Edgard Varese

1883 1965

Edgard Varese

Composer

Biography

Eventually his resentment towards his father grew too great, and Varèse left Italy, moving to Paris to study at the Conservatoire withCharles-Marie Widor . His early works from this period includeRhapsodie romane (1905), inspired by the Roman architecture of the St. Philibert Cathedral. Two years later he moved again, this time to Berlin to study withFerruccio Busoni, inspired by Busoni’sSketch for a New Aesthetic in Music (1907). He also met and maintained frequent correspondence with many of his contemporaries in classical music includingRichard Strauss, Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. Although Varèse continued to write during this period, unfortunately nearly all of his manuscripts were destroyed in a warehouse fire.

The early 1910s were a difficult time for Varèse. The premiere of his first (and for a long time, only) orchestral work,Bourgogne (1911) was ill-received and deemed extremely controversial. Later, in a fit of anger and depression, Varèse destroyed the original score, the only copy. Frustrated with money troubles and his inability to hold a steady job, Varèse briefly joined the French army at the start of World War I before moving to the United States in 1915. He would live there for the rest of his life, becoming a citizen in 1927.

Varèse was almost immediately greeted with more success in America, and had a prolific first couple of years there. His first work upon arriving was the overly optimisticAmeriques which was completed in 1921 but only premiered years later, by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. One of the priorities of Varèse was to promote new music and ideas. To do this he founded many societies including the New Symphony Orchestra (1919), the International Composers' Guild (1921), and the Pan American Society (1926). These groups helped advance and perform the music of many of Varèse’s contemporaries includingBéla Bartók, Charles Ives, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc andAnton Webern.

In 1931 Varèse premiered his most important non-electronic piece, Ionisation. The piece was written for thirteen percussionists who played a host of around 40 instruments, including sirens. Shortly afterwards he wrote to several organizations including the Guggenheim Foundation and the Bell Telephone Co. asking for a grant to realise his life goal of inventing new electronic instruments, which he viewed as essential to the further progress of music. He also traveled to Los Angeles where he tied to convince members of the film industry of the importance of his new form of “organized sound” in the cinema.

Unfortunately, all of Varèse’s requests were denied, and this was the principle cause for a period of crippling depression which gripped him for over ten years. During this period he wrote only one piece,Density 21.5 for solo flute (1936) and made a living by teaching intermittently and releasing occasional items from his compositional back-catalogue.

All of this changed in 1953 when Varèse received an Ampex tape recorder from an anonymous donor. With the aid of the tape recorder he began working on his first truly electronic work,Déserts. In 1954 the work was performed on French radio in the first live stereo broadcast in French history. In 1957 Varèse travelled to Eindhoven in the Netherlands to work on his new piecePoème électronique, which was written solely for tape, at the Philips laboratories. The work was designed specifically to be premiered at the Brussels Exposition Universelle of 1958, where it was played on more than 400 speakers and accompanied by visuals by famous architect and designer Le Corbusier.

Throughout his career, Varèse showed an affinity for the harsher sounds of wind and brass instruments, and the rhythmic propulsion of percussion. He disliked strings, particularly with vibrato, and rarely incorporated them into his works. Varèse typically composed in a manner reminiscent ofStravinsky’s block form, with his music containing several overlapping “sound masses” which rarely resolved together. Although it is difficult to classify his music as tonal and he was definitely influenced byArnold Schoenberg and serialism, Varèse tended to be wary about devoting himself to a particular school of thought or system, preferring to employ a wider palette of sounds.

Often referred to as the “father of electronic music,” Edgard Varèse was an instrumental experimenter with new sounds and techniques in music. He coined the term “organized sound” to describe his music, a slogan which has become a rallying cry for the avant-garde movement he helped found.

Varèse was born in Paris, but soon moved to the small town of Le Villars with some of his extended relatives. He was estranged from his parents especially his father, who he professed a long-term hatred for. Nevertheless, it was during a brief time living with the paternal side of his family in their native city of Turin, Italy, that Varèse received his first musical instruction, with Giovanni Bolzoni, director of the Turin Conservatory.

Due to the warehouse fire, Varèse’s habit of destroying his own scores and his inability to finish many pieces, there are only 12 complete and published works of his in existence. This ranks him among the least prolific of any major composers. It is therefore amazing that with such little output he was able to make such a seismic impact on the direction of 20th century music. He is cited as a major influence from composers as disparate as Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Frank Zappa. His work in electronic music was vital in establishing the genre for future generations, and his philosophy on sound and music placed him at the forefront of the 20th century avant-garde.

Header image courtesy of Quotes Gram Other images courtesy of Les Blogs Qobuz and public domain

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