Edgard Varese

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Edgard Varèse
Edgard Varese.gif
Background information
Birth name Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse
Born December 22 1883
Origin Paris, France
Died November 6, 1965
Occupation(s) Composer

Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965) was a French-born composer.

Varèse's music features an emphasis on timbre and rhythm. He was the inventor of the term "organized sound," a phrase meaning that certain timbres and rhythms can be grouped together, sublimating into a whole new definition of sound. His use of new instruments and electronic resources led to his being known as the "Father of Electronic Music" while Henry Miller described him as "The stratospheric Colossus of Sound." He is also known for having re-introduced the "Idee-fixe," a term first introduced by the French composer Hector Berlioz.

Early life

Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse was born on December 22, 1883, in Paris, but after only a few weeks was sent to be raised by his great-uncle's family in the small town of Villars, in Burgundy. There, he developed an intense attachment to his grandfather, Claude Cortot, something that would outshine anything he would ever feel for his own parents. In fact, from his earliest years his relationship with his father Henri was extremely antagonistic, developing into what could fairly be called a firm and life-long hatred. Reclaimed by his parents in the late 1880s, in 1893, young Edgard was forced to relocate with them to Turin, Italy. It was here that he had his first real musical lessons, with the long-time director of Turin's conservatory, Giovanni Bolzoni. Never comfortable with Italy, and given his oppressive home-life, a physical altercation with his father forced the situation and Varèse left home for Paris, in 1903.

From 1904, he was a student at the Schola Cantorum (founded by pupils of César Franck); afterwards he went to study composition with Charles Widor at the Paris Conservatoire. His first performed orchestral work was Rhapsodie romane, in the year of 1906, having been inspired by the Romanesque architecture of St. Philibert. He moved to Berlin, in 1907, and in the same year married the actress Suzanne Bing; they had one child. They divorced in 1913.

During these years, Varèse became acquainted with Satie, Debussy, and Busoni, the last two being particular influences on him at the time. The first performance of his Bourgogne in Berlin, in 1910, caused a scandal. After being invalided out of the French Army during World War I, he moved to the United States in 1915. In 1917, Varese made his debut in America, conducting a piece by Berlioz.

Early years in the United States

He spent the first few years in the United States meeting important contributors to American music, promoting his vision of new electronic art music instruments, conducting orchestras, and founding the New Symphony Orchestra. It was also about this time that Varèse began work on his first composition in the United States, Amériques, which was finished in 1921. It was at the completion of this work that Varèse, along with Carlos Salzedo, founded the International Composers' Guild, dedicated to the performances of new compositions of both American and European composers, for which he composed many of his pieces for orchestral instruments and voices. Specifically, during the first half of the 1920s, he composed Offrandes, Hyperprism, Octandre, and Intégrales.

He took American citizenship in 1926.

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 his most famous non-electronic piece, entitled, Ionisation, the first 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 1933, while Varèse was 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, completed in 1934, contained parts for fingerboard theremin cellos, and Varèse, anticipating the successful receipt of one of his grants, eagerly returned to the United States to finally realize his electronic music.

Back in the United States

Varèse wrote his Ecuatorial for two fingerboard Theremins, bass singer, winds and percussion in the early 1930s. It was premiered on April 15 1934, under the baton of Nicolas Slonimsky. Then Varèse left New York City, where he had lived since 1915, and moved to Santa Fe, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 1936 he wrote Density 21.5. By the time Varèse returned in late 1938, Leon Theremin had returned to Russia. This devastated Varèse, who had hoped to work with Theremin on a refinement of his instrument. Varèse had 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 of New Mexico has an RCA theremin, which may be the same instrument.

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/relabeled the part for Ondes Martenot. This new version was premiered in 1961.

International recognition

Varèse gained international recognition by the early 1950s, when he came to dialogue with a new generation of composers, such as Boulez and Dallapiccola. He returned to France to finalize the tape sections of Déserts. Pierre Schaeffer helped him 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 Phillips 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.

He composed "Poeme Electronique" for use at the 1958 Worlds Fair. Using 400 speakers separated throughout a series of rooms, Varese created a sound and space installation geared towards experiencing sound as one 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, and in 1963, he received the premier Koussevitzky International Recording Award.


Varese's forays into the realm of electronic music exhibited a strong advocacy of the connection between music and science, was a pioneer in this regard. Varese, like many avant-garde composers of the era, suggested that the tonal and rhythmic production of music should reflect and imitate scientific principles, and he had a vision of new electronic music instruments which would create more varied and broader sounds than traditional instruments.

Varese possessed a radical, "ultra-modern" approach to sound and music, once stating, "I became a sort of diabolic Parsifal, searching not for the Holy Grail but the bomb that would make the musical world explode and thereby let in all sounds, sounds which up to now—and even today—have been called noises." This concept is not unlike that of American composer George Antheil. It is a serious departure from the late Romantic ideal of music as an expression of one's innermost feelings and emotions. Rather than attempting to evoke emotions through music, Varese was more concerned with the evocation of sensations through his unique and visceral use of instrumentation.

Edgard Varese challenged the musical world to accept electronic music, not only for its new sounds but for musical philosophy in general. Varese advocated opening one's mind to a limitless media of sound through a synthesizer to be reproduced by a speaker. this was truly a liberation of sound and production. Varèse's best known student is the Chinese-born composer Chou Wen-chung (b. 1923), who met Varèse in 1949, and assisted him in his later years. He became the executor of Varèse's estate following the composer's death and edited and completed a number of Varèse's works. He is professor emeritus of composition at Columbia University.

Some of Edgard Varèse's later works make use of the "Idée Fixe," a fixed theme, repeated certain times in a work. The "Idée Fixe" is generally not transposed, differentiating it from the leitmotiv, used by Richard Wagner.


  • Un grand sommeil noir (1906)
  • Amériques (1918-21)
  • Offrandes (1921)
  • Hyperprism (1922-23)
  • Octandre (1923)
  • Intégrales (1924-25)
  • Arcana (1925-27)
  • Ionisation (1929-31)
  • Ecuatorial (1932-34)
  • Density 21.5 (1936)
  • Tuning Up (1947)
  • Dance for Burgess (1949)
  • Déserts (1950-54)
  • Poème électronique (1957-58)
  • Nocturnal (1961)


  • One of Varèse's biggest fans was the American guitarist and composer Frank Zappa, who, upon hearing a copy of The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Vol. 1, which included Intégrales, Density 21.5, Ionisation, and Octandre, became obsessed with the composer's music. On his 15th birthday, December 21, 1955, Zappa's mother, Rosemarie, allowed him a call to Varèse as a present. At the time Varèse was in Brussels, Belgium, so Zappa spoke to Varèse's wife Louise instead. Eventually Zappa and Varèse spoke on the phone, and they discussed the possibility of meeting each other, although this meeting never took place. Zappa also received a letter from Varèse. Varèse's spirit of experimentation and redefining the bounds of what was possible in music lived on in Zappa's long and prolific career.[1]
  • Another admirer was the rock/jazz group Chicago, whose Pianist/keyboardist Robert Lamm credited Varèse with inspiring him to write many number one hits. In tribute, one of Lamm's songs was called "A Hit By Varèse."
  • The record label Varèse Sarabande Records is named after the composer.
  • Visitors to Varèse's childhood village of La Villars, deep in the Burgundian countryside, sometimes meet locals who remember him. If they call at the actual house they are shown up to Varèse's own bedroom. From the window they instantly gain an insight into the young Varèse's musical influences: The rural scene stretches to the horizon but immediately beneath the window is the railway line and just beyond that the busy waterway with its chugging cargo boats.
  • Louise Varèse, American-born wife of the composer, was a celebrated translator of French poetry whose versions of the work of Arthur Rimbaud for James Laughlin's New Directions imprint were particularly influential.


  1. Greg Russo, Cosmik Debris: The Collected History and Improvisations of Frank Zappa (New York: Antique Trader Publications, Crossfire Publications, Chris Sansom, 1998), pp. 9-11.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bernard, Jonathan W. The Music of Edgard Varèse. Yale University Press, 1987. ISBN 0300035152
  • Clayson, Alan. Edgard Varese. London: Sanctuary, 2002. ASIN B000GT9ND0
  • Meyer, Felix, Heidy Zimmermann, Paul Stiftung, Jean Tinguely Basel. Edgard Varese: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2006. ISBN 1843832119
  • Ouellette, Fernand. Edgard Varèse. Calder and Boyars, 1973. ISBN 074502081
  • Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise, Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. ISBN 978-0374249397
  • Schwartz, Elliott and Barney Childs. Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967.

External links

All links retrieved September 25, 2017.


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