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8.557882 - VARESE: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 - Ameriques / Equatorial / Nocturnal / Ionisation
Edgard Varèse (Paris, 22nd December, 1883 - New York, 6th November, 1965)
Edgard Varèse is a restless figure, who still, 42 years after his death, disquiets, challenges, excites and mystifies us. We have neither yet absorbed nor fully understood, and are certainly still far from implementing his visionary and confronting rethinking of the art of music.
Varèse must have been brilliant and fascinating as a young man, for in his early twenties he attracted the admiration of Debussy, Richard Strauss, Busoni, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, Roussel, Widor, Hugo von Hofmannstahl (with whom he planned an opera, Œdipus und die Sphinx), Romain Rolland and many more of the foremost musical and artistic figures of his day. He made enemies, too, storming out of d’Indy’s composition class, and daring as something like a twenty-year-old to say to Saint-Saëns: “I have no desire to become an old powdered wig like you.” Varèse’s disastrous failed relationship with his violent father, who maltreated Varèse’s mother and tried to derail any idea of his son’s musical career, is doubtless at the root of this anger that he frequently displayed to such early authority figures.
However touchy and devil-may-care, his brilliance shone for all to see; indeed, Romain Rolland recognized Varèse as no less than an archetype for his rebel “artisthero” Jean-Christophe, for, in the midst of his tenvolume magnum opus Rolland wrote to his friend Sofia Bertholini,
Rolland’s description of his young hero in the first volume of his work is uncannily prophetic of Varèse: “He would rather die than live by illusion. Was not Art also an illusion? No. It must not be. Truth! Truth! Eyes wide open, let him draw in through every pore the all-puissant breath of life, see things as they are, squarely face his misfortunes, — and laugh.”
Following the young composer’s move to Berlin in late 1907, Richard Strauss, Karl Muck, Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Ferruccio Busoni all became firm supporters and advocates. Strauss went to considerable lengths to arrange the first performance in Berlin of the symphonic poem Bourgogne, on 15th December 1910, lending his authority and prestige to Varèse’s music when the composer was not quite 27 years old. This score remained in Varèse’s possession when he traveled back to Paris, and thus survived the Berlin warehouse fire that took the majority of his other early music, only to be tragically destroyed at the composer’s own hand during a depressive episode as late as 1962. His other early works — the symphonic poems Rhapsodie romane (honouring the Romanesque architecture that so inspired him while he was growing up in rural Burgundy), Prélude à la fin d’un jour, Gargantua and Mehr Licht were almost certainly never seen again after the 1913 fire.
Busoni’s visionary book, Sketch of a New Æsthetic of Music had played a large rôle in attracting Varèse to Berlin, and the rapport between him and the great teutonic-Italian pianist composer was warm on both sides. Indeed, Busoni became his greatest enthusiast of all in Berlin, dedicating the score of his Berceuse Elégiaque in 1910, “All’illustre Futuro, l’amico Varèse, affezionatamente.”
Despite this extraordinary early recognition and success, Varèse was both restless and impatient. He founded and conducted choirs in both Paris and Berlin, and, by all accounts had great success conducting Debussy’s Le Martye de Saint-Sébastien with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Prague in January 1914. But no orchestra was offered him, and he felt that the First World War had closed off any likelihood of immediate openings. In any case, his inner ear had moved far beyond the possibilities of the orchestra with which he had grown up; we know that, as early as 1906, he was investigating the use of the siren as an orchestral instrument, and his flamboyant use of percussion had already made its presence felt in the early, lost scores. In 1913 he sought out René Bertrand, inventor of the dynaphone, and as early as the First World War he wrote:
The Unknown, new horizons, a new æsthetic, new forms, a new sound-world, freedom from history were what fascinated him. Small wonder, then, that he saw his future in the New World — “symbolic of discoveries: new worlds on this planet, in outer space, or in the minds of men” — so he threw caution to the winds, crossed the Atlantic in wartime and disembarked at New York Harbour on 29 December 1915.
His life in America was never easy; sometimes, one wonders why he repeatedly returned from the numerous trips he continued to make back to Europe, especially to Paris. During his longest sojourn in Paris, between 1928 and 1933, he briefly explored with Antonin Artaud a possible collaboration that might if pursued have become an opera called L’Astronome (The Astronomer). Though never completed, sketches do exist of a segment called Sirius, which has brought forth creative responses of such disparate nature as Stockhausen’s Licht and, at a puzzling extreme, the unmentionable “rock opera” of 2006 by New York rock musician John Zorn that loudly but irrelevantly claims descent from Varèse. His early days in New York were marked, however, by successes similar to those he had enjoyed in Europe.
Barely a year after arriving, he conducted a performance of Berlioz’s Requiem at which the sponsors included members of the Guggenheim, Pulitzer, Vanderbilt, Whitney and Morgenthau families, as well as many prominent names from the music establishment. Early in 1919 the New Symphony Orchestra was founded especially for Varèse. But it was not long before his relentless programming of new music led to the alienation of much of his audience, and his concerts were soon taken over by Artur Bodanzky with watered-down programmes. Other ventures followed — the International Composers’ Guild in 1921, co-founded with Carlos Salzedo; the Pan-American Association of Composers in 1927; the Schola Cantorum of Santa Fe in 1937; the New Chorus in New York in 1941; and other initiatives. He served as a focal point and inspiration for two generations of young American composers, but his uncompromising nature and fearless programming left the broad public far behind. Little in the musical milieu has changed today.
Throughout his American years, he sought for “new mediums which can lend themselves to every expression of thought and can keep up with thought.” Efforts to develop new technical working tools with Léon Thérémin, with Bell Laboratories, with various universities and others all led to frustration; it was 1953 before he received the anonymous gift of an Ampex tape recorder that led him to be able to start work on realizing the taped sections of Déserts, later completed in Paris thanks to an invitation from Pierre Schaeffer, with his vastly superior studio resources.
But Varèse did not quite survive into the computer era. Perhaps Pierre Boulez in Répons, perhaps Karlheinz Stockhausen in Octophonie were the true heirs who were able to create sound worlds, worlds in real sound embodying something of what he may have imagined; perhaps it is they who have been — whether intentionally or unwittingly hardly matters — the ‘executors’ of his artistic will.
Yet we can, of course, never second-guess what this imagination without boundaries might have made of the possibilities of the sound-generating means of our own day. It is a tantalizing thought, and a sad one, highlighted if we merely contrast the overflowing richness of the ‘new worlds’ of Amériques with the desolate landscapes of Déserts, written late in his life, by which Varèse meant “not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains and snow, outer space, deserted city streets … but also this distant inner space … where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude”. Pierre Boulez, writing shortly after Varèse’s death, put it best: “Your legend is embedded in our age; from now on, we can rub out that circle of chalk and water, those magic or ambiguous words: ‘experimental’, ‘precursor’, ‘pioneer.’ You have had enough, I think, of being promised the promised land in perpetuity. Enough of that restricted honour which has so often been offered you as an embarrassing and embarrassed gift … Farewell, Varèse, farewell! Your time is finished and now it begins.”
AMÉRIQUES, for very large orchestra and offstage ‘banda’ (Paris? 1915 - New York 1921)
In a single continuous movement, divided into primary sections:
Moderato, poco lento / alternating with Più vivo – Appena più animato, ma pesantissimo – Vivo, quasi cadenza – Presto – Poco lento – Moderato – Lent – Vif – Presto – Mosso – Presto – Extrêmement souple – Plötzlich, sehr ruhig, Langsam – Modérément animé – Vif (très nerveux) – Mosso – Animé – Plus retenu – Pesantissimo e rude – Poco più Lento, lontanissimo – Modérément Lent – Bewegt – Presto – Più tranquillo – Andante – Lento – Rapidissimo (scuro) – Presto – Lento e stentato – Più calmo – Grandioso – Presto – Pesantissimo.
Though most sources indicate that Amériques was composed between 1918 and 1921, the work was almost certainly begun before Edgard Varèse left Europe for America in December 1915; Louise Norton, whom the composer first met shortly after his arrival in New York — their marriage would be delayed until 1922 — recalled his having with him a considerable quantity of sketches of material for a large-scale orchestral work. If such a work can be deduced to have been Amériques, it was at that time either untitled or being accumulated under a different (and unknown) working title. As the massive work developed, it came to encapsulate all the composer’s idealism about rebirth and renewal in the new world of the Americas, such as had been extolled by Jose Martí in Nuestra America, and by so many others. What Varèse in fact found, particularly in the “downtown” milieu he had chosen as his living environment, was a teeming, chaotic world of ships arriving and departing, commerce, crowded streets, dogeat- dog competitiveness that (as today) clashed head-on with the mirage-like “opportunity” of the honeypot great city. And this music teems! – with endless invention and almost no literal repetition or conventional “development”, reflected in the tempo listings above. The form of the work follows its content, nothing is squeezed into any kind of pre-existing vessel. All this clamour is reflected especially in the percussion section requiring fourteen or fifteen players, in the sounds of ships’ bells, fire-engine bells, sirens, the composer’s favourite “lion’s roar” (a single-headed drum whose skin, pierced by a rough string, is made to vibrate by dragging a rosin-treated leather pouch up the tightly stretched string), crow-calls, steamboat whistles and other vividly imaginative percussion.
In fact, Varèse’s interest in the siren and other “exotic” orchestral percussion instruments goes back at least to 1906. Even then, he was seeking ways to realize an inner musical vision with its roots in childhood memories of train whistles, by employing soundproduction means that had greater constant sustaining power than existing orchestral instruments, and that could moreover play across a continuous spectrum of pitch, not limited by any tuning system. Nothing more convincingly anticipates the much later era of electronic music than Varèse’s astoundingly imaginative employment of the percussion, and his fabulously flexible instrumentation in general. Amériques, in the Beethovenian sense, is a complete, unrestrained “representation of a state of the soul in music.”
The music composed for the offstage ‘banda’ is the primary repository of nostalgia for the European musical world left behind. Did Varèse ever hear Mahler’s Sixth Symphony? Whether he did or not (and the two men did meet in 1909), the phrases for trombones in the earliest of the offstage interpolations powerfully recall that work. We do know that he was present at the première of Le Sacre du Printemps on 29 May, 1913, and there are numerous sideways allusions to Stravinsky’s sound-world; even to the contrary motion concatenations of Skryabinesque complex harmonic masses in Zvezdoliki, a work Varèse could not possibly have heard, since, though composed in 1911- 12 and published by Jurgenson in 1913, its performance was delayed until 19th April, 1939 in Brussels. Thus, we are encountering not only references to fully and halfremembered musics, but also to ideas that partake of the Zeitgeist of music yet unknown or not yet written.
This extraordinary work seems to span worlds, both historically and geographically; it is an apotheosis of the state of music in 1920; a compendium, no doubt, of everything Varèse had not only composed but merely thought up to that date; an encyclopædia, too, of all his musical experiences in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere. Could it not be claimed, indeed, that Amériques sums up its age even more comprehensively than Le Sacre ?
This original version of Amériques overflows with fecund invention and astonishing mastery of a monster orchestra, totaling a possible 155 musicians. Stokowski, perhaps wisely, recommended that Varèse reduce the orchestral forces to something a little more reasonable, that would present fewer obstacles to performance, and the better-known revised version was performed in 1927. But, as well as the sharp perspective of the offstage ‘banda’, many of the more intimate, chamber music-like passages were excised, lessening the impact of the famous, overpowering “funeral march”; the instrumentation is in parts watered down, playing much more “safe”; and especially, the stark, stabbing sffff chords of the shattering ending are robbed of impact, being covered by sustained wind and brass. We take great joy in re-establishing this magnificent work as Varèse first heard it in his inner ear.
ÉCUATORIAL, for bass voices, two Ondes Martenot and ensemble (New York 1932-1934)
Perhaps in respect of no other work of Varèse is one of his favourite remarks more appropriate: “I like a certain awkwardness in a work of art.”
For Écuatorial represents the raw savagery of human sacrifice, whose brutality Varèse brings vividly to life in highly unconventional vocal writing that calls for fortissimo nasal singing through closed lips, humming, mumbling, Sprechstimme, “percussive declamation”, glissandi, “raucous” speaking, quartertone intonation and so on. Though, earlier in the life of this work, he had called for a solo bass voice, his later prescription of small chorus — the present performance uses six solo voices — seems more in keeping both with the import of the text and the manner of setting for voices, so far outside of any style hitherto employed in western art music.
Indeed, writing to Odile Vivier about Écuatorial in 1961, with a directness that cannot be contradicted he specifies: “Chorus: bass voices, above all, no church singers. At all costs avoid the constipated and Calvinists.”
The sacred book of the Quiché tribe of the Maya civilisation, the Popol Vuh, has come down to us solely in a translation made in 1707 by Father Francisco Ximénes, of the Dominican order. The Quiché language text, which he — fortunately! — reproduces in parallel with his Spanish translation, was almost certainly made after the Spanish Conquest of the 1520s, perhaps by a late surviving Quiché Indian who had learned the European alphabet; for the original language was a pictographic script. Any earlier manuscripts have long since disappeared, as too the source text from which Father Ximénes worked; he returned it to its owner after making his translation, and it has never again surfaced. The Popol Vuh is a creation myth on a par with the Epic of Gilgamesh and with the oral traditions of the Australian aboriginal “Dreamtime”, and incidentally provides us with the fullest intimate portrait we have of the nature of the Mayan civilization. It is also a scriptural text of this most ancient of westernhemisphere civilizations. Alongside the cruelty of a fertility cult and human sacrifice are a sense of true wonder in the face of nature, of awe and respect for the unknowable gods, and a thorough attempt to provide a framework of social structure, of laws and of ethical principles as boundaries for human action.
Though Stravinsky in early versions of Les Noces (circa 1916) had sought to combine the mechanical Pianola with normally played “live” instruments, Écuatorial is the first work in the history of music to attempt the fusion of traditional and electronic instruments. Varèse knew Léon Thérémin, creator of arguably the first ever musical instrument to generate sound by electronic means, and commissioned special instruments from him for the first version of Écuatorial, capable of an astonishingly high range reaching to 12,544.2 Herz, some three octaves above the highest note of the piccolo. Odile Vivier, in a biography of Varèse that offers interesting sidelights, cites the composer as declaring, during his work with Thérémin: “I will compose no more for instruments to be played by men: I am inhibited by the absence of adequate electronic instruments for which I conceive my music.” It later became clear, however, that the Onde Martenot, with its keyboard and ‘Ruban’ (a device for making a glissando with continuous pitch, i.e. without intervening divisions into semitones), offered a far more precise means of realizing the music Varèse wished.
In a convincing analysis of the work, the young composer and musicologist Brian Kane points out that, following the last brass “explosion” in the work, the conventional instruments disappear, are wiped out, leaving only the (electronic) organ and the two Ondes Martenot. His observation is that this radical rupturing of the musical texture offers us a “sonic image of the tribe’s survival”. My own view is that, perhaps, in a mystical way, through his depiction of the lost spiritual world of a time deep in the past, Varèse was seeking to show a path to the even more unknowable future of humankind.
NOCTURNAL, for soprano solo, bass voices and chamber orchestra (New York 1961)
The last practicable, realizable complete work of Varèse received a tortured première at a famous concert conducted by Robert Craft at New York’s Town Hall on 1st May 1961; for, in the later part of his life, Varèse was not only wrestling with illness, but was less satisfied than ever with the means at his disposal that fell so far short of the rich and infinitely malleable sound-world of his imagination. Thus, he completed in time for the concert (a “Composer Portrait” in his honour) only just over half of the score presented here; and what was performable was handed to Robert Craft and his musicians piecemeal in barely legible parts only two days before the performance — just in time for a single rehearsal. The other works on that concert programme were Intégrales, Poème électronique, Offrandes, Déserts; and, in its first performance since its première in 1934, Écuatorial, with two “oscillators” played by Earle Brown and the engineer Fred Plaut, in lieu of the Ondes Martenot that were no more available in New York than Theremins and the musicians to play them.
Nocturnal began life in the composer’s imagination as an Écuatorial-like setting of invocations from various ancient civilisations. Later, he investigated poems such as Henri Michaux’s Dans la Nuit, and work by Novalis and St John of the Cross before finally choosing fragments in English from the early writings of his close New York friend (and fellow expatriate) Anaïs Nin as the skeleton upon which this music is constructed. The chorus of male voices sings almost exclusively nonsense syllables of Varèse’s invention, which indeed recall Écuatorial; while the soprano’s disjointed phrases relate closely to Anaïs Nin’s tortured relationship with her father. If her 1935 book The House of Incest is to be believed as autobiographical narrative rather than dream-allegory, she was raped by her father in her childhood, only to take “revenge” by seducing him as an adult, enticing him into an extraordinary, nine-day erotic adventure. She had prepared for this decisive encounter in her earlier love affair with Henry Miller (another friend of Varèse, who enshrined the composer in his remarkable indictment of America, The Airconditioned Nightmare), and in her attempt to seduce the well-known homosexual Antonin Artaud. It had been with Artaud, among many other authors, that Varèse had sought to develop his ultimately unfulfilled project for the opera L’Astronome.
Like Varèse, Anaïs Nin had fled the France of her birth for the life-renewing anonymity of New York because, in part, of a seemingly unhealable rupture with her father. There can be little doubt that Varèse’s profound identification with Anaïs Nin’s work was closely connected with her experiences of incestuous rape by her father, on the one hand; and Varèse’s suppressed parricidal relationship with his father, on the other.
A little over half of Nocturnal was completed by Varèse, and though the fragment, composed typically in a great hurry under commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation was performed at the May 1961 concert, the composer did not further advance the work in the four years of life that remained to him. He did, however, leave extensive sketches. These were skillfully joined to the existing fragment in 1980 by the composer’s amanuensis Chou Wen-Chung, and the work has ever since been performed in this form.
T.S. Eliot’s profound observation, “in my beginning is my end” reminds us that Nocturnal describes a full circle from Varèse’s earliest surviving composition, Un grand Sommeil noir, written when he was 23. Night, darkness, solitude, isolation, the ultimate loneliness, unknowability and unreachability of the individual human soul are themes that permeate all of his work.
DANCE FOR BURGESS, for chamber orchestra and percussion (New York 1949)
Varèse’s unrealised Espace, which occupied him almost continuously from 1932 until 1949, and intermittently until the end of his life — though incomplete, fragments are performable and remain a fascinating conundrum — stands indirectly in the pedigree of the dashed-off occasional piece Dance for Burgess.
An early version of Étude pour Espace, for chorus with the wind orchestra part adapted for two pianos, was performed in 1947, but left Varèse deeply dissatisfied. Thus he embarked upon transforming sketches for Espace into a new work, Déserts (Naxos 8.554820). He proposed to Burgess Meredith a cinematic montage of sound and images based upon Déserts, and the two agreed to collaborate on a film which, however, never materialised. In the meantime, Meredith had embarked upon production of an unconventional Broadway musical called Happy as Larry, in which his collaborators were the choreographer Anna Sokolow and the sculptor Alexander Calder, the latter supplying sets in the form of his customary mobiles. As a gesture of friendship — and hoping that the deferred film would eventuate later — Varèse composed this brief dance, which was performed a handful of times before the production closed in its first week, on 7th January 1950.
Varèse was no Broadway composer, yet, with an astringency that is unique to his musical voice, he succeeds in making a few sly allusions to the rhythms and “swing” of “uptown” Jazz. Though a curiosity, this little work reminds us that Varèse was a skilled professional composer who could turn his hand and his technique to any medium. The scant productivity of his later years was a consequence less of a “block”, than simply of his extreme self-criticism, and the near impossibility of finding the technical means to realize his inner vision.
TUNING UP, for large orchestra (New York 1947)
Chou Wen-Chung relates the story of the origin of Tuning Up as an all-too typical illustration of the ways in which Varèse and his musical vision found it hard to win comprehension. In 1947, Boris Morros was producing a film called Carnegie Hall, featuring many musicians such as Fritz Reiner, Bruno Walter, and Leopold Stokowski, who had been the earliest champion of Varèse’s music in the United States. Varèse knew Morros through Walter Anderson, one of the composer’s most loyal advocates and editor of The Commonweal, where Varèse’s seminal essay Organized Sound for the Sound Film was published in 1940.
Thus when Carnegie Hall was in production in 1946, Morros approached him through Anderson to compose a short character piece for the New York Philharmonic and Stokowski, parodying the orchestra’s tuning up procedure. It seems that Morros had a lighthearted, parodistic skit in mind; whereas Varèse, completely in personality, took the project seriously, delivering a score that allows fragments of Amériques, Arcana, Intégrales, Ionisation and other works to emerge from a mist of repeated A’s. He sketched two versions — which Chou Wen-Chung has skillfully woven into a bi-partite score — but was incensed at the distorted and irreverent way his music was played in rehearsal, stormed out, withdrew the score and returned the large cheque he had been paid for its composition. Stokowski, at least, would have recognized the Amériques references; but, for the work to be taken as a serious gloss upon the inner nature and force of the symphonic beast was more than Varèse could possibly have hoped for at this date.
HYPERPRISM, for nine wind instruments and nine percussion (New York 1922-1923)
The first performance of Hyperprism in New York in March 1923 caused something of a scandal, out of all proportion to its brevity. A later performance reviewed by a Parisian journalist remarked that Varèse was “the cause of peaceable music lovers coming to blows and using one another’s faces for drums.” At least the earlier tumult bought the work a repeat hearing for the half of the audience that had not left, upon the insistence of Carlos Salzedo, co-founder of the International Composers Guild. Stokowski took up the work, playing it twice in Philadelphia in November of the same year, and again in New York in December. Though audience response was just as mystified, that very first March performance did gain Varèse a publisher, for John Curwen had been in the audience, and took Varèse’s scores back to London.
The title might be interpreted as referring to crystalline structures, with which Varèse was famously fascinated. He sought out Nathaniel Arbiter, professor of mineralogy at Columbia University, who taught him that “crystal form itself is a resultant rather than a primary attribute. Crystal form is the consequence of the interaction of attractive and repulsive forces and the ordered packing of the atom.”
Thus, in Varèse’s own words, “taking the place of linear counterpoint, the movement of sound-masses, of shifting planes, will be very clearly perceived. When these sound masses collide, the phenomena of penetration or repulsion will seem to occur.” And elsewhere, “This [description of crystalline structure], I believe, suggests better than any explanation I could give about the way my works are formed. There is an idea, the basis of an internal structure, expanded and split into different shapes or groups of sound constantly changing in shape, direction and speed, attracted and repulsed by various forces. The form of the work is the consequence of this interaction. Possible musical forms are as limitless as the exterior forms of crystals.”
Wilfred Mellers observes, “it is not surprising that Varèse’s highly sophisticated music should be also primitive … in the sense that it does not involve harmony, but rather consists of non-developing patterns and clusters of noises of varying timbre and tension. These interact in a manner that Varèse has compared, in detailed if inaccurate analogy, to rock-formation and crystal mutation.”
Hyperprism was the first work of Varèse’s that Curwen published, giving it a Witold Gordon cover that features a galleon-like ship decorated with stars, its detached aft section surprisingly like a rocket poised for take-off, a star-encrusted dove carrying an olive branch catching up on the ship from behind, thus clearly labeling it a Noah’s Ark of music. Not a crystal nor a prism in sight; but journeys into the unknown clearly symbolised.
UN GRAND SOMMEIL NOIR, for soprano and piano (Paris 1906)
This brief work, the sole surviving composition of Varèse’s early period (apart from juvenilia), was nearly lost. It is well known that, following his period of study with Busoni, Varèse left behind in storage in Berlin the majority of his early scores and sets of orchestral parts, and that these were lost in a warehouse fire. Later, probably as late as 1962, he destroyed any remaining early scores that were left, including the manuscript of Bourgogne. But Un grand Sommeil noir had been published, and copies of the printed edition were held by a few libraries. Chou Wen-Chung vividly recalls Varèse’s rage upon discovering that the New York Public Library held a copy of Un grand Sommeil, having believed that he had destroyed all extant copies. It is intriguing, too, that, despite having been a published, engraved score, this work is not listed either in Fernand Ouellette’s definitive Edgard Varèse of 1966, and is overlooked in Chou Wen-Chung’s Varèse: A Sketch of the Man and his Music, also of 1966. It had turned up in 1957, but was often forgotten.
Stravinsky set the same poem four years after Varèse, in 1910, as one of his Two Songs of Verlaine, first performed, however, in St Petersburg and published there by Jurgenson. Did he know Varèse’s setting? It is unlikely, though the two men did indeed first meet during the early years of the Ballets Russes incursions to Paris. No matter: Varèse’s score had been written while he was a student in Widor’s composition class at the Conservatoire — coincidentally, too, while he was living, in the first year of his first marriage (to the actress Suzanne Bing), on the selfsame rue Descartes, where Verlaine had died in poverty just ten years before. This score is accomplished, penetrating and individual, despite many signs of the work of another of Varèse’s early admirers, Claude Debussy; the open fifths of La Cathédrale engloutie, melancholy melodic lines reminiscent of La Damoiselle élue; even, as pointed out in a brilliant article by Larry Stempel, a near-quotation of the closing bars of Pelléas et Mélisande. Restraint, clarity and an avoidance of overt emotion are the main characteristics of this setting. His other, lost works of this period must have been of at least this quality and better, for in the next year, 1907, Widor and Massenet had promoted Varèse for the Première Bourse artistique de la ville de Paris; when he failed to get it, they placed in his way other, mysterious private funds that enabled him to travel to Berlin, there to come within the ambit of the next great influence of his life, Ferruccio Busoni.
DENSITY 21.5, for solo flute (New York 1936, revised April 1946)
Though this brief work is the sole composition that punctuates an otherwise twenty-year gap of finished scores from Varèse’s hand, the composer was constantly busy with a never-ending stream of sketches and uncompleted projects. These were the years, indeed, during which he made fruitless approaches to Bell Laboratories and others — including three unsuccessful applications for Guggenheim Fellowships — in the hope of being able to develop his revolutionary ideas of a possible new realm of electronic music. Between Écuatorial (1932-34) and Déserts (1954), these two pages are, however, the only finished music that the composer allowed to leave his desk. A request from the flautist Georges Barrère was the immediate stimulus that brought forth a manuscript, which refers to Barrère’s new platinum flute, enshrining the specific density of the rare metal within its title, in a way that points forward somewhat to naming habits of Iannis Xenakis twenty and more years later.
Density is challenging despite its brevity. Its short duration is based upon stark juxtapositions of powerfully contrasted musical “shapes of sound” (Varèse’s phrase) or self-contained musical objects. Rather than a formal trajectory, its structure is rather like a tour around a set of boulders or sculptures, examining them from different points of view, with an absence of exact repetition of any kind. However, as relayed by Hilda Jolivet from a programme note by Varèse, traditional development of melodic motifs or expansion of an implied harmonic scheme are not absent: “Despite the monodic character of Density 21.5, the rigidity of its structure is defined overtly by the harmonic scheme carefully described in the unfolding of the melody.” Two years earlier, Varèse had declared, moreover, “… [in contemporary music], whether we deny its presence or not, we sense a tonality. There is no need to have a tonic, with its third and fifth, in order to establish a tonality.” Audible are musical “shapes” based upon: pivoting semitones and octave-displaced expansions of these; upon the tritone; upon the minor third; upon repeated pitches; and, occasionally, longer phrases built upon strings of these components assembled together. The work ends with an ascending sequence of nine different pitches drawn from these components, and organized in three mimicking yet dissimilar sub-phrases, that rise from the lowest note of the flute’s compass to, almost, its practicable highest note; summing up, as it were in these nine notes and two measures, the entire piece.
IONISATION, for thirteen percussion, with piano New York 1929 – 1931
Ionisation is one of the most famous works of the twentieth century; the first western art music work by any composer to limit itself solely to instruments of percussion, almost all of them unpitched. However, already in Varèse’s orchestral scores — Amériques and Arcana, and also in the smaller Hyperprism and Intégrales — large percussion ensembles entirely typical of Ionisation in make-up and usage are found; Ecuatorial and Déserts were later to follow the same pattern. Indeed in Amériques, a larger number of percussion players is required even than in the present score, and numerous passages feature them as a kind of separate, parallel orchestra. Even the use of the piano on the last three pages of this score is restricted to a percussive amplification of the sonority of the tubular bells, whose percussive attack is of the essence. Pitch is immaterial; the piano and bells supply only resonance and sustained sounds. Did Varèse know Gamelan, or Gagaku? Gamelan, probably yes, through Debussy; but what he sets out to do in Ionisation is of a different order, for, in the absence of pitch — other than differentiations of high, medium, low, and the associated implications of skin, metal and wood tone colours — he creates blocks of highly characterized classes of sound (he calls them “shapes”) which interpenetrate, attract and repulse, exactly as the sculpturally formed musical gestures in Hyperprism, Octandre and Intégrales.
In all of Varèse’s percussion writing, from Amériques onwards, there is more than just rhythmic polyphony at work; rather, a kind of polydirectionality of musical impulse, richly layered. It is his stated æsthetic to seek a music in which mutually oblivious, if not totally unrelated universes converge, collide, briefly coexist, then disappear once again into their separate dimensions of the cosmos. His fascination with the capabilities of — in his day — a still unrealized “machine” that would perform music with a hitherto unachievable accuracy posits the ease with which it would achieve
Even a modest analysis of Ionisation requires fifty or more pages. For the present note, may it suffice to draw the listener’s attention to an opening section primarily for drums, led by a driving, but soft, rhythmic figure in the military drum; a wrenching change of tempo into triplet figures, led by claves, cencerros and small cymbals — here, the figures of the preceding section interpenetrate the new material, now alternating with a powerful quintuplet figure in rhythmic unison for five players; soon, the introduction of variegated metallic sounds, for anvils, suspended cymbals, gongs, tam-tams and triangles, with underlying siren drones; a culmination in which the opening rhythm for military drum is now heard on the tarole, a smaller cousin; leading to the concluding, clangorous coda for tubular bells, piano, glockenspiel, tam-tams.
I am not the first to point out that the coda of Ionisation resembles nothing so much as the concluding pages of Les Noces; most especially in the way in which time seems to slow down. The space between musical events is distended; resonance becomes more important than propulsive force; resolution is implied by a circularity of “pitch field” repetitions — not motivic in the least, simply reinforcing the static harmonic quality of this point, nay period of arrival. In a sense, these last three pages and seventeen measures of the work are a kind of long fade. The bell sonorities take the place of the tam-tams and sirens of the body of the piece, while the rhythmic motives of the various drums chatter ever more softly in the background like snatches of conversation disappearing into the distance. Finally, only the bells, tam-tams and suspended cymbal remain. Thus it is that, with mystery and trepidation, we farewell the music and the world of earlier times and set forth into the great unknown, those “new worlds on earth, in outer space and in the minds of men”, “an entirely new magic of sound!”
© 2007 Christopher Lyndon-Gee
Sung texts and translations are available at www.naxos.com/libretti/557882.htm.
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