Nocturnal, Varèse’s last work, was commissioned by and dedicated to the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. The text includes words and phrases extracted from House of Incest by Anaïs Nin and syllables devised by Varèse. It was composed in the early months of 1961 for a Composers’ Showcase concert in his honor. Although far from being completed, the unfinished work nevertheless was given its world première at the concert in Town Hall, New York, on May 1, 1961.
The incomplete Nocturnal seems to represent the opening of a work of considerable proportions. Judging from some sketches dating from this period, Varèse originally planned to use a large wind and percussion ensemble, perhaps even with electronic sounds. The strings were probably added only because the concert also included Offrandes, which employs strings. The discrepancies in instrumentation found in the sketches point to the fact that Nocturnal is only one portion of a continuously transforming project Varèse worked on during the last years of his life. Even before Déserts was completed in 1954, he was already considering such a work. At first he was interested in the use of invocations from various ancient civilizations. Then he became involved with Henri Michaux’s Dans la Nuit, soon abandoned as he realized he was more interested in the vocal and evocative qualities of individual words and phrases than in complete poems.
This interest of Varèse’s is a significant one and can be traced back to at least Ecuatorial of 1934, in which the vocal part not only employs glissandi, quarter tones, mumbling, and humming, but also bears such meticulous instructions as “in one breath with mouth open”, “close mouth abruptly after the attack”. Later, working on Espace (another project that was never completed although ideas of which found their way into all subsequent works), Varèse planned the use of all sorts of speech sounds as well as such vocal effects as yelling, grunting, moaning, puffing, and hissing. In the only extant material from Espace, Etude pour Espace of 1947, Varèse interspersed among the languages of the text extensive passages of syllables of his own invention, which he called “syllables of intensity”. Since by the term “intensity” Varèse often referred to timbre as well as loudness, it seems he clearly conceived the idea of using speech sounds according to their characteristics and dynamic values.
This unconventional and uninhibited approach to the use of voice plays an important role in the conception of Nocturnal. But this is not to say that in his work Varèse was preoccupied with a profound organization of vocal sounds as in Déserts with instrumental sounds. Quite to the contrary. There seems to be a fundamental difference between Varèse’s works for instruments and those for voices. In Nocturnal, as in Offrandes and Ecuatorial, we find haunting evocations of drama and mystery achieved through means so strikingly simple and direct that they could be said to be bordering upon being “naturalistic”. This perhaps can be traced partly to his love for Medieval and Renaissance music, and partly to the nature of the man — imbued with a childlike fascination with the dreamworld, the fantastic, the Unknown.