, under Varèse's direction, made its debut on April 11 and 12, 1919, at Carnegie Hall in a program that included Debussy's Gigues and the Bartók Deux Images. The reaction was catastrophic; the board asked Varèse to change his announced programs; he refused and resigned. In 1921, with the composer-harpist Carlos Salzedo, he founded the International Composers' Guild, the first organization anywhere devoted entirely to new music. This organization and its successor, the Pan-American Association of Composers, gave the American or world premieres of works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, Berg, Hindemith, Honegger, Ives, Ruggles, Varèse himself, and many others. In the spirit of the day, the Guild published a manifesto which ended as follows: "The International Composers' Guild refuses to admit any limitations, either of volition or of action. The International Composers' Guild disapproves of all 'isms'; denies the existence of schools; recognizes only the individual."

The Guild was many times imitated, most notably by the International Society for Contemporary Music and the League of Composers. The latter was founded by dissidents who broke away from the Guild; Varèse recognized no "isms," but that did not mean that he was willing to compromise his programming principles.

The Guild was, in fact, a highly successful organization. Its concerts were well attended, and the audiences included the leading lights of New York intellectual and artistic life. New music was, it seems, very new and was taken quite seriously in those days. Varèse's Offrandes, Hyperprism, Octandre, and Intégrales, all composed in the United States, were played at Guild concerts between 1922 and 1925. Offrandes, with its impressionistic flavor, was well received, but Hyperprism brought the audience to blows and Varèse to a new kind of fame. The music was violently attacked, but it also had its defenders, notably Lawrence Gilman of the New York Herald Tribune and Paul Rosenfeld, critic of The Dial, a leading literary periodical of the day. But the impact of the work was perhaps best summed up by Charles Martin Loeffler, a conservative composer and no friend of the far-out: "It would be the negation of all the centuries of musical progress if I were to call this music. . . . Nevertheless . . . this piece roused in me a sort of subconscious racial memory, something elemental that happened before the beginning of recorded time. It affected me as only music of the past has affected me." Octandre also provoked divided reactions. The critic of the Christian Science Monitor wrote that the work "is so personal and so powerful that it has enough in it to provide the foundation of a whole musical school." The critic of the New York Post said, "If Varèse's composition was the worst offender, there were others which ran it a close race for hideousness and insanity – songs by Carl Ruggles, Anton von Webern, and Alban Berg." Not such bad company! Intégrales was described as bellowings and shrieks from a zoo, the din of passing trains, the hammering of a drunken woodpecker, a thunderbolt striking a tinplate factory. But on the other side were Paul Rosenfeld's comments about this work: "Varèse stems from the fat European soil.

… It is the serious approach, the scientific curiosity

… hat strengthened and sent him onward. But his experience has been the New World in dream and in contact … Varèse never has imitated the sounds of the city... He has come into relationship with the elements of American life and found corresponding rhythms within himself set free. Because of this spark of creativeness, it has been given him to hear the symphony of New York."

In late 1924, Leopold Stokowski conducted Hyperprism in Philadelphia and in New York. He conducted the premieres of Octandre in 1925, Amériques in 1926, and Arcana in 1927, the last two with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music and Carnegie Hall. Reactions were equally vehement. One critic wrote: ". . . indescribable turmoil. Some men wildly waved their arms and one was seen to raise both hands high above his head with both thumbs turned down, the death sign of the Roman amphitheater. . . ." As always, Varèse had his defenders. W. P. Tryon, critic of the Christian Science Monitor, wrote about Amériques : " this work, dispassionately regarded, may be said to mark a date in the history of art . . . the most memorable night of modern music in New York, no doubt, since … Sacre du Printemps ...."

In 1927 and 1928, Varèse began to explore the possibilities of creating a new electronic instrument with the acoustical research director of Bell Laboratories and the French inventors Rene Bertrand and Maurice Martenot. Varèse was very explicit about what he had in mind: ". . . it goes without saying that these means should not lead to speculation as to how to reproduce already existing sounds, but, on the contrary, to ways of making possible the realization of new sounds in accordance with new conceptions . . . they will be able to reproduce all existing sounds and collaborate in the creation of new timbres . . . taking the sounding elements as one mass, there are possibilities of subdivisions in relation to that mass; it can be divided into other masses, other volumes, other levels, all by means of loudspeakers arranged in different places, thus giving a sense of movement through space. . . ." The vision was remarkably complete years before it could be realized.

In 1928, Varèse returned to Paris, where he was to remain for four years planning out Espace and L'Astronome, two monumental unrealized conceptions, and composing the work that was to bring him more fame and notoriety than any other: Ionisation, for percussion ensemble. During this period, most of his earlier works were performed in France and elsewhere in Europe. The impact was extraordinary: ... a nightmare dreamed by giants .." was one reaction to Arcana; "... a gigantic step forward or else a return to the very origins of music …" was another; "music in the pure state, the noise of gravitating worlds, the synthesized projection of all the silences and songs of earth and sky … a conception of such vastness is not inhuman but extra-human ..." was a third.

Many of these performances were directed by Nicolas Slonimsky under the auspices of the Pan-American Association; these programs introduced Ives and Ruggles to Europe as well. In 1933 at Carnegie Hall the Pan-American Association and Slonimsky gave the first performance of Ionisation; it was performed shortly thereafter also in Havana, San Francisco, and Paris. In the same year, Varèse, back in the United States, began work on a setting of a prayer from the Legends of Guatemala by Miguel Angel Asturias. For Varèse, the title Ecuatorial suggested the strength and intensity of pre-Colombian art. Even as he went forward in his musical explorations, he also returned to sources, to the most basic, elemental springs of musical expression. Ecuatorial is scored for bass voice (or chorus of basses), brass, keyboard, percussion, and two electronic instruments built for Varèse by the inventor Leon Theremin (a later revision substituted two ondes Martenots for the Theremins). The first performance took place at Town Hall in New York under Association auspices with Nicolas Slonimsky conducting.

BUT Varèse's star was beginning to wane. From a position right at the heart of American artistic and creative life, he was shunted aside to a periphery reserved for eccentrics and oddball radicals. After Ionisation and Ecuatorial there was the brief, exquisite Density 21.5 – commissioned by Georges Barrêre for his new platinum flute and still Varèse's most performed and recorded work – and then a long silence. New trends of conservatism, populism, and nationalism were on the upsurge, and economic crisis, political upheavals, and, finally, war served to accelerate them. From a larger point of view we can see that many different and apparently opposing trends – neo-Classicism, serialism, Gebrauchsmusik, socialist realism, the WPA, populism, nationalism, Stalinism, fascism – all tended to alter the course of art away from avant-garde experimentation. Many composers managed a transition; those who, like Varèse, refused to compromise were to slide into near oblivion.

But it is too easy to attribute Varèse's long silence merely to such forces. In fact, he never ceased planning new works and searching for the new means to realize them. As early as 1928 he conceived of a dramatic work whose implications are precisely those of the film 2001 . Varèse's sketch for L'Astronome is set in the year 2000 – only one year ahead of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick! An astronomer has received extraterrestrial signals and dares to answer them. At the end, just as in 2001, the space explorer is taken up by the extraterrestrials: "Spotlights are turned into the auditorium, blinding the spectators . . . universal and petrified silence.. . ." Varèse gave this sketch first to Robert Desnos and Alejo Carpentier, later to his friend Antonin Artaud. But the musical means for the realization of such a conception were not yet in existence. Varèse doggedly kept on. He applied four or five times for a Guggenheim fellowship to try to realize "an instrument for the producing of new sounds" and was invariably turned down. He envisioned a music laboratory where sound and the means to produce it in all forms would be studied and demonstrated; the laboratory was also to include as complete a collection of records as possible, including examples of the music of "all races, all cultures, all periods, and all tendencies." Needless to say, nothing ever came of it.

Between 1936 and 1940, Varèse traveled, lectured, and taught in the American West, visiting Hollywood sound studios in the course of his seemingly endless, fruitless quest. Another large-scale, never-to-be-realized project was germinating in Varèse's mind. Espace was to be a multilingual work with ''voices in the sky, as though magic, invisible hands turning on and off the knobs of fantastic radios, filling all space, criss-crossing, overlapping, penetrating each other, splitting up, superimposing, repulsing each other, colliding, crashing." He imagined a work being performed and broadcast simultaneously in different parts of the world with each choir singing in its own language. The conception passed through several phases; at one point Malraux was to write the text. The newspapers picked it up, and it was dubbed the "Red Symphony" or "Symphony of the Masses." The audiences were to be surrounded by sound with loudspeakers both broadcasting from afar and spinning sound around the auditorium. Microtones and specially invented "electrical" instruments were to be used. The orchestral writing was to be built "on the shifting play of planes, volumes, masses in space." The chorus, further, was to be used "to the full extent of its possibilities: singing, humming, yelling, chanting, mumbling, hammered declamation, etc . Theme: TODAY . . . marching humanity."

But it was not to be. In 1940, Varèse returned permanently to New York and remained there in isolation for the entire duration of the war. His only musical activity was choral conducting, his repertoire almost entirely early music. However, in 1947 he gave the first and, to date, only performance of his Étude pour Espace, the only surviving fragment of that monumental project (although it is said that Déserts and the Poème électronique contain ideas originally intended for Espace ). This remarkable and little-known sketch has multilingual texts assembled by Varèse himself and set for chorus, two pianos, and percussion.

There have been composers who lived to a ripe creative old age and others whose work was neglected during their lifetimes and rescued later by posterity. But the resurgence of Varèse is a remarkable phenomenon, perhaps unique in the history of music. In '1948, Varèse was invited to teach at a Columbia University summer session; the following year he was invited to lecture at the Summer New Music Courses at Darmstadt, the incubator of the postwar European avant-garde. That same year Frederic Waldman conducted Hyperprism at a concert at the Museum of Modern Art in memory of Paul Rosenfeld. A year later Waldman recorded Octandre, Intégrales, Ionisation, and Density 21.5 for E.M.S. Records as the first volume in a projected "complete works." Ionisation and Octandre had earlier been recorded on 78's, but it was this new LP record that finally made Varèse's music accessible on a wide scale.

IN 1949-1950, Varèse once again began creative work in earnest, writing the instrumental parts for a work that was to combine human performers with the new electronic medium. The invention of magnetic tape and advances in the capabilities of high quality electronic equipment had at last made it possible for visions to become realities. After Varèse had made several fruitless approaches to some of the big electronic and high-fidelity firms, the tide finally began flowing back his way. An anonymous donor gave him a tape recorder – one of the big, early Ampexes – and he immediately began collecting and mixing sounds for the tape interpolations in the new work. He no longer wished to speak of music in the old sense. "But that's not music," wailed the horrified little old lady in tennis shoes. "Okay, it isn't music," Varèse would agree, "it's organized sound . "

In 1954, Pierre Schaeffer, one of the founders of musique concrète, invited Varèse to work at the studios of French Radio – an act of generosity and an appropriate bit of historical justice – enabling him to complete the tape portions of the new piece with adequate equipment. The work, Déserts, was scored for woodwinds, brass, piano, percussion, and tape. It was first performed in Paris by the Orchestra of the French Radio under Hermann Scherchen, and simultaneously broadcast in stereo. Ironically, the location was the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees where, forty years before, Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps had had its premiere, and the new scandale was hardly less sensational. Indeed, instead of 1,500 people, there were perhaps 1,500,000 in on the later event! Whether because of the demonstration or in spite of it, Déserts was shortly heard all over Europe and the United States. Varèse, his music, and his ideas were again center stage, and a whole younger generation of composers came under his influence.

Varèse not only anticipated the development of tape and electronic music, but also what we would call today multimedia. In his original conception of Déserts there was to be a film accompanying the music – a visual interpretation of the conception: Déserts of the sea, of the earth, of outer space, of the human electronically "organized sound" for the Good Friday Procession in Verges sequence in a film about Joan Mire) by their mutual friend Thomas Bouchard. This little-known work is hauntingly beautiful with regard to both the visual images of a flickering candlelight procession and its curiously moving interplay of Gregorian intonation and noise.

In 1956 the Philips Company of Holland commissioned the architect Le Corbusier to design a pavilion for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. Le Corbusier conceived the notion of an "electronic poem" and insisted – over severe objections from Philips – that Varèse be his collaborator. With some reluctance, Philips turned over its facilities at Eindhoven, Holland, to Varèse. The original form of the work was scored for four hundred loudspeakers which covered the inside of the structure; while Le Corbusier's "light show" of visual imagery was projected across the irregular, flowing interior surfaces, the complex of electronically organized and manipulated sound was moved across these same surfaces by an elaborate distribution system. The vision of forty years was – for a while, at least – a reality. Unfortunately, this remarkable structure was torn down and the work survives only in the two-channel version which, along with the final revised version of Déserts, was achieved later at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York.

Varèse also made a definitive revision of Arcana, which was performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1958; Déserts was performed by the same forces at Philharmonic Hall several years later. Recordings of virtually all the extant works began to appear, notably two Columbia discs conducted by Robert Craft and the larger orchestral works conducted by Abravanel on Vanguard.

The history of Varèse's final composition is a little obscure. Like most of his later works, it seems to have undergone several transformations. Originally called Nuit, it later turned into a setting of Henri Michaux's Dans la nuit, and then was apparently abandoned. In 1961, Robert Craft conducted the premiere of a major new Varèse work for soprano, chorus, and orchestra entitled Nocturnal with a text taken from the House of Incest by AnaIs Nin (daughter of the composer Joaquin Nin and a well known literary figure in her own right). But Varèse never considered the work complete and a final version was realized from his sketches only after his death by his pupil Chou Wen-Chung.

Varèse died on November 6, 1965 in New York. It is one of the fine ironies that the world was at the time preparing to pay him homage on his eightieth birthday when, because of a widely perpetuated error in his birthdate, he had already been an octogenarian for two years. The concerts became memorial tributes.

Varèse'S music has more links with the past than might at first seem apparent. Besides the Renaissance and medieval music he knew and loved so well, non-Western musics of Africa, South America, and Asia had an influence on him. All his early music is lost except for a published song or two, and it is idle to speculate how great the influence of Berlioz, Busoni, and Strauss must have been on his early development. The impact of Debussy is notable, most obviously in Offrandes but, in a subtler way, in the later works as well. Debussy was the first Western composer to work outside the Italian-German contrapuntal-tonal tradition, the first to create free-floating aggregates of tone, and the first to elevate color and texture to a position of importance equal to the other musical elements. Another important source for Varèse is Stravinsky and, most particularly, Le Sacre du Printemps . Stravinsky's abstracted, cubist structures, his blocked-out levels, planes, and volumes, had a direct effect on Varèse, most noticeably in the larger orchestral works. Then, too, in spite of his opposition to twelve-tone dogma, Varèse was certainly influenced by Schoenberg, particularly in his use of the total chromatic resources.

Be all this as it may, Varèse was one of the most original creative figures in the history of Western music and probably owed less to tradition than any composer who preceded him – and most that followed. His approach to sound was at once purer and less dogmatic than Webern's. He worked not with isolated tones, but with blocks of sound defined by 'timbre (a concept which, in Varèse's music, includes harmony and intensity of sound) and rhythm (including articulation and melody). In his chamber-ensemble works of the Twenties, melodic structures are often reduced to one or two notes set in a pattern of rhythmic accents and dynamic variation, a tendency that culminated in Ionisation, where the rhythms are the "melodies." In the orchestral works, sonorous masses are brought into play – volumes and textures of tremendous density and intensity. There is nothing like "development" in the traditional sense; no narratives, no stories to tell. The music is static, if you will, but only in the sense that architecture is static. The best analogues of Varèse's music are all architectural, sculptural, or advanced geometrical: juxtaposed masses or volumes of sound perceived spatially. Time is measured not by traveling from one place to another, but by the slow revolution of solid masses in space, "viewed" from every side. Varèse thought of musical space as a continuum not always necessarily broken up into fixed scales. Thus he used clusters and aggregates of notes, changing textures, articulations and intensities, a huge variety of percussive ( that is, indeterminate pitch) sounds, the infamous siren (which makes pitches slide on a continuum), the Theremin and the ondes Martenot, and eventually, of course, modern tape and electronic techniques.

All of these principles, applied first in instrumental and later in vocal and tape music, have had a tremendous effect on the course of musical history. Any sound – literally – could now be raw material for creative art – but note: raw material. The entire spectrum of sound materials was now available through electronic recording or sound synthesis. Physical space could now become a conscious dimension of creative musical expression. Varêse saw clearly the new synthesis of auditory and visual imagery that we now call multimedia. His later works – beginning as far back as Ecuatorial – involve some combination of the human voice and/or electronics. From the period of the conception of L'Astronome, series of intensely dramatic juxtapositions begin to enter the music; there is a sense of man's aloneness in the universe but also of his power and dignity. For Varêse the machine was a means, not an end, for he was an artist, not a technician. He wanted to dominate the technology to realize a vision, a vision that was in fact as wide as the range of human experience. Varèse was not, strictly speaking, a teacher, and he had few students and no "school." Andre Jolivet, his one European pupil, seems to have shown almost no real understanding of Varesian ideals at all. A strange case is that of the black composer William Grant Still, who, after working with Varèse and writing a number of works in an advanced idiom, reverted completely to a lighter folksy style. The most important of Varèse's pupils is the Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chung, who is also his literary and musical executor.

Varèse left his mark on a great deal of American music in the Twenties and Thirties, most notably on that of Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, and others. I can hear the Varèse influence quite clearly in Aaron Copland's 1930 Piano Variations; this remarkable work is certainly closer to Varèse than to the European serialists. There is an influence of Varèse on Stefan Wolpe, himself a seminal influence in postwar American music. Ralph Shapey, who as a conductor has been one of Varèse's best interpreters, is perhaps the composer most directly in the Varèse line. Varèse certainly influenced Elliott Carter and, it is said, the early work of Milton Babbitt. These composers have helped shape one whole facet of contemporary American music, and this aspect of Varèse's legacy is still alive in the work of younger composers such as Charles Wuorinen. On the other side of the fence, the New York Action School ( John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown) admired the non-process, the "it-ness" of Varèse's work. For them, Varèse was the composer who first proposed the sound "object" – coming from nowhere, going nowhere – as a subject for admiration in its own right. And so Varèse's influence is a link between two apparently opposing camps.

Varèse had a particularly strong impact in Europe outside the German sphere of influence, especially in Eastern Europe where he was one of the first Western avant-gardists to be widely performed. The European "cluster and density" composers – Yannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki – all stem quite directly from Varèse. Xenakis was Le Corbusier's assistant on the Philips pavilion and was the person actually responsible for the structure. With Xenakis – architect, mathematician, and computer expert turned composer – the connections between the new architecture, technology, and musical thought become quite explicit. Ligeti and Penderecki are more intuitive composers, but their principles of texture and block-like construction are clearly Varèsian. Indeed, the entire development of European music away from expressionist serialism – the evolution of tape music, the growth of multimedia and new music theater as well as far-out pop – owes a great deal to the vision, if not the specific example, of Varèse. Salvatore Martirano's L's G A would be inconceivable without the example of Varèse. Pop composer Frank Zappa has often talked about the influence of Varèse on his music, thus helping to make Varèse's name known even in rock circles.

I MYSELF had the privilege of knowing Varèse well in his last years, and although I never in any sense studied with him, I could hardly have failed to come under his influence. The old house on Sullivan Street where Varèse had lived since 1925 was always open to young people and new ideas. Varèse's second wife, Louise McCutcheon Norton, an American and a well-known translator from the French, was (and is) the mistress of this remarkable household where one might meet Marcel Duchamp or John Cage or Mme. Malraux or Elliott Carter or Joan Mire) or Pierre Boulez or St. John Perse or the head of Bell Labs or some unknown young composer. The basement studio, with its incredible collection of charts, scores, gongs, tape recorders, instruments, and works of art, was like one of his compositions: an apparently overwhelming disarray, yet everything in its place and with a meaning. In that disarray were the tools of the musical technology, and yet everything was personal, an extension of the composer himself. If we had any real sense of our past – not the Williamsburg self-deception, but our real pioneering past – that studio would be preserved exactly the way it stands (it is, at the present writing, still intact) as a museum and memorial.

As in his music, so in his life: the thing was not squeezed to fit some preconception of form, but form was the thing itself grown organically – like a crystal, Varèse would say, or like a living organism. He spoke of "the liberation of sound" and of a musical space that was open, not bounded. He saw himself only as representative of his time. "An artist only reflects his time," he would say, "he is never ahead of his time; the public and the critics are behind it. I don't write 'experimental music'; my experiments are left behind in the laboratory; it is for the audience, when they hear it performed, to make the experiment of confronting a new work." Varèse's best eulogy was the one offered by Pierre Boulez: "Your legend is now part of our times; now we can erase that circle of chalk and water, those magic or ambiguous words 'experimental,' 'precursor," pioneer' . . . . Farewell, Varèse, farewell! Your time is finished and now it begins."  


      Published and Recorded Works

Amériques (1918 - 1922). Vanguard S 274.
Offrandes (1921). Candide 31028; Columbia MS 6362.
Hyperprism (1922). Angel S 36786; Candide 31028; Columbia MS 6146.
Octandre (1923). Candide 31028; Columbia MS 6146.
Intégrales (1924). Angel S 36786; Candide 31028; Columbia MS 6146.
Arcana ( 1925-1927). RCA LSC 2914.
Ionisation (1930 - 1931). Candide 31028; Columbia MS 6146.
Ecuatorial (1933-1934). Vanguard Cardinal VCS 10047.
Density 21.5 (1936). Angel S 36786; Candide 31028; Columbia MS 6146.
Etude pour Es pace (1947). No recording.
Déserts (1949 - 1954). Angel S 36786; Columbia MS 6362.
Good Friday Procession in Verges (1956). No recording.
Poème électronique (1957-1958). Columbia MS 6146.
Nocturnal (1960-1961). Vanguard Cardinal VCS 10047.

      Recordings and Performers

  • ANGEL S 36786: Michel Debost (flute); Paris Instrumental Ensemble for Contemporary Music, Konstantin Simonovitch cond.
  • CANDIDE 31028: Helmut Reissberger (flute); "Die Reihe" Ensemble, Friedrich Cerha cond.
  • COLUMBIA MS 6146 and 6362: Dona Precht (soprano); unidentified flute soloist; instrumental ensembles; Columbia Symphony Orchestra. Robert Craft cond.
  • RCA LSC 2914: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jean Martinon cond.
  • VANGUARD S 274 and VANGUARD CARDINAL VCS 10047: Arid Bybee (soprano); bass ensemble of the University-Civic Chorale, Salt Lake City; Utah Symphony Orchestra, Maurice Abravanel cond.


Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net