Remembering Edgard Varèse on the 50th Anniversary of his Death
[The Juilliard Review I, no. 3 (Fall, 1954): 4/5]
50 years ago today, on November 6, 1965, French composer Edgard Varèse died in New York. During his lifetime, Varèse was a lightning rod for controversy, particularly among American concertgoers after he founded the International Composers Guild, the first U.S. society dedicated to championing the music of contemporary composers. The first mention of Varèse in the RIPM databases occurs in 1916 with the following article in which the “ultra-modern music of the futurists” is discussed:
[New Music Review 15, no. 177 (August, 1916): 270]
On the composer’s 70th birthday, the following article appeared in The Juilliard Review in honor of Varèse, recalling how early performances of his works in New York and Philadelphia were received with catcalls, hisses, and applause. In fact at the end of one concert, opinions were so divergent they led to a fistfight:
[The Juilliard Review I, no. 3 (Fall, 1954): 3-10]
And yet, the actions of Varèse were closely watched in the musical press, which tracked his professional activities (the progress of the International Composers’ Guild and his first appearance as conductor of the New Symphony Orchestra) as well as his personal life (his marriage, and even an auto accident).
[Musical America 24, no. 19 (September 9, 1916): 14] [Musical America 24, no. 25 (April 19, 1919): 2]
[Musical America 35, no. 14 (January 28, 1922): 2] [The Baton III, no. 4 (January, 1924): 12]
Varèse’s music also attracted the attention of fellow composers, as evidenced by this discussion of his music by Henry Cowell.
[Modern Music V, no. 2 (January-February 1928): 9-19]
When questioned whether it was necessary for people to understand his music to truly enjoy it, Varèse replied simply: “You have just to listen with unprejudiced ears.”
[Modern Music V, no. 2 (January-February 1928): 19]
The following two documentary films offer fascinating insights into Varèse’s music and life. The first (with English subtitles) contains an interview with the composer in which he recounts how he moved to New York with only $90 (around 1:42). The documentary also contains interviews with Iannis Xenakis and Olivier Messaien, who was not surprised by the public’s intense reaction to modern music (around 8:00).
And in the second documentary film, also with English subtitles, one can see the house in Eindhoven, the Netherlands in which Varèse lived from 1957-1958 (around 1:58) and his residence in New York, now occupied by one of his students, Chou Wen-Chung (around 14:35). The video also displays historic footage of interviews with Varèse, sprinkled throughout, and the composer Iannis Xenakis’ sharing his memories of collaborating with Varèse (around 6:25).
RIPM Search Tip: For the articles cited above and related articles, simply search the RIPM Retrospective Index for “Varèse” and/or “International Composer’s Guild.”