Discipline: Music Composition

Edgard Varèse

Discipline: Music Composition
Region: New York, NY and Paris, FRANCE

Edward MacDowell Medalist: 1965

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) was a French-born composer who spent the greater part of his career in the United States. Varèse's music emphasizes timbre and rhythm. He coined the term "organized sound" in reference to his own musical aesthetic. His conception of music reflected his vision of "sound as living matter" and of "musical space as open rather than bounded.”

In 1895, he composed his first opera, Martin Pas, which has since been lost. In his teen years, he enrolled at the Polytechnic of Turin to study engineering at the influence of his father, who disapproved of his son’s interest in music. This conflict grew bigger and bigger, especially after the death of his mother in 1900, until in 1903 Varèse left home for Paris.

From 1904, he was a student at the Schola Cantorum (founded by pupils of César Franck), where his teachers included Albert Roussel. Afterwards, he went to study composition with Charles-Marie Widor at the Paris Conservatoire. During his time in Europe, Varèse became acquainted with Erik Satie and Richard Strauss, as well as with Claude Debussy and Ferruccio Busoni, who particularly influenced him at the time. He also gained the friendship and support of Romain Rolland and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose Œdipus und die Sphinx he began setting as an opera that was never completed. On 5 January 1911, the first performance of his symphonic poem Bourgogne was held in Berlin; the only one of his early orchestral works to be properly performed in his lifetime, it caused a scandal.

After being invalided out of the French Army during World War I, he moved to the United States in December 1915. In 1918, he made his debut in America conducting Grande messe des morts by Berlioz. In New York, he met Léon Theremin and other composers exploring the boundaries of electronic music. Amériques, his first composition in the United States, was finished in 1921 but remained unperformed until 1926, when it was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conducted by Leopold Stokowski. At the completion of this work, Varèse, along with Carlos Salzedo, founded the International Composers' Guild, dedicated to the performances of new compositions of both American and European composers.

By the early 1950s, Varèse was in dialogue with a new generation of composers, such as Pierre Boulez and Luigi Dallapiccola.