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Edgard Varèse: "Octandre"

There is a long history in wind music of octet writing dating back to the 18th century harmoniemusik serenades, divertimenti, etc. The Mozart serenades, Beethoven Octet, and the Stravinsky Octet are just a few of the significant works for eight winds alone. Edgard Varèse continued this tradition (albeit in a completely different direction) in 1923 with his Octandre. The piece has proven to be hugely influential to later composers (as noted in the program notes below).

Edgard Varese, Octandre

I. Assez lent II. Très vif et nerveux III. Grave-Animé et jubilatoire

Below are program notes from the Berkeley Symphony.

Edgard Victor Achilles Charles Varèse was born on December 22, 1883 in Paris. He died on November 6, 1965 in New York City. Octandre was composed in 1923, and was first heard on January 13, 1924, in a performance sponsored by the International Composers Guild (ICG) at the Vanderbilt Theater in New York conducted by E. Robert Schmitz, the work’s dedicatee. J. Curwen and Sons of London published Octandre in 1924. The piece is scored for eight soloists playing a variety of instruments: flute (alternating with piccolo), oboe, clarinet in B-flat (alternating with clarinet in E-flat), bassoon, horn, trumpet, tenor trombone, and double bass.

Duration ca. 7 min.

Parisian by birth, Edgard Varèse felt his true home to be Burgundy, where he spent much of his childhood. His family moved to Turin in 1893, and in 1903 he struck off on his own to Paris to study music. There his teachers were Albert Roussel (counterpoint and fugue), Vincent d’Indy (conducting), and Charles-Marie Widor (composition). From 1907 to 1915 he divided his time between Paris (where he came to know Claude Debussy) and Berlin, where he made the acquaintance of Ferruccio Busoni and Arnold Schoenberg. In 1915, he moved to New York City, which was to remain his home base for the rest of his life (he became an American citizen in 1926).

Varèse is regarded as one of the more adventurous composers of his generation, and was a pioneer in the field of electronic music. In the 1920s and 1930s he composed music for such newly invented electronic instruments as the theremin and the ondes martenot. In 1933 he tried, and failed, to raise funds to establish a center for electronic music; only after an anonymous donor gave him an Ampex tape recorder in 1953 was he able to pursue his dream of exploring electronic composition in depth. His best-known work from this period is the Poème électronique, composed for the Philips pavilion (designed by LeCorbusier) at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.

Self-critical and perfectionist, Varèse’s output of works is small: only a dozen or so completed compositions survive. As he told an interviewer from the New York Times in December 1923, "I have always been an experimenter. But my experiments go into the wastepaper basket. I give only finished works to the public."

About a month later, Varèse’s Octandre for eight solo instruments had its premiere (the title refers to the biological term for a flower with eight stamens). Octandre is a set of three meticulously crafted miniatures played without a break. The first movement is framed by a plaintive oboe melody that exhibits one of Varèse’s chief stylistic characteristics: a penchant for the interval of the minor second (and by octave extension, the minor ninth) and its inversion, the major seventh. The answering clarinet passage employs another melodic gesture characteristic of Varèse, a series of repeated notes. Reducing the melody to a single pitch allows the composer to focus attention on the rhythmic and coloristic aspects of the music. Indeed, the second movement is a fleet scherzo whose interest comes from rhythmic patterns distributed among ever-changing combinations of instrumental colors. As Paul Griffiths has written in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "Varèse’s music is typically composed of parallel streams, each made up of 'sound-masses' and silences, but with continuity maintained by the overlapping of the streams."

The third movement opens with a somber introductory passage that leads into a brisk fugal section (the employment of such a traditional form is unusual for Varèse). The fugue subject is then broken into its component parts and subjected to a series of rhythmic transformations, but the original subject returns at the very end to close the work.

Octandre contains many echoes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, though paradoxically reduced to chamber proportions. For example, the oboe melody that opens Octandre recalls the high bassoon solo that opens the Rite. Some of the metric dislocations heard in the third movement seem to be inspired by “The Glorification of the Chosen One” from Part II of Stravinsky’s masterpiece. But Varèse gave to music history as good as he got, and in spite of his small oeuvre, he played a large role in the development of the music of the 20th century. A diverse array of later composers, including Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Frank Zappa (who put Octandre at the top of his “desert island” music list) count him as a major influence.

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