Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary Composer Biographies

Edgar Varèse

Born: December 22, 1883 in Paris, France
Died: November 6, 1965 in New York, New York, America
Nationality: American
Era: Twentieth Century
Main genre: Electro-acoustic, Orchestral
Main works:
Electronic:
Déserts for 14 Winds, Piano, Percussion, and Taped Sound (1950-54)
Ecuatorial (1933-34)
Poeme Èlectronique (1957-58)
Orchestral:
Bourgogne, for large orchestra (1908)
Gargantua, for large orchestra (1909) Unfinished
Amériques (1918-22)
Arcana for Orchestra (1927)
Density 21.5 for solo flute (1936)
Intégrales for 11 Winds & 4 Percussionists (1924-25)
Ionisation for 13 Percussionists (1929-31)
Nocturnal (1961) Unfinished; completed by Chou Wen-Chung
Octandre for Flute, Winds & Brass (1923-24)
Brief biography:

Varèse prepared for a career as an engineer by studying mathematics and science. He studied the notebooks of da Vinci. He was inspired to be a musician and he used his learned scientific principles to study the science of sound.Varèse studied with Vincent d'Indy at the Schola Cantorum (1903-5) and Charles-Marie Widor at the Paris Conservatoire (1905-7). While at the conservatoire, he began introducing new things, and said, "I refuse to submit to sounds that have already been heard." He then moved to Berlin, where he met Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Ferruccio Benvenuto Busoni. Debussy encouraged him to become a composer telling him, "Rules do not make a work of art. you have the right to compose what you want to, the way you want to." Debussy also encouraged Varèse to look at music away from the west for inspiration. After serving in the French army during the First World War, in 1915 he emigrated to New York with only $32 to his name. Almost all of his compositions disappeared at this point, with the exception of a single published song and an orchestral score, Bourgogne (1908). This score too was eventually destroyed towards the end of his life.

He supported himself doing odd musical jobs, conducting choirs as well as conducting. In 1919 he founded the New Symphony Orchestra which was devoted to modern music. His first composition after 1915 was Amériques for large orchestra (1921). This has many similarities to works by Claude Debussy and of Igor Stravinsky's early ballets. In 1921, several of his works for small ensemble received their first performances with the creation of the International Composers' Guild. In his prospectus for the guild he wrote, " The International Composers Guild disapproves of all 'isms'; denies the existence of schools; recognizes only the individual." Some of his works performed through the Guild included Hyperprism (1923), Octandre (1923) and Intégrales (1925). With the work Arcana (1927), he retumed to the medium of the large orchestra. In 1923, his work Hyperprism, caused a riot in the audience. Half of the audience walked out angrily, the other stayed and asked him to play it again.

He returned to Paris (1928-33), during which he wrote Ionisation for percussion orchestra (1931). This was probably the first European work to dispense almost entirely with pitched sounds, which enter only in the coda. He began to compose for electronic instruments being developed, and wrote for two theremins or ondes martenot in Ecuatorial for bass, brass, keyboards and percussion ( 1934). The flute solo Density 21.5 (1936) was then his last completed work for nearly twenty years. An Etude pour Espace for chorus, pianos and percussion was performed in 1947 and During this time he taught sporadically and also made plans for Espace, involved simultaneous radio broadcasts from around the world. His last years were devoted to projects on themes of night and death, including the unfinished Nocturnal for voices and chamber orchestra (1961).

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