Varèse Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The classical music world was divided when Edgard Varèse incorporated taped electronic sounds into one of his already radical compositions, but for a younger generation of composers, he seemed to be pointing the way to the future.

Summary of Event

At the end of World War II, Edgard Varèse was an isolated, eccentric figure, a composer who had stopped writing in the mid-1930’s because no one would perform his work. Varèse was a stubborn visionary who in 1916 told a newspaper, “I refuse to submit myself 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.” He dreamed of a music liberated from scales and conventional instruments, and he found support for his ideas in the writings of music theoretician Ferruccio Busoni, whom he met in Berlin. Déserts (Varèse) Music;electronic Electronic music Music;avant-garde[avant garde] [kw]Varèse Premieres Déserts (Dec. 2, 1954) [kw]Déserts, Varèse Premieres (Dec. 2, 1954) Déserts (Varèse) Music;electronic Electronic music Music;avant-garde[avant garde] [g]Europe;Dec. 2, 1954: Varèse Premieres Déserts[04660] [g]France;Dec. 2, 1954: Varèse Premieres Déserts[04660] [c]Music;Dec. 2, 1954: Varèse Premieres Déserts[04660] Varèse, Edgard Le Corbusier Schaeffer, Pierre Busoni, Ferruccio Xenakis, Iannis

In his compositions written in the 1920’s, Varèse stressed percussion and brassy blocks of tuneless sound in his search for a new musical language. A great believer in the possibilities of science, he also used sirens and primitive electronic instruments while dreaming of a more sophisticated electronic music. In 1922, he had told The Christian Science Monitor that “the composer and the electrician will have to labor together.” Most of his work was greeted with hostility, however, and few conductors were willing to commit their prestige to conducting Varèse’s music.

Music had changed greatly in the first decades of the twentieth century with the advent of the twelve-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg, the rhythmic experiments of Igor Stravinsky, and the serialism of Anton Webern. Nevertheless, partly as a result of the rise of radio, most composers were placing more emphasis on accessibility for a popular audience than they had been at the beginning of the century.

It was only after World War II that an audience existed for Varèse’s radical vision—along with the technology and equipment necessary for him to pursue the electronic music of which he dreamed. Electronic music studios were founded in Paris by Pierre Schaeffer and at Princeton University, and Varèse was invited to use them. Encouraged by the changing cultural climate and the advances in technology that made these studios possible, Varèse began composing Déserts in 1950.

Although a few younger composers began to use electronics shortly before Varèse did, Déserts is considered by many to be the first real work of electronic music. Focusing on evocations of the “déserts,” or wilderness, the piece alternates between four orchestral and three taped electronic passages.

Like much of Varèse’s earlier work, Déserts was concerned with rhythm and with volumes and densities of sound. Recognizable melody is entirely absent. Rather than unfolding themes, the sound takes on physical form, sonic planes that seem to move and unfold as the timbres of the different instruments blend together and pull apart. Startling rhythms sound unpredictably from five groups of percussion instruments; the sharp attack of the wind instruments is also used rhythmically.

The orchestral section of Déserts is scored for two flutes, two clarinets, two horns, three trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, a piano used as a resonator, and five groups of percussion instruments. The taped sounds tend to be harsh and industrial and include screeches and sharp electronic tones. Varèse’s use of the wind instruments, which often emit shrill blasts, complements the tapes.

Varèse composed the instrumental sections first, finishing them in 1952. He then recorded the three taped interludes, gathering sounds from factories, sawmills, and airports. The mixing process was finished, in stereo, at the Paris studio of Pierre Schaeffer in 1954. As electronic sound technology rapidly improved, Varèse went back and tinkered with the tapes, redoing his work three times before he was satisfied with the final version, which was completed in 1962.

When it premiered on December 2, 1954, Déserts received the same hostile reception that most of Edgard Varèse’s other compositions were given. Its premiere in Paris provoked some audience members to stand up and shout at the orchestra to stop.

The premiere took place at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the same theater in which a riot had occurred following the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring forty years earlier. Déserts was played between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s B-flat Overture and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony (pieces that could not be more unlike Varèse’s) by the Orchestra of Radio-Televisions Française Orchestra of Radio-Televisions Française[Orchestra of Radio Televisions Française] and was broadcast live in stereo. The audience nearly rioted, with some members of the audience screaming at the orchestra to stop. One critic wrote that “what our electrosymphonist needs is a trip to the electric chair.”

Varèse also had his partisans who applauded enthusiastically after the performance. Many poets, writers, and younger composers considered the work a revolutionary masterpiece, as did a few older composers such as Stravinsky. Despite the negative reaction of the audience, Déserts brought Varèse back to public attention. He received a number of awards, and Déserts was soon performed in the United States.

The aging composer’s star continued to rise as many younger composers who were influenced by him began to make their mark. Colleges invited Varèse to lecture, and newspapers and magazines interviewed him. In 1956, the modernist French architect Le Corbusier was commissioned to build the Philips pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair Brussels World’s Fair (1958)[Brussels Worlds Fair] . Despite numerous objections by Philips, Le Corbusier insisted that Varèse do the music for the pavilion.

As a result Varèse was finally able to begin creating the music he had envisioned for decades. The electronic sections of Déserts point the way to this final work, the entirely electronic Poème électronique, Poème électronique (Varèse) a repeating tape 480 seconds long played through 150 loudspeakers. Electronically filtered choruses and voices, transformed bells and piano chords, and studio-made recordings were combined to create Poème électronique. The pavilion received two million visitors during the fair.

Varèse became ill soon after and died in 1965, at the age of eighty-two, without completing another work. He had, however, gained the recognition that had previously eluded him.


When Varèse surrounded electronic and taped sounds with orchestral music in Déserts, he implicitly said that the new medium was as serious and worthy of attention as the old. Rather than being a curiosity, as it was before World War II, electronic music became one of the most important new areas of exploration in music throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The call of the young Varèse for the invention of a new musical language was answered by a full spectrum of composers after World War II, and many consider Varèse one of the most important founding fathers of experimental music. Varèse preferred to characterize his work as “organized sound” rather than music, and his rejection of conventional scales has been widely followed by composers such as Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen Stockhausen, Karlheinz .

During the Brussels World’s Fair, a photograph was taken of the composers Henri Pousseur, Mauricio Kagel, Luciano Berio, Stockhausen, and John Cage Cage, John at the Le Corbusier pavilion. All were influenced by Varèse to some degree and continued the investigation of themes Varèse explored in his work. Stockhausen composed the electronic portion of his Kontakte Kontakte (Stockhausen) from 1958 to 1960. The piece is mainly taped electronics, but one version calls for live percussion and piano to be played with the tape.

Stockhausen must certainly have been thinking of Déserts, but Poème électronique also influenced him. Poème électronique took a large number of sources, reflecting the diversity of the city, and ran them together. Stockhausen’s Hymnen Hymnen (Stockhausen) (1966) and Telemusik Telemusik (Stockhausen) (1966) do the same thing on a worldwide scale. For composers such as Stockhausen, electronics have become part of the equipment of the modern orchestral composer. While Déserts and other works by Varèse were not the only influence on such pieces, his work is an important precursor.

Pieces involving live instruments and taped material began pouring forth after Déserts and soon became commonplace. In 1958, Otto Luening was writing Synthesis for Orchestra and Electronic Sound and Pierre Boulez Boulez, Pierre was writing Poésie pour pouvoir, both of which mixed tapes with live instrumentation. In 1967, the Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;music for music was awarded to Leon Kirschner’s Kirschner, Leon String Quartet No. 3 String Quartet No. 3 (Kirschner)[String Quartet Number 3] , which combined electronic sounds with live performance of acoustic instruments.

Varèse’s views have also left their mark in rock music. In his taped pieces for Déserts and Poème électronique, Varèse took full advantage of the new medium of stereo. Sounds come from one speaker or the other or flow back and forth between them, a technique used by rock musicians beginning in the late 1960’s.

Composer and musician Frank Zappa Zappa, Frank has cited Varèse as one of his formative influences and has conducted performances of Varèse’s work. Varèse’s work has influenced Zappa’s songs less than his composed pieces and tape collages, on which Varèse’s influence is unmistakable. Sections of the rock band Pink Floyd’s Pink Floyd 1969 album Ummagumma Ummagumma (Pink Floyd) sound much like Poème électronique, and the band’s next album, 1970’s Atom Heart Mother, Atom Heart Mother (Pink Floyd) has sections that alternate between “live” music and tape interpolations.

The primary reason Varèse limited the electronic music of Déserts to taped interludes was that it was not possible to play electronic music live with the technology available at the time. The invention of the Moog synthesizer and drum machines in the 1960’s made possible the live performance of electronic music. Live electronic concerts, ranging from the performances of composers such as Philip Glass to groups such as Tangerine Dream, have become common.

Varèse’s belief that all audible phenomena are material from which to make music was an important spur to composer John Cage, who in his 4′ 33″ 4′ 33″ (Cage)[Four minutes thirty three seconds] used the sounds of people sitting in a room watching a performer sit before a piano without playing it. Varèse was perhaps the first composer to investigate the boundary between noise and music. Certainly, works such as Cage’s Cartridge Music, Cartridge Music (Cage) in which turntable cartridges and contact microphones are manipulated in ways that create unpredictable bursts of sound, owe a philosophical debt to Varèse. Many noisy rock recordings probably are not directly influenced by Varèse, but ultimately they are continuing Varèse’s investigation of the music/noise border.

Varèse’s preoccupation with rhythm was also influential. The central role of rhythm in his work, best seen in the rhythmic cells he used in the works of his middle period, point the way to the work of Steve Reich and other minimalists, who frequently built pieces around evolving rhythmic cells. Varèse’s heavily percussive piece Ionisation Ionisation (Varèse) (1931) is the precedent for almost every percussion work that came thereafter. Stockhausen, for example, composed Zyklus Zyklus (Stockhausen) for percussion in 1959, continuing Varèse’s exploration of total rhythm and no melody, while Xenakis has composed other works centering on rhythm.

This elevation of rhythm was an important turning point in Western art music, turning the prior privileging of melody on its head. Partly under the influence of Varèse’s work, composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen spent some time composing pieces that refused to use any rhythmic regularity. The use of toys as a source of sound by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and others has its origin in part in Varèse’s music and its use of all available sound sources.

At a lecture given in 1936 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Varèse predicted that timbre would move from being an incidental concern in music to becoming an integral part of it; postwar music confirmed his prediction. Varèse’s use of tonal colors, sound masses, and sound densities gave rise to the walls of sound and texture in the compositions of Gyorgi Ligeti, Xenakis, and Kristof Penderecki. The slowly building walls of sound favored by Glen Branca Branca, Glen in his symphonies for percussion and electric guitar also have their precedent in Varèse’s masses of sound. Finally, the invention of the sampler, which literally makes it possible to compose with anything as a sound source, represents the final liberation of sound that Varèse longed for as a young man. Déserts (Varèse) Music;electronic Electronic music Music;avant-garde[avant garde]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffiths, Paul. A Guide to Electronic Music. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979. An excellent overview of the history of electronic music, beginning with theories and inventions of the early years of the twentieth century but primarily focused on the postwar period. The sections on Varèse are short, but clearly show his integral role in the evolution of electronic music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacDonald, Malcolm. Varèse: Astronomer in Sound. London: Kahn & Averill, 2003. Rigorous examination of Varèse’s surviving works and descriptive extrapolations of those works that have been lost. Discusses the composer’s aesthetic, philosophical influences, and place in modern music. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ouellette, Fernand. Edgard Varèse. Translated by Derek Coltman. New York: Orion Press, 1968. Written shortly after Varèse’s death, this biography lacks true perspective on his work. As a full record of Varèse’s life and the evolution of his thought and compositions written by someone who knew him, however, it is indispensable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peyser, Joan. The New Music: The Sense Behind the Sound. New York: Delacorte Press, 1971. Focuses primarily on the major schools of music in the first half of the century: Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone school and Igor Stravinsky’s neoclassical school. Varèse is given nearly equal billing, and his work is examined as a more radical break from the past than the work of Schoenberg or Stravinsky.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. To Boulez and Beyond: Music in Europe Since “The Rite of Spring.” New York: Billboard Books, 1999. Places Varèse within the history of twentieth century music and compares him to such other composers as Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Pierre Boulez. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russcol, Herbert. The Liberation of Sound. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1972. Contains a chapter on Varèse and also much information on other experimental and electronic composers from the early twentieth century until the 1960’s. Includes brief biographies of postwar composers, lists of their most important pieces, and a glossary of electronic music terms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Sokema, Sherman, ed. The New Worlds of Edgard Varèse. New York: Institute for Studies in American Music, 1979. A short book containing essays by composers Elliott Carter, Robert P. Morgan, and Chou Wen-chung. Carter provides an overview of the importance of Varèse’s use of rhythm and atonality, while the other two focus on specific works by Varèse and go through them nearly measure for measure.

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Categories: History