Students of music will be familiar with
the concept of the "important" composer; the one of whom their
tutor may say, for example, "not many people listen to the music
and you may not like it, but it’s important you know about it".
This well known exhortation will often be greeted with a sinking
feeling, but by others as an opportunity to come to grips with
a composer whose music may well have a good reason for being considered
important and may even turn out to be enjoyable to listen to.
Students studying 20th Century music
will be told that Varèse is "important". In fact he is
more important than he is listened to. Before I get hate mail
from Varèse fans, may I say that I mean that in the context
of the music-loving public at large, among whom Varèse
will be very much a minority interest. His work is certainly performed
live but such events will be hard to come by.
For many though, Varèse was one
of the century’s great innovators, a man who broke many moulds
and produced works that were a result of a soaring imagination
and an attractively eclectic and eccentric musical philosophy.
He tried to persuade people to refer to his music as "organised
sound" and composed some of the first "music" with sounds on tape.
He is regarded as perhaps the nearest thing to a "father of electronic
music". Some, such as Malcolm MacDonald, go further: "Insofar
as the 20th century had a Beethoven, he is it".
Yet here was a man whose earliest compositions,
now mostly lost or destroyed, were written in the Victorian era
(he was born in 1883). Later in life he made a virtue of claiming
his work stemmed from no school or tradition, yet, having settled
in Paris after a Burgundian peasant upbringing he rubbed shoulders
with some major late-romantic figures. He was a pupil of Fauré,
was supported by Widor and Massenet, knew Debussy, Mahler and
Satie, and became friends with Richard Strauss. Strauss’s famous
librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal actually provided regular financial
support for a time.
At his death in 1965 Varèse was
a figurehead of the avant-garde in general and specifically
a major presence on the musical scene of his adopted town, New
York. Although much has been written about the composer, most
of it has been in specialist journals and there has not been a
substantial, fully comprehensive book about the music. Now there
is … thanks to Malcolm MacDonald.
MacDonald, who has been working on this
project for over 20 years, and is a distinguished writer on music,
first offered it to J.M. Dent for publication in their excellent
Master Musicians series (published in paperback in the USA by
Vintage Books). Volumes in the series usually covered life and
works in two separate sections although MacDonald’s volume on
Brahms integrated the two. Dent turned Varèse down,
which is a shame because the resulting work would have had a wider
audience, the format ensuring accessibility to a lay readership
and utility to students as a reference work by virtue of the range
Having been accepted for publication
by Kahn & Averill, MacDonald has produced a different animal.
This book is about the works, organised in chronological order,
with technical analyses of each together with discussion of their
genesis. There are four parts, each consisting of three chapters.
At the beginning of each part there is a list of biographical
information – a few lines on each year. This adds up to a total
of half a dozen pages. It is a neat way of putting the works in
a chronological, biographical context while allowing concentration
on the music. The down side is that there are no appendices that
are essential in a reference work. I say reference work because
this is not likely to be a cover-to-cover read for the average
music lover. As you sit at your desk at work chewing your pen,
it is not the sort of book with which you look forward to curling
up in bed for another chapter. There is no list of works, no bibliography.
This is particularly strange for I would guess Mr MacDonald to
be a lists man, the sort of person who could write an excellent,
comprehensive guidebook full of useful information, which indeed
he has – on Edinburgh, his native town.
Before I go on to give more of a flavour
of the book, it is fair to say what sort of writer I think Mr
MacDonald to be. He writes well and is splendidly lucid even when
expressing things that are best understood in their aural, musical
form and when trying to cram in as much material as possible.
Although he does occasionally retire to a hill top to take a strategic
look at the wood below (such as in the last half dozen pages of
the book), his comfort zone is down in the trees and once there,
his inclination is to dive into the shrubbery, where, as every
gardener knows, some prudent pruning is often in order. Mr MacDonald
is loath to use the secateurs. He has great difficulty in leaving
things out. For example, in the introduction to his book on Brahms,
he says, "I have, as in my ‘Master Musicians’ Schoenberg, endeavoured
to give some account of virtually everything the composer wrote".
There is no harm in that if you have the readership for it and
the space to do it. In the case of Brahms, that is one challenging
task. The advantage Varèse has as a subject is that his
extant output is extremely small - about a dozen completed works
- so they are all done good justice.
Who will be able to cope with this book?
According to the blurb on the back cover, it is accessible "to
any literate music lover". Now I know several people who I am
sure would describe themselves as that. They have a listener’s
knowledge of a wide repertory, know, for example, their sonata
form, can aurally spot a key change and a return to the home key.
They might be able to follow music on the written stave. But they
will not cope with a great deal of this book. Here is a quote
from the first sentence of descriptive analysis that appears in
the book. It comes towards the end of the first chapter which
otherwise consists of a non technical discussion of Varèse’s
lost early works. The surviving work in question is Un grand
sommeil noir, a song with piano accompaniment published in
1906. "The preludial bars ..... appear at first glance to present
a straightforward ..... succession of chords at the bare fifth
and octave, without a third in sight: an austere, hieratic invocation
of darkness, moving in impressionist organum. Then we look
at the key signature and realize we are mistaken. In the key of
E flat minor, C is flattened while F is not; conjunct movement
upwards from the bare-fifth E flat/B flat therefore produces,
not a parallel fifth, but a flattened one – the tritone, Diabolus
in musica." This gives a taste of the language of the analysis
throughout the book which is frequently backed up by printed musical
examples. That is fine as long as you understand it. But when
I read that, I had grave misgivings. What MacDonald is doing in
this particular case is describing what he sees on the written
page of score and pointing out his own initial misinterpretation
of what he saw. This apparent contradiction would not arise to
a "musically literate" person who simply listened to the music
first and described what they heard. He does get to the description
of what is happening but via a non sequitur approach. Fortunately
this was not a portent of things to come. Although tough going,
the analyses of all the works will be useful and often illuminating
to those studying the music, but without a score, recorded performance,
or both at hand, they would make for a pointless read in my opinion.
MacDonald does do some agonising about
his approach in the Introduction and is honest enough to point
out that Varèse, "distrusted all theory .... and deplored
‘any form of musical measurement’. He maintained that ‘analysis
is sterile. To explain by means of it is to decompose, to mutilate
the spirit of the work’." Thus MacDonald finds himself in an embarrassing
position which he tries to get out of with a nice piece of sophistry:
"I have attempted to provide descriptive, rather than deep structural
analysis". Thus he adopts the term "descriptive analysis" which
does not alter the fact that technical musical knowledge is required
to follow his method. Incidentally he expects you to have French
as well since some chapters are preceded with untranslated poetic
quotes in that language.
In between the analyses are fascinating
accounts of the background to the works and descriptions of the
influences on Varèse and the development of his philosophy.
His ideas may seem in the crackpot league to some, (I confess
to being among them) but there is much food for thought and I
found it stimulating reading about the thoughts and aspirations
of a man who refused to let his imagination be checked. There
is something French about his "philosophy" in that, unlike in
British and German traditions, it interfaces more closely with
other fields such as art and literature, and in Varèse’s
case, science. Much is made of his initial training as an engineer.
He is very drawn to symbolic ideas associated with astronomy and
space, hence the subtitle of the book, and this becomes the inspiration
and even subject of some of his work. Yet he was often the victim
of his over ambition so many projects never came to fruition.
One of those, with an astronomical connection, was Il n’y a
plus de firmament. Varèse collaborated with the notorious
French avant-garde theatre man, Antonin Artaud on a "stage scenario"
for a spectacle that was to involve sounds, lights, colours and
rhythm. Here Varèse’s ideas of cosmic catastrophe and "instantaneous
radiation" are developed with Sirius as the "communicating star".
A tape was intended to blast out over a public address system
the following announcement
STUPENDOUS DISCOVERY. SKY PHYSICALLY
ABOLISHED. EARTH ONLY A MINUTE WAY FROM SIRIUS. NO MORE FIRMAMENT.
CELESTIAL TELEGRAPHY BORN. INTERPLANETARY LANGUAGE ESTABLISHED.
MacDonald does a fine detailed job in
trying to get across to the reader ideas that are often, in my
opinion, half-baked or impenetrable.
So on a practical note, will those non-technical
readers who would like to read about the works and the ideas behind
them find this book useful? Well I think so. It means skimming
past the analyses which is quite easy to do because you look out
for pages with musical examples and avoid them. Also, as well
as the introduction, two of the chapters (2 and 11) have no analysis.
As a reference work this book is important
enough to be a compulsory purchase for all university/college
music departments and any self respecting library with a decent
music section. Yet that brings me back to the issue of appendices.
The omission of a summary list of works with composition and performance
information, and above all of a bibliography, is quite inexcusable
in a book of this sort.
Otherwise, cover-to-cover readers are,
I guess, likely to be confined to students studying for a Ph.D.
on Varèse, music tutors trying to keep ahead of their students,
and conscientious book reviewers. Who knows? Maybe the publishers
do. But the book is unquestionably of inestimable value as an
addition to Varèse literature and Malcolm MacDonald should
be congratulated and thanked for a piece of work that must have
been achieved with enormous labour but also with love.
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