Childhood & Early Life
Edgard Varese was born in Paris to Henri Varese and Blanche-Marie Cortot on 22 December 1883. Due to certain domestic difficulties, his parents sent him to live with his maternal relatives in a small town in the Burgundy region of France. There he became very close to his grandfather, Claude Cortot. As a child he never bonded with his parents and had a hostile relationship with them.
When he was ten, his parents reclaimed him and relocated to Italy. There he had his first musical lessons and soon composed his first opera. However, his father, an engineer himself, didn’t approve of Edgard’s interest in music. He sent the boy to the Polytechnic University of Turin to earn a degree in engineering.
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Edgard Varese chose not to pursue engineering as a career and ventured into music. He moved to Berlin in 1907 where he met the renowned Richard Strauss and Ferruccio Busoni and was deeply influenced by them. He was also influenced by others like Roman Rolland and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who guided as well as supported him at the same time.
The first performance of his symphonic poem ‘Bourgogne’ was held on 5 January 1911. He wrote several other compositions during this time, which sadly, were destroyed in a fire.
After being invalided out of the French army shortly after the First World War broke out, Edgard Varese moved to the US. A few years after his arrival, he conducted ‘The Grande Messe des Morts.
Soon he started working on his first composition ‘Ameriques’, which was finished in 1921, and premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1926. This was followed by ‘Offrandes’, ‘Octandre’, ‘Arcana’ and others. He became well-known for his unconventional use of instruments as well as for his new concept of music.
He founded the International Composers’ Guild in 1921, and dedicated it to the performances of new compositions of both American and European composers. During his visit to Berlin in 1922, he founded a similar German organization, with Feruccio Busoni.
Varese returned to Paris in 1928, to make some alterations in his work ‘Ameriques.’ Two years later, he composed ‘Ionisation’ which became one of the first concert hall compositions featuring solely percussion instruments. It also explored the possibility of new sounds as well as methods in music.
He was often criticized for his anti-Semitic and racist views. When he was asked about including jazz in his orchestra, he expressed disinterest in it, and said that not only was it not American, but it was something invented by the Negros, and exploited by the Jews.
After several other successful compositions like ‘Ecuatorial’ which was created for instruments like two fingerboard theremin, bass, winds and percussion, he went back to the United States in 1934.
Two years later, he wrote ‘Density 21.5’, which was composed at the request of George Barrere, for the premiere of his platinum flute.
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Even though Varese achieved success and gained quite a lot of fame in his lifetime, some of his works were left unfinished. He had been working on many projects, which he felt would change his life and destiny. However, some of these works were destroyed forever, and he was never able to complete them.
One of them was a stage work, which was originally titled ‘The One-All-Alone’, and was based on North American Indian legends. Though the work would probably have turned out to be an instant success, it never saw the light. Another choral symphony titled ‘Espace’ was expected to be sung by choirs at Paris. However, it was left unperformed because of some mistakes he had made himself.
’Ameriques’ can undoubtedly be regarded as one of the most important works in Edgard Varese’s career. It was written between 1918 and 1921, and premiered in 1926. This work lasts twenty-three minutes, and although it starts quietly, it has full orchestral involvement throughout. After a need for a revision was felt, the work was revised and the revised version was premiered on 30 May 1929, at the Maison Gaveau in Paris.
Another one of Varese’s well-known works was ’Octandre’ which he wrote for a small orchestra in 1923. It was published by J. Curven and Sons in 1924. Much later, a newer edited version was released by Varese’s student, Chou Wen-chung.
’Poeme electronique’ was written by Edgard Varese for the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World Fair. The piece which lasts for eight minutes was performed using electronic music.
Density 21.5’ by Edgard Varese was a piece of music that was written for solo flute. It was composed at the request of George Barrere for the premiere of his platinum flute. Regarded as one of his best original works, he used this piece to explore new areas of space and time, while using registral contrasts in order to affect polyphonic continuity.
Personal Life & Legacy
Edgard Varese married the actress Suzanne Bing in 1907 and had a daughter with her. Their marriage didn’t last long and they divorced in 1913.
Later, in the US, he met Louise McCutcheon whom he eventually married.
He passed away on 6 November 1965 in New York.
Not only he influenced several musicians, but he also had several students including Colin McPhee and James Tenney. The best known among them was the Chinese-born Chou Wen-chung who edited and completed many of his unfinished works following his death.