Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Varèse: A Sketch of the Man and his Music”

Published in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. LII No. 2, April 1966.

That Varèse’s beliefs transcended all boundaries, that he was a staunch champion for the individual, was further evinced by statements he made shortly after his arrival in the New World. Two years before he put his ideas into practice, he wrote the New York Times on March 20, 1919:

“ I should also like to propose a League of Nations in Art. It needs no covenants, no drafts, no high court of arbitration, no machinery to cause debate among politicians. It would exist solely in the mental attitude of the world… Only by a free exchange of art — music, literature, painting — can one people be interpreted by another… In art, as well as in politics, we have been jarred out of our traditional isolation. And the result will be good. The contact, the emulation, the competition will spur us to greater accomplishment… What a combination the freer mingling of national characteristics in art would give! What beauty and strength!’

Because of his interest in percussion and his acquaintance with Marinetti and Russolo, Varèse was referred to on occasion as a Futurist; but his ideas on the use of sounds and noises in music are entirely opposed to those of the Futurists. He once said: “The Futurists believed in reproducing sounds literally; I believe in the metamorphosis of sounds into music.” Again, because of his friendship with Duchamp, Picabia, and Tzara, Varèse was regarded on other occasions as a Dadaist. His answer was: “I was not interested in tearing-down but in finding new means… Unlike the Dadaists I was not an iconoclast.”

He called neo-Classicism “one of the most deplorable trends of music today … the impotent return to the formulas of the past.” As for the twelve-tone system, he once commented:

“It is important in the same way that Cubism is important in the history of fine art. Both came at a moment when the need for a strict discipline was felt in the two arts… Even if one disagrees with the premises of Schoenberg’s new method, one must admit that there was a pressing need for a discipline that would bring music back to its own domain, the domain of sound… But we must not forget that neither Cubism nor Schoenberg’s liberating system is supposed to limit art or to replace one academic formula with another… [They] are media and not finalities… Good works are not the result of favorable circumstances, new devices, exploitation of new formulas; they are produced often in spite of them.”

On the other hand, in the application of the system by Webern — one composer of our time he truly admired — he found “remarkable possibilities of expansion, new points of departure.”

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