Edgard Varèse, Amériques

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert New York Avant-Garde, performed on Oct 3, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Varèse born Dec 22, 1883 in Paris; died Nov 6, 1965 in NYC
Amériques composed from 1918–21; Premiered Apr 9, 1926 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski; NY Premiere Apr 13, 1926 at Carnegie Hall by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski
Approximate performance time: 25 minutes
Instruments: 4 flutes, 3 piccolos, 1 alto flute, 4 oboes, 1 English horn, 1 heckelphone, 4 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 1 contrabass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 2 contrabassoons, 8 French horns, 6 trumpets, 5 trombones, 1 tuba, 2 contrabass tubas, 2 sets of timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, sleigh bells, cyclone whistle, steamboat whistle, siren, string drum, crow call, rattle, side drum, bass drum, 2 cymbales, crash cymbal, triangle, castanets, tambourine, slap stick, twig brush, tamtam), celesta, 2 harps, and strings

It is a testament to the international profile of musical modernism in the New York of the 1920s that one of its driving figures was born in France. Edgard Varèse moved to New York in 1915 and embarked on a career as a conductor, composer, and impresario. His most prominent venture in the 1920s was the International Composers Guild, which provided a lively forum for modernist works, including many by Varèse.

As a composer, Varèse aimed to expand the aural palette of art music—a goal he made clear in Amériques, for large orchestra, his first composition as an American resident. Varèse said that its title was “symbolic of discoveries—new worlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men.” From the very start of Amériques, these seemingly brand-new sonic spaces bombard the listener. A snippet of birdsong in the alto flute anchors the piece, repeated in short succession as though winding up an enormous orchestral motor. Trumpet, English horn, and violin periodically recharge the motor with repetitions of that motive. In between those statements, seemingly chaotic barrages of percussion and siren combine with Varèse’s unconventional instrumental effects. The violins’ brief version of the opening motive, about two-thirds of the way through the piece, ushers in a raucous dance-like passage propelled by a winding tune in the upper winds. At the close of this dance, a surreal call-and-response between siren and orchestra prefigures the final moments of sonic bedlam.

Leopold Stokowski’s New York premiere of Amériques made a striking first impression. As Olin Downes wrote in the New York Times, “No sooner had the last of the strange sounds of Mr. Varese disappeared in the silence when the audience commenced to demonstrate—to hiss, to applaud, to gesticulate, even to whistle and bawl.” Varèse revised it the following year, but the original version is the one heard at this concert.

Matthew Mugmon is assistant professor of musicology at the University of Arizona. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2013.