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Length: c. 7 minutes
Orchestration: flute (= piccolo), oboe, clarinet (= E-flat clarinet), bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and bass
First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: August 27, 1979, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting
“I have always been an experimenter. But my experiments go into the wastebasket. I give only finished works to the public.” — Edgard Varèse, 1923, in a New York Times interview preceding the first performance of Octandre.
Varèse studied in his native Paris during the early years of the last century with Albert Roussel (counterpoint and fugue), Charles-Marie Widor (composition), and Vincent d’Indy (conducting). A subsequent sojourn in Berlin enabled him to make the acquaintance of Ferruccio Busoni and Arnold Schoenberg – to both of whom he remained indebted as informal teachers – and in 1915 he emigrated to New York, his chief residence for the remainder of his life, attracting during his career such modern icons as Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who regarded him as a major influence on their work.
Varèse is best known for his pieces centering on percussion, on electronics combined with traditional instruments, and one purely electronic piece, Poème électronique for three-track tape, created for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. His output consisted of only a dozen, painstakingly crafted works, with a few more posthumously completed by his student and literary executor, Chou Wen-chung. The brief Octandre is his one “intimate” ensemble work – in terms of the number of players involved, certainly not its sonority or emotional impact.
The first performance of Octandre, whose title refers both to its eight-player ensemble and the word’s literal meaning, a flower with eight stamens, was given in New York on January 13, 1924, under the direction of E. Robert Schmitz, founder of the Pro Musica Society, dedicated to the presentation of works by living composers, and a renowned interpreter of the piano music of Debussy.
The first movement is launched by a chant-like oboe phrase – reminiscent of the bassoon melody that opens Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps), employing the minor second and its inversion, the major seventh. The clarinet responds with a chattering bundle of repeated notes, succeeded by “pumping” sounds in the brass. The movement ends “with the feeling of the beginning (a little anxious),” the composer notes in the score. The second movement begins as a wind-blown scherzo featuring the piccolo’s repeated notes, which are pushed aside by the brass. The final chord is a fierce crescendo, which winds down to the solo double bass leading into the finale, which begins “grave” but blossoms into an energetic fugue with the successive entries of oboe, bassoon, and clarinet. Octandre ends with what can perhaps be best described as a screech.
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.