Edgard Varèse (1883-1965)
The fact that the French-born American composer Edgard Varèse is deemed to be one of the most innovative and influential composers of the twentieth century is all the more remarkable when one considers that his œuvre consists of just a dozen works, the majority of which were written between 1920 and 1936. Yet his novel developments in the field of rhythm, form and timbre, his works often featuring richly coloured ensembles of wind and percussion, acted as a significant model for composers as diverse as Stockhausen, Xenakis and Birtwistle. The composer himself merely remarked that ‘Contrary to general belief an artist is never ahead of his time but most people are far behind theirs’.
Varèse was born in Paris on 22nd December 1883, the first of five children, and spent most of his early childhood with his maternal grandparents in Burgundy. In 1904 he entered the Schola Cantorum in Paris, where his teachers included Roussel, Bordes and d’Indy, only to leave the following year to study composition under Widor at the Conservatoire. In 1907 he moved to Berlin, establishing a close friendship with the composer Busoni, whose influential Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music) had made a great impression on him. Busoni’s attack on traditional nineteenth-century music aesthetics and his advocacy of a new music ‘free …from architectonic, acoustic and aesthetic dogmas’ found a particularly sympathetic recipient in Varèse, whose mature output encapsulated a continuous search for new means of musical expression.
Having returned to Paris by the outbreak of World War I, he lost most of his early works, written in a romantic idiom, which were subsequently destroyed in a fire in Berlin. On 18th December 1915 he emigrated to New York, making his conducting début with the Berlioz Requiem and also conducting concerts of new music with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the orchestra which he himself founded, the New Symphony Orchestra. In 1921 he co-founded the International Composers’ Guild with the harpist Carlos Salzedo, to perform contemporary music. Until it folded in 1927 the ICG presented works by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Stravinsky amongst others, as well as premières of Varèse’s Offrandes, Hyperprism, Octandre and Intégrales. With Slonimsky, Ives, Cowell and Chávez he also helped co-found the Pan-American Association of Composers, dedicated to the performance and dissemination of contemporary music. Following a five-year sojourn in Paris, during which he worked on two unfinished projects, L’astronome and Espace, he returned to New York, having applied unsuccessfully for funding to continue his research into electro-acoustic music. His most fecund period of composition effectively came to an end in 1936 with the solo flute piece Density 21.5 after which, dispirited and disheartened, he composed nothing for over a decade. It was only in 1953, when he received an Ampex tape recorder from an anonymous donor, that he was finally able to put into practice ideas that he had been harbouring for decades. This ushered in a final period of composition which was to produce two pioneering works of electronic music, Déserts and Poème électronique.
The thematic material of Arcana (1925-27) for orchestra — the score of which is prefaced by a quotation from the sixteenth-century Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus — is derived from the varied repetition of a handful of motifs including a rising tritone/rising tone figure also used in Intégrales. The première was given at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia on 8th April 1927 conducted by Leopold Stokowski.
The title of Octandre (1923) refers to its scoring for an octet of flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone and double bass (‘octandrous’ refers to a flower having eight stamens). The only work of Varèse to follow a traditional division of movements, namely Assez lent, Très vif et nerveux, Animé et jubilatoire, it grows out of the material stated by the oboe in the opening bars, with Varèse treating the octet essentially as a timbral pool from which he extracts textures of a quite startling originality.
Offrandes (1921) for soprano and chamber orchestra sets two surrealist poems by Latin American writers, Chanson de là-haut (Song from on high) by the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro and La croix du sud (The southern cross) by the Mexican poet José Juan Tablada. The première of the work in New York on 23rd April 1922 was the first performance of any music by Varèse since the première in 1910 of his symphonic poem Bourgogne in Berlin (a work which he subsequently destroyed). In its orchestration Offrandes clearly shows the influence of Debussy, although its focus on solo wind instruments was to become a trait of the small ensemble works written during the next few years.
Work on Intégrales (1924-25) began in Paris in the summer of 1924 and was completed in New York in January 1925. Scored for an ensemble of two piccolos, two clarinets, oboe, horn, two trumpets, three trombones and seventeen percussion instruments requiring four players, its first performance was given in New York on 1st March 1925 again conducted by Stokowski. It is cast in three distinct sections, the first based on the three-note motif of a rising tritone/rising tone that is stated first by clarinet and subsequently imitated by other instruments, the second a syncopated outburst from the brass sextet, and the third a melody first heard in the oboe that is repeated with slight variations and reaches a climax by dramatically superimposing echoes of earlier material.
Déserts (1950-54) is scored for an ensemble of fourteen wind instruments, piano and five percussionists, plus two-track tape. The work’s four instrumental sections can be played alone or, as on this recording, juxtaposed with three electronic interludes. Characterized by its focus on sustained chords or single pitches in its attempt to penetrate the inner essence of sound, the first performance of Déserts took place in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on 2nd December 1954 conducted by Hermann Scherchen. Its stormy reception recalled that of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in the very same theatre some forty years earlier.
ReviewsThe recording is excellent, the performers by the Polish Radio Symphony gusty and muscular. - Stephen Pettitt, The Sunday Times, August 2001