Paul Griffiths

Edgard Varèse might have come up with a wry smile at the idea of an imaginary concert, given that he knew a great deal about imaginary music. In March 1916, three months after he had arrived in New York as an immigrant, he gave a newspaper interview emphasizing the need for new musical technology: ‘I have always felt the need for new mediums of expression in my own work. I refuse to submit myself only to sounds that have already been heard. What I am looking for are new technical mediums, which can lend themselves to every expression of thought.’

Born in Paris in 1883, Varèse had experienced some of the great musical upheavals of the early twentieth century at first hand. He knew Debussy, heard The Rite of Spring. On a prolonged visit to Berlin, he gained the confidence of Busoni and Richard Strauss. He was aware of the Italian futurists and their noise machines, of Schoenberg and atonality. Now, in the New World, he wanted to go further.

He gained the support of influential patrons, notably Gertrude Whitney, and with their help founded the International Composers Guild. This gave concerts of new music from 1922 to 1927, for which he produced a new piece almost annually. After that, he went back to Paris for five years, during which he wrote Ionisation for percussion alone and experimented with electronic instruments. These, however, were far from providing the limitless sonic resources of his dreams.

He returned to the U.S., and completed only a short flute solo, Density 21.5, in 1936, before lapsing into silence. From an ambitious prophetic project, which at one point was to have involved performers around the globe communicating by radio, only a fragment was performed, in 1947, and immediately abandoned.

Soon afterwards, though, he got going again as a composer, and the gift of a tape recorder at last enabled him to realise some of his dreams of unbounded sound, in Déserts, an orchestral score with electronic inserts, and his Poème électronique.

Density 21.5

Varèse wrote this work in 1936 for Georges Barrère, like him a French immigrant to New York, and the musician who, more than forty years before, had been the first to play the opening of Debussy’s Prélude à ‘L’Après-midi d’un faune’. Barrère had bought himself a platinum flute and wanted a new piece to show it off. Varèse quickly obliged, titling his composition after the metal’s density.

Debussy’s Syrinx, with its initiating pattern of four chromatic neighbours, gave him a reference point. Beyond that, the line is very much Varèse, lament-like and containing ideas from other works of his, not excluding percussion sonorities brought in by tapping the keys audibly.


Varèse’s feeling for sound and force had made him amplify the percussion section in works from Amériques (1918-21) onwards. Ionisation (1929-31), which he scored for thirteen percussionists, was an almost inevitable outcome. For most of the time there are no distinct pitches. The main themes therefore have to be recognized by their rhythm and colouring: a smart solo on the side drum and an energetic charge in quintuplets from five players together. From these the music evolves continuously until the surprise of its close.


Dating from 1924-5, Intégrales is powerful succession of fanfares, chorales and laments for eleven wind instruments and percussion. The first of its three sections is occupied mainly with the figure of an upward arrival on a reiterated note. The second opens with the piccolos stranded high, but its main components are much more vigorous. It comes to a head, and the percussion introduce an oboe song. Reminiscences are brought in as the piece aims towards a chord stretching over six octaves, just one of the signs that Varèse was struggling with a medium no longer adequate to his purposes.


Acquiring a tape recorder in 1953, Varèse was at last able to pursue his dreams of an entirely electronic music, and he set about making recordings in New York factories as well as in his apartment, where he had several percussion instruments. From these recordings he created three sequences to be interleaved with music for small orchestra in Déserts, which he had started in 1950.

The ‘deserts’ of the title are, the composer suggested, ‘not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains and snow, outer space, deserted city streets…but also this distant inner space…where a human being is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude’. So where one might have expected Varèse’s first electronic piece to be celebratory, the atmosphere here is inward and contemplative. The orchestra is of a kind he had used three decades before in Intégrales, composed of high woodwind, brass and percussion, but the emphasis now is on pitched sounds and on the subtle fusion of timbres. Piano and other tuned instruments – glockenspiel, vibes, xylophone, tubular bells – almost always double the wind instruments in creating soundscapes of strong yet delicate colour.

It would be possible to listen to the programme designed for this evening by way of recordings. This Riccardo Chailly’s collection on Spotify offers all of the above pieces. 

Follow us on our social media channels for Sounding Out Varèse, two digital events in lieu of our planned concerts in Birmingham and London. The first event went live on Monday 4 May but it is still available on YouTube and Facebook.

On Sunday 10 May 4pm, BCMG's NEXT musician will be exploring their own "Sounding Out Varèse" pieces, having been coached by BCMG Oboist and composer Melinda Maxwell throughout the week. Visit our Digital Events page for info.