Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varese alias Edgar Varese was a French music composer, who spent a longer part of his life in USA. He is known for his sonic experimentation and immense passion for electronic instruments. Varese, for his enthusiastic nature and keen research and experiments with taped music, is regarded as the most innovative composer of his time. He emphasized on timbre and rhythm in music and was greatly impressed by Medieval and Renaissance Music. He coined the term "organized sound" which means that certain timbres and rhythms can be grouped together that makes the music refined and subtle. His attempts to re-define music was success to certain extend. Varese was actively involved in learning, researching and popularizing music that he could not indulge too much in music and so, there are only about a dozen of compositions by this legend but still, Varese and his works has influenced a number of composers of the late 20th century. His passion for new instruments and electronic resources earned him a name - "Father of Electronic Music". America novelist and painter Henry Miller described Varese as "The stratospheric Colossus of Sound". Read on to know more about this legend.
Edgard Varese was born on 22nd of December 1883 in Paris. He was brought up by his grant-uncle and other relatives who stayed in a small town called Le Villars in France. He was only weeks old when sent away from his parents. He grew staying there and developed an intense attachment to his maternal grandfather, Claude Cortot. He had very little or no affection to his parents. His father Henri was Italian in origin and Varese’s relationship with him was extremely antipathetical which later, is said to have turned into life-long hatred. Varese had to go with his parents as they reclaimed him, and was taken to Italy, his father’s native. He then lived in Turin, Italy, with his paternal relatives. He was sent for music lessons while at Italy, under the guidance of Giovanni Bolzoni, the long-time director of Turin's conservatory. Varese composed his first Opera in1895. He was never comfortable with the life in Italy, largely because of the oppressive life at home and dispute with his father which most often included physical altercation. His father wanted him to pursue math and engineering but Varese was in love with music. Fed up with the life at paternal home, and went to Paris in 1903. In 1904 he joined the Schola Cantorum and pursued music under Albert Roussel and Vincent d'Indy. He then moved to Paris Conservatoire to know more about music and there he learnt compositions from Charles-Marie Widor. Varese started composing from then and produced a number of orchestral works and performed these compositions himself. He derived inspiration from Romanesque architecture of the cathedral of St. Philibert in Tournus for his work Rhapsodie romane which happened about 1905. He shifted to Berlin in 1907 and there he met Suzanne Bing, an actress and married her. They had a daughter but, the relationship did not stay long. They got divorced in 1913.
Varese maintained a healthy relationship with renowned musicians like Erik Satie, Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Ferruccio Busoni. He had a special regard for Claude Debussy and Ferruccio Busoni who influenced him a lot. Also, he maintained a good relationship with Romain Rolland and Hugo von Hofmannsthal and he wanted to set an opera with their support but unfortunately, that never happened. Varese gave his first performance on Symphonic poem, Bourgogne the 5th January 1911 in Berlin. This was the only orchestral work that which was performed properly but it ignited a scandal. He joined French army during World War II but, being invalided out he moved to the United States in December 1915.
Life In United States
At United States Varese met Louise McCutcheon, an American origin French translator whom he married later. The year 1917 was of much importance as he gave his debut performance in United States by conducting the Grande messe des morts by Berlioz.
During the first few years in United States, he met many important musicians and discussed about his vision of electronic music instruments much of them occurred at Romany Marie's café in Greenwich Village. He conducted orchestras, and founded the New Symphony Orchestra, which did not grow up to his expectation. During this period, he started working on a composition which, though completed in 1921, remained unperformed till 1926. This composition was later premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Though he composed many, much of them did not survived; the only one which tasted success was the song ‘Un grand sommeil noir’, a setting of Verlaine. He retained Bourgogne, his first symphonic poem but destroyed the score later out of depression. Varese founded ‘the International Composers' Guild’ (ICG) along with Carlos Salzedo in 1921. In 1922, when he Varese visited Germany, he founded the sister concern of ‘the International Composers' Guild’ there with Busoni. Varese gave many perfomances and also composed many pieces on behalf of ICG for the next six years. He composed Offrandes, Hyperprism, Octandre, and Intégrales during this time. In 1927, he became an American Citizen.
Varese At Paris
In 1928, Varese returned to Paris to replace one of the parts in his composition ‘Amériques’ with recently constructed ondes Martenot. He composed much of his non-electronic pieces during this period and in 1930 he composed his most famous work ‘Ionisation’. Though it didn’t bring any innovation with new instruments, it caught the attention as it explored the possibility of new sounds and methods in music.
Varese maintained an anti-semitic view and it is said that when asked about including Jazz in his orchestra, he rejected the proposal saying that it is not American in origin but is invented by Negros and exploited by Jews.
In 1933 he wrote a letter to Guggenheim Foundation and Bell Laboratories requesting grant to develop an electronic music studio. In his next composition, Ecuatorial, completed in 1934, he had used fingerboard theremin cellos, an electronic instrument.
Return To United States
Varese’s next project was Ecuatorial which included instruments like fingerboard Theremins, bass singer, winds and percussion and this work was premiered on April 15, 1934 and was instructed by Nicolas Slonimsky. Varese moved out from New York and moved to New York Citywhere he had lived since 1915 and moved to Santa Fe, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Varese wanted to work with Theremin on the refinement of the instrument fingerboard but, by the time Varese returned (1938) Leon Theremin had already left to Russia. Varese became totally upset when he came to know this. However, Varese actively indulged in promoting the theremin during his Western travels and also demonstrated it while conducting a lecture at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in 1936.
Music producer Jack Skurnick approached Varese and this resulted in EMS Recordings #401. This marked the release of Integrales, Density 21.5, Ionization and Octandre and also notieced for using instruments like Rene le Ro (flute), the Juilliard Percussion Orchestra and the New York Wind Ensemble. It was conducted by famous music conductor Frederic Waldman. Varese died on 6th of November 1965 in New York.
During 1920s and 1930s, Varese invested his time and energy to make two important projects which he believed will change his destiny but, it never got to be real and much of the works were destroyed forever. However, some of the works managed to exist and were incorporated into some smaller works. The first one was a large-scale stage work which was known by several names at several times, was originally named as The One-All-Alone or Astronomer (L’Astronome). This work was based on North American Indian legends which later on turned out as a futuristic drama of world catastrophe and instantaneous communication with the star Sirius. Varese worked on this project in Paris during 1928–1932. This was had a scripted by Alejo Carpentier, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes and Robert Desnos. Though this was apparently done, Varese abandoned it as he wanted to experiment it with a new treatment with Antonin Artaud. Though Artaud worked on it and the script was semt to Varese, this projct was not destined to come in light as Varese, by this time, got engaged with another project.
This second project was a choral symphony named Espace. As per plans, the project was to be scripted by Andre Malraux but, Varese settled it on a multi-lingual text of hieratic phrases which was expected to be sung by choirs at Paris, Moscow, Peking and New York and thus create a global radiophonic event. Varese was seriously frustrated with the lack of electronic instruments which were needed for this project. However, he managed it with his short Étude pour espace, a composition for chorus with two pianos and percussion and was premiered on 1947. Varese was very ambitious about this project and out of his anxiety; he made several contradictory changes which, unfortunately, made it impossible to perform this project again.
Awards and Recognitions
Varese and his experiments were recognized by internationally. He constantly involved in active dialogue with new generation musicians like Pierre Boulez and Luigi Dallapiccola. In 1962 he was offered to join the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. He was recognized with Koussevitzky International Recording Award in 1963.
Varese was deeply influenced by writings on Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński regarding music also by the ideas of Busoni. Composers like Birtwistle, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Roberto Gerhard etc. had influenced Varese and his compositions.
Varese had a big array of students out of which, Chinese-born composer Chou Wen-chung was the best known. He met Varese in 1949 and assisted him thereafter. After Varese’s death, he edited and completed many works, which was left uncompleted by Varese. Other renowned students of this legend include Colin McPhee, Lucia Dlugoszewski, James Tenney, William Grant Still, and André Jolivet.
The record label ‘Varèse Sarabande’ is named after him, as a tribute.
In 1972, the rock band Chicago recorded the track A Hit by Varese for their album Chicago V, as attribute.
Un grand sommeil noir, song to a text by Paul Verlaine for voice and piano, 1906
'Amériques' for large orchestra, 1918–1921, revised version in 1927
Ionisation for 13 percussion players, 1929–1931
Density 21.5 for solo flute, 1936
Poème électronique for electronic tape, 1957–1958
1883: Varese was born in Paris
1895: Varese composed his first Opera.
1903: Varese left his paternal home and went to Paris.
1904: Varese joined the Schola Cantorum and pursued music under Albert Roussel and Vincent d'Indy.
1907: Varese shifted to Berlin and married Suzanne Bing, an actress.
1911: Varese gave his first performance on Symphonic poem, Bourgogne, in Berlin.
1913: Varese and Suzanne Bing got divorced.
1915: Varese moved to United States.
1917: Varese gave his debut performance in United States by conducting the Grande messe des morts by Berlioz.
1921: Varese founded ‘the International Composers' Guild’ (ICG) along with Carlos Salzedo.
1922: Varese visited Germany and founded the sister concern of ‘the International Composers' Guild’ there with Busoni.
1927: Varese became an American Citizen
1928: Varese returned to Paris to replace one of the parts in his composition ‘Amériques’ with recently constructed ondes Martenot.
1934: His work Ecuatorial was premiered.
1965: Varese died at New York.