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Edgard Varese and “Ionisation”

     Edgard (sometimes spelled Edgar) Victor Achille Charles Varèse (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965) was a French-born composer who spent the greater part of his career in the United States.  Born in Paris, he was sent to be raised by his great-uncle and other relatives in the small town of Le Villars in the Burgundy region of France when he was only a few weeks old.  There he developed a very strong attachment to his maternal grandfather, Claude Cortot. Through his mother’s family he was related to the pianist Alfred Cortot.  Reclaimed by his parents in the late 1880s, in 1893 young Edgard was forced to relocate with them to Turin, Italy, in part, to live amongst his paternal relatives, since 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 composed his first opera, Martin Pas, which has since been lost.  Never comfortable with living in Italy, Varèse left home for Paris in 1903.

     Beginning in 1904 Varese 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 performed by Varèse only 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, but 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. On January 5, 1911, the first performance of his symphonic poem Bourgogne in Berlin took place.  After being invalided out of the French Army during World War I, he moved to the United States in December of 1915.  He met Louise McCutcheon  Norton, who was to become Louise Varèse

     After he arrived in the United States, Varèse commonly used the form ‘Edgar’ for his first name but reverted to ‘Edgard’, though not entirely consistently, in the 1940s.  In 1917 Varèse made his debut in America conducting the Grande messe des morts by Berlioz.  He spent the first few years in the United States in Greenwich Village, meeting important contributors to American music, promoting his vision of new electronic art music instruments, conducting orchestras, and founding the short-lived New Symphony Orchestra. In New York he met Léon Theremin and other composers exploring the boundaries of electronic music.  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, when it was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski who had already performed Hyperprism in 1924 and would premiere Arcana in 1927.

     Virtually all the works that Varese had written in Europe were either lost or destroyed in a Berlin warehouse fire, so 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. It was at this time that Varèse, along with Carlos Salzedo, founded the International Composers’ Guild, dedicated to the performances of new compositions of both American and European composers.   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.

     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 1931, he was the best man at the wedding of his friend Nicolas Slonimsky in Paris.  In 1933, while 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, was completed in 1934.   Anticipating the successful receipt of one of his grants, Varèse eagerly returned to the United States to realize his electronic music.  Slonimsky conducted its premiere in New York on April 15, 1934.

     Varèse soon left New York City for Santa Fe, NM, San Francisco and Los Angeles, CA. In 1936 he wrote Density 21.5.   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.  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 by different names at different times, but principally The One-All-Alone or Astronomer (L’Astronome). It was originally to be based on North American Indian legends but later 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.   Varèse abandoned it in favor of a new treatment in which he hoped to collaborate with Antonin Artaud whose libretto Il n’y a plus de firmament was written for Varèse’s project and sent to him after he had returned to the United States, 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 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.  Varèse made various contradictory revisions to Étude pour espace which made it nearly impossible to perform again.

     By the early 1950s, Varèse was in dialogue with a new generation of composers, such as Pierre Boulez and Luigi Dallapiccola.  He returned to France to finalize the tape sections of Déserts.  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.   Varèse developed his Poème électronique for a pavilion at the 1958 World Fair where it was heard by an estimated two million people.  In 1962 he was asked to join the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and in 1963 he received the premier Koussevitzky International Recording Award.   He died on November 6, 1965, in New York City, NY.

     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.  Varèse’s music emphasizes 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 recognized as an influence by several major composers of the late twentieth century. His use of new instruments and electronic resources led to his being known as the “Father of Electronic Music.”

     The following works by Varese appear in my collection:






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