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Varèse, Edgar

(December 22, 1883 - November 6, 1965)

Edgard Varèse was born in Paris of an Italian father and French mother. Between the ages of ten and twenty he lived in Turin, where he began his musical studies. In 1903, however, he quarelled with his father and left for Paris, where he completed his studies with d’Indy, Roussel and Widor. Shortly after he began composing, and moved to Berlin, where his works were appreciated by Busoni and Debussy. In the same period he heard the first performance of Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire and Stravinsky’s Sacre (in Berlin, 1912 and Paris, 1913). Then, in 1914 (as we have seen) he moved to the United States, where he decided to destroy all the works composed up to that moment, and to set off in a radically new direction as a composer, researcher and innovator.
In those years he worked as a conductor (in 1919 he founded the New Symphony Orchestra) and concert organizer with the aim of familiarizing American audiences with contemporary music and introducing works and composers who had previously been ignored in the United States. In the same period he started working on the limited number of works (the first was Amériques, finished in 1922) which would soon establish Varèse in the whole world as one of the most advanced and daring of composers, committed to exploring the unknown territories of New Music. He was thus intensely active in America (where he also founded the Pan American Association of Composers together with Chávez and Cowell), yet from 1928 to 1933 he returned to live in France. He had in fact never lost touch with the French musical world, and in this period he renewed  his old friendships with Picasso and Cocteau and consolidated new ones (Jolivet, Villa-Lobos).

1934 marked the beginning of a long period of crisis, due to dissatisfaction with his activity as a composer and marked by restless moves from one city to another in the central and western regions of the United States. In this period he tried - unsuccessfully - to write music for films; he founded new musical institutions, setting up house first in Santa Fé, then in San Francisco, then in Los Angeles, before returning to New York in 1941. His musical production came to a halt. He was taken up with various forms of research that failed however to catalyze into new musical works. Between 1934, the year  in  which  Ecuatorial  was  composed,  and 1950, he composed nothing except for  the  minor  work  Density  21.5  for flute;  the  brief  Etude  pour  espace for  choir, two pianos and percussion (performed only once and still unpublished) and the even less well known Dance for Burgess.

In the last fifteen years of his life, however, he started composing again with considerable energy, producing masterpieces such as Déserts and Nocturnal and achieving definitive international recognition for his extraordinary gifts as a composer. He took an interest in the young musicians who attended the Ferienkurse at Darmstadt (where he also gave lessons) and his works began to be recorded. He received prestigious commissions (including Le Corbusier’s commission for the Poème électronique, composed for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels exhibition in 1958), state decorations, and towards the end of his life his music began to become increasingly well known - although its real importance had yet to be fully understood. Varèse died on the 6th November 1965 at the New York University Medical Center Hospital without being able to carry out his final project - the music for Henri Michaux’s Dans la nuit.

Giacomo Manzoni, 1989