Life and career
Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse was born in Paris, but when he was only a few weeks old, he was sent to be raised by his great-uncle and other relations in the small town of Le Villars in the Burgundy region of France. There he developed a very strong attachment to his maternal grandfather, Claude Cortot (also grandfather to the pianist Alfred Cortot, a first cousin of Varèse). His affection for his grandfather outshone anything he felt for his own parents.
After being 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. Now in his teen years, Varèse, influenced by his father, an engineer, enrolled at the Polytechnic of Turin and started studying engineering, as his father disapproved of his interest in music and demanded an absolute dedication to engineering studies. This conflict grew bigger and bigger, especially after the death of his mother in 1900, until in 1903 Varèse left home for Paris.
From 1904, he 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. In this period, he composed a number of ambitious orchestral works, but these were only performed by Varèse in piano transcriptions. One such work was his Rhapsodie romane, from about 1905, which was inspired by the Romanesque architecture of the cathedral of St. Philibert in Tournus. In 1907, he moved to Berlin, and in the same year, he married the actress Suzanne Bing, with whom he had one child, a daughter. They divorced in 1913.
During these years, Varèse became acquainted with Erik Satie and Richard Strauss, as well as with Claude Debussy and Ferruccio Busoni, who particularly influenced 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 5 January 1911, the first performance of his symphonic poem Bourgogne was held in Berlin; the only one of his early orchestral works to be properly performed in his lifetime, it caused a scandal.
After being invalided out of the French Army during World War I, he moved to the United States in December 1915.
Early years in the United States
In 1918, Varèse made his debut in America conducting the Grande messe des morts by Berlioz.
He spent the first few years in the United States, where he was a Romany Marie's café regular 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 he had written in Europe were either lost or destroyed in a Berlin warehouse fire, so in the U.S. 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 Paul Verlaine. (He still retained Bourgogne, but destroyed the score in a fit of depression many years later.)
At the completion of this work, Varèse, along with Carlos Salzedo, founded the International Composers' Guild, dedicated to the performances of new compositions of both American and European composers. The ICG's manifesto in July 1921 included the statement, "[t]he present day composers refuse to die. They have realised the necessity of banding together and fighting for the right of each individual to secure a fair and free presentation of his work." In 1922, Varèse visited Berlin where he founded a similar German organisation with Busoni.
Varèse contributed a poem to the Dadaist magazine 391 after an evening of drinking with Francis Picabia on the Brooklyn Bridge. The same magazine claimed that he was orchestrating a "Cold Faucet Dance". Later that year, he met Louise McCutcheon (then Norton), who edited another Dadaist magazine, Rogue, with her then-husband. She was to become Louise Varèse and a celebrated translator of French poetry whose versions of the work of Arthur Rimbaud for James Laughlin's New Directions imprint were particularly influential.
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. After arriving in the USA Varèse commonly used the form 'Edgar' for his first name but reverted to 'Edgard', not entirely consistently, from the 1940s.
Life in Paris
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 Ionisation, the first Classical work 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 1928, when he was asked about jazz, he said it was not representative of America but instead was, "a negro product, exploited by the Jews. All of its composers here are Jews," meaning Gruenberg and Boulanger students including Copland and Blitzstein.
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, and contained parts for two fingerboard Theremin cellos, along with winds, percussion, and a bass singer. 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.
Back in the United States
Edgard Varèse in Santa Fe in 1936
Varèse soon left New York City for Santa Fe, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 1936, he wrote his solo flute piece, Density 21.5. He also promoted the theremin in his Western travels, and demonstrated one at a lecture at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque on November 12, 1936. (The University has an RCA theremin in its archives which may be the same instrument.) By the time Varèse returned to New York in late 1938, Theremin had returned to Russia. This devastated Varèse, who had hoped to work with him on a refinement of his instrument.
He was approached by music producer Jack Skurnick resulting in EMS Recordings #401. The record was the first release on LP of Integrales, Density 21.5, Ionisation and Octandre and featured René Le Roy, flute, the Juilliard Percussion Orchestra and the New York Wind Ensemble conducted by Frederic Waldman. Ionisation had also been the first work by Varèse to be recorded in the 1930s, conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky and issued on 78rpm Columbia 4095M. Likewise, Octandre was recorded and issued on 78rpm discs in the later 1930s, complete (New Music Quarterly Recordings 1411) and as an excerpt (3rd movement, Columbia DB1791 in Volume V of their History of Music). Le Roy was the soloist also on a 1948 (78rpm) recording of Density 21.5 (New Music Recordings 1000).
When, in the late 1950s, Varèse was approached by a publisher about making Ecuatorial available, there were very few theremins—let alone fingerboard theremins—to be found, so he rewrote/relabelled the part for ondes Martenot. This new version was premiered in 1961. (Ecuatorial has been performed again with fingerboard theremins in Buffalo, NY in 2002 and at the Holland Festival, Amsterdam, in 2009.)
Background in science
While living with his father, an engineer, Varèse was pushed to further his scientific understanding at the Institute Technique, a high school in Italy that specialized in teaching mathematics and science. Here, Varèse became particularly interested in the works of Leonardo da Vinci. It was through Varèse's love of science that he began to study sound, as he later recalled:
When I was about twenty, I came across a definition of music that seemed suddenly to throw light on my gropings toward music I sensed could exist. Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński, the Polish physicist, chemist, musicologist and philosopher of the first half of the nineteenth century, defined music as 'the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds.' It was a new and exciting conception and to me the first that started me thinking of music as spatial—as moving bodies of sound in space, a conception I gradually made my own."
Varèse began his music studies with Vincent d'Indy (conducting) at the Schola Cantorum de Paris from 1903–05. While he was in Paris, Varèse had another pivotal experience during a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony at the Salle Pleyel. As the story goes, during the scherzo movement, perhaps due to the resonance of the hall, Varèse had the experience of the music breaking up and projecting in space. It was an idea that stayed with him for the rest of his life, that he would later describe as consisting of "sound objects, floating in space."
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). This was originally to be based on North American Indian legends; later it 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. According to Carpentier, a substantial amount of this work was written but Varèse abandoned it in favour of a new treatment in which he hoped to collaborate with Antonin Artaud. Artaud's libretto Il n'y a plus de firmament was written for Varèse's project and sent to him after he had returned to the U.S., 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 hieratic phrases to be sung by choirs situated in Paris, Moscow, Beijing and New York City, 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. According to Chou Wen-chung, Varèse made various contradictory revisions to Étude pour espace which made it impossible to perform again, but the 2009 Holland Festival, which offered a 'complete works' of Varèse over the weekend of 12–14 June 2009, persuaded Chou to make a new performing version (using similar brass and woodwind forces to Déserts and making use of spatialized sound projection). This was premiered at the Gashouder concert hall, Westergasfabriek, Amsterdam by Asko/Schönberg Ensemble and Cappella Amsterdam on Sunday 14 June, conducted by Péter Eötvös.
By the early 1950s, Varèse was in dialogue with a new generation of composers, such as Pierre Boulez and Luigi Dallapiccola. When he returned to France to finalize the tape sections of Déserts, Pierre Schaeffer helped arrange for suitable facilities. 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 and received a hostile reaction.
Le Corbusier was commissioned by Philips to present a pavilion at the 1958 World Fair and insisted (against the sponsors' resistance) on working with Varèse, who developed his Poème électronique for the venue, where it was heard by an estimated two million people. Using 400 speakers separated throughout the interior, Varèse created a sound and space installation geared towards experiencing sound as it moves through space. Received with mixed reviews, this piece challenged audience expectations and traditional means of composing, breathing life into electronic synthesis and presentation.
In 1962, he was asked to join the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and in 1963 he received the premier Koussevitzky International Recording Award.