Edgar Varèse

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Edgard Varèse

Edgar (d) Victor Achille Charles Varèse (born December 22, 1883 in Paris , † November 6, 1965 in New York ) was an American composer and conductor of French origin.


Edgar Varèse was the oldest child of the Italian Henri Varèse and his French wife Blanche-Marie Cortot. He grew up in Paris and with his maternal grandparents in Le Villars in Burgundy ; Grandfather Claude Cortot played a formative role in his childhood. In 1892 his parents moved with him to Turin . There he made his first attempt at composition at the age of eleven: Martin Pas , an opera based on Jules Verne for boy's voice and mandolin . The father was an engineer, wanted his son to follow the same career path and placed great value on a mathematical and scientific education. He was hostile to the son's musical interests; he secretly took lessons: in 1900 he became a student at the Turin Conservatory . He worked as a drummer in the opera orchestra and made his first experiences as a conductor. His mother died that same year, and the strained relationship with his father, who married a second time, intensified.

In 1903 Varèse finally broke up with his father and went to Paris, where he began studying music at the Parisian Schola Cantorum in 1904 . His teachers were Albert Roussel ( counterpoint ), Vincent d'Indy (composition, conducting) and Charles Bordes (music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance ). In 1905 he moved to the Paris Conservatory and studied with Charles-Marie Widor (composition). He founded his first choir, was in contact with the artist group La Mansarde , which was enthusiastic about Wagner's total work of art , and composed his first works for orchestra. In 1907 he finished his studies with Widor and married the actress Suzanne Bing. He also got to know Claude Debussy personally, whose music had impressed him since his time in Turin.

At the end of the year, Varèse and his wife moved to Berlin . Presumably he had read Ferruccio Busoni's work Draft of a New Aesthetics of Music , in any case he sought close contact and became his pupil. He corresponded with Hugo von Hofmannsthal , after whose play Oedipus and the Sphinx he composed an opera. He also founded a choir in Berlin, made the acquaintance of Maurice Ravel , Richard Strauss , Romain Rolland and - on the occasion of a visit to von Hofmannsthal in Vienna - Gustav Mahler . Rolland became a sponsor of Varèse. The orchestral work Bourgogne was first performed publicly in Berlin by the Blüthner Orchestra on December 15, 1910 through the intercession of Richard Strauss . His daughter Claude was born earlier in October. In 1912 he heard the world premiere of Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schönberg , a key work of 20th century music.

Varèse divorced in 1913. During a long stay in Paris, a fire in Berlin destroyed almost all of the works he had composed up to then with the manuscripts he had left behind. In Paris he witnessed the scandalous world premiere of another key work: Igor Stravinsky's ballet Le sacre du printemps . Influences and quotations from Stravinsky's Sacre and Petrushka were later evident in Varèses' work. He also worked on a stage project by Jean Cocteau .

At the beginning of the First World War in 1914, Varèse initially returned to Paris. The following year, like many other Parisian artists, he emigrated to the USA, and on December 29, 1915, he arrived in New York . He met the Dadaists around Marcel Duchamp here and wrote for an artist magazine by Francis Picabia . He also got to know the most important New York representatives of avant-garde art around Walter Arensberg and Alfred Stieglitz . He worked as a sheet music copier on the orchestration of foreign compositions. His rehearsal of Hector Berlioz's Requiem and its performance on April 1, 1917 brought him his first major success as a conductor, which gave him further engagements. In the same year he married the American Louise Norton for the second time. The New Symphony Orchestra , which he founded in 1919, was unsuccessful with critics and audiences with its demanding program of old and new music, so that he quickly gave up his conducting activities there. Together with the harpist Carlos Salzédo and with the financial support of two patrons , he founded the International Composers' Guild ( ICG ) in 1921 for the purpose of performing the entire spectrum of contemporary new music . In the following year, at his suggestion, Busoni and Heinz Tiessen founded the European counterpart, the International Composers' Guild ( IKG ), which, however , gained little influence over the International Society for New Music (IGNM) , which was founded a little later , and only lasted for a short time.

In 1921/22 Varèse wrote the orchestral work Amériques , which was mainly followed by chamber music works until 1927. Compared to his works from the Paris and Berlin periods, he developed a completely new sound language in his new compositions. He became an American citizen in 1927, in the same year he dissolved the ICG , but with Henry Cowell and Carlos Chávez Ramírez he founded the Pan-American Association of Composers ( PAAC ), which aims to promote contemporary composers on the American continent would have.

In 1928 Varèse went back to Paris. There, as in Germany, his pieces, composed in the United States, were performed for the first time. André Jolivet became his student for some time in 1930, he was in contact with Heitor Villa-Lobos and Antonin Artaud . His plan for a laboratory in which artists and scientists should jointly explore new ways of generating sound in music could not be realized. In 1933 he returned to New York.

A twenty-year phase began for Varèse, which was marked by strong mood swings and depression and in which he published no work apart from the flute piece Density 21.5 (1936) and (until Déserts in 1954) did not complete any significant work. In 1934 the first record was made with one of his works ( ionization ), and from 1936 he gave lectures in Santa Fe . In November 1937 he moved to San Francisco , and the following May to Los Angeles , where he tried to win over Hollywood interested parties for his music in the film business , but was unsuccessful. He returned to New York in 1940, founded the New Chorus in 1941 , later expanded to become the Greater New York Chorus , with which he mainly performed early music .

In 1950 he was invited to hold a composition course at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music . This began an increased reception of his work among young European composers; his works were performed more and more again. He began with the composition of Déserts , which used the then novel magnetic tape as a sound source. The premiere in 1954 in Paris, which was also broadcast live on the radio stereophonic, caused a major uproar, but other performances followed quickly and successfully in Europe ( Hamburg , Stockholm ) and, after his return in 1955, in the USA. The next big project followed, the Poème électronique , which was created in collaboration with Le Corbusier and his assistant at the time, Iannis Xenakis . It was a work for several tapes in the pavilion of the company Philips on the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels rang out through a system of 425 loudspeakers. This work was heard by over two million visitors to the pavilion, and it was repeated in New York on his return to the USA.

Varèse then began two more compositions, Nocturnal and Nuit , but was unable to complete them. On November 6, 1965, he died of thrombosis in a New York hospital. His estate is now in the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel. Since 1955 he was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters .

Musicians who have expressed particular admiration for Varèse include Wolfgang Rihm , John Palmer and Frank Zappa .

Musical influences

In his early, formative years, Varèse mainly influenced music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. During his later career he conducted several choirs devoted to this repertoire. He was also influenced by composers such as Alexander Scriabin , Erik Satie , Claude Debussy , Hector Berlioz and Richard Strauss . His piece Arcana also contains clear reminiscences of Stravinski's early works Petrushka and Le sacre du printemps .


  • Un grand sommeil noir based on a poem by Paul Verlaine for soprano and piano (1906)
  • Amériques for large orchestra (1921, revised 1927)
  • Offrandes based on texts by Vicente Huidobro (Part I: Chanson de là-haut ) and José Juan Tablada (Part II: La croix du sud ) for soprano and chamber orchestra (1921)
  • Hyperprism for 9 wind instruments and 7 percussion instruments (1923)
  • Octandre for seven wind instruments and double bass (1923)
  • Intégrales for 11 wind instruments and 4 percussion instruments (1925)
  • Arcana for large orchestra (1927, revised 1960)
  • Ionization for 41 percussion instruments and two sirens (1931)
  • The Great Noon (unfinished; 1932)
  • Ecuatorial based on texts from the book Popol Vuh der Maya for bass or monophonic choir, 8 brass instruments, piano , organ , two theremin or Ondes Martenot and 6 percussion instruments (1934)
  • Density 21.5 for flute solo (1936)
  • Espace for mixed choir and orchestra (unfinished, approx. 1929–1947)
  • Tuning up for orchestra (sketched in 1946; completed by Chou Wen-Chung 1996)
  • Etude pour Espace for choir, two pianos and percussion instruments (not published; 1947)
  • Dance for Burgess for chamber orchestra (not published; 1949)
  • Trinum for orchestra or electronic sounds (unfinished; 1950–1954)
  • Déserts for wind instruments, piano, percussion instruments and tape (1954)
  • La procession de Vergès . Tape composition for a film by Thomas Bouchard Around and about Joan Miró (1955)
  • Poème électronique for tape (electronic composition for Le Corbusier's pavilion for the Philips company at the world exhibition in Brussels 1958)
  • Nocturnal based on the novel The House of the Incest by Anaïs Nin for singer and chamber orchestra (preliminary version, 1961)
  • Nuit (or Nocturnal II ) based on a poem by Henri Michaux for soprano, wind instruments, double bass and percussion (unfinished)

Almost all works from the early phase before the move to the USA in 1915 are considered to have been destroyed or lost by the composer, including:

  • Trois pièces pour orchester . Three orchestral pieces (1905)
  • Chansons avec orchester . Orchestra songs (1905)
  • Le fils des étoiles . Opera (1905)
  • Poème des Brumes for orchestra (1905)
  • Chanson des jeunes hommes for orchestra (1905)
  • Prelude à la fin d'un jour . Symphony for large orchestra, inspired by a poem by Léon Deubel (1905)
  • Rhapsody novels for orchestra (1906)
  • Apothéose de l'océan for large orchestra (1906)
  • Le délire de Clytemnestre . Tragic symphony based on a text by Ricciotto Canudo (1907)
  • Bourgogne (German Burgundy ). Symphonic poem for large orchestra (1908)
  • Gargantua . Symphonic poem for large orchestra (unfinished; 1909)
  • More light for orchestra (1911)
  • Les cycles du nord for orchestra (1912)
  • Oedipus and the Sphinx , opera based on Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1908–1914)


  • Jonathan W. Bernard: The Music of Edgard Varèse . Yale University Press, New Haven (Connecticut) 1987, ISBN 0-300-03515-2 .
  • Marc Bredel: Edgar Varèse . Edition Mazarine, Paris 1984, ISBN 2-86374-139-X .
  • Osvaldo Budón: The Liberation of Sound in the Río de la Plata: Edgard Varèse's Influence on New Music in Argentina . In: Daniela Fugellie, Ulrike Mühlschlegel , Matthias Pasdzierny, Christina Richter-Ibánez (eds.): Trayectorias - music between Latin America and Europe 1945–1970 / Trayectorias - música entre América Latina y Europa 1945–1970 . Ibero-American Institute of Prussian Cultural Heritage, Berlin 2019, ISBN 978-3-935656-75-7 , pp. 177-183.
  • Anne Jostkleigrewe: "The ear of imagination". The aesthetics of sound in Edgard Varèse's vocal compositions. Pfau, Saarbrücken 2008, ISBN 978-3-89727-395-5 (also: Lüneburg, University, dissertation, 2008).
  • Heinz-Klaus Metzger , Rainer Riehn (eds.): Edgard Varèse. Looking back at the future (= music concepts. Vol. 6). 2nd, expanded edition. Edition Text + Criticism, Munich 1983, ISBN 3-88377-150-3 .
  • Felix Meyer, Heidy Zimmermann (eds.): Edgard Varèse. Composer sound researcher visionary. Schott, Mainz et al. 2006, ISBN 3-7957-0455-3 .
  • Helga de la Motte-Haber : The music of Edgard Varèse. Studies of his works created after 1918. Wolke-Verlag, Hofheim 1993, ISBN 3-923997-56-6 .
  • Dieter A. Nanz: Edgard Varèse. The orchestral works. Lukas-Verlag, Berlin 2003, ISBN 3-931836-90-8 .
  • Louise Varèse: Varèse. A Looking-Glass Diary. Volume 1: 1883-1928. Norton Publishing Co., New York NY 1972, ISBN 0-393-07461-7 (biography written by Varese's second wife).
  • Grete Wehmeyer : Edgard Varèse. Drawings by L. Alcopley. Bosse Verlag, Regensburg 1977, ISBN 3-7649-2134-X .

Recordings (selection)

Individual evidence

  1. Malcolm MacDonald: Varèse. Astronomer in sound. Reprinted edition. Kahn & Averill, London 2006, ISBN 1-871082-79-X , pp. 201-204.
  2. Edgard Varèse. American composer. In: Encyclopædia Britannica . December 18, 2018 .;
  3. ^ Members: Edgard Varese. American Academy of Arts and Letters, accessed May 1, 2019 .
  4. ^ Frank Zappa : Edgard Varese: The Idol of My Youth. ( Memento of September 30, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) In: Stereo Review. June 1971, ISSN  0039-1220 , pp. 61-62
  5. MacDonald, pp. 200-205.
  6. No more published.

Web links

Commons : Edgar Varèse  - Collection of images, videos and audio files