French composer 1887-1965

Works in the repertoire

Octandre (1923) | instrumental ensemble (8 musicians) | 7′.

American composer of French origin (Paris 1883 – New York 1965).

When this great solitary creator disappeared in New York, he had long been considered, despite the scandals he had caused, as one of those who had most profoundly marked the passage of the twentieth century. Born to a Burgundian mother and an Italian-born father, he began working (in secret from his father) on harmony and counterpoint in Turin, where his family had settled in 1892. Having returned to Paris in 1903, he entered the Schola cantorum in 1904 (d’Indy, Roussel), then the Conservatory in 1905 (Widor). He wrote in 1905 Prélude à la fin d’un jour, for 120 musicians, and in 1906 a Rhapsodie romane, for orchestra. The year 1906 also saw him found the choir of the Université populaire du faubourg Saint-Antoine, with which he gave public concerts.

From 1907 to 1914, he lived mainly in Berlin, where he became friends with Busoni, Richard Strauss, the conductor Karl Muck and the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In 1908, he met Debussy in Paris, to whom he revealed the first atonal works of Schönberg, and began Œdipus and the Sphinx, an opera based on a libretto by Hofmannsthal (he was to work on it until 1914). The symphonic poem Gargantua was also to remain unfinished, but another, Bourgogne, was premiered in Berlin on December 15, 1910 (Varèse was not to destroy the manuscript until 1962). In 1911, he undertook Mehr Licht, which, reworked, took place the following year in the opera the Cycles of the North. On January 4, 1914, he conducted with great success a concert of French music in Prague. The war surprised him in Paris, and all his manuscripts remaining in Berlin were to be destroyed there by a warehouse fire.

Mobilized for six months, then reformed, he left for the United States in December 1915. In 1917, he conducted Berlioz’s Requiem “in memory of the dead of all nations” in New York and, in 1919, founded the New Symphony Orchestra for the performance of new music: it was a failure. In 1921, the year of the completion of the Americas, his first composition having survived, he founded the International Composers’ Guild, whose first concert took place in 1922 and the last in 1927. His manifesto has remained famous: “Dying is the privilege of those who are exhausted. Today’s composers refuse to die. “In six years of activity, the International Composers’ Guild had to reveal to the Americans works such as Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire, Stravinsky’s Marriage or Berg’s Chamber Concerto.

Varèse’s most fruitful years were from 1920 to 1934, when eight masterpieces were created that nothing in their writing would prevent them from appearing in the second post-war period. The first is Amériques, for large orchestra (1920-21; rev., 1929), a hymn to the violent lyricism and solitude of the modern industrial world. Then followed Offrandes, for soprano and chamber orchestra (1921), a work more subjective in tone than usual for the composer; Hyperprism, for small orchestra and percussion (1922-23), the shortest (4 to 5 minutes) of all his instrumental scores; Octandre, for 6 wind instruments and a string double bass (1923), a work in which percussion is absent for once; Intégrales, for small orchestra and percussion (1924-25), with sonorities evoking more than ever the future electronic music; Arcana, for large orchestra (1926-27), undoubtedly his masterpiece; Ionisation, for 37 percussion instruments (1929-1931); andEcuatorial, for choir, trumpets, trombones, piano, organ, 2 ondes Martenot and percussion (1934). During this period, Varèse stayed in Paris once in 1924 and again in 1927, and then lived there for five consecutive years, from 1928 to 1933. He became friends with Villa-Lobos (1929) and, in 1930, accepted André Jolivet, sent to him by Paul Le Flem, as his pupil.

Back in New York (1933), Varèse worked there with the physicist and electronics engineer Léon Thérémine before going through the darkest years of his life (1935-1949). Broken by the tension that had been caused to him by wrenching extraordinary and truly unheard of sounds from traditional instruments, he then appeared as a man who had known the scandals, but on whom now fell the oblivion. He continued to work on Espace, a project dating back to 1929, but of this “crossing of the desert” only two testimonies remain on the creative level, Density 21.5, for solo flute (1936), and Étude for “Espace” (1947), a remnant of the aforementioned project. In 1935, faced with the failure of his attempts to obtain an acoustic laboratory, he considered suicide. In 1936, answering the call of the desert, he settled for a while in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he gave musical lectures. From 1938 to 1940, he lived in Los Angeles, but was unable to work for the cinema. In 1941, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In 1941, in New York, he founded the New Chorus, which in 1942 became the Greater New York Chorus, and with which he conducted much music prior to Bach. In 1948, he gave a series of composition courses and lectures on twentieth-century music at Columbia University in New York, which marked the beginning of his “renaissance”. In 1950, he began composing instrumental parts for Deserts and taught in Darmstadt, where he was taught by Luigi Nono. In 1952 the instrumental parts of Deserts were completed. This work marked the beginning of a brief, but dazzling creative resurrection due in particular to the appearance of music on magnetic tape (concrete and electronic), which Varèse immediately took up. From the beginning of 1953 to the end of 1954, he carried out the interpolations on magnetic tapes intended for Déserts (he was to make a second version of these interpolations in August 1960, a third in April 1961 and a fourth and final one in August 1961). Déserts, whose premiere in Paris on December 2, 1954, under the direction of Hermann Scherchen, triggered a memorable scandal, is a work for wind instrument and percussion orchestra with “two tracks of sounds organized on magnetic tape”. It was followed by Vergès’ Procession, “organized sound” on magnetic tape (duration: 2 minutes 47 seconds) for a film about Joan Miró (1955), Poème électronique, for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels International Exhibition (1958), and Nocturnal, for soprano, choir and orchestra (1959-1961), completed after Varèse’s death by his pupil Chou-Wen-Chung. To the 14 works of the composer is also added Nuits (based on a poem by Henri Michaux), for soprano, 8 winds, string double bass and percussion, also unfinished, but left as is.

By considering timbre as a phenomenon in itself, by making sound an event, by opening up the spatial dimension to music, but also by its radical novelties in terms of rhythm, melody and form, Varèse was no more and no less than an indispensable complement to the serial revolution in the constitution of today’s musical landscape. He did not pursue tradition, nor did he take the opposite tack, but simply ignored it, even if traces of it can be found in his music. Having studied to be an electroacoustic engineer, he was the first to want to make music with sounds, not with notes, and it could be said that if electronics had existed as early as 1916, he would have been the only musician capable of using it. His tragedy was that his thought and poetry preceded the discoveries of technology by thirty years. He did not like violins, but throughout his life he showed a predilection for wind instruments and percussion, whose use he revolutionized. The first, he analyzed the harmonic structure of sound by breaking it down, and in 1920, he declared that he was “working with rhythms, frequencies, intensities”. His method of spectral analysis of sound was no stranger to his admiration for alchemy and for Paracelsus, an extract of which he placed in the foreword of Arcana. He restored harmony to its primitive role of resonance and timbre. For him, the sound aggregate was no longer an agreement with harmonic functions, but an object made of superimposed frequencies where the timbre creates the differentiation of ounces, planes and volumes, the intensity being an element of formal integration shaping the sound in space and time, and the rhythm a stable, cohesive element.

As early as 1915, Varèse understood that the sonic empire could extend beyond traditional limits, and sought both unheard of sounds and new technical means. The crisis of 1929 did not allow the contacts he had made with the Bell Telephone Company, for the creation of an electroacoustic music laboratory, to succeed. He had to wait twenty-five years to produce works on tape that pushed back the boundaries of the world of sound, calling into question the temperament and distinction between sound and noise, and posing the problem of a new way of listening and the spatialization of sound. In fact, as early as 1931, with Ionization, he had linked “physical or chemical events or processes” and emphasized his almost physical attraction to raw sound. Moreover, this work, a link between East and West, testifies to his quest for the primitive sources of music and their incantatory power (cf. also Ecuatorial). Finally, the mermaid in Ionisation (like the factory noises in the soundtrack to Déserts) testifies to the integration of everyday life in the universe of Varèse, who more than once declared himself incapable of living outside a large city (New York).

From 1976, an uninterrupted series of large-scale works such as The Ring of the Tamarit, the Mass, the Three Tales of the Honorable Flower, chamber opera, the Book of Prodigies, etc…, lead to this sum that is the Opera La Célestine, created on June 13, 1988 at the Palais Garnier.

He also used traditional instruments in an unusual way, violating their nature: new modes of attack, retrograded sounds in Hyperprism or Intégrales; systematic oppositions of tessitura and intensity, sonorous play of keys in Densité 21.5; winds used in exceptional tessitura in Octandre. He himself invented instruments: a friction drum (lion’s roar), a wind machine. Fascinated by the decomposition of light in prisms, he tried to write a prismatic music decomposing, making the sounds burst in a dazzling way (Hyperprism); percussion plays in him a role of diffraction of the light of the brass instruments, in an antiphonal form from a basic cell made up of an appoggiatura and a pivot note, a figure dear to Varèse (Octandre). Intégrales went even further, for this work was conceived “for a spatial projection of sound” and “for certain acoustic means that did not yet exist”. It was, in short, a work of anticipation, because, for Varèse, “the music of tomorrow will be spatial”, “sounds will give the impression of describing trajectories in space, of being situated in a sound universe in relief”. These sound routes, he concretized them in the Electronic Poem. Finally, for this alchemist, for this sculptor of the raw material, silence was also part of the organized universe of the sounds: witness the use he made of it in the last bars of Arcana, or better still at the end of Deserts, where this silence must be beaten. Varèse was not a precursor of 20th century music, but one of its great creators.

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