Mappa.Mundi Magazine
Bob Halliday reviews books, music and film for Mappa.Mundi Magazine. A resident of Bangkok, Thailand and a long-time writer for The Bangkok Post. Bob is best known on the Internet for his site devoted to Thai food, the Aw Taw Kaw Market.

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Varèse Links

Further reading:

» Edgard Varèse on '120 years of electronic music'.

» A biography of Edgard Varèse on the UBL.

» Edgard Varese: The Idol of My Youth by Frank Zappa.

» Poeme electronique in RealAudio.

» A quiz to test your Varèse IQ (use Netscape).

Early Electronic Instruments

Find out more:

» The IEEE on the Ondes-Martenot.

» Take a look at the Ondes-Martenot.

» Robert Moog's Big Briar is actively improving and producing theremins.

» The Theremin on Esoterica.

» Click here to go to for The Art of the Theremin by Clara Rockmore the instrument's first and foremost master.

By Bob Halliday, More Reviews »

Varèse in 1964
Composer and
electronic music pioneer
Edgard Varèse in 1964

Edgard Varèse: Complete Works

     Edgard Varèse: Complete Works (two CDs), Decca 460 208-2 or, in USA, London 460 208-2

     Until quite recently, even listeners who knew the name of the visionary French/American composer Edgard Varèse had to do some searching if they wanted to hear his music played well. Concert performances were extremely rare, and recordings by no means plentiful.

     This was a perplexing situation, considering the expressive force of his music and the pervasiveness of its influence. Frank Zappa, a fervent Varèse admirer, carried some of his ideas into his own concert music, where they were heard by listeners who had followed Zappa's development from its beginnings in avant-garde rock. The sound of a Varèse instrumental ensemble, with dense, dissonant harmonies in the high woodwinds sustained at high energy above a turbulent, often explosive orchestral texture, has found as firm a place in the musical vocabulary as the iridescent Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel.

     Although Varèse was something of a musical iconoclast even during his student days in Paris, it wasn’t until after his arrival in New York in 1916 at age 33 that his radical mature style took shape, and this happened very quickly. Almost all of his previous compositions were destroyed in a Berlin warehouse fire (one survivor, the song, Un grand sommeil noir, included in this set, indicates that they were in a Late Romantic style), but by then he had disowned them and started on an entirely new path. By 1918 he was already working on Amériques, a 25-minute eruption scored for a huge orchestra that included sirens, music that sounded like nothing ever heard before.

The CD's (2 discs)

CD 1: Tuning Up, Amériques (original version), Arcana, Nocturnal, Poème électronique, Un grand sommeil noir (orchestral version). Sarah Leonard (soprano, in Nocturnal), Mireille Delunsch (soprano, in Sommeil), Men of the Prague Philharmonic Choir (in Nocturnal), Royal Concertgegouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly (except for the electronic Poème)

CD 2: Un grand sommeil noir (original version), Offrandes; Hyperprism, Octandre, Intégrales, Ecuatorial, Ionisation, Density 21.5, Déserts, Dance for Burgess. Jacques Zoon (flute, in Density 21.5), ASKO Ensemble conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

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Edgard Varèse:
Complete Works

     Even today, Varèse’s remains one of the most original of orchestral styles. It is hard to imagine what the pieces he wrote during the 1920s - the atonal, violently percussive Hyperprism (1922-23) for chamber orchestra, for example, or Arcana for large orchestra - must have sounded like to their original audiences. Some idea can be had from Oscar Thompson’s review in Musical America following the 1927 premiere of Arcana by Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra: “There was no mercy in its disharmony, no pity in its succession of screaming, clashing, clangorous discords […] A series of gunpowder explosions might similarly overawe the ear… ”

     But, extreme as these pieces were, they were still only an approximation of the sounds that Varèse wanted to work with. After some further extensions like the famous Ionisation (1931), scored for an ensemble of 13 percussionists playing mostly unpitched instruments and two sirens, and Ecuatorial (1934), whose scoring includes two of the early electronic instruments called ondes-martenots, he composed a solo flute piece, Density 21.5, to fulfill a commission and then found himself unable to complete anything else, abandoning attempt after attempt to create the expressive language of “organized sound”, that he imagined.

     It wasn’t until almost two decades later, in 1954, that a new composition by Varèse was heard, but by then he had found what he was looking for. Interspersed into the 25-minute-long Déserts, scored for a percussion- and brass-intensive chamber orchestra are three segments of tape music, or musique concrete, in which Varèse adapts and shapes the recorded sounds of musical instruments, factory machinery, and sonic material from other sources to create an expressive flow that moves in ways remarkably similar to his earlier instrumental music. One of the great technical triumphs of Déserts is the seamlessness with which the orchestral and taped segments connect with each other. Varèse’s next composition after Déserts, Poème Eléctronique, written for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, was created completely on tape.

     Little of this music was adequately represented on compact disc until 1990, when Sony Classical issued a remastered version of seven works performed by Pierre Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic and his own Ensemble InterContemporaine (an earlier Japanese Sony disc that included the chamber orchestra works, released in 1984, had had very limited distribution). The performances were impressive, but the recorded sound of the New York Philharmonic accounts of Amériques and Arcana didn’t do full justice to the complicated orchestral textures of those huge pieces. A few other CDs, most significantly a program on the Nonesuch label of chamber orchestra pieces played by the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble under Arthur Weisberg, were also cherished by those who knew them.

     During the musically more adventurous 1960s, much of Varèse’s output was available on LP in excellent performances. At the beginning of that decade Robert Craft, who taught an entire generation how to listen to challenging modern music through his pioneering recordings, introduced this music to many listeners with an LP that collected most of the early chamber orchestra pieces and concluded with the then-new Poème électronique. It was followed by a second disc that astounded its listeners with premiere recordings of Déserts and Arcana. An even better, and so far unequaled, performance of Arcana by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Jean Martinon was released in 1967 by RCA Victor, and a performance tradition for this music, complemented by an appreciative audience, seemed to be emerging.

     But with the collapse of the musical avant-garde during the 1970s the music of Varèse, who had influenced many post-World War II experimental composers, came under a cloud. Recordings disappeared from catalogues, and new ones were few and far between. The Neo-Romantic, Minimalist, and New Age styles that engaged so many composers and listeners were very far from the esthetic of Varèse.

     Finally, in the early 1990s, the inevitable reversal began. The re-release on compact disc of the Boulez recordings drew new attention to Varèse’s music, and further re-releases followed, including remastered CDs of Maurice Abravanel’s 1960s premiere recordings of Amériques and Nocturnal and even the original Robert Craft disc, reissued with the original Miro cover art by One-Way Records.

     Most encouraging of all were a series of new recordings of major Varèse works by front-rank conductors and orchestras. In 1994 Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra contributed a fine account of Arcana, and in the same year the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnanyi recorded Amériques as part of a CD program that also included Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony.

     The new wave of Varèse recordings has culminated in this 1998 two-CD set of his complete works, superbly performed by Riccardo Chailly conducting two first-class ensembles who understand the music well. The version of Arcana included is the same one that appeared on the 1994 disc, but everything else is new.

     “Complete” is a difficult word to use when talking about Varèse’s output. Between 1936 and 1954 he began and abandoned a number of pieces that he later used as raw material for other works. Later in life he composed music to accompany films made by fellow artists, and that work is not represented here. But there is music in this Chailly set that has never been recorded before, and it will probably be new even to devoted admirers of the composer. All of it was made available through the assistance of Professor Chou Wen-chung, a composer who was a close friend and colleague of Varèse’s, and remains the leading authority on his music.

     Tuning Up and Dance for Burgess, both recorded here for the first time, are fragments that have been reconstructed and edited by Prof. Chou. The former was composed in 1947 in response to a request by producer Boris Moros for his movie, Carnegie Hall. What Moros wanted was music that suggested the sound of an orchestra tuning up, but what Varèse came up with - a collage of orchestral sound suggesting his earlier music, complete with sirens, as well as material from an abandoned composition called Espace and, at the conclusion, an early version of the music that would form the ending of Déserts - didn’t fit the bill, and was rejected. Chou made the reconstruction heard here from two drafts, and it is not among the composer’s masterpieces.

     Dance for Burgess, for chamber orchestra, survives from another failed sojourn into the world of entertainment music. The actor Burgess Meredith, a friend of Varèse’s, was getting ready to act in and direct a musical called Happy as Larry. Meredith requested a short dance for the production, to be choreographed by Anna Sokolow, but the show folded almost immediately and Varèse seems to have forgotten about the music.

      Chou resurrects it here, and even in the vivid performance it receives from Chailly and the ASKO Ensemble, it’s hard to imagine who the composer had in mind as an audience for this crazy 1:48-minute scrap. No matter how well you know Varèse’s style, in which jazz is often lurking just under the surface, you’ll probably be caught off-guard by the outburst that begins at 00:28, a perky dance tune scored in the composer’s most strident brass-and-percussion manner. Once again, a trifle, but an appealing one.

     Far more substantial is the introduction here of Un grand sommeil noir, a Verlaine setting Varèse wrote in 1906 while he was still studying composition with Charles-Marie Widor at the Paris Conservatoire. Although the style is very much of its turn-of-the-century period, the writing for the voice is full of pre-echoes of Offrandes, a work for soprano and orchestra composed in 1921 in Varèse’s full-blown Modernist manner.

      It is performed here twice, first as the original 1906 version for voice and piano, then in Antony Beaumont’s new orchestration, commissioned by Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw. Beaumont’s appropriately dark realization, despite its percussion-heavy scoring, doesn’t violate the Romantic spirit of the original, but it is far more expansive. It clocks in at 4:08 as compared with 2:46 for the piano/voice version. But for at least one listener, the original is more responsive to the feeling of surrender that saturates the Verlaine text. Mireille Delunsch is a sensitive singer with a rich, creamy soprano voice which she uses skillfully to project the music’s sense of mystery.

     For most listeners, the major discovery among the pieces that receive their first recordings here is the original version of Amériques. In his note, Chou explains that, a year after the piece had received its 1926 premiere by Stokowski/Philadelphia, “Varèse prepared a revised version, with a reduction in its mammoth instrumentation, for the first European performance […] in 1929. Published editions of both versions in the 1920s […] were disastrously full of mistakes, most of which were left uncorrected for both concerts. In 1972 I completed a corrected edition of the revision […] Twenty-four years later, in the summer of 1996, I was persuaded by the Decca Record Company Limited to edit Varèse’s manuscript of the original version for performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Chailly and recording by Decca.”

     Although Chou refers to a reduction of the original orchestration, the impression made on this restored version, to ears accustomed to the 1927 revision, is of greater delicacy. Besides reducing the scoring, Varèse also did some trimming; Chailly takes 24:38 to play the piece, while von Dohnanyi, at roughly the same tempos, gets through it in 21:41 and the old Abravanel takes 22:19.

     The restored material includes passages of chamber music-like transparency. There is an extended section after about 14:00 that reveals a tender, reflective aspect of the composer’s artistic personality that rarely surfaces in the revision, or in any of Varèse’s other mature music.

     But most of the rest of this astonishing piece fully bears out Prof. Chou’s over-the-top description: […] “a towering tapestry from unimaginable sonic strands. Bursting colors, cascading sonorities, explosive dynamics, swirling rhythms, and thrusting motions coalesce into ever more intense eruptions […]”

     Perhaps von Dohnanyi/Cleveland (on Decca 443 172-2) bring a little more abandon to the final pages of the score, but Chailly is much more responsive to the music’s strong sense of wonder.

     Superficial similarities in the use of massive forces, dissonant textures, and driving rhythms have led some commentators to write that in his big orchestral pieces, Varèse was imitating the Stravinsky of Le sacre du printemps. Closer listening will reveal that the two were looking in almost opposite directions. Stravinsky was concerned with fertility, and with the tendency of the new to rend and destroy the old as it is being born. Varèse, on the other hand, was interested in something more abstract. He wrote that to him America symbolized “all discoveries, all adventures… the Unknown”, and that he was envisioning “new worlds”. The piece, he said, could just as well have been called “The Himalayas”.

     Arcana, Varèse’s other large orchestral piece, was written in 1925-27, after he had composed the series of chamber orchestra pieces that are still his most frequently-performed works. It is less florid, but even more dynamic than Amériques. Once again, the music looks outward for its inspiration: “One star exists, higher than all the rest, ” says a quote from the 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus that Varèse uses as the motto of the score.“ This is the apocalyptic star. The second star is that of the ascendant. The third is that of the elements - of these there are four, so that six stars are established. Besides these there is still another star, imagination, which begets a new star and a new heaven.”

     Without a doubt, the power of the creative imagination finds expression in this astonishing piece. Throughout its eighteen minutes, the composer seems to be reaching out for the electronic sounds that would finally become available to him a quarter of a century later. The music moves ahead with irresistible force, propelled by a recurrent lunging motif - Varèse called it an idée fixe - first heard in the opening bars. It moves ahead not by means of any developmental process, but in steps, progressing through a series of sonic blocks until it expends its energy in a sequence of climactic orchestral explosions.

     Arcana has been recorded at least nine times, and Chailly’s account is one of the most forceful and persuasive. Among recent versions, it communicates the music’s elemental power far more effectively than either Kent Nagano’s (Erato) or Leonard Slatkin’s (RCA Red Seal) does. But good as it is, it must yield pride of place to Martinon’s Chicago recording, which has just been re-released by RCA Red Seal in its new High Performance series (RCA Red Seal High Performance 09026-63315-2). Just as Mozart intended that his piano concertos should “flow like oil”, Varèse wanted his music to “explode into space”, and under Martinon’s direction, it does just that.

     Calling pieces like Intégrales and Octandre “chamber orchestra works ” can give a misleading impression. The sheer weight of their sound creates the illusion of much larger forces than those indicated in the score. Octandre is a wind octet, but its carefully constructed, dissonant chords, built up in strata, give an impression of monumentality that suggests orchestral dimensions.

     The ASKO Ensemble strike a balance of ruggedness of sound and precision of execution that serves this music very well. There should be a feeling of rawness of sound, and of great weight being shifted, in the playing of a piece like Intégrales or Hyperprism, and Chailly and his ASKO musicians realize it as successfully as any ensemble to have recorded this music to date.

     Jacques Zoon’s rendition of the solo flute piece, Density 21.5, commissioned by flautist George Berrère for performance on his platinum flute, sustains the lyrical flow of the music by resisting the temptation to showcase its unconventional features, like the key-tapping percussive effect that Varèse asks for at one point.

     For at least this listener, the all-percussion Ionisation still comes off best in the old Robert Craft recording. As recorded sound it can’t compare with this new version or any of half-a-dozen others recorded during the 1960s and 1970s. But Craft takes it at a quicker tempo than anyone else, and finds an element of joy in the music that no other conductor has brought across in a recording. This new ASKO Ensemble performance is convincing in its somewhat heavier view of the piece, however, and the recorded sound is terrific.

     Ecuatorial, a setting of a prayer from the Popol Vuh, is given a knockout performance here by an instrumental ensemble that includes four trumpets, four trombones, and six percussionists as well as two electronic instruments that combine the characteristics of ondes-martenots and theremins. But Chailly opts for Varèse’s original assignment of the vocal part to a baritone soloist. Kevin Deas sings with real intensity, but Boulez’s account, which uses a unison male chorus, draws out even more of the music’s power.

Birth of Electronica

Philips Pavilion at Brussels, 1958

Some of the tape recording equipment used in the debut performance of Poème électronique at the Philips Pavilion of the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. Photograph courtesy of Edgard Varese His Life and Works, a web site by Edward W. Gaittins III at Temple University.

     Finally, the electronic music. Chailly’s recording here of Déserts supercedes all others, even the outstanding version that the Group for Contemporary Music at Columbia University once recorded for the CRI label. The deserts of the title are, like the America of Amérique, not geographical but spiritual, and the ASKO Ensemble achieve exactly the feeling of emptiness, remoteness, loneliness, that this beautiful piece distils. The tape music intervals (provided by the Columbia University Computer Music Center) have been cleansed of the hiss that almost overwhelmed them in some earlier recordings, and the joints between the organized sound and the live music are more imperceptible than ever.

     The original tape for Poème électronique has also undergone some processing. According to a credit in the CD program notes, the version heard here is a “transfer from the original master by Konrad Boehmer and Kees Tazelar, Institute of Sonology, Royal Conservatory” in The Hague. But here there are details that differ significantly from what is heard in the old CBS recording on the Craft disc. The tape hiss is gone, but so is some of the resonance which seemed, in the earlier recording, to have an expressive purpose in the music. The clicks at 00:16, for example, had a halo of resonance around them in the old recording that is completely gone now, arguably to the detriment of the music. But was this new transfer closer to what was heard when Poème électronique was first played through the 400 speakers at Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion in Brussels?

     Perhaps this set of recordings will remind listeners that Varèse was one of the century’s greatest and most original creative artists. During recent decades, when more soothing and comfortable music than his has been in fashion, he has often been dismissed as a kind of laboratory scientist working with sounds instead of chemicals. But as these performances show, his range was as great as his ambition, and musicians will still be learning from his discoveries for a long time to come.

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