Edgar Varèse

(22 December 1883 — 06 November 1965)

The Casa Ricordi Catalogue contains almost all the music [1] written by Varèse during the course of his by no means brief life (1883-1965) – except of course for those early works composed in the twenty years preceding his departure for the United States in 1914, which the composer himself purposely destroyed. There are twelve pieces in all, which could be performed in their entirety in the course of two average-length concerts. His production was thus extremely limited. In this sense, indeed, Varèse has no rivals in the history of great music – not even Berg or Webern can equal him in this respect. Yet his music seems today (more than a hundred years after his birth) more relevant and vital than ever, as this present “re-launching” demonstrates.

A close analysis of Varèse the man and artist may help us understand why his works have survived so well. He was born in Paris of an Italian father and French mother. Between the ages of ten and twenty he lived in Turin, where he began his musical studies. In 1903, however, he quarrelled with his father and left for Paris, where he completed his studies with d’Indy, Roussel and Widor. Shortly after he began composing, and moved to Berlin, where his works were appreciated by Busoni and Debussy. In the same period he heard the first performance of Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire and Stravinsky’s Sacre (in Berlin, 1912 and Paris, 1913). Then, in 1914 (as we have seen) he moved to the United States, where he decided to destroy all the works composed up to that moment, and to set off in a radically new direction as a composer, researcher and innovator.

In those years he worked as a conductor (in 1919 he founded the New Symphony Orchestra) and concert organizer with the aim of familiarizing American audiences with contemporary music and introducing works and composers who had previously been ignored in the United States. In the same period he started working on the limited number of works (the first was Amériques, finished in 1922) which would soon establish Varèse in the whole world as one of the most advanced and daring of composers, committed to exploring the unknown territories of New Music. He was thus intensely active in America (where he also founded the Pan American Association of Composers together with Chávez and Cowell), yet from 1928 to 1933 he returned to live in France. He had in fact never lost touch with the French musical world, and in this period he renewed his old friendships with Picasso and Cocteau and consolidated new ones (Jolivet, Villa-Lobos).

1934 marked the beginning of a long period of crisis, due to dissatisfaction with his activity as a composer and marked by restless moves from one city to another in the central and western regions of the United States. In this period he tried – unsuccessfully – to write music for films; he founded new musical institutions, setting up house first in Santa Fe, then in San Francisco, then in Los Angeles, before returning to New York in 1941. His musical production came to a halt. He was taken up with various forms of research that failed however to catalyze into new musical works. Between 1934, the year in which Ecuatorial was composed, and 1950, he composed nothing except for the minor work Density 21.5 for flute; the brief Etude pour espace for choir, two pianos and percussion (performed only once and still unpublished) and the even less well known Dance for Burgess.

In the last fifteen years of his life, however, he started composing again with considerable energy, producing masterpieces such as Déserts and Nocturnal and achieving definitive international recognition for his extraordinary gifts as a composer. He took an interest in the young musicians who attended the Ferienkurse at Darmstadt (where he also gave lessons) and his works began to be recorded. He received prestigious commissions (including Le Corbusier’s commission for the Poème électronique, composed for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels exhibition in 1958), state decorations, and towards the end of his life his music began to become increasingly well known – although its real importance had yet to be fully understood. Varèse died on the 6th November 1965 at the New York University Medical Center Hospital without being able to carry out his final project – the music for Henri Michaux’s Dans la nuit.

The symphonic poem Bourgogne, which was finished in 1909 and first performed in Berlin in 1910, is known to be one of the works which the composer later repudiated (although for some reason Varèse resolved to destroy the score only towards the end of his life in 1961). Yet it is interesting to hear what he said in an interview in 1965 about the highly articulated function of the strings in this work:

I was trying to approximate the kind of inner, microcosmic life you find in certain chemical solutions, or through the filtering of light. I used these strings unthematically as a background behind a great deal of brass and percussion.

Obviously he was speaking with hindsight – taking into consideration (consciously or otherwise) the evolution of his thought and his experimentation over more than forty years. The decision to destroy his youthful works in spite of everything suggests however that in spite of the many personal innovations that they may have contained, there was something in those works that left him unsatisfied (the only one that has survived, Un grand sommeil noir for voice and piano, composed in 1906 to a text by Verlaine, gives us perhaps a clue as to what dissatisfied him). The fact is that Varèse aimed at a radical refoundation of music and this could be brought about only from 1920 onwards.

The expression “unexplored territories” which I used almost unthinkingly above turns out in fact to be the best definition of Varèse’s role as a musician and of the nature of his music. For no other composer of this century has rethought in such a radical manner the art of sounds. Let us take Schönberg, for example. His period of “emancipatory dissonance”, which lasted from 1909 to about 1920, certainly resulted in some disturbing and sublime works of art. If we analyse their linguistic structure, however, we can see that it always betrays the need to underline the contrast with traditional musical language, to negate it – it thus exists only in so far as it represents a continuation/break in relation to the past.

In fact when Schönberg adopted dodecaphony, did he not continue nonetheless to take refuge in the traditional 18th and 19th century forms, almost as if he wanted to establish a solid link between past and present – an act of conciliation, after the excesses of the earlier period? And what about Bartók – a musician for whom Varèse had enormous respect? His extraordinary linguistic and formal innovations depended on his ability to potentiate and artistically sublimate that “extra-territorial” quality which derived from his popular sources. Not even he was bold enough to begin with a tabula rasa. And is the same not true – mutatis mutandis – of Stravinsky’s greatest period (not to mention his long neo-classical decline)? And what of Berg’s resorting to traditional forms and (sometimes) harmony? And did not the extraordinary visionary quality of Ives’s work derive from a mixture of the musical language of the past with that of the present? And what of Hindemith’s neo-baroque (note the definition!)? Or the so-called musical Cubism of some of Prokofiev’s works, that exists only in so far as it distorts, overturns and sublimates well-known musical features, movements and sonorities? And the same tensely dialectical relationship with the past is to be found in Shostakovich, Malipiero, Villa-Lobos, Ravel, etc.

This harsh conflict between past and present, this struggle to re-mould and renew, is absent from the work of only one composer in this century. That composer is Edgard Varèse who must have been driven by a sense of necessity, and by a fiercely self-critical nature, to reject all that he had composed in the early years of his career – perhaps because it revealed traces of an unresolved conflict, of a degree of subordinacy to the past.

In the series of works inaugurated by Amériques we enter into an entirely unexplored territory which seems distant from the polemics, the explosions and the compromises that his contemporaries may well have had to accept. Varèse had distanced himself physically as well, by settling in a virgin territory, 6000 kilometres from Paris. There he could begin his new work with an uncluttered mind, with the illusion of planting the seed of something entirely unknown in a new world. And the music he was to write from that moment on was to follow a fascinating and soaring path. The Stravinskian echoes that can be heard in the earliest pieces are physiological left-overs from his formative years (Paris in the 1910’s) rather than an attempt to salvage ties with the past. At the same time we cannot help noticing the transparency of his instrumentation which creates new, crystalline agglomerates of sound that derive from a conception of timbre quite absent in the works of Varèse’s predecessors. Varèse’s terse harmonies are not an “antithesis” or “negation” of anything. And still less are they a foolish attempt to épater le bourgeois. They are rather unknown flowers, that emerge as if from another planet, thanks to a self-justifying physical and acoustical logic that is not interested in demonstrating that it is more advanced or modern than others. It simply exists, in its purity and autonomy of construction; in its simplicity of form (underlined by its brevity). In its elegant simplicity it resembles the work of an expert bricklayer: a wall of bare bricks has no need of tinselly decoration or friezes to express its functional beauty. Varèse was to follow in this direction for many years, producing an extremely limited quantity of works. They included, however such exciting experiences as his piece for percussion only; the arcane resonance of Popol Vuh, with its choir of basses singing the Maya text in unison; the titanic project for Espace, and his encounters with concrete music in Déserts and electronic music in Poème.

I don’t think anyone is able to explain why Varèse, who for decades had desired to write “machine music”, with unexplored sonorities, failed to take full advantage of the electronic medium. Tireless in experimentation and in the auscultation of the various percussive and exotic instruments which filled the cellar of his New York house, and quite happy to record street sounds which he then manipulated for the taped parts of Déserts, Varèse felt perhaps that the electronic sonorities represented that dehumanizing culture against which he had fought all his life. He was still sufficiently tied to a 19th century conception of the “machine” to shrink from them fearfully. This time there is no doubt that he was wrong, though indeed he was perhaps too old to set about exploring an entirely new territory. Nonetheless what he did achieve has served as a luminous and uncontaminated example for several generations of composers. On the one hand Varèse has taught us to remain faithful to our ideas, to scorn compromise even if the price of remaining faithful to one’s convictions is ostracization. On the other hand he has taught us to face the music with an uncluttered mind, with sincere curiosity for that which is new and that which has yet to be heard; to avoid relying on received models, but to establish each time, in every work, the raison d’être of the work itself and its structure. For all these reasons Varèse remains quite unique in our century and deserves a place alongside that other great example of life, music and humanity: Schönberg. And the clearest proof of this is to be found listening to his works.

[1] His principal writings, which throw light on Varèse’s human and musical ideas, are to be found in écrits. Textes réunis et présentés par Louise Hirbour, Christian Bourgois éditeur, Paris 1983.

August 1989

Giacomo Manzoni

(translation by Stephen Hastings)