Varese
Lost Chords The iconoclastic composer Edgard Varese wrote his symphonic poem Bourgogne in 1907 and its first performance in Berlin three years later caused a scandal. Most of his other early scores were lost, but Bourgogne survived, only to be destroyed 40 years later by the composer himself in a fit of depression. Could the work have provided some early evidence as to how the Varese of the later radical experiments in sound came to be?

As things stand, we know little about the early development of Varese. Other than a single song, the earliest work of his that survives is Amériques, which was composed in 1921 when he was already 38 years old. It was the first piece he composed in New York, after leaving Europe in 1915. Varese described the work as a new start in a new idiom and publicly rejected the 15 or so named compositions he had composed earlier in Paris and Berlin.

What happened to those pieces? Incredibly, most of them were destroyed by a warehouse fire at his publishers in 1918, during the Berlin uprisings that marked the end of the war. Only Bourgogne, and a single song, Un grand sommeil noir survived, because Varese had kept the scores with him. Bourgogne was written in 1907 and premiered at the Bluthner Hall in Berlin three years later –it was the first of his compositions to be performed in public. And it caused a riot – the original of many riots caused over the years by Varese first performances.

Varese had studied in Paris between 1904 and 1907, where his teachers were Vincent D’Indy, Massenet and Widor. Although D’Indy was initially supportive, the gap between the two inevitably widened – D’Indy wanted to create disciples, and Varese would have none of it. He later told Stravinsky “The teachers [in Paris] were all ruled like music paper”. Others were more sympathetic. The poet and librettist Hugo von Hoffmannstahl, the composer Richard Strauss, and the novelist Romain Rolland used their combined influence to help secure the first performance of Bourgogne. Busoni was in the audience for the premiere, and Debussy corresponded with Varese sympathetically both before and after the event.

Inspired by the wild area of Burgundy where he grew up, the symphonic poem seems likely to have included some impressionist and romantic influences, in spite of the composer’s resistance to turning into “a little D’Indy”. Reviewing the performance, however, the Berlin music critic Bruno Schrader described it as “an infernal din, mere caterwauling”. On the other hand Alfred Kerr thought it “full of fascinating beauties”. The audience rioted far more than they did at the performance of Schoenberg’s Pelleas et Mellisande, which was played in the same week. In any case, by 1913 Varese was a veteran of such scandals, to the extent that he could sit through the famous premier of Le Sacre du printemps on May 29th with no surprise. “He simply thought of the Russian composer as having done his duty”, says his biographer, Fernand Oullette.

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