Composed: 1918-1921 (revised 1927)
Orchestration: 3 piccolos (3rd = alto flute), 2 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, heckelphone, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, contrabass trombone, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, gong, siren, low rattle, lion’s roar, orchestra bells, snare drum, sleigh bells, tambourine, triangle, whip, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 27, 1989, Pierre Boulez conducting
The story of the Second World War’s immense impact on musical thought is a well-known one – so much so that it tends to eclipse how the preceding world conflagration affected composers. Some lost their modernist nerve and retreated into intentionally frivolous styles. Edgard Varèse, by contrast, determined to outrun the avant-garde by instigating his own revolution. In John Cage’s famous assessment, he “fathered forth noise into 20th-century music.”
Varèse had already been witness to the birth of modernism in his native Paris (he attended the notorious world premiere of The Rite of Spring) and in Berlin, where he lived for a time. He was conscripted into the war but soon discharged, on account of illness, from the French army. Varèse then made his way to the United States to start anew. With uncannily appropriate timing, he learned that virtually all of his previous scores had been burnt in a warehouse in Europe. It proved only another goad to leave the past behind and construct an entirely new musical universe. Intriguingly, Varèse already intuited the sonic possibilities of the electronic medium – part of the revolution to come after the next world war – but had to wait for the technology to catch up with his imagination.
In the meantime, in Amériques, his first major work since leaving Europe behind, Varèse worked with the existing symphonic medium to body forth his visions. The title, with its plural celebration of his new home, suggests the composer’s unbounded aspirations. He later recalled how the word “America” connoted “all discoveries, all adventures” – to the point of “the unknown, new worlds on this planet, in outer space, and in human minds.” More concretely, Varèse was inspired by his first impressions of the noises of the city from his new perch on the West Side of Manhattan. Where other newcomers might have focused on the visual stimulation, for Varèse the city offered an exhilarating aural cacophony of street noises, police cars, firetrucks, river sounds, foghorns, and skyscraper construction.
Varèse swells his orchestra to gargantuan proportions, requiring a complement of at least nine percussionists. The latter preside over an unusual battery of added sound sources, including lion’s roar and the piece’s signature sound, a wailing siren. As one of his innovations, in later works Varèse would focus on the percussion-centered sonorities which are already central to Amériques’ soundscape. The music unfolds as a vast single movement – but in place of traditional development of motifs, Varèse continually cuts, shuffles, dissects, presenting his material before us in surges of raw energy. His music is above all physical – acts of sound in space.
Varèse isn’t entirely able to quash memories of the past. Indeed, Amériques begins almost idyllically as an alto flute floats inevitable associations with Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Its beguiling gentleness contrasts pointedly with the Stravinskian, Rite-inspired shards of harsh, metallic dissonance and savage rhythmic thrusts that power through the score. Later, too, a sinuous, almost atavistic melody intrudes, as if evoking an archaic past. Much of the fascination of Amériques has to do with its ambiguity. Along with the Futurists’ exaltation of the machine age comes brutal, uninhibited violence, as Varèse’ soundscapes rumble and crunch together like mountains being molded.
Thomas May writes and lectures about music and the arts.