Bur the greatest fullness of power and of prophecy yet come to music in America, lodges in the orchestral composition of Edgar Varèse. While they, too, like the works of Copland and of Chavez, are minor underneath the stars, relatively unvaried and circumscribed; they nonetheless, as products of a dogged, developed personality, and of large and original exceptions, display a considerable degree of freedom.
Following a first hearing of these pieces, the streets are full of jangly echoes. The taxi squeaking to a halt at the crossroad recalls a theme. Timbres and motives are sounded by police-whistles, bark and moan of motor-horns and fire-sirens, mooing of great sea-cows steering through harbour and river, chatter of drills in the garishly, lit fifty-foot excavations. You walk, ride, fly through a world of steel and glass and concrete, by rasping, blasting, threatening machinery become strangely humanized and fraternal; yourself freshly receptive and good-humoured. A thousand insignificant sensations have suddenly become interesting, full of character and meaning; gathered in out of isolation and disharmony and remoteness; revealed integral parts of some homogeneous organism breathing, roaring and flowing about.
For the concert-hall just quit, overtones and timbres and rhythms corresponding to the blasts and calls of the monster town had formed part of a clear, hard musical composition; a strange symphony of new sounds, new stridencies, new abrupt accents, new acrid opulencies of harmony. Varèse has done with the auditory sensations of the giant cities and the industrial phantasmagoria, their distillation of strange tones and timbres much what Picasso has done with the corresponding visual ones. He has formed his style on them. Or, rather, they have transformed musical style in him by their effect on his ears and his imagination; much as Picasso’s city walls, billboards, newspapers, and chimney-pots have helped the Parisian magician to his original and intensely personal idiom.. Like Picasso, Varèse has used his new sonorous medium in interests other than those of descriptivity. He has never imitated city sounds, as he is sometimes supposed to have done. He is not to be classed with the Marinetti-Pratella group of new instrumentalists. The members of that group did have the imitative idea. They argued that modern life could be expressed only through the noises of its practical, mechanical, unconscious activities; and built instruments to convey them. Varèse, however, did not begin with a theory, or a literary idea of representation and expression. He is a musician; and if the auditory sensations of modern life have developed the musical medium under his hands, it is merely because they have sought him out. It appears that he has always been extremely susceptible to acute high strident sounds.
He will tell you, that as a boy, while reading the Leather Stocking Tales, the feeling of the prairies became associated in his mind with the sound of a piercing, bitter-high whistle. This image has persisted in his imagination, although he has never heard its actual replica anywhere in nature. Apparently, he receives impressions of mechanical sounds part consciously, part unconsciously. In Hyperprism, one of his most daring compositions, a very shrill high c-sharp is reiterated several times; and during the first performance of the work, this tone produced convulsive laughter in the audience. But when the composer returned to his home that evening, and sat working into the night, he heard from somewhere over the city, a very familiar sound, a siren; and realized that he had been hearing it for many nights, over six months; and that the tone was exactly a very shrill high c-sharp.
Nor, for that matter, has Varèse added new sounds, new timbres, new combinations to the musical palette for the mere sake of enlarging the musician’s instrument. He is sharply to be distinguished from his amiable confrère, Henry Cowell, a musician until very recently chiefly interested in the production of novel sounds on the pianoforte. (Not that Cowell is entirely devoid of musical gifts. Still, if he figures at all in the company of the musicians, it is primarily in the rôle of the skilled mechanic. Some of his innovations are not even effective: the introduction of the thunderstick of the Hopi Indians, for example. The thunderstick has a very charming sonority, resembling that of a wind-machine capable of subtlest modulations. No doubt, it’s a dead ringer for the voice of God the Father. But it’s an uneconomical device, requiring so great an effort to manipulate it, that one feels Cowell might with far greater profit have turned his energies into experimentation with small electric fans, and sought for an equivalent of the soaring sound through regulation of the little mechanisms.) No, if his artistic medium has developed and spread under Varèse’s hands, it is only because his entire activity is directed toward encompassing the reality of our swift prodigious world in its terms.
That is to say, that Edgar Varèse follows in the steps of Wagner, of Debussy, of the younger Strawinsky and of all the modern musicians not so much interested in the creation of beautiful objects as in the penetration and registration of the extant. He, too, is a kind of philosopher or sacred doctor, hearing the logic of things, the way the world is put together as other logicians may see or feel it; and his art is, a sort of revelation, made through the manipulation of the musical medium. All works of art are such; but Varèse’s is one of the conscious truth-seekers; and his music is a genuine declaration of things as they are; not the mere illustration of a system, in the manner of Richard Strauss, for Varèse thinks in the terms of his medium; while Strauss’s ideas appear to be literary, extra-musical. Varèse, no doubt, has learned considerably from Strauss, in the way of dense instrumentation; just as he has learned from Mahler, whose development of the orchestral rôle of percussive instruments foreshadows his own prodigious one. Still, Varèse is to be placed entirely in the company of the composers who have actually philosophized in music.
What if his music sounds crasser, profaner than theirs; with its sirens and rattles, and all that gives it affinity with the ground-bass of the city? His high tension and elevated pitch, excessive velocity, telegraph-style compression, shrill and subtle coloration, new sonorities and metallic and eerie effects are merely the result of his development of the search-and-discovery principle in the twentieth century world. Indeed Varèse has not a little of the synoptic gift of mind that made Wagner so sweepingly big. Only, in the case of Varèse’s music, the synthesis of the industrial mathematical and scientifie perspectives has been made in a mood more germane to America than to Europe. The conviction, the sense of direction responsive in Varèse to the fast-moving, high-pitched, nervous, excited reality surrounding us, as inventions, research, new proximities, new means of communication, new intuitions have shaped it; the feeling of pitch and beat making its multitudinous disorderly details simple, and setting him moving in harmony with it toward a common goal, indeed are not to be distinguished from the vivacity and unconstraint, speed and daring of the pioneer-spirit of our best American life. His music significantly orientates us to a kind of world to which America is closer than Europe is, a new world not only of the new scientific and mathematical perspectives but of the latent, the immanent, free of prejudice and habit and dogma: the whole glittering region of the unrealized. Besides, he is the poet of the tall New Yorks; his music showing a relation with the “nature” of the monster-towns paralleling that of the elder music to the “country,” and revealing the new nature to man.
Characteristically, the first of Varèse’s compositions to utter and signify and declare this newest world and newest world-feeling, is called “Amèriques.” It is also, excepting the charming little “Deux Offrandes,” the first of his personal pieces. The preceding ones, written before the hegira of the young composer in 1916, appear to have been apprentice works. At least, their titles, “La Chanson des Jeunes Hommes” (1905) , “La Rhapsodie Romane” (1906) , “Prelude a la Fin d’un Jour” (1908) , “Mehr Licht” (191I) , and “Le Cycle du Nord” 1911), suggest as much; though one of them at least, “Mehr Licht,” has a typical cast. “Amèriques” itself is something of a transitional expression, exhibiting the peculiarities of such pieces. Its inner coherency is weaker than that of its successors: there is a somewhat too arbitrary opposition of volumes of sonority in it, a somewhat too regular alternation of monstrous tutti with more thinly “scored passages. Echoes of the Sacre momentarily obtrude, in the initial theme for low flute and bassoon, and in certain elephantine rhythms. The feeling of abnormality too, is a trifle Berlioz-like, and obviously expressed. The raucous sluggish symphony, with its immense metallic sonorities, sharply appreciated vulgarities, and over-delicate contrasts, actually borders on the caricatural. Still, by and large, the sonority of Amèriques is extraordinarily novel and happy. The title, eternal symbol of new worlds awaiting discovery, is beautifully justified by it; had Varèse no other scores, this would nonetheless proclaim him a virtuosic genius with the full, complex, dense-sounding modern orchestra in his veins. There is a distinct quality about it; the style being both metallic and strident, and aerial and delicate, like the reflection of a prairie sunset on steel rails. Amèriques contains Varèse’s first realization of percussive music; the battery, daringly augmented, constitutes an independent family and in several passages plays alone. The bars with the triangle, pianissimo amid the full percussion are especially bewitching. So too are the effects gotten from the suspended cymbal struck with the triangle’s metal rod. Perhaps the most original writing appears halfway through the piece, where the violins die away in the very high minor ninths over the pedal of the horns and basses.
Immediately after Amèriques come Hyperprism and Octandre; and both are the work of an artist in control of his forces. The slightly arbitrary sequences and oppositions constraining .us in Amèriques no longer obtrude. Hyperprism, for example, is notable for its sympathetic treatment of the musical medium, its great naturalness of movement. Sounds come in waves, a single sound advancing; then, as it fades, another rising to take its place: the sequence corresponding curiously to that in which the unconscious ear synthesizes the vibrations of objective nature.We hear somewhat as Varèse writes. The movement of this fantastic little symphony, with its quality of percussive sound conjuring up fragments and vistas of the port and the industrial landscape invested with new magic, is actually extremely relaxed, quiet, gay, even a little jazzy. Hyperprism is in fact the scherzo among Varèse’s compositions; for while the thematic material is subject to continual emotional modifications, no single experience being allowed to repeat itself; and while the score is built up of telegraphically sharp and concise phrases; and the form is a counterpoint of rhythms, the tension is less fierce and dramatic than it is in the later Integrales and Arcanes. Hyperprism is also notable for its extremely artistic and discreet use of an astounding battery of anvils, slapsticks, Chinese blocks, lion roars, rattles, sleighbells, and sirens; and for such magnificences as the introduction of the sleighbells in the sudden calmato a tempo, and the full brass in the last overpowering measures. Octandre, too, represents an advance; recapturing the tense impulse of Amèriques and finding a happy form for it. The sounds of the eight instruments: flute alternating with piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, and double-bass, are uttered with held-in, stubbornly emitted power, that seems to shape and twist not only brass notes but brazen and steely objects in its ejaculations. The three tiny movements stand solid as metal objects, hard of surface, machine-sharp of edge, deeply colorful at moments, and beautiful with economicality and concentration. The idea is continually developed. There is no doubling of parts. The instruments play in extreme independence, and in a very terse and concentrated counterpoint. Apparent slight reminiscences of Wagner (the “solitude” of Tristan Act III, in the opening recitative; the reiterated e-flat, which commences the scene between Siegfried and Wotan, in the close of the second section with its marvelously stammering clarinet) disappear during a second hearing.
In Integrales, we have a kind of cubical music. This piece, one of Varèse’s most representative compositions, exhibits his polyphonic art in all its opposition to that of Strawinsky, now so favored abroad. While Strawinsky’s polyphony is fundamentally linear (most polyphony is, no doubt) , Varèse’s is somehow more vertical (you must ask the professors) ; in fact, his music moves in solid masses of sound, and he holds it very rigorously in them. Marianne Moore abhors connectives no more energetically than he. Even the climaxes do not break the essential cubism of Varèse’s form. The more powerful emphases merely force sound into the air with sudden violence, like the masses of two impenetrable bodies brought into collision. The severity of edge and impersonality of the sonorities themselves (there are no strings in the orchestra of “Integrales”) the peculiar balance of brass, percussion and woodwind, the piercing golden screams, sudden stops and lacunae, extremely rapid crescendi and diminuendi, contribute to the squareness. The memorable evening of its baptism, Integrales resembled nothing so strongly as shining cubes of freshest, brightest brass and steel set in abrupt pulsing motion. And for one impressionable assistant, they were strangely symbolic. They were not merely sounds like metals. They were sounds strangely related to the massive feeling of American life, with its crowd, city piles, colossal organizations, mass production, forces and interests intricately welded; sounds that for a moment revealed them throbbing, moving, swinging, glowing with clean, daring, audacious life. A new power exulted in them. Majestic skyscraper chords, grandly resisting and progressing volumes, ruddy sonorities and mastered ferocious outbursts, sung it forth. For the first time in modern music, more fully even than in the first section of Le Sacre, there sounded an equivalent of Wotan’s spearmusic. But in this case, the feeling of German power had something to do with the lifeforms of the democratic, collectivist new world.
The most definitive piece of Varèse’s, nonetheless, is Arcanes, the latest of them to be presented. Arcanes is of course the best example of his method of composition; and revelation of the tendency of the forces playing through him. In form, it is an “immense and liberal” development of the passacaglia pattern, and an exposition, scherzo, and recapitulation. A basic idea, the banging eleven-note phrase which commences the work fortissimo, is subjected to a series of expansions and contractions, cast for a grand orchestra heavily reinforced by percussion. The treatment yields a series of metallic tone-complexes compulsive of extraordinary space-projection. Bristling with overtones as a castle with turrets and a dinosaur with warts, the almost unbearably straining chords shoot feeling tall into distances. Varèse’s method creates a number of air-pockets, suspensions of sound between various thematic metamorphoses; and the volumnear accentuation resulting from them augments the excitement of the relationship between the strangely towering, reaching, bursts of sound. And, as the high-tensioned piece proceeds, feelings seem to find cold interstellar space; material volumes to signal and respond to each other; and a fantastic habituation to the gloomy valleys and arches of the non-human universe obtain. We have previously had music born of biologistic world-feelingLe Sacre du Printemps is the dance of the human bacillus, certainlyand before that both Das Rhein-gold and Tristan and Isolde exhibited music corresponding with evolutionary theories—but Arcanes apparently is the first piece of music harmonious with the welt-anschauung of modern mathematical physics, and corresponding with science’s newest sensations about matter. The final variation of a subsidiary theme, given to contrabass-clarinet, bassoon, clarinet, and muted trumpets and trombones, came like a long-awaited answer to intuitive searches in some unexplored portion of the cosmos, or sudden vision of a new constellation hanging jewel-like before the telescope’s eye.
On the title-page of this amazing score stands a quotation from the Hermetic Philosophy of the “Monarch of Arcana,” Paracelsus the Great: One star exists higher than all the rest. This is the Apocalyptic star. The second star is that of the ascendant. The third is that of the elements and of these there are four: so that six stars are established. Besides these, there is still another star, Imagination, which begets a new star and a new heaven.” As appropriately as this fragment of scientific poetry, “Arcanes” might have born Leonardo da Vinci’s wondrous phrase, “The greater the consciousness, the greater the love.” For its impulse is not only Bemachtigungstrieb, desire to control and dominate an environment as it is found in scientists, technicians, and engineers; strongly as that sublimation may have influenced it. (Varèse originally studied engineering, his father’s profession.) The impulse is one of unity, or perfection, borne of a wholeness in the psyche and moving toward a condition satisfactory to the entire man. The large, smoky, and metallic sonorities; the gorgeous explosive violence, its brutal surges so singularly mixed with the feeling of thought and cerebral processes; the dry nervous vibration of the Chinese blocks; the high erotic tension controlled with a rare sensitivity, embody the spirit of many experimental groups, artistic, scientific, moral and plumb their common bourne. Deep within, one feels the force which thrusts up towers of steel and stone to scrape the clouds, and creates new instruments and combinations, and forms new field-theories, seeking, on many fronts, here, there, again and again, to break through the hopelessly dirty crust of life into new clean regions. Balked, it persistently returns to the breach; till at last a new light, a new constellation, a new god, answers its wild penetrations from afar. That is the emotional aesthetic man of today no less than the technical scientific one; that is every Columbus directed to every America; that is the spirit of the new western life; and the revelation of this single frustrate, battling, finding impulse finds us, here in the new world and its century, in the middle of our way again.