Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Varèse: Who Is He?”


Varèse was obviously as tough on himself as he was on me. He was uncompromising in his beliefs. Throughout much of his career he was an outcast, ignored and denied. On both sides of the Atlantic he was publicly denounced, condemned as a social and artistic misfit. Few, except his friends, knew him, the man. As for me, I cannot remember ever having met a more innocent, genuine person, or one more naïve in worldly ways. He was gregariously childlike among friends; people of all ages and persuasions were drawn to his humanity, warmth, and sense of fun. At the dining table, he regaled us with never-repeated anecdotes and stories of his early years struggling to survive in Paris. He had known all the artists of the time, poets, painters, actors, and musicians.

Alone, he was often depressed, saddened by the lack of opportunity to realize his goals, shaken by the ridicule aimed at his music. While editing and completing Nocturnal after his death, I was struck by the connection between the words of the text and his mood: “dark, dark, dark… shadow of Death… crucifixion…” And the way in which the chorus is directed to sound like a mob: “harsh, snarling… growling… and barking.”

As for the roots of Varèse’s music, I feel that he was more steeped in Western European cultural heritage than either Schoenberg or Stravinsky. Schoenberg’s roots were in the nineteenth century, Stravinsky’s were more transplanted. Varèse's studies of early music with Charles Bordes, his early career as conductor, his friendship and work with Debussy, Strauss, and Busoni made him a formidable musician, equally at home with Monteverdi, Schutz, Perotin, and Beethoven. …In spite of all that, in his own music his artistic honesty drove him to achieve a vision of the music of the future unmatched by others of his generation.

Varèse believed in “all discoveries, all adventure… the unknown.” …His fascination with hydrographs, sound waves, and spirals propelled him throughout his life in search of a dream: the music of the future that would become reality in his time. The quest for the unknown brought him to the United States when he was still in his early thirties… Bartók thus opened the floodgates on studies of non-Western music. If this “discovery” is one of two axes charting the development of music in our time, then research on the technology for broadening musical communication — Varèse's form of discovery is the other. Thus the two composers were responsible for coordinating many of the changes in musical aesthetics that have taken place since their time.

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