We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution
Richard Taruskin

Another composer who sought to realize a Busonian vision using electronic instruments as early as he possibly could, but had to wait, was the Franco-American Edgar (or Edgard) Varèse (1883–1965), a remarkable — and remarkably isolated — figure on the avant-garde scene at a time when there was virtually no musical avant-garde to speak of. Like Iannis Xenakis (see chapter 2), Varèse was trained in mathematics and engineering before he studied music seriously. In 1907, after reading Busoni's Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, he went to Berlin and sought the author out as a mentor. His interest in electric instruments was kindled even before World War I, at first by the “dynaphone,” an early sound synthesizer invented by the French engineer René Bertrand.

Varèse moved to New York in 1915 and at first tried to make a career as a conductor. His earliest American opus, on which he worked between 1918 and 1921, was a gigantic orchestral score called Amériques. (The title did not refer only to the continents of the New World; in the vocabulary of Europeans, “an America” often meant a magnificent discovery.) It showed the influence of Busoni's “free music” theorizing in the parts it contained for two sirens, acoustical devices consisting of a metal disk pierced with holes arranged equidistantly in a circle and rotated by means of a handle over a jet of compressed air that whistles through the holes at a frequency determined by the speed of rotation. Invented for use as fog signals or as warning devices on fire engines or ambulances, sirens are not normally thought of as musical instruments; but as he put it much later in an essay called “The Liberation of Sound,” Varèse “always felt the need of a kind of continuous flowing curve that instruments could not give me”19 — exactly what Grainger had sought in his Free Music. The sirens in Amériques are played by two of the eleven percussionists the piece requires.

A Maximalist Out of Season

fig. 4-3 Edgard Varèse listening to Poème électronique, 1958.

And just as Grainger turned from strings to theremins, so Varèse replaced the sirens in Amériques, on its French premiere in 1929, with a pair of ondes martenot. For a later piece, a neoprimitivist choral fantasy called Ecuatorial to a text from the Mayan scripture Popul Vuh, he commissioned from their inventor a pair of theremins of especially high and piercing range, capable of producing near-supersonic frequencies and providing the wailing timbres, soaring glissandos, and endlessly sustained notes that constituted Varèse's imagined pre-Columbian music in all its “elemental rude intensity.”20 The work was first performed in April 1934, under Nicolas Slonimsky, with the specially designed theremins; but when published, the score again specified the more readily available ondes martenot.

That publication did not take place until 1961. Varèse's music of the 1920s and 1930s was out of joint with its time. He was nurturing, or trying to nurture, the complementary spirits of neoprimitivism and futurism far into the age of neoclassic irony, seeking to keep the frantically optimistic Art of Noises alive in a period when the defense of high culture seemed sooner to demand pessimistic retrenchment. The very summit of musical futurism was a trio of rugged compositions by Varèse, composed in New York between 1922 and 1931, that sported titles borrowed from the world of science. Hyperprism (1923) and Intégrales (1925) were scored for small wind bands with outsize percussion sections. Ionisation (1931) was a composition for percussion alone: thirteen players on a total of forty-one instruments.

Varèse's “scientistic” titles are not easily interpreted. Hyperprism refers, presumably, to the intensification of a prismatic (refractive or light-bending) function, hence to the breaking down of a formal whole (e.g., white light) into contrasting components (e.g., spectral colors). That definition has been more or less plausibly related to the episodic nature of Varèse's composition, with its many short sections in contrasting tempos. Integrals, in calculus, are expressions from which a set of functions can be derived; Varèse's title has been interpreted, accordingly, as referring to the subsumption of the many differentiated sections of the composition by that name into a unified whole. In both cases a similar phenomenon—namely, a whole broken down into a contrasting yet interrelated multiplicity—is described from differing perspectives. But so could any sonata or symphony movement. The scientistic titles are evocative rather than explanatory.

Ionisation, the percussion piece, is perhaps easier to describe in terms of an implied program. A far grander, more romantic conception than, say, John Cage's spare, Apollonian Imaginary Landscapes, for all its sonic novelty (and despite its seemingly technical title) it makes easily recognized expressive gestures that aim (like the Futurists’ Art of Noises, like the work of all maximalists) at a traditionally cathartic emotional effect. Nor is there anything in it of the sarcasm or satire exuded by Shostakovich's percussion entr'acte from The Nose, composed a few years earlier. Varèse sought a candid, forthright exaltation of a kind that had been put out of bounds by the canons of fashionable neoclassical taste; but he wanted to achieve it in a manner that truly “suffices to provide musical expression of our emotions and our conceptions,”21 as he put it in a roundtable discussion, “La méchanisation de la musique,” held in Paris in 1930, while Ionisation was in progress.

Beginning darkly and quietly, with siren tones of “curving” pitch and indeterminate “flowing” expanse, Ionisation musters increasingly definite rhythms (like the abrupt unison hemiolas at 7), mounting volume (like the entrance of the high and low anvils [enclumes] at 9), and a gradually rising tessitura until it reaches a blazing climax that seems to engender fixed musical pitch (piano, tubular chimes, glockenspiel at 13) as if it were the outcome or precipitate of the electrochemical reaction named in the title.

Between them, Ionisation and Ecuatorial could be said to bring the complementary futurist and neoprimitivist impulses in twentieth-century music to a climax and a temporary conclusion, for after them came a long silence. Between 1934 and 1954, Varèse completed only three works, none of them very substantial: Densité 21.5, a sixty-one-measure composition for unaccompanied flute, written in 1936 on commission from the flautist Georges Barrère, who wanted a showpiece to inaugurate his new platinum instrument (21.5 being the specific gravity or density of platinum as it was then measured); Étude pour Espace (Study for “Space”), a short chorus accompanied by two pianos and percussion (performed once in 1947 but never published), excerpted from a grandiose choral symphony on which Varèse worked sporadically for decades but never finished; and Dance for Burgess, composed at the request of the actor Burgess Meredith, a friend, for a projected Broadway show, but never performed.

During the 1940s Varèse dropped into obscurity. His earlier fame, unsupported by ongoing performances or recordings, lapsed into a reputation for eccentricity. The most characteristic glimpse of him during the silent decade came by way of Henry Miller, an American surrealist writer widely regarded at the time as a pornographer, who included a chapter on Varèse, first published by a London arts magazine, in a collection of travel essays about America, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, that appeared in 1945. It was called “With Edgar Varèse in the Gobi Desert,” and it opened with a scenario Varèse had sketched for Espace, the never-to-be-finished choral symphony, in 1929. It reads like a high-tech updating of Scriabin's similarly unfinished and unfinishable theosophical Mysterium, and provides a fitting epitaph for the spent maximalist impulse:

The world awake! Humanity on the march. Nothing can stop it. A conscious humanity neither exploitable nor pitiable. Marching! Going! They march! Millions of feet endlessly tramping, treading, pounding, striding. Rhythms change: quick, slow, staccato, dragging, treading, pounding, striding. GO! The final crescendo giving the impression that confidently, pitilessly, the going will never stop … projecting itself into space …

Voices in the sky, as though magic, invisible hands were turning on and off the knobs of fantastic radios, filling all space, criss-crossing, overlapping, penetrating each other, splitting up, superimposing, repulsing each other, colliding, crashing. Phrases, slogans, utterances, chants, proclamations: China, Russia, Spain, the Fascist states and the opposing Democracies, all breaking their paralyzing crusts.

What should be avoided: tones of propaganda, as well as any journalistic speculation on timely events and doctrines. I want the epic impact of our epoch, stripped of its mannerisms and snobbisms. I suggest using here and there snatches of phrases from American, French, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, German revolutions: shooting stars, also words recurring like pounding hammer blows or throbbing in an underground ostinato, stubborn and ritualistic.

I should like an exultant, even prophetic tone—incantatory, the writing, however, lean and bare, stripped for action, almost like the account of a prizefight, blow for blow, the audience kept keyed-up, tense and unconscious of the style of the announcer. Also some phrases out of folklore—for the sake of their human, near-the-earth quality. I want to encompass everything that is human, from the most primitive to the farthest reaches of science.22

“What sort of proclamation can this be?” Miller wrote. “An anarchist running amok? A Sandwich Islander on the war-path? No, my friends, these are the words of Edgar Varèse, a composer.”23 The tone, meant as sympathetic, made it hard to take the described subject very seriously. Even to enthusiasts like Miller, maximalism had reached the point where preemptive caricature was required. “What interests me about Varèse,” he went on, “is the fact that he seems unable to get a hearing.”24 But it was not only the indifference of those committed to the “mannerisms and snobbisms” of the neoclassical revival that marginalized Varèse. He was at a technological impasse, imagining a music that could not be realized in actual sound.


(19) Edgard Varèse, “The Liberation of Sound,” in Perspectives on American Composers, eds. Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 32.

(20) Edgard Varèse, Ecuatorial (New York: Ricordi, 1934), prefatory note.

(21) Quoted in Fernand Ouellette, Edgard Varese, trans. Derek Coltman (New York: Orion Press, 1968), p. 104.

(22) Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (New York: New Directions, 1945), pp. 163–64.

(23) Ibid. p. 164.

(24) Ibid. p. 165.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 24 Jul. 2014. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 The Third Revolution. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 24 Jul. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 24 Jul. 2014, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004005.xml