Among the giants of early twentieth century composers, Edgard Varèse stands out as the visionary whose works were most prescient of music of the future. While his spirit of innovation is often compared to that of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Varèse’s contribution to advancing the possibilities of sound is peerless. His work was the boldest.
Chou Wen-chung had first heard music by Varèse in a music history class taught by the critic Warren Storey Smith at New England Conservatory. He was shocked by what seemed like pure “noise” upon first hearing, but was haunted by it. He was determined to find out why the composer wanted to create such work, but never imagined that he would learn the answer directly from Varese himself.
Chou entered Edgard Varèse’s world as he was emerging from the lowest point in the composer’s 66 years. Varèse had composed prolifically for almost 20 years after arriving in the United States in 1915. He celebrated his fiftieth year with the successful performance of his percussion masterpiece, Ionisation. Yet after Density 21.5 for solo flute was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1936, no new compositions were performed for more than a decade.
For years Varèse had been dreaming of moving beyond the limitations of existing instruments to create sounds that only he could imagine, but needed electronic equipment to make this breakthrough. When his proposals to Bell Labs and the Guggenheim Foundation were repeatedly rejected, he succumbed to a massive case of clinical depression which had been lurking in the wings throughout his life. He was moody and cantankerous, inspiring his wife Louise Varèse to write that being with him was like “living on the slope of a volcano.”
Chou moved to New York in 1949, fresh from three years at New England Conservatory, but impoverished by the political events in China which cut off his source of family funding. After taking a few lessons with Bohuslav Martinů, Chou met by chance Colin McPhee who had studied with Varèse in earlier years and thought he might be a better match for the young composer. McPhee agreed to make an introduction, with a word of warning about the maestro’s explosive temper.
Shortly afterward, he arrived on Varèse’s doorstep armed with a copy of his first composition, Landscapes for orchestra. To Chou’s surprise, Varèse reviewed the score and immediately told him to return the next week to begin instruction. A bond formed quickly. Both were foreign composers in America who shared a background in engineering. For the next 15 years, residents of Greenwich Village would see this unlikely pair walking down the street together as passersby called out “Bonjour, Maestro!”
Varèse gruffly dismissed the idea of payment from his protégé and Chou reciprocated by providing a dedicated style of service akin to the master/apprentice relationship customary in traditional music education in China. Chou became Varèse’s copyist, producing exquisite manuscripts with a hand trained in Chinese calligraphy. He also served as assistant for Varèse’s professional activities, preparing all the scores for his Greater New York Chorus.
The arrival of the new student from China coincided with a resurgence of Varese’s creative spirit and productivity which lasted until his final days. He finished some long-neglected compositions including Déserts, performed in Paris in 1954, the manuscript of which is in Chou’s handwriting. Technology had also developed and made possible some of Varèse’s earlier ideas that had seemed unimaginable to others in the past. Le Corbusier asked Varèse to compose a work for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels Exposition in 1958. Using 400 speakers positioned throughout the interior, Varèse created Poème Electronique, a sound and space installation that was heard by an estimated two million people. Varèse’s final composition, Nocturnal for soprano, male chorus and orchestra, was written for a text from “House of Incest” by Anaïs Nin. When the work premiered in 1961 at New York Town Hall it was far from complete. Chou revised and completed the manuscript in 1968.
Working with Varèse also gave Chou the coveted opportunity of meeting the many cultural icons who visited Varèse. Some of the meetings even resulted in commissions for the young composer whose Chinese roots fascinated them and whose artistic potential was endorsed by his renowned teacher.
As a teacher, Varèse did not use traditional pedagogy, but rather asked Chou thought-provoking questions about the compositions the young man was working on; he never solved any problems for him. His manner was brutally honest. Chou recalls Varèse’s wrath after he submitted a score that his teacher considered derivative. He ordered Chou to “take the composition out to the garden and piss on it.” In an interview in 2009 with Don Gillespie, Chou says that his own teaching style was strongly influenced by Varèse’s stimulating approach, but admits that working for a university required him to be much more polite. Varèse’s goal was to help students to find their own voice and style, and any trace of imitation of his work would have been anathema to him. Chou developed a unique genre of his own which bears no resemblance to Varèse’s style.
The relationship between the two composers developed into a loyal friendship of mutual respect and seems to have even cheered up the irascible Varèse during his last years. Louise Varèse writes that she was bewildered when she read Chou’s description of her husband as “a man full of sunshine.” Chou had learned to ignore the thunderous outbursts and accept Varèse’s temperament as an integral element of his teacher’s genius.
Shortly before his death in 1965, Varèse asked Chou to take care of his music, but he could never have imagined the filial dedication that Chou would later invest in completing his works, and preserving and promoting his legacy. After Varèse’s death, Chou became his literary executor. He completed Varèse’s works Tuning Up (1946), Dance for Burgess (1949) and Nocturnal (1961). In 1997-1998 he collaborated with Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Varèse: The Complete Works, which was released by Decca Records. The recording received the 1999 Gramophone Award for the Best 20th Century Orchestral Release.
In 2009 the Holland Festival presented a program of Varèse’s complete works called Varèse 360°. In planning the event, the organizers persuaded Chou to make a new spatialized version of Étude pour Espace which was premiered with sound projections at the Gashouder Concert Hall in Amsterdam. Peter Eötvös conducted the Asko/Schönberg Ensemble and Capella Amsterdam. The same program was later repeated at the Festival d’Automne à Paris in 2009. Étude pour Espace was premiered in the U.S. in 2010 at the Lincoln Center Festival program Varèse (R)evolution.
Varèse’s manuscripts and other materials, fastidiously organized by Chou, have been acquired by the Paul Sacher Foundation for their Archive and Research Center for the Music of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries in Basel, Switzerland.
Varèse called music “organized sound.” His artistic mission was to “liberate sound” from the traditional strictures and molds ordained by his predecessors and to allow music to flow like a river unhindered by man-made obstacles. He experienced sounds as living entities which the composer released and set free into the universe.
Like that of his contemporaries in the visual arts, Varese’s work reflected the increasingly industrialized and technology-driven world in which he lived. He could hear it relentlessly moving forward. As the first composer to explore percussion, electronics and taped sound, Varèse has been dubbed by some the “Father of Electronic Music.” Chou Wen-chung, however, finds this label misleading and inadequate. In his writing Chou clarifies: “Varèse opened up new horizons, not with his electronic works but, in the 1920’s, with his works for conventional instruments.” His greater feat was in extending the possibilities of existing instruments, by wooing them into making sounds that others never even imagined.
Varèse’s early works, written before moving to the U.S. in 1915, were lost in a fire in a warehouse in Berlin. The only manuscript preserved was of Bourgogne (which he later destroyed in a fit of depression in New York.) His musical output after 1915 was relatively small for a musical icon of his stature. Those works, however, were earth-shaking when performed, inspiring writer Henry Miller to hail the composer as “The Stratospheric Colossus of Sound.”
His early fame was sparked more by the audience’s vehement reaction to his work, rather than by the ground-breaking concepts he introduced. The premiere of Hyperprism in New York in 1923 was described by biographer Fernand Ouellette as “the first great scandal in New York’s musical life.” The police were called in when audience members climbed on stage to put a stop to the cacophony. Others tussled with one another in their seats. Three years later at the 1926 premiere of Amériques by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the shouting escalated into violence which caused several people to be hospitalized.
Composer Olivier Messiaen, an ornithologist trained in biology, later diagnosed the pandemonium as a normal physiological reaction to danger, the “fight or flight” response of a captive audience, traumatized by the menacing sounds of wailing sirens and pounding percussion. Messiaen described Amériques as unquestionably “music intended to shock.”
Varèse’s most famous work, Ionisation, was written in 1931 for an ensemble of 13 musicians playing a total of 37 percussion instruments. When it premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1933 the audience was prepared for surprises and responded with unprecedented enthusiastic applause. This work has been ranked by Chou Wen-chung as one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.
Varèse was born in Paris in 1883 to a family whom he described as bourgeois and emotionally destructive. His father Henri was an engineer of Italian ancestry. A stern and brutal disciplinarian, Henri wanted Edgard, the eldest of four children, to follow in his professional footsteps. Edgard engaged in constant battle with his father. He loved music and loathed his father for the rest of his life.
When Edgard was 10, the family moved to Turin, Italy, where he began studies at the conservatory. In 1895 he composed his first opera, Martin Pas. Following the death of his mother when he was 13, his relationship with his father worsened. Henri insisted that his son abandon his music studies altogether and enter the Polytechnic of Turin. Edgard followed orders and developed a great interest in science and mathematics, but held fast to his musical dreams. In 1903 a quarrel with his father escalated into violence, provoking him to leave the family and move to Paris. He was 20.
In Paris he was accepted into the Schola Cantorum and later studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire with Albert Roussel. He soon met the actress Suzanne Bing, who later became his wife, and together they struggled in extreme poverty, moonlighting to put food on the table. At one point, Edgard served as secretary and companion to the aging Auguste Rodin, a post which ended with an argument about music. During these years Varèse was influenced by the work of Erik Satie, Richard Strauss, Anton Webern and Ferruccio Busoni who had done research in the U.S. on native American music. He especially revered Claude Debussy who became an important mentor.
In 1910 Suzanne gave birth to a daughter, whom Varèse named “Claude” after his hero Debussy, but the couple divorced in 1913. After the outbreak of World War I, Varèse was recruited into the French army, but within a few months was discharged with a case of double pneumonia. Despondent at finding himself alone and ailing in a country embroiled in a meaningless war, he made plans to travel to New York and start over. In this new and innovative society, he hoped to find opportunities that did not exist in tradition-bound Europe.
Varèse arrived in New York at the end of 1915 with $90 in his pocket, and began his career as a conductor. In 1917 he made his American debut by conducting the Scranton Oratorio Society in a performance of Berlioz’s Requiem. The chorus of 300 Welsh singers were all working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, and the management allowed them to rehearse two hours a day for six months. To save time, they brought pianos down into the mine.
He soon became a central figure in a community of artists and musicians who had arrived in the New York, fleeing war in Europe or the Bolshevik Revolution. Karl Muck, Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini and Sergei Koussevitsky arrived to accept offers from American orchestras which they might have snubbed in earlier times.
Many of Varèse’s friends were visual artists who had become followers of the new absurdist Dada movement. Outraged by the “noble nonsense” of a senseless war that claimed millions of lives, they responded with their own nonsense: ludicrous art works and preposterous antics and performances. Among them was Marcel Duchamp whose 1917 urinal entitled “The Fountain” became the signature work of the movement. Varèse socialized with many of the Dada artists but never espoused the philosophy. For him, art was no laughing matter.
Through this social circle he made the acquaintance of Louise McCutcheon (then Mrs. Allen Norton) who was an editor of the Dada magazine Rogue. By 1921 she had become Mrs. Varèse and a celebrated translator of French poetry. The couple purchased a house in Greenwich Village and lived there together for the next 40 years.
Varèse also demonstrated talent as a manager. Recognizing the importance of creating a platform to present the works of contemporary composers like himself, he established the New Symphony Orchestra in 1919, naming himself artistic director. His passion and French charm won support from patrons of the arts including members of the Whitney family. The first concert took place that year at Carnegie Hall with a program of works by innovative composers including Debussy, Satie, Busoni and Bartok. His efforts were met with public disdain. The performance was panned by the critics and the Board demanded that Varèse sweeten future programs with more palatable works from the classical repertoire. Varèse resigned in protest.
Enraged but undaunted, two years later he founded the International Composers’ Guild dedicated to performing works by American and European composers. ICG’s manifesto began with the line “the present day composers refuse to die…” Varèse presented several of his compositions under the auspices of ICG including Offrandes, Hyperprism, Octandre and Intégrales.
Like all great prophets, Varèse suffered endless derision from his contemporaries. 50 years ahead of his time, his work was met with disbelief and even rage. Yet recognition eventually came and seems to grow as the years pass. Among the contemporary composers who acknowledged his influence are John Cage, Morton Feldman, Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt. His impact intensified in the sixties among rock musicians who were attracted to his emphasis on rhythm and timbre and his reverence for percussion. Frank Zappa, founder of the Mothers of Invention, and the rock ensemble Chicago, all professed early devotion to the pioneering composer.
By Michelle Vosper