19 March 2012

Edgard Varèse - Amériques

As I described in this post, one of my musical highlights of 2011 was the performance of Edgard Varèse's Amériques by the Concertgebouworkest. I only knew Varèse by name because of "The Rest Is Noise" by Alex Ross (must-read for everyone!) and hadn't heard his music before but the concert was so impressive that I quickly sought out more of his music and everything I've heard so far has been amazing. Amériques is a crazy piece, it's written for a massive orchestra (especially the original version, which is what the Concertgebouworkest played) and there's all sorts of funny sounds in there but most of all it's such an intense and powerful work.

Edgard Varèse - Amériques.
Performed by the Polish National Symphony Radio Orchestra, cond. Christopher Lyndon-Gee.

Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) was a French/American composer. He lived in France, Italy and Germany before moving to the United States in 1921. Back in Europe he knew Debussy, Strauss, Satie and others and he had seen the first performances of Stravinsky's ballets - all influences he brought with him to the US. Amériques was the first piece he wrote there, and it's famous for its depiction of the New York skylines and the hustle and bustle of the city in general. He experimented with electronics as well as traditional instruments and thereby influenced a great number of other composers, including Penderecki, Stockhausen, Schnittke, Rihm, Xenakis and Messiaen.

Amériques was originally written in 1918-1921 and first performed in 1926 by the Philadelphia Orchestra, but in 1927 Varèse revised the work (both versions are still performed, though the revised version is definitely more common). It's scored for an orchestra with at least 10 percussionists who make all sorts of weird sounds (there's a siren! a wind machine! a lion's roar!). Its opening is obviously reminiscent of Debussy, but don't let that mislead you. Similarly, some of the rhythmic drive and mad dance-like moments in the music sound Stravinskean, but despite these influences, Amériques is a very idiosyncratic work that deserves to be played way way wayyyy more often.

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