Ionisation : Work information

Edgard Varèse ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Ensemble 'Die Reihe', Friedrich Cerha (Conductor)

This work

Work name
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1931-00-00 02:00:00

This recording

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  • 5:34 min

The Composers

Edgard Varèse

Born in Paris, Edgard Varèse grew up in Burgundy then Turin from 1892. There he received compositional lessons from Giovanni Bolzoni, who was impressed enough with his abilities not to charge him for the tuition. Returning to Paris in 1903, he began studying at the Schola Cantorum the following year under d’Indy. His work at the time drew the approving attentions of Debussy, and after moving to Berlin in 1907 he received similar accolades from Richard Strauss, who performed his symphonic poem Bourgogne. At this time his compositional style was conventionally late romantic; later he was to renounce the idiom. Many of his early works went missing, perhaps going the way of Bourgogne which he destroyed in dissatisfaction.

By 1913 Varèse was seeking new methods of composition. A brief conscription was ended by a chronic lung condition, and in 1915 he left for New York. After initial difficulties finding employment, America’s entry into the war meant German conductors fell out of favour, and Varèse was able to lead ensembles such as the Cincinnatti Symphony Orchestra. A perceived lack of flair on the podium and the desire to further new music led him to found his own ensemble in New York, and the resulting International Composers’ Guild began performing in 1922. Contemporaneously Varèse began to find his new compositional voice; Offrandes from the same year was his first major work still to be performed today.

With Hyperprism the following year Varèse consolidated his ideas of a new music made not of traditional themes but of organised sound. The work’s unprecedented reliance on percussion led to widespread incomprehension, which Varèse was to compound with works such as Ionisation, the first work to use electronic means of sound production. Associations with innovators such as Leo Theremin had begun his fascination with this emergent resource, culminating in tape works such as Poème Electronique.

Varèse was influential in inverse proportion to his small output. The challenging nature of his works, combined with the often bizarre resources needed for their performance, meant that even his few committed exponents could not give his pieces much more than occasional airings. However, performances from Stokowski and Slonimsky were sufficient to cement his reputation as a father of the avant-garde, and by the 1950s his influence was being built upon by the likes of Stockhausen. Varèse’s clean break with tradition and the cohesive nature of his music were a model to be followed for many years thereafter.