Chou Wen-Chung

Edited Varèse Scores


Year Edited in 1972
Duration 10 Minutes
Published By Casa Ricordi

Varèse’s final work, Nocturnal, 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 was given its world premiere 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 Étude pour Espace (another project that was never completed although ideas for which found their way into all subsequent works), Varèse planned the use of various speech sounds as well as vocal effects such as yelling, grunting, moaning, puffing, and hissing. In the only extant material from Étude of 1947, Varèse interspersed among the languages of the text extensive passages of syllables of his own invention, which he called “syllables of intensity.” By “intensity,” Varèse was referring to timbre as well as loudness, therefore it seems he may have conceived the use of 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 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 dream world, the fantastic, the Unknown.

Nocturnal is a world of sounds remembered and imagined, conjuring up sights and moods now personal, now Dantesque, now enigmatic. Perhaps one should not read too much into a composer’s choice of words, but could one, knowing Varèse’s unique career, resist wondering about the line, “I rise, I always rise after crucifixion”? What about the mocking, threatening, babbling emanations from the chorus, often directed to sound “as if from underground” and “harsh”? The solo voice instructed to sing “as if in a dream” at the beginning and then “as in a trance” at the end? Then there are the sounds remembered — the liquid beat on the wood block, the shrill whistling of the winds, the tenacious shimmering of the strings — the insistent sound of a mass of shuffling feet, the flourishes of drum beats, the sudden crashing outbursts. A phantasmagorical world? Yes, but as real as Varèse’s own life.

Unfortunately Varèse never completed Nocturnal. After its premiere, he decided to go ahead with another version to be entitled Nocturnal II (sometimes referred to as Nuit), which also never materialized. Except for the choice of words and instrumentation, these works are really one and the same, possessing the same ideas. Extant sketches for these works, highly fragmentary and unlabeled, date as far back as the late 1950’s. However no manuscript — not even for the finished portion of Nocturnal — exists, although there are a few very brief and cryptic notes suggesting some sequences of events. The only version of the score is the one made under great pressure by a copyist directly from sketches immediately before the premiere, with a large number of mistakes and omissions. Fortunately there are three reference copies of the score in which Varèse made extensive indications for changes and additions, of which some are specific, others have several alternatives, and still others bear no specified solutions.

After Varèse’s death, it was felt that, on the one hand, the history of the work and the nature of the extant materials are such that it would not be feasible to complete the score as Varèse might have envisioned it; on the other hand, the work certainly should be heard precisely because of its history and character as aforementioned. Since the original portion ends too soon, and too abruptly, it was decided that what might be called a “performance version” be made, with the original portion fully edited, incorporating Varèse’s indicated changes and additions, and with a continuing portion added to provide formal balance and to include some of Varèse’s sketched ideas not employed in the original portion.

In editing the original portion, the corrections, revisions and additions were made according to the sources and considerations given as follows: (1) Some corrections in pitch, rhythm, tempo, and dynamics were made according to the extant sketches for the original portion. Where the sketch is missing or uncertainties arise, references were made to other sketches bearing different versions of the same material. (2) Some revisions in tempo, rhythm, and dynamics were made, and new passages and new instrumental parts added according to Varèse’s indications on the three reference copies of the incomplete score. Where there are indications of dissatisfaction, or intentions for revision but no specific solutions given, references were made to the sketches for the original portion as well as to other sketches bearing related material or different versions of the same material. (3) A few instructions for the vocal parts found in Varèse’s cryptic planning notes and in some sketches were added, since they seem to be of considerable significance in the performance of such passages. (4) In the passages for the bass voices marked “no definite intonation,” the register to be employed in performance is obviously important. Wherever necessary, the register or registers, if the basses are in divisi, were clarified according to the sketches. (5) The string parts were edited in two passages for practical reasons, and some obviously missing dynamic marks were provided. (6) The percussion parts, in which the instruments are not clearly or consistently assigned to specific players, were thoroughly edited with instruments systematically distributed among the six players as Varèse did in most of his works. (7) The format, signs, wording for the instructions, and the scoring style used by Varèse were generally retained, except where clarification was felt needed.

In completing the score, two principles were followed: (1) continuation of some of Varèse’s principal material of the original portion as suggested in the cryptic notes; (2) addition of new material from the few more elaborated sketches found so as to more fully illustrate his ideas for this work and his concepts in the use of vocal sounds. These two processes are mutually interpolated or superimposed as suggested by the cryptic notes and the nature of the material in question. All the details, whenever not specified in the sketches, are worked out according to the original portion or other sketches in which similar solutions are found. The original portion ends with the words, “dark, dark, dark, asleep, asleep,” sung by the soprano. (For the 1961 performance, Varèse substituted the words “asleep, asleep” with “floating again” as a temporary ending.) The added portion is purposely kept to the minimum length possible, just enough to include all suitable additional material and to provide structural coherence.

By Chou Wen-chung


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