Skip to page content

Edgard Varèse

Composer

About this Artist

EDGARD VARÈSE, whom many refer to as the father of electronic music, was born in 1883 in Paris, France. He spent the first ten years of his life in Paris and Burgundy. Family pressures led him to prepare for a career as an engineer by studying mathematics and science. Interested in music, he used the scientific principles learned in the classroom to study the science of sound. He entered the Schola Cantorum in Paris in 1903, but unhappy by the philosophy of instruction held by its director, quit his studies there in 1905 to enter the Paris Conservatoire.

In 1907, Varèse left Paris for Berlin and developed a close friendship with Ferruccio Busoni. It was during the next several years that Varèse, while composing in Berlin, met such composers as Strauss, Debussy, and Satie, as well as writers Apollonaire and Cocteau, who were all impressed by his compositions and new musical ideas. He had an interest in new instruments, particularly electronic ones. It was Debussy that gave the young composer much inspiration, encouraging Varèse to look at non-western music for inspiration.

After serving in the French army during World War I, Varèse moved to Greenwich Village in New York. He fell in love with the sounds of the city and used it as his inspiration. Varèse spent the first few years in the United States meeting important contributors to American music, promoting his vision of new electronic music instruments, conducting orchestras, and founding the New Symphony Orchestra. It was also around this time that Varèse began work on his first composition in the United States, Amériques, which was finished in 1921. It was at the completion of this work that Varèse founded the International Composers' Guild, dedicated to the performances of new compositions of both American and European composers, for which he composed many of his pieces for orchestral instruments and voices, specifically Offrandes (1922), Hyperprism (1923), Octandre (1924), and Intégrales (1925).

In 1933, while Varèse was working in Paris, he wrote to the Guggenheim Foundation and Bell Laboratories in an attempt to receive a grant to develop an electronic music studio. Much to his disappointment, he returned to the United States in 1934 to learn that his proposal had been rejected and he joined the ranks of Schoenberg as the only other composer to have been turned down for a Guggenheim grant. Desperately wanting to work with new instruments, his frustration and inability to create led him to depression. It was not until over fifteen years later, in 1953, that the use of new technologies invented during World War II caught on with composers in France and Germany. Varèse was remembered and soon became something of a celebrity. He lectured at Yale, Princeton, Columbia and other universities. Thriving in this new environment, he used a donated Ampex tape recorder to begin compiling sounds for his piece Déserts, whose acoustic instrument parts had been in progress for nearly three years. Considered the first important work of electronic music, Déserts became the first piece transmitted in stereo on French radio.

Varèse returned to New York and stayed there for the next two years until he was asked to compose a piece for the world's fair in Brussels. The result was Poeme Electronique, completed in 1958. This work made a tremendous impact upon the artistic community and Varèse began to receive recognition for his progressive and innovative work. His pieces began to be released on record. Some of his music began to appear in scores. In 1962, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Royal Swedish Academy, and received the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award. A year later, he received the first Koussevitsky International Recording Award. He spent his last few years revising his earlier works. He worked on a new piece, Nocturnal , but it was left unfinished at the time of his death in November, 1965. While Varèse left only 12 self-sufficient compositions - a smaller contribution than that of any modern composer of similar importance - they are all a major contribution for the stimulus it gave. A true precursor of electronic music, Frank Zappa, Charlie Parker, The Beatles, and other musicians of this generation credit Varèse with providing inspiration.