On the Aesthetic of Edgard Varèse

The most often-researched music of the early 20th century is most probably the output of the Second Viennese School, and somewhere after that Le sacre du printemps, the music of Charles Ives, Claude Debussy, Bela Bartok, and a few other established composers. Edgard Varèse, who interacted with almost every prominent musician in the West (and a number of other figures such as Lenin (L. Varèse 102) and Albert Einstein, who incidentally only liked Mozart (Ouellette 156)) and who is known now principally for his forays into the world of electronic synthesis and taped sound, is nevertheless assumed not to even have written music until approximately 1956; his earlier contributions to music are almost completely neglected by textbooks and music history courses even despite gaining recognition and championship by such distinguished conductors as Leopold Stokowski and Pierre Boulez.

Of all his works written before the 1950s, the orchestral piece Amériques is perhaps mentioned the least. Analysts regard it as a formative-period work and thus with little value to their research. In the author’s opinion, however, it is one of the more important works of the 20th century, departing from convention in several fashions. This paper will explore its historical significance as well as several of its defining characteristics.

Varèse matured with influence from such respected minds as Guillame Apollinaire, Albert Gleizes, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger, and Max Jacob. Interestingly, he associated far more with artists, writers, and scientists than with composers; the few with whom he maintained working relationships were, like him, musicians searching in earnest for an original language. In Europe, his principal associates included Erik Satie, Ferruccio Busoni, Claude Debussy, and Charles Widor, and in the United States in the 1920s he worked most extensively with Carlos Salzedo, Carl Ruggles, Leopold Stokowski (who conducted the premiere of Amériques with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1926 (Slonimsky 1942)), and several other prominent musicians. At all times, he spoke vigorously against and determinedly avoided involvement with any schools of compositional thought, hence his shunning of most musicians (Bernard 1-2). Although he read some of the publications by members of the Futurist school of thought, he also denounced the Futurists as repetitive, imitative, and superficial (L. Varèse 106-07). He also contributed articles to the Dadaist magazine 391, which caused readers to connect him with that movement, also something against which he protested loudly, although he maintained a friendship with the magazine’s founder, Francis Picabia (L. Varèse 131-32).

Varèse was fond of analoguing music and the sciences, and he adopted many quotes from various authors as he felt they suited him, such as this from an unnamed writer:

Beauty in art is a relative result obtained from a mixture of different elements, often the most unexpected. One only of all these elements is stable and permanent and must be present in any combination: this is novelty. A work of art must be new and may be recognized as new if it gives one a sensation never before experienced (qtd. in Bernard 4).

The heightened gravitation toward innovation evidenced in that statement presents itself most clearly in the visual arts, where creators just after the turn of the 20th century successfully liberated themselves from the restraints of traditional form and technique. Apollinaire wrote upon works by the artist Braque: “This painter composes his pictures in absolute devotion to newness, complete truth[…]each work becomes a new universe with its own laws” (qtd. in Bernard 4-5). The aesthetic Varèse sought after is a common theme among all of his colleagues, even the ones from previous generations, for Busoni, in his New Aesthetic of Music, remarked that “The role of the creative artist is to make new laws, not to follow those already made” (qtd. in Bernard 5).

Even long before the advent of electronic media, Varèse spoke of “[…]bodies of intelligent sound moving freely in space”; apparently, therefore, he was referring to the spatial element within the music as opposed to the spatial element outside of the music, something that Varèse would not be able to incorporate into his creative output until the late 1950s (Bernard 7). Even so, he spoke of his Intégrales (1924-25) as being intended for performance by “certain acoustical media that were not then in existence, but that [he] knew could be built and would be available sooner or later” (qtd. in Bernard 7). Even as early as Amériques (1918-21), the sound-shapes of the sirens employed in the orchestra’s percussion section were referred to at the time as “parabolic” and “hyperbolic,” and all of his music as “sound masses molded as though in space” by critics (qtd. in Bernard 8). According to Varèse, however, the first true realization of the spatial element in his music came about with the premiere of Poème électronique at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, where the three channels of taped sound ran around the Philips Pavilion via an arrangement of 425 loudspeakers (8).

Further evidence of Varèse’s early interest in electronics appears in his correspondence with Jean Bertrand, the inventor of the dynaphone, an early sound synthesis instrument that Varèse, incidentally, never did write a part for in his music. He did, however, write parts for two theremins in his Ecuatorial, written a few years after the 1929 Paris performance of Amériques in which the siren was replaced by the newly invented Ondes martenot (Griffiths 274). Both the theremin and the Ondes martenot, thanks partly to Varèse’s application of them in his music, have found niches in contemporary music of many types.

In its significance as a step toward what Varèse termed “liberating sound” (qtd. in L. Varèse 173), the siren warrants a bit of its own discussion. Although many, many people think of the siren in Amériques as some kind of direct reference to city life (including Pierre Boulez when giving a brief talk from the podium of the Chicago Symphony in 1995) (Boulez), Varèse’s most familiar colleagues have contended ever since the piece’s world premiere that the siren’s function was far different (Ouellette 57). Instead, the siren’s steady rise and fall of pitch enables it to easily negotiate pitches in between those of ordinary instruments on the equal-tempered chromatic scale; In later works, microtones are written into certain of the instruments’ parts as another method of escaping the limitations of the chromatic scale.

Although it contains innovations as much as a generation ahead of their time, Amériques also lays bare its composer’s roots in his musical development. The orchestra itself, for example, exemplifies the Romantic partiality to a broad palette of tone-colors, and the scoring of individual parts in many ways evinces Varèse’s “debts to predecessors” (qtd. in Griffiths 276). His use of two sets of timpani, the harp, an alto flute in exposed passages (notably the recurring solo passage), and the size of the orchestra itself point toward this perpetuation of certain traditions (Griffiths 276). The forces employed in the piece far outnumber those of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps and Strauss’ Ein Alpensinfonie, both of which use mammoth orchestras.

The original version of Amériques required so many players that Varèse agreed to create a second version designed with a considerably reduced ensemble and the removal of several minutes of music in mind. Even with minimized forces, the later edition includes parts for such things as a contrabass trombone, a Heckelphone, two tubas, and other similarly expanded wind sections (Ouellette 56).

Very large ensembles, though not written for very extensively in the 20th century, still have a sizeable amount of contemporary music available to them, such as the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Penderecki’s most famous early work, which calls for some 58 string instruments, or any of the tone poems by Icelandic composer Jón Leifs, one of which includes rocks, chains, and a cannon in the percussion battery. Perhaps for this reason among others, Pierre Boulez speaks of Amériques (and indeed all of Varèse’s music) as a “hymn to modernity (Boulez).

Paul Rosenfeld, a prominent critic and friend of Varèse, wrote in an article that “Amériques is perhaps the transition between the series of tone poems produced by the young Varèse in Europe before the war and those born of the experience of the new world” (qtd. in L. Varèse 247). Varèse himself even acknowledged that with the work’s completion, he “[…]had begun working in a new idiom toward which his earlier scores had only been groping” (L. Varèse 102).

The writer Alejo Carpentier has said, of Varèse, that the New World gives him a “sensation of vastness and extent” (qtd. in Ouellette 55), brought both by towering waterfalls and yawning canyons and by the tremendous energy contained within the cities, especially New York. However, the title of Amériques does not refer to painting any kind of geographical picture, but instead to the concepts of exploration and discovery, both in the world and in the mind (Ouellette 55-56). In fact, Varèse is recorded as having written, “I might as well have called Amériques ‘The Himalayas’” (Wen-Chung 3).

Although most attempted analyses of Varèse’s music, until fairly recently, have been soundly defeated by the music’s uncompromising defiance of orthodox procedure, a few scholars with whom he associated have arrived at plausible explanations for several of its characteristics (and idiosyncrasies). Robert Morgan, one such analyst, presented this idea at a lecture:

There are many passages in Varèse’s music—and they are, moreover, just those that strike one as being most characteristically “Varèsian”—in which the pitches appear to have lost their sense of linear direction, to have relinquished their tendency to form connections defined principally by stepwise motion. The pitches, one might say, don’t want to go anywhere. Each seems content to occupy its own private place, without producing any particular expectation of an eventual move to a different place (qtd. in Morgan 9-10).

Although such passages are not as ubiquitous in Amériques as they are in later works, they are still quite common. For example, at the fourth measure of rehearsal marking 6, the notes in the upper woodwinds remain quite static, followed by more such notes in the low brass and again in the high woodwinds in the following measures (E. Varèse 16-17).

Rhythmically is where pitch is also of consequence, argues Morgan. Shifts in timbre and dynamics through time keep the music from stopping completely, and often when a single instrument carries a note, it constantly rearticulates it in irregular placements of emphasis. In this way, as well, an individual pitch retains energy enough to drive the music forward. Additionally, the rhythmic values in a specific section recur in patterns that transform with each reiteration, and the presence of those rhythms are very often what define particular sections of a given work (Morgan 11). This element appears readily in Amériques, especially in the percussion, but even the first notes of the entire piece take part in this process. Each statement of the opening alto flute motive is slightly different in duration from the previous, and two measures before rehearsal marking 5, the alto flute comes to final rest on the written E, rearticulating it in the fashion described by Morgan (E. Varèse 1-11).

As it exhibits all of Varèse’s unique musical characteristics in a fetal state, Amériques is an undeniably important part of the study of his compositional progression and of the entire aesthetic of much of the first half of the 20th century. In it, sounds are heard which already portent the arrival of electronics some 35 years after and mark the establishment of a new way of treating the instruments already in existence. Something like Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor or Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, it hearkens back to the foundation laid by the music of earlier periods while straining to establish a wholly original voice and mark the beginning of a new period of musical history, and as with those landmark pieces, its importance cannot be overstated.

Works cited:

Bernard, Jonathan W. The Music of Edgard Varèse. New York: Yale University Press, 1987. 1-8.

Boulez, Pierre. Untitled speech. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra [Concert]. Chicago. 1995.

Griffiths, Paul. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed. Stanley Sadie. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 2001. 273-80.

Ouellette, Fernand. Edgard Varèse. Trans. Derek Coltman. New York: The Orion Press, 1966.

Slonimsky, Nicholas. Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 8th ed. New York: Schirmer Books, 1992. 1942.

Morgan, Robert P. “Notes on Varèse’s Rhythm.” New Worlds of Edgard Varèse: A Symposium. Ed. Sherman Van Solkema. New York: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1979.

Varèse, Edgard. Amériques. Chou Wen-Chung, ed. New York: Colfranc Music, 1973.

Varèse, Louise. Varèse: A Looking-Glass Diary. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972.

Wen-Chung, Chou. “Varèse: Who is He?” Grand Street 16.3 (Winter 1998): n. pag. Online. EbscoHost.

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