Octandre—Edgard Varèse

Born December 22, 1883, in Paris

Died November 6, 1965, in New York City

Edgar Varèse trained in Paris and extended his contacts with artists in Berlin, where he met Ferruccio Busoni and Arnold Schoenberg – both of whom he owed much of his revolutionary ideas.  During his career in New York, he attracted modern composers such as Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who later regarded Varèse as a major influence on their work.

Varèse is best known for pieces centering on percussion, on electronics combined with acoustic instruments, and for one purely electronic piece, Poeme èlectronique, which best contributed to his being known as the “Father of Electronic Music.”

His startling sounds were planned and shaped, a concept that led to the creation of the term “organized sound,” which aimed for the grouping of timbres and rhythms. This whole new definition of music was intended as an assertion that a new age was beginning, an age of scientific drive to contrast with the pastoral and literary evocations of Romanticism. In the same way technological advance was keeping pace with scientific thought, Varese sought to offer the music world novel and versatile sound possibilities.

Tonight’s work was composed in 1923 and first performed in New York on January 13, 1924, under the direction of E. Robert Smith, a celebrated performer of the piano music of Debussy and an artist dedicated to the performance of works by living composers. Octandre, which quasi-mathematical title refers both to its eight-player ensemble and the word’s literal meaning, a flower with eight stamens, is scored for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet (doubling E-flat clarinet), bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass.

For Varèse, the percussion brought dynamic force and the means to create a rhythmic underlying of the sounds of woodwinds and brass; however, unlike previous works – Amériques, Offrandes, Hyperprism—where percussion forms the core of his sound, in Octandre, it is precisely the absence of this force that brings him closer to realizing a vision of unprecedented music. Without straying away from his usual aesthetic, Varèse gives power to the winds, brass and double bass in order to fill in for the absent percussion instruments.

The piece is in three movements, labeled according to tempo – Assez lent, Très vif et nerveux,  Grave-Animé et jubilatoire.  Each opens with a different instrument to set its particular mood– oboe, piccolo, and bassoon – and they are often used only to articulate nervous rhythmic motifs that gather from solo passages into great, shocking waves of sound.  For instance, the second movement begins as a scherzo of piccolo repeated notes, which are pushed aside by the brass. The final chord is a violent crescendo, which reduces to the solo double bass leading into the finale, which begins “grave” but grows into an energetic fugue with the successive entries of oboe, bassoon, and clarinet.

– Program notes written by Silvia Santinelli, Co-Founder


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