Varèse: A Looking-Glass Diary Volume I: 1883-1928
Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds: A Conversation with Elliott Carter
Edgard Varèse, born 1883, was on his Burgundian side, the mother’s, robust in fellowship and deeply loyal toward any object, place, person, or experience that had once touched him. Thus his grandfather Cortot with whom he spent his first ten years in a village near Mâcon remained throughout his life a memory idolized. But Varèse could also move with violence. And he could be ever so demanding, early in life for serious musical instruction, later for recognition of his music by all those whom it might concern.
From his half-Italian father, a prosperous engineer whom at ten he went to live with in Turin and whom he came to hate, he probably learned those wild and sudden angers that all his life he never could control. His mother had warned him at fourteen on her deathbed that his father was “an assassin.” At sixteen he ran away, to be brought back by the director of the Turin Conservatoire, who thereupon with the help of the local bishop negotiated a treaty whereby the boy was to drop out of technical high school, be given remunerative office work, and allowed music lessons. At twenty, on seeing his father raise a hand to his stepmother, he gave “the bastard” a thrashing and left home again, this time for Paris, and for good.
There for five years he led the poverty life, taking music training (the best) at the Conservatoire and the Schola Cantorum, knowing everybody far-out from young Picasso to Lenin, and acquiring the valued friendship of Debussy. The latter’s influence was definitive, for it was from him, at twenty-five, that Varèse took over and kept for life the view that harmony is a free element, as free as orchestration and rhythm. Imaginative advance in all three of these domains had been for a century, and indeed still is, the hallmark of romanticism in music.
In 1908 he went to Berlin and stayed seven years. There again he knew everybody. He also conducted choirs and orchestras, collaborated on theatrical productions with Max Reinhardt, had an orchestral work (called Bourgogne) played by a major orchestra, became famous as a musical enfant terrible, started an opera on a classical subject (Oedipus and the Sphinx), and for six years was close to Ferruccio Busoni, his second major influence.
The services of this friendship, which included introductions to all the leading professionals, were as much literary and philosophical as directly musical. For Busoni was full of speculations about acoustics, about tunings and pitch relations, and most important of all, about mobilizing the scientists for discovering new sources of sound that might be used in composition, especially for producing (possibly by electricity) micro-intervals more precise than anything tuned by hand.
No such instruments were available then, though Busoni was pleading with the manufacturers to make him a pianoforte for playing sixths of tones. But these speculations did reawaken in Varèse his early taste for engineering-oriented thoughts, long rejected as recalling the hated father but now acceptable …