Varèse, Edgard (Victor Achille Charles)

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Varèse, Edgard (Victor Achille Charles)

Varèse, Edgard (Victor Achille Charles), remarkable French-born American composer, who introduced a totally original principle of organizing the materials and forms of sound, profoundly influencing the direction of new music; b. Paris, Dec. 22, 1883; d. N.Y, Nov. 6, 1965. The original spelling of his first Christian name was Edgard, but most of his works were first publ. under the name Edgar; about 1940 he chose to return to the legal spelling. He spent his early childhood in Paris and in Burgundy, and began to compose early in life. In 1892 his parents went to Turin; his paternal grandfather was Italian; his other grandparents were French. He took private lessons in composition with Giovanni Bolzoni, who taught him gratis. Várese gained some performing experience by playing percussion in the school orch. He stayed there until 1903; then went to Paris. In 1904 he entered the Schola Cantorum, where he studied composition, counterpoint, and fugue with Roussel, preclassical music with Bordes, and conducting with d’lndy; then entered the composition class of Widor at the Cons, in 1905. In 1907 he received the “bourse artistique” offered by the City of Paris; at that time, he founded and conducted the chorus of the Université Populaire and organized concerts at the Château du Peuple. He became associated with musicians and artists of the avant-garde; also met Debussy, who showed interest in his career. In 1907 he married a young actress, Suzanne Bing; they had a daughter. Together they went to Berlin, at that time the center of new music that offered opportunities to Várese. The marriage was not successful, and they separated in 1913. Romain Rolland gave Várese a letter of recommendation for Richard Strauss, who in turn showed interest in Varese’s music. He was also instrumental in arranging a performance of Varèse’s symphonic poem Bourgogne,which was performed in Berlin on Dec. 15, 1910. But the greatest experience for Varèse in Berlin was his meeting and friendship with Busoni. Várese greatly admired Busoni’s book on new music aesthetics, and was profoundly influenced by Busoni’s views. He composed industriously, mostly for orch.; the most ambitious of these works was a symphonic poem, Gargantua,but it was never completed. Other works were Souvenirs, Prélude à la fin d’un jour, Cycles du Nord,and an incomplete opera, Oedipus und die Sphinx,to a text by Hofmannsthal. All these works, in manuscript, were lost under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and Varèse himself destroyed the score of Bourgognelater in life. A hostile reception that he encountered from Berlin critics for Bourgogneupset Varèse, who expressed his unhappiness in a letter to Debussy. However, Debussy responded with a friendly letter of encouragement, advising Varèse not to pay too much attention to critics.

As early as 1913, Varèse began an earnest quest for new musical resources; upon his return to Paris, he worked on related problems with the Italian musical futurist Luigi Russolo, although he disapproved of the attempt to find a way to new music through the medium of instrumental noises. He was briefly called to the French army at the outbreak of the First World War, but was discharged because of a chronic lung ailment. In 1915 he went to N.Y. There he met the young American writer Louise Norton, with whom he set up household; in 1921, when she obtained her own divorce from a previous marriage, they were married. As in Paris and Berlin, Varèse had chronic financial difficulties in America; the royalties from his few publ. works were minimal; in order to supplement his earnings he accepted a job as a piano salesman, which was repulsive to him. He also appeared in a minor role in a John Barrymore silent film in 1918. Some welcome aid came from the wealthy artist Gertrude Vanderbilt, who sent him monthly allowances for a certain length of time. Varèse also had an opportunity to appear as a conductor. As the U.S. neared the entrance into war against Germany, there was a demand for French conductors to replace the German music directors who had held the monopoly on American orchs. On April 1, 1917, Varèse conducted in N.Y. the Requiem Massof Berlioz. On March 17,1918, he conducted a concert of the Cincinnati Sym. Orch. in a program of French and Russian music; he also included an excerpt from Lohengrin,thus defying the general ban on German music. However, he apparently lacked that indefinable quality that makes a conductor, and he was forced to cancel further concerts with the Cincinnati Sym. Orch.

Eager to promote the cause of modern music, he organized a sym. orch. in N.Y. with the specific purpose of giving performances of new and unusual music; it presented its first concert on April 11, 1919. In 1922 he organized with Carlos Salzedo the International Composers7Guild, which gave its inaugural concert in N.Y. on Dec. 17,1922. In 1926 he founded, in association with a few progressive musicians, the Pan American Soc, dedicated to the promotion of music of the Americas. He intensified his study of the nature of sound, working with the acoustician Harvey Fletcher (1926-36), and with the Russian electrical engineer Leon Theremin, then resident in the U.S. These studies led him to the formulation of the concept of “organized sound,” in which the sonorous elements in themselves determined the progress of composition; this process eliminated conventional thematic development; yet the firm cohesion of musical ideas made Varèse’s music all the more solid, while the distinction between consonances and dissonances became no longer of basic validity. The resulting product was unique in modern music; characteristically, Varèse attached to his works titles from the field of mathematics or physics, such as Intégrales, Hyperprism (a projection of a prism into the 4thdimension), Ionisation, Density 21.5 (the specific weight of platinum), etc., while the score of his large orch. work Arcanaderived its inspiration from the cosmology of Paracelsus. An important development was Varèse’s application of electronic music in his Desertsand, much more extensively, in his Poème électronique,commissioned for the Brussels World Exposition in 1958. He wrote relatively few works in small forms, and none for piano solo. The unfamiliarity of Varèse’s idiom and the tremendous difficulty of his orch. works militated against frequent performances. Among conductors, only Leopold Stokowski was bold enough to put Varèse’s formidable scores Amériquesand Arcanaon his programs with the Philadelphia Orch.; they evoked yelps of derision and outbursts of righteous indignation from the public and the press. Ironically, it was left to a mere beginner, Nicolas Slonimsky, to be the first to perform and record Varèse’s unique masterpiece, Ionisation.

An extraordinary reversal of attitudes toward Varèse’s music, owing perhaps to the general advance of musical intelligence and the emergence of young music critics, took place within Varèse’s lifetime, resulting in a spectacular increase of interest in his works and the number of their performances; also, musicians themselves learned to overcome the rhythmic difficulties presented in Varèse’s scores. Thus Varèse lived to witness this long-delayed recognition of his music as a major stimulus of modern art; his name joined those of Stravinsky, Ives, Schoenberg, and Webern among the great masters of 20th-century music. Recognition came also from an unexpected field when scientists working on the atom bomb at Oak Ridge in 1940 played Slonim-sky’s recording of Ionisationfor relaxation and stimulation in their work. In 1955 he was elected to membership in the National Inst. of Arts and Letters and in 1962 in the Royal Swedish Academy He became a naturalized American citizen in 1926. Like Schoenberg, Várese refused to regard himself as a revolutionary in music; indeed, he professed great admiration for his remote predecessors, particularly those of the Notre Dame school, representing the flowering of the Ars Antiqua. On the centennial of his birth in 1983, festivals of his music were staged in Strasbourg, Paris, Rome, Washington, D.C., N.Y., and Los Angeles. In 1981, Frank Zappa, the leader of the modern school of rock music and a sincere admirer of Varèse’s music, staged a concert of Varèse’s works in N.Y. at his own expense; he presented a similar concert in San Francisco in 1982. Upon Varèse’s death, his former student Chou Wen-chung became musical executor of his estate. He reconstructed and edited several of Varèse’s scores left in various states of unreadiness.


Un Grand Sommeil noirfor Voice and Piano (1906; orchestrated by Antony Beaumont; Amsterdam, Aug. 24,1998); Amériquesfor Orch. (1918-21; Philadelphia, April 9, 1926, Stokowski conducting; rev. 1927; Paris, May 30, 1929, Poulet conducting); Dedications,later renamed Offrandes,for Soprano and Chamber Orch. (1921; N.Y., April 23,1922, Koshetz soloist, Salzedo conducting); Hyperprismfor 9 Wind Instruments and 18 Percussion Devices (N.Y., March 4,1923, composer conducting); Octandrefor Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Trombone, and Double Bass (1923; N.Y, Jan. 13,1924, Schmitz conducting); Intégralesfor 11 Instruments and 4 Percussion (N.Y, March 1, 1925, Stokowski conducting); Arcanafor Orch. (1925-27; Philadelphia, April 8,1927, Stokowski conducting; rev. 1960); Ionisationfor 13 Percussionists (using instruments of indefinite pitch), Piano, and 2 Sirens (1929-31; N.Y, March 6, 1933, Slonimsky conducting); Ecuatorialfor Bass, 4 Trumpets, 4 Trombones, Piano, Organ, Percussion, and Thereminovox (1932-34; N.Y, April 15,1934, Baromeo soloist, Slonimsky conducting; also for Men’s Chorus, 2 Ondes Martenot, and Orch.); Density 21.5for Flute (N.Y, Feb. 16,1936; Barreré, soloist, on his platinum flute of specific gravity 21.5); Étude pour Espacefor Chorus, 2 Pianos, and Percussion (N.Y, Feb. 23, 1947, composer conducting); Tuning Upfor Orch. (1947; developed by Chou Wen-chung from fragments “suggesting the sound of an orch. tuning up” for a score to the film Carnegie Hall;Amsterdam, Aug. 24, 1998); Dance for Burgessfor Chamber Ensemble (1949; reconstructed in 1998 from an abandoned short dance piece for an unsuccessful Bugess Meredith musical Happy as Larry); Désertsfor Wind Instruments, Percussion, and 3 Interpolations of Electronic Sound (1950-54; Paris, Dec. 2, 1954, Scherchen conducting); La Procession de Verges,tape for the film Around and About Joan Mirò (1955); Poème électroniquefor More Than 400 Spatially Distributed Loudspeakers (1957-58; Brussels Exposition, May 2,1958); Nocturnalfor Soprano, Bass Chorus, and Chamber Orch. (N.Y, May 1, 1961, R. Craft conducting; unfinished; completed from notes and sketches by Chou Wen-Chung).


L. Hirbour, ed., Écrits (Paris, 1983).


J. Klaren, E. V., Pioneer of New Music in America (Boston, 1928); F. Ouellette, E. V.(Paris, 1966; rev. and aug. ed., 1989; Eng. tr., 1968); L. Várese, V.: A Looking Glass Diary (N.Y, 1972); O. Vivier, V.(Paris, 1973); J.-J. Nattiez, Essai d’analyse distributionelle de ’Densité 21.5’ de V. (Montreal, 1975; Eng. tr. by A. Barry in Music Analysis,I, 1982); G. Wehmeyer, E. V.(Regensburg, 1977); S. Van Solkema, ed., The New Worlds ofE. V.: Symposium (Brooklyn, 1979); A. Carpentier, V. vivant (Paris, 1982); M. Bredel, E. V.(Paris, 1984); J. Bernard, The Music ofE. V.(New Haven, Conn., 1987); H. de la Motte-Haber and K. Angermann, eds., E. V., 1883-1965: Dokumente zu leben und Werk (Frankfurt am Main, 1990); H. de la Motte-Haber, ed., Die Befreiung des Klangs: Symposium E. V. Hamburg 1991 (Hofheim, 1992); H. De la Motte-Haber, Die Musik von E. V.: Studien zu seinen nach 1918 entstandenen Werken (Hofheim, 1993); K. Angermann, Work in Progress: V.s Amériques (Munich, 1996).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

Edgard Varèse

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Edgard Varèse

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), French-American composer, was one of the major prophets of the new music after World War II. In 1958 John Cage wrote, "More clearly and actively than anyone else of his generation he established the present nature of music."

Edgard Varèse was born in Paris of a Corsican family, but his youth was spent in Italy, where he received an engineer's training and degree. He was equally interested in music, and after preliminary study at the Turin Conservatory, he continued at the Schola Cantorum in Paris under Vincent d'Indy and Albert Roussel and at the conservatory under Charles Widor. He was a brilliant student and won a composition prize sponsored by the city.

In 1907 Varèse moved to Berlin, where he came under the influence of Richard Strauss and Ferruccio Busoni. He conducted a chorus and wrote an opera, Oedipus und die Sphinx, with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Varèse also wrote a symphony which was performed, but all of these early compositions were destroyed in a fire.

With the outbreak of World War I, Varèse went to the United States. At first he was active as a conductor and as a propagandist for new music. He founded the International Composers' Guild and presented first performances of important contemporary pieces. In the following years he composed a series of very noisy compositions that baffled the critics but were acknowledged as landmarks of new music 30 years later. In these works Varèse went beyond the most advanced use of melody, rhythm, harmony, form, and instrumentation to create startlingly novel sounds.

During the 1920s Varèse wrote Amériques, Offrandes, Octandre, Hyperprism, Intégrales, and Arcana. Octandre (1924), for seven wind instruments and double bass, is a good example of his unconventional use of instruments and his new concept of musical form. The strident and extremely dissonant blocks of sound, almost resembling factory whistles, form the content of the piece without the rhythmic or tonal developments normally used by composers. Intégrales (1925), for wind instruments and percussion, also suggests big-city sounds. The first section consists of two unchanging chord structures around which a melodic pattern oscillates. It is one of the first of those "crystal" musical forms that were to be used so much in the following years. This term implies that the basic sound material of the piece is unchanging and that the shifting relationships between its elements is the only thing that "happens."

In the 1930s Varèse wrote Ionisation, Métal, Density 21.5, and Equatorial, of which Ionisation (1931) is best known. Written for percussion instruments plus a siren, it is one of the first of the many all-percussion pieces that were to follow. Equatorial, calling for two Theremins, shows his interest in new sound sources.

In 1937 Varèse stopped composing because he was no longer interested in seeking new sounds in conventional instruments; it was not until the tape recorder and electronic music became available that he finally gained the vast new sound resource he had been seeking. His mature works, utilizing noises and electronically produced sounds, are Déserts (1954) and the Poème électronique (1958). Déserts has two basic sound groups. The first is produced by the instruments; the second consists of a two-channel stereophonic tape of electronically produced sound. According to the composer, the instrumental parts produce a sense of movement in space, associated with the element within which the human operates, and the taped section is associated with distance and the nonhuman elements of the universe.

The Poème électronique was written to be performed in the Phillips Pavilion at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. The pavilion was planned as a "total environment" meant to result in a complex, multimedia experience for the audience. The music was heard from over 400 loudspeakers as the visitors walked through the building, seeing at the same time a series of projected images. Varèse's music consists of a combination of taped "natural" sounds, such as bells and voices, and noises such as clicks and motor roars. It is not meant to be listened to in the usual attentive manner.

Varèse's contributions to music are his widening of the material of music to include noise as well as "musical" sound, his development of new ways of organizing musical compositions, and writing of music to be heard as a part of an environment. All of these revolutionary ideas proved to be of great importance to the composers of the so-called avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s.

Further Reading

Some of Varèse's writings on music are extracted in Elliott Schwartz and Barney Childs, eds., Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music (1967). The only book-length study of the composer is Fernand Ouellette, Edgard Varèse (1966; trans. 1968). William W. Austin, Music in the Twentieth Century: From Debussy through Stravinsky (1966), has an interesting discussion of Varèse's life and work. Other studies which contain information on Varèse are Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961), and Joan Peyser, The New Music: The Sense behind the Sound (1971). □

Varèse, Edgard (Victor Achille Charles)

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Varèse, Edgard (Victor Achille Charles) (b Paris, 1883; d NY, 1965). Fr.-born composer and conductor (Amer. cit. 1926). Studied in Turin, Schola Cantorum, Paris, 1904–5 (comp. with d'Indy, theory with Roussel), and Paris Cons. with Widor 1905. Lived mainly in Berlin 1907–15, active as cond. Went to NY 1915. Founder-cond. New SO 1919 to perform modern mus.; resigned because of pressure to popularize programmes. With Salzedo, founded International Composers’ Guild 1921, devoted to new mus., which lasted until 1927, when (with Slonimsky, Ives, Cowell, and Chávez) founded Pan-American Assoc. of Composers. Returned to Paris 1928–32, then taught at Amer. colleges. Founded ch. to perform early mus. in NY 1940. Began to experiment with tape and elecs. 1953. Tireless experimenter with unusual sounds and instr. combinations, many of his works being patterns of rhythm and accents. Was championed by Stokowski in Philadelphia where Amériques and Arcana provoked hostile reactions. Most of his early works, in a romantic idiom, are lost or destroyed. Prin. comps.:ORCH.: Amériques (1918–21); Hyperprism, small orch. and perc. (1923); Octandre, small orch. (1923); Intégrales, woodwind, brass, perc. (1924–5); Arcana (1925–7); Ionisation, perc. (1929–31); Déserts (with optional tapes) (1950–4).VOICE & ORCH.: Offrandes, sop., small orch. (1921); Ecuatorial, bass v. and orch. (1933–4); Nocturnal, sop., bass ch., orch. (1961, unfinished; ed. and completed 1973 by Chou Wen-chung).INSTRUMENTAL: Density 21.5, solo fl. (1936).ELECTRONIC: Good Friday Procession in Verges (1955–6); Poème electronique (1957–8).

Varèse, Edgard

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Varèse, Edgard (1885–1965) French composer, a leading advocate of 20th-century experimental music. Varèse experimented with new rhythms and timbres and dissonant harmonies in works such as Hyperprism (1923) for wind instruments and percussion, and Déserts (1954) for tape-recorded sound. He concentrated on electronic music after the early 1950s.