Egard Varèse, Offrandes

By Byron Adams. University of California, Riverside

Written for the concert Revisiting William Grant Still, performed on March 22, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“I cannot resist that burning desire to go beyond those limits” wrote the French-born composer Edgard Varèse in 1928. By then, Varèse had already trod a lonely path as a composer of perfectly finished, deeply avant-garde music. Varèse was profoundly rebellious by nature; this streak was exacerbated by his singularly unimaginative bourgeois parents. Varèse reflexively looked toward the future while scorning the past. He once deplored that “the dead govern us . . . their lives, their laws, their traditions weigh us down, poison and enervate us.” Following in the footsteps of that proto-modernist Arthur Rimbaud—whose poetry was translated idiosyncratically by the composer’s wife—Varèse declared his determination to be “absolument moderne.”

Unsurprisingly, Varèse’s music studies were marked by controversy and dissention. Varèse had a knack for turning upon benefactors, an unfortunate trait that would haunt his entire career. He turned on Vincent D’Indy after that redoubtable pedagogue had befriended him, later snarling ungratefully, “I did not want to become a little D’Indy.” The obstreperous young composer sought out such radicals as Erik Satie, and Claude Debussy. Debussy’s work in particular provided the foundation for the younger man’s explorations. For his part, Debussy, who was puzzled by Varèse while intrigued by the younger composer’s daring, gave his colleague a blessing in the form of a proof copy of La mer, inscribed “To Edgard Varèse, in sympathy and with my best wishes for success.”

Always restless, Varèse lived for a period in Berlin before emigrating to New York in 1915, determined to leave old Europe, then in the throes of the First World War, and immerse himself in the machine-driven radicalism of New York. In the bohemian paradise of Greenwich Village, he was exposed to jazz by the Mexican poet Jose Juan Tablada and was introduced to his future wife, Louise. Varèse soon attracted a coterie of admirers, including the great harpist, Carlos Salzedo; the two men founded the ultra-modern International Composer’s Guild, which was funded largely by Gertrude Vanderbilt. The slogan of this pioneering organization was “New Ears for New Music And New Music for New Ears,” and its programs featured the music of such radicals as Carl Ruggles and Henry Cowell as well as the first American performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire.

In 1921, after a stimulating trip to Mexico, Varèse began Offrandes, a setting of two sensuously surrealistic poems by the composer’s friend Tablada and the Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro. Offrandes, which Varèse described as a “very small-scale piece, a purely intimate work,” was scored for solo soprano and an unusual chamber orchestra that included harp and percussion. The premiere of Offrandes was conducted by Salzedo at a concert of the International Composer’s Guild in New York on April 23, 1922. Stunningly interpreted on that occasion by Russian soprano Nina Koshetz, Offrandes was an unqualified success with the (admittedly partisan) audience—the last unalloyed public acclaim that the composer was to enjoy for decades. British musicologist Wilfred Mellers provides a clue to the initial success and enduring fascination of Offrandes when he observes that it “is related to the world of Debussy” and notes astutely that there are “passages where the barriers between musical sound and ‘noise’ are crossed . . . [T]his is not a technical procedure; it is a new (and at the same time very old) musical philosophy.”