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 for their possible tie-up with music. And here we go still deeper into romanticism, into science as a dream—a science-fiction dream, in fact, since none of the devices really existed (or existed yet, a dreamer would have said).
In any case, by World War I Edgard Varèse was in possession of what he needed to become the kind of composer he was forever afterward to be, a technically original, an advanced (or advancing) composer whom nothing could stop, not even a world-wide war with its unavoidable restrictions. He was married, too, had a child, and was subject to mobilization by the French army. Nevertheless he managed to burn his bridges (along with most of his musical production, caught in a Berlin fire). By the end of 1915 he had been freed from his military servitudes (through illness), had left the wife and child with her relatives, and arrived (the third and last of his major displacements) in New York. He had ninety dollars and he knew Karl Muck, still conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, later to be interned as a German spy.
For Varèse America was not a musical influence; it was merely the place where his musical maturity occurred. Revved up by Debussy and Busoni (after a sound conservatoire training and a richly international background), at thirty-three he was ready to take off. Another year of war-bound Europe and he might have gone down—died of consumption, of despair, got killed. From another place than New York he could never have taken off; there was no other field for so large a craft—not in Mexico surely, nor in Spain, nor South America. But from here take off he did, first as a conductor (for America just the right beginning), then as an organizer of far-out concerts (all modernism was considered to be far-out), finally three years later as a composer (with a vast orchestral tribute to his new country entitled, in the plural to symbolize all discovery, Amériques).
His earlier music had borne contemplative or literary titles—Rhapsodie romane, Gargantua, Le Prélude à la fin d’un jour. From here on they leaned toward hope, toward science and mathematics, only occasionally toward dreams of adventure or imaginary travel. His second American work, Offrandes, though dedicated to his American wife Louise Norton and to his French partner of the International Composers’ Guild, Carlos Salzedo, bears for its two parts the titles Chanson de là-haut and La Croix du Sud. For the future there were to be Hyperprism, Octandre, Intégrales, Arcana, Ionisation, Ecuatorial, Espace, Density 21.5, Déserts, and Le Poème électronique. The only throwbacks toward literature are La Procession de Vergès (from a film about Joán Miró), Nocturnal, and Night (the latter two being settings of psychological horror texts out of Anaïs Nin.
Varèse’s music, constructed out of sound-blocks not unlike crystals in their vast and precise variety, in their constant overlappings are suggestive of the intersecting polyhedrons that are the forms of modern architecture. His bibliography, though rich in reviews, articles, and chapters, contains, I believe, only two full books. There are a life and works by Fernand Ouellette (published in both French and English) and the recent Varèse: A Looking-Glass Diary by his widow. Neither is a critical study; I doubt whether at this time an examination in depth of Varèse’s work is possible. Its resistance to analysis has over a fifty-year period been so stubborn that that fact alone leads one to suspect in the music a comparable power of resisting erosion. Indeed, after Debussy, Varèse may well be the century’s other great voice. We can recognize in Stravinsky and in the Schoenberg trinity (which includes Webern and Berg) a well-deserved popularity and undoubted pedagogical interest. But there is very little mystery left in any of them, or characteristics still needing to be explained, though there does remain of course much juice to be squeezed out for the market.
Ouellette’s book is a valued biography, regarding the works fully descriptive, and completed by all the lists and calendars one needs for reference. The other, its no less valuable twin, tells the same stories (as well as many more) from a wife’s-eye view. One needs both for looking up almost anything about Varèse. The latter, based on diaries covering a half-century of life together and brought into vigor through a poet’s power to relive the past, is a delight where the earlier book is mainly informative. Ouellette gives relatively deadpan accounts of the five-year Paris stay between 1928 and 1933 and of the cold shoulder there received from Cocteau, Milhaud, Auric, Honegger, Poulenc, and the salons (not to mention their kingpin Stravinsky), in spite of high praise from the best French critics. One might have enjoyed a bit more malice, but malice is not his tone; and Mrs. Varèse’s volume, announced as one of two, stops short of the 1928 return to Paris and the composer’s firm rebuff there by the musical power-set.
Both being involved with the earlier years, we come off better regarding the five-year war between Varèse’s concert society in New York, the International Composers’ Guild, and the League of Composers. The latter group offered in 1922 energies and organizational help that were most welcome. By fall, when Varèse returned from a summer trip, he found that his valued Guild had been completely taken over—programs, direction, everything. Only a lawyer’s intervention got the invaders out. After that the two societies were enemies. The Guild survived till 1927, the League effectively till 1947, and though in principle friendly toward all contemporary music, without ever playing anything by Varèse.
These once bitter animosities have been covert gossip in New York for years, but somehow the League has largely avoided their exposure. Now that Mrs. Varèse has let the lid off there may be “talk,” though so far I have heard none. Surviving League members are still silent. And fifty years later, who cares? Historians only, perhaps. All the same, without a full story of the League’s quarter-century power play it will not be easy to reshuffle the reputations made and unmade during the 1920s and 1930s into an order that today’s young, either here or in Europe, are likely to accept.
Iannis Xenakis, French composer of Greek forebears, was in his early years a product of the engineering schools. He also became an architect and was during that master’s last years assistant to the Swiss Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, known as Le Corbusier. In music he was the pupil of Olivier Messiaen and the conductor Hermann Scherchen, in mathematics of a Professor G. Th. (so abbreviated in the text) Guilbaud. He is at present a professor of music at Indiana University, where he directs for three separated months each year a Center for Mathematical and Automated Music. His preoccupation with engineering-music relates him to Varèse, though he was never a pupil. Actually he was at one point a patron of Varèse, whose work he admires, Xenakis having been responsible for the commissioning of Varèse to create an electronic composition to be played in the pavilion erected at the Brussels Fair of 1957 by the Philips Electrical Company.
Le Poème électronique would seem to have appeared to Le Corbusier in a dream, along with the idea of putting his pavilion on show twice an hour with a montage of cinema shots on the ceiling accompanied by original electronic music. And just as he had farmed out the building’s design to Xenakis, the latter appointed Varèse, with Le Corbusier’s consent, to create the music. Le Corbusier seems to have taken some part in the choice of film-shots. Otherwise he was mostly absent, though he did do battle with the Philips Company over the hiring of Varèse and over his right to keep him hired when the whole plan, building and music, turned out to be more modernistic than the company esteemed advantageous.