Edgard Varèse: Wikis


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Edgard Varèse.

Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse, whose name was also spelled Edgar Varèse[1] (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965), was an innovative French-born composer who spent the greater part of his career in the United States.

Varèse's music features an emphasis on timbre and rhythm. He was the inventor of the term "organized sound", a phrase meaning that certain timbres and rhythms can be grouped together, sublimating into a whole new definition of music. Although his complete surviving works only last about three hours, he has been recognised as an influence by several major composers of the late 20th century. His use of new instruments and electronic resources led to his being known as the "Father of Electronic Music" while Henry Miller described him as "The stratospheric Colossus of Sound".




Early life

Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse was born in Paris, but after only a few weeks was sent to be raised by his great-uncle's family in the small town of Villars in Burgundy. There he developed an intense attachment to his maternal grandfather, Claude Cortot. Through his mother's family he was related to the pianist Alfred Cortot. His affection for his grandfather outshone anything he would ever feel for his own parents. In fact, from his earliest years Varèse's relationship with his father Henri was extremely antagonistic, developing into what could fairly be called a firm and life-long hatred. Reclaimed by his parents in the late 1880s, in 1893 young Edgard was forced to relocate with them to Turin, Italy (his father was of Italian descent). It was here that he had his first real musical lessons, with the long-time director of Turin's conservatory, Giovanni Bolzoni. In 1895 he wrote his first opera, Martin Pas, which is now lost.[2] Never comfortable with Italy, and given his oppressive home-life, a physical altercation with his father forced the situation and Varèse left home for Paris in 1903.

From 1904 he was a student at the Schola Cantorum (founded by pupils of César Franck), where his teachers included Albert Roussel; afterwards he went to study composition with Charles-Marie Widor at the Paris Conservatoire. From this period he composed a number of ambitious orchestral works, but these were only performed by Varèse in piano transcriptions, such as his Rhapsodie romane of about 1905, inspired by the Romanesque architecture of the cathedral of St. Philibert in Tournus. He moved to Berlin in 1907 and in the same year married the actress Suzanne Bing. They had one child, a daughter. They divorced in 1913.

During these years, Varèse became acquainted with Erik Satie, Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Ferruccio Busoni, the last two being particular influences on him at the time. He also gained the friendship and support of Romain Rolland and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose Œdipus und die Sphinx he began setting as an opera that was never completed. The first performance of his symphonic poem Bourgogne in Berlin in 1910, the only one of his early orchestral works to be properly performed, caused a scandal.

After being invalided out of the French Army during World War I, he moved to the United States in December 1915.

Early years in the United States

Varèse contributed a poem to the Dadaist magazine 391 after an evening of drinking with Francis Picabia on the Brooklyn Bridge.[3] The same magazine claimed that he was orchestrating a "Cold Faucet Dance".[4] Later that year he met Louise McCutcheon (then Norton), who edited another Dadaist magazine, Rogue, with her then-husband.[5] She was to become Louise Varèse and a celebrated translator of French poetry whose versions of the work of Arthur Rimbaud for James Laughlin's New Directions imprint were particularly influential.

In 1917 Varèse made his debut in America conducting the Grand messe des morts by Berlioz.

He spent the first few years in the United States, where he was a Romany Marie's café regular[6] in Greenwich Village, meeting important contributors to American music, promoting his vision of new electronic art music instruments, conducting orchestras, and founding the New Symphony Orchestra, which was short-lived.

It was also about this time that Varèse began work on his first composition in the United States, Amériques, which was finished in 1921 but would remain unperformed until 1926. Virtually all the works he had written in Europe were either lost or destroyed in a Berlin warehouse fire, so in the U.S. he was starting again from scratch. The only surviving work from his early period appears to be the song Un grand sommeil noir, a setting of Verlaine. (He still retained Bourgogne, but destroyed the score in a fit of depression many years later.) It was at the completion of this work that Varèse, along with Carlos Salzedo, founded the International Composers' Guild, dedicated to the performances of new compositions of both American and European composers. The ICG's manifesto in July 1921 included the statement that

"The present day composers refuse to die. They have realised the necessity of banding together and fighting for the right of each individual to secure a fair and free presentation of his work".[7]

In 1922, Varèse visited Berlin where he founded a similar German organisation with Busoni.

Varèse composed many of his pieces for orchestral instruments and voices for performance under the auspices of the ICG during its six year existence. Specifically, during the first half of the 1920s, he composed Offrandes, Hyperprism, Octandre, and Intégrales.

He took American citizenship in October 1927.[8]

Life in Paris

In 1928, Varèse returned to Paris to alter one of the parts in Amériques to include the recently constructed ondes Martenot. Around 1930, he composed his most famous non-electronic piece entitled Ionisation, the first to feature solely percussion instruments. Although it was composed with pre-existing instruments, Ionisation was an exploration of new sounds and methods to create them.

In 1933, while Varèse was still in Paris, he wrote to the Guggenheim Foundation and Bell Laboratories in an attempt to receive a grant to develop an electronic music studio. His next composition, Ecuatorial, completed in 1934, contained parts for fingerboard theremin cellos, and Varèse, anticipating the successful receipt of one of his grants, eagerly returned to the United States to finally realize his electronic music.

Back in the United States

Varèse wrote his Ecuatorial for two fingerboard Theremins, bass singer, winds and percussion in the early 1930s. It was premiered on April 15 1934, under the baton of Nicolas Slonimsky. Then Varèse left New York City, where he had lived since 1915, and moved to Santa Fe, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 1936 he wrote Density 21.5. By the time Varèse returned in late 1938, Leon Theremin had returned to Russia. This devastated Varèse, who had hoped to work with Theremin on a refinement of his instrument. Varèse had also promoted the theremin in his Western travels, and demonstrated one at a lecture at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque on November 12 1936. The University of New Mexico has an RCA theremin, which may be the same instrument.

He was approached by music producer Jack Skurnick resulting in EMS Recordings #401. The record was the first release of Integrales, Density 21.5, Ionization and Octandre and featured Rene le Roy, flute, the Juilliard Percussion Orchestra and the New York Wind Ensemble conducted by Frederic Waldman.

When, in the late 1950s, Varèse was approached by a publisher about making Ecuatorial available, there were very few theremins—let alone fingerboard theremins—to be found, so he rewrote/relabelled the part for ondes Martenot.[9] This new version was premiered in 1961. (Ecuatorial has been performed again with fingerboard theremins in Buffalo, NY in 2002 and at the Holland Festival, Amsterdam, in 2009.)

Unfinished projects

From the late 1920s to the end of the 1930s Varèse's principal creative energies went into two ambitious projects which were never realized, and much of whose material was destroyed, though some elements from them seem to have gone into smaller works. One was a large-scale stage work called different things at different times, but principally The One-All-Alone or Astronomer (L’Astronome). This was originally to be based on North American Indian legends; later it became a futuristic drama of world catastrophe and instantaneous communication with the star Sirius. This second form, on which Varèse worked in Paris in 1928–1932, had a libretto by Alejo Carpentier, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes and Robert Desnos. According to Carpentier, a substantial amount of this work was written but Varèse abandoned it in favour of a new treatment in which he hoped to collaborate with Antonin Artaud. Artaud's libretto Il n’y a plus de firmament was written for Varèse's project and sent to him after he had returned to the U.S. but by this time Varèse had turned to a second huge project.

This second project was to be a choral symphony entitled Espace. In its original conception the text for the chorus was to be written by André Malraux. Later Varèse settled on a multi-lingual text of hieratic phrases to be sung by choirs situated in Paris, Moscow, Peking and New York, synchronized to create a global radiophonic event. Varèse sought input on the text from Henry Miller, who suggests in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare that this grandiose conception—also ultimately unrealized—eventually metamorphosed into Déserts. With both these huge projects Varèse felt ultimately frustrated by the lack of electronic instruments to realize his aural visions. Nevertheless he used some of the material from Espace in his short Étude pour espace, virtually the only work that had appeared from his pen for over ten years when it was premiered in 1947. According to Chou Wen-Chung, Varèse made various contradictory revisions to Étude pour espace which made it impossible to perform again, but the 2009 Holland Festival, which offered a 'complete works' of Varèse over the weekend of 12-14 June 2009, persuaded Chou to make a new performing version (using similar brass and woodwind forces to Déserts and making use of spatialized sound projection). This was premiered at the Gashouder concert hall, Westergasfabriek, Amsterdam by Asko/Schönberg Ensemble and Cappella Amsterdam on Sunday 14 June, conducted by Peter Eötvös.

International recognition

By the early 1950s, Varèse was in dialogue with a new generation of composers, such as Pierre Boulez and Luigi Dallapiccola.[10] When he returned to France to finalize the tape sections of Déserts, Pierre Schaeffer helped arrange for suitable facilities. The first performance of the combined orchestral and tape sound composition came as part of an ORTF broadcast concert, between pieces by Mozart and Tchaikovsky and received a hostile reaction.

Le Corbusier was commissioned by Philips to present a pavilion at the 1958 World Fair and insisted (against the sponsors' resistance) on working with Varèse, who developed his Poème électronique for the venue, where it was heard by an estimated two million people. Using 400 speakers separated throughout the interior, Varèse created a sound and space installation geared towards experiencing sound as it moves through space. Received with mixed reviews, this piece challenged audience expectations and traditional means of composing, breathing life into electronic synthesis and presentation.

In 1962 he was asked to join the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and in 1963 he received the premier Koussevitzky International Recording Award.

Musical influences

In his formative years, Varèse was greatly impressed by Medieval and Renaissance Music (in his career he founded and conducted several choirs devoted to this repertoire) and the music of Alexander Scriabin, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Hector Berlioz and Richard Strauss. There are also clear influences or reminiscences of Stravinsky's early works, specifically Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, on Arcana.[11]

He claimed to have been inspired by the writings on music of Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński, and especially the Polish savant's statement that the object of music is "the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sound".[12] He was also impressed by the ideas of Busoni, who christened him L'illustro futuro.

Students and influence

According to George Perle [13] "his partitioning of the octave in the first ten bars, places Varèse along with Scriabin and the Schoenberg circle, among the revolutionary composers whose work initiates the beginning of a new mainstream tradition in the music of our century."


Varèse's best known student is the Chinese-born composer Chou Wen-chung (b. 1923), who met Varèse in 1949 and assisted him in his later years. He became the executor of Varèse's estate following the composer's death, and edited and completed a number of Varèse's works. He is professor emeritus of composition at Columbia University. Other pupils were Colin McPhee, James Tenney, and André Jolivet.

Influence in classical music

Composers who have claimed, or can be demonstrated to have been influenced by Varèse, include Harrison Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Roberto Gerhard, Olivier Messiaen, Luigi Nono, Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke, William Grant Still, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Iannis Xenakis.

Influence in popular music

Varèse's emphasis on timbre, rhythm, and new technologies was an inspiration to a whole generation of musicians who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s. One of Varèse's biggest fans was the American guitarist and composer Frank Zappa, who, upon hearing a copy of The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Vol. 1, which included Intégrales, Density 21.5, Ionisation, and Octandre, became obsessed with the composer's music.[14] On his 15th birthday, December 21, 1955, Zappa's mother, Rosemarie, allowed him a call to Varèse as a present. At the time Varèse was in Brussels, Belgium, so Zappa spoke to Varèse's wife Louise instead. Eventually Zappa and Varèse spoke on the phone, and they discussed the possibility of meeting each other, although this meeting never took place. Zappa also received a letter from Varèse. Varèse's spirit of experimentation and redefining the bounds of what was possible in music lived on in Zappa's long and prolific career[15]. Zappa's final project was The Rage and the Fury, a recording of the works of Varèse.

Another admirer was the rock/jazz group Chicago, whose Pianist/keyboardist Robert Lamm credited Varèse as a strong influence in his songwriting. In tribute, one of Lamm's songs was called "A Hit By Varèse".


Idée fixe

Some of Edgard Varèse's works, particularly Arcana[16] make use of the 'idée fixe', a fixed theme, repeated certain times in a work. The 'idée fixe' was most famously used by Hector Berlioz in his Symphonie fantastique; it is generally not transposed, differentiating it from the leitmotiv, used by Richard Wagner.


  • Un grand sommeil noir, song to a text by Paul Verlaine for voice and piano (1906)
  • Amériques for large orchestra (1918–1921; revised 1927)
  • Offrandes for soprano and chamber orchestra (poems by Vicente Huidobro and José Juan Tablada)(1921)
  • Hyperprism for wind and percussion(1922–1923)
  • Octandre for seven wind instruments and double bass (1923)
  • Intégrales for wind and percussion (1924–1925)
  • Arcana for large orchestra (1925–1927)
  • Ionisation for 13 percussion players (1929–1931)
  • Ecuatorial for bass voice (or unison male chorus), brass, organ, percussion and theremins (revised for ondes-martenot) (text by Francisco Ximénez) (1932–1934)
  • Density 21.5 for solo flute (1936)
  • Tuning Up for orchestra (sketched 1946; completed by Chou Wen-Chung, 1998)
  • Étude pour espace for soprano solo, chorus, 2 pianos and percussion (1947; orchestrated and arranged by Chou Wen-chung for wind instruments and percussion for spatialized live performance, 2009) (texts by Kenneth Patchen, José Juan Tablada and St. John of the Cross)
  • Dance for Burgess for chamber ensemble (1949)
  • Déserts for wind, percussion and electronic tape (1950–1954)
  • La procession de verges for electronic tape (soundtrack for Around and About Joan Mirò, directed by Thomas Bouchard) (1955)
  • Poème électronique for electronic tape (1957–1958)
  • Nocturnal for soprano, male chorus and orchestra, text adapted from The House of Incest by Anaïs Nin (1961)


  1. ^ After he arrived in the USA he commonly used the form 'Edgar' for his first name but reverted to 'Edgard', not entirely consistently, from the 1940s. Malcolm MacDonald, Varèse, Astronomer in Sound (London, 2003), ISBN 1-871082-79-x p. xi.
  2. ^ Opera Glass
  3. ^ Ouellette, Fernand (1973). Edgard Varèse. Calder and Boyars. p. 50. ISBN 074502081. 
  4. ^ Ouellette, p71
  5. ^ Ouellette, p51
  6. ^ Robert Schulman. Romany Marie: The Queen of Greenwich Village (pp. 64-65). Louisville: Butler Books, 2006. ISBN 1-88453-274-8.
  7. ^ Ouellette, p66
  8. ^ Ouellette, p95
  9. ^ Griffiths, Paul (1979). A Guide to Electronic Music. Thames & Hudson. p. 10. ISBN 0500272034. 
  10. ^ Ouellette, p166
  11. ^ MacDonald, pp. 200-205.
  12. ^ MacDonald, pp.52-53.
  13. ^ Perle, George (1990). The Listening Composer, p.12. ISBN 0520069919.
  14. ^ Zappa, Frank (1971-06-02). "Edgard Varese: The Idol of My Youth". http://www.a42.com/node/536. Retrieved 2009-03-01. 
  15. ^ Russo, Greg. Cosmik Debris: The Collected History and Improvisations of Frank Zappa. New York: Antique Trader Publications, Crossfire Publications, Chris Sansom, 1998, pp. 9-11
  16. ^ Downes, Edward, sleevenotes to CBS Masterworks 76520


  • Bernard, Jonathan W. (1987). The Music of Edgard Varèse. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300035152. 
  • Ouellette, Fernand (1973). Edgard Varèse. Calder and Boyars. ISBN 074502081. 
  • Clayson, Alan Edgard Varese (1973). Sanctuary.ISBN 9781860743986
  • Entretiens avec Edgar Varèse par Georges Charbonnier (1954-55), 2CD INA coll. Mémoire Vive (2007)

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965) was a French-born composer.


  • Our musical alphabet is poor and illogical. Music, which should pulsate with life, needs new means of expression, and science alone can infuse it with youthful vigor. Why, Italian Futurists, have you slavishly reproduced only what is commonplace and boring in the bustle of our daily lives. 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.
    • Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music, ISBN 0028645812.
  • There is an idea, the basis of an internal structure, expanded and split into different shapes or groups of sound constantly changing in shape, direction, and speed, attracted and repulsed by various forces. The form of the work is a consequence of this interaction. Possible musical forms are as limitless as the exterior forms of crystals.
    • Aspects of 20th Century Music, ISBN 0130493465
  • I was not influenced by composers as much as by natural objects and physical phenomena. As a child, I was tremendously impressed by the qualities and character of the granite I found in Burgundy, where I often visited my grandfather...So I was always in touch with things of stone and with this kind of pure structural architecture--without frills or unnecessary decoration. All of this became an integral part of my thinking at a very early stage.
    • Interview with Gunther Schuller (1965, p.34), quoted in Erickson, Robert (1975). Sound Structure in Music. University of California Press. ISBN 0520023765.


  • Music is organized sound.
  • The present day composer refuses to die!

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