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VARÈSE: Astronomer in Sound

By Malcolm MacDonald

Published by Kahn & Averill, April 2003

448 pages

ISBN: 187108279X £24.95



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 of appendices.
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
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.


John Leeman

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