On July 19 in Alice Tully Hall the International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by Steven Schick, will perform a program that includes Pome ê_lectronique, consisting of recorded materials, transformed piano chords and bells, and filtered recordings of choruses and soloists. On July 20, in Avery Fisher Hall, the New York Philharmonic under its Music Director Alan Gilbert will offer Varse's orchestral works. An accomplished roster of guest artists will feature soprano Anu Komsi, bass baritone Alan Held, So Percussion, Musica Sacra, and the Oratorio Society Chorus under Kent Tritle.
Composer/conductor Pierre Boulez wrote that he loved Varse because he was "marginal" and "solitaire," possessing the rarity of a "diamante unique." Others agreed: in Paris the composer knew Debussy and Romain Rolland; in Berlin, Busoni and Richard Strauss; in the United States, the Whitneys and Leopold Stokowski. Varse left Europe in 1915, long before Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who fled only when confronted with the rise of Nazism.
Eager to escape the shackles of all European tradition, Varse said he hated Mozart, refused to read Proust, and thought Pierrot Lunaire a "trashy" poem. What he wanted above everything else was far more radical than a different method of organizing old sounds. He felt contempt for Stravinsky's regression into old forms, and totally apart from Schoenberg, saying "Schoenberg liberated music from tonality but it was as though, frightened by so much freedom, he retreated to the refuge of system. Beware the codification of systems and, in spite of all revolutionary slogans, their latent academicism."
A handsome and charming man who liked to cook and drink with friends, Varse nevertheless led a life pervaded by a dark theme. Fernard Ouellette, Varse's biographer, wrote that his relentless rebellious attitude towards all figures in authority stemmed from his bitterness for his father, who had locked their piano, covered it with a shroud, and threw away the key. Common sense suggests that this hatred served Varse's ferocious attacks on the art of the past, and that his terror of confinement (he could not bear an enclosed elevator) played a significant role in his quest for "liberating sound," for "instruments freed from the tempered system," and for the seemingly boundless space his sounds occupy.
Soon after arriving in New York, Varse met Louise Norton, an American translator of French literature including Saint-John Perse, Stendhal, Rimbaud, Simenon, and others. The two were frequent guests on Stokowski's houseboat, and the conductor proved a useful friend: he led The Philadelphia Orchestra in performances of Int_grales in 1925 and Am_riques in 1926. This decade was Varse's most fruitful. In New York he set up three different performing groups devoted exclusively to new music, and composed such works as Offrandes, Hyperprism, Octandre, and Int_grales: all written for conventional instruments but in a way intended to convey what we today think of as electronic sound.
In the 1930s socialist realism all but annihilated advanced music, and the composers who joined the Federal Works Progress Administration in the arts: with the accompanying exposure through the booming new media of radio and recordings: promoted far more accessible music. Louise Varse later said that during this period Edgard became so depressed, he frequently spoke of suicide. Before World War II Varse had neither the technology he needed nor the audiences he wanted. But what he had accomplished with acoustical instruments in the 1920s led to the recordings of unpitched sounds on tape and, ultimately, to electronic music. Creating increasingly dense scores, Varse produced a non-melodic fabric that depended on rhythm and sonority.
After the war, when advanced music came back into vogue and the tape recorder appeared in the United States, Varse composed D_serts, first presented in 1954, in which the transition between the taped sounds and the music produced by conventional instruments was so smooth that it could barely be detected. Then came Pome ê_lectronique for the Brussels World's Fair of 1958, at which the Phillips Pavilion testified to the erosion of all the old rules. Le Corbusier, the pavilion's designer, asked for Varse to produce the sound; the composer chose several greatly contrasting auditory "images," all heard simultaneously over 480 seconds.
Even before Varse died in 1965, the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, its newly appointed Music Director, performed Varse. Other Philharmonic Music Directors have since taken up the challenge: Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel. Alan Gilbert, at the end of his first Philharmonic season, observed: "I find Varse's use of sound and rhythm, his drive, to be really thrilling: it never fails to sweep an audience along. There's a lot of emotion and feeling in the thrust of the music. You can get a visceral, emotional, response to wonderfully conceived rhythms, which Varse definitely has in his music. It can go right into your psyche."