Edgard Varése’s Arcana

By Jonathan W. Bernard, Associate Professor, University of Washington

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

In October 1925 Varese, visiting France for a few months, wrote to his wife back in New York:

The two Fanfares I dreamed—I was on a boat that was turning around and around—in the middle of the ocean—spinning around in great circles. In the distance I could see a lighthouse, a very high—and on the top an angel—and the angel was you—a trumpet in each hand. Alternating projections of different colors: red, green, yellow, blue—and you were playing Fanfare No.1, trumpet in right hand. Then suddenly the sky became incandescent—blinding—you raised your left hand to your mouth and the Fanfare 2 blared. And the boat kept turning and spinning—and the alternation of projections and incandescence became more frequent—intensified—and the fanfares more nervous—impatient…and then—merde—I woke up. But anyways they will be in Arcana.

If the composition of Arcana had begun with the effortlessness of a dream—as the musical notation accompanying this account in his letter seems to show—to continue from these initial ideas proved anything but easy. Originally intended to be ready by early 1926, so that Leopold Stokowski could consider including it in a program to be given at Carnegie Hall that spring, Arcana was not actually finished for another year after that, and during all this time Varese worked on nothing else.

For Varese, writing music was always difficult. His rejection of all compositional “systems” forced him to invent every piece essentially from scratch. Often compared his approach to that of the scientist/inventor, in fact, and referred to himself, not as a composer but (in his words) “a worker in frequencies and intensities” whose methods were scientific in spirit if not in specific procedure.

Small wonder, then, that Varese in the midst of his labors would have thought of Paracelsus, the 16th-century physician whose lifelong efforts to introduce some measure of order into the chaos that then passed for pharmacology partook of both chemistry and alchemy. For Paracelsus, the arcana were the hidden powers that “can change us, bring about transmutations, can renovate and restore us”; the specific, “immaterial talents” of substances that drive out disease. And capturing these powers in effective medicines was as much a task for magic as for experiment. Varese’s own quotation of Paracelsus on the flyleaf of his scare stands as an acknowledgement of his precedent for his own melding of art and science.

Others in the arts of the 20th century had become fascinated too with magic, superstition, and alchemy, notably the surrealist, for whom imagination, as for Varese, reigned supreme. Although it is unlikely that Varese felt much affinity with the surrealists as a group—he would have been put off by their distrust of music and their embrace of Freud, not to mention their leftist politics—it is true enough that their works and his bear many signs of their common interest. Some of these are suggested by Varese’s recounting of his dream; others are evident in the vast, phantasmagorical web of sound spun by Arcana itself, in which seeming recurrences of events previously heard often take on a distorted, even hallucinatory quality.

“Each of my works discovers its own form,” said Varese; the traditional terminology of musical form is not of much use in describing what happens in Arcana. Which is why the listener may not be prepared for the shock of the ending, truly one of the most terrifying moments in all of Varese: what might be called the “alchemical moment,” in which Varese (like Paracelsus) reaches far back before his own time, to retrieve the parallel fifths and fourths of early polyphony, before the final serious of explosions blasts the fabric of the work apart, this time for good. These dark undertones seem somehow appropriate for a piece that is in many other respects robust, “full of sun” as Varese characterized it, the crowning achievement of his most productive decade, but which immediately preceded his slow descents into the depression and creative paralysis that eventually silenced him for fifteen crucial years of his maturity.