“Bodies of Sound in Space”

Varese: Arcana / Martin: Concerto for 7 Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra

Jean Martinon / The Chicago Symphony Orchestra

RCA LSC-2914


I like music that explodes into space.

Edgard Varese

One indication of a work’s significance in the post-Romantic era was the inverse of the criticism and hostility hurled at it after (and sometimes during) its premiere. Stravinsky, Ives and Riegger all experienced severe backlashes to their unconventional music. Such was the reaction to Edgard Varese’s Arcana when it premiered in 1927 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Leopold Stokowski. The haters of the unconventional, monumental work reached a consensus summed up by music critic Oscar Thompson: “There was no mercy in its disharmony, no pity in its succession of screaming, clashing, clangorous discords.”

And it’s true that to listeners in the 1920s, used to scandalous avant-garde pieces from composers like Henry Cowell and George Antheil, Arcana must have sounded like a new form of music altogether. Even now, used to digital manipulations and mixing as we are, it still sounds like some mysterious cosmological event. Hearing it for the first time, you’ll understand why so many conservative reviewers and general audiences were stunned by Varese’s symphonic experiment.

Varese was born in 1883 in Paris. His earliest musical influences were the unlikely pair of Richard Strauss and the great Bach transcriber Ferruccio Busoni. His first work, Hyperprism, appeared in 1923, after he’d relocated from Berlin to America and founded the International Composers Guild (ICG). The unorthodox scoring is for wind, brass and percussion. Varese’s pieces were incredibly difficult to compose (there are a half dozen in all) because of his rejection of all systems of composition; essentially, he had to create a new musical methodology of his own, from scratch. It would be like a painter compelled to invent color for each of her canvases. Ionisation (1929-33) is scored for 13 percussionists, and is based on molecular movements.

But it wasn’t until Deserts (1936) that the pioneering nature of Varese’s music became wholly apparent, as it was the first ever work to incorporate tape-recorded sound into its instrumentation. Varese was one of those innovators who’s ahead of the people who are ahead of their time. His Poeme Electronique (1958) is eight-minutes of proto-electronica, and was completed to be broadcast out of 425 loudspeakers at the World’s Fair in Brussels. 

Perhaps his most accessible work, Arcana is an attempt to make alchemy of pure sound, as the title suggests. (It’s based on Varese’s conception of the Renaissance alchemist, and possible inspiration for Frankenstein, Paracelsus.) Arranged in an 11-note “sound-cloud”, it’s an enormity of music–Varese termed it “absolute music” for a reason. It was based on a dream of his, and the fantastical elements seem built of surreal, bristling wavelengths that go from titanic to a climax that’s barely audible, like the dwindling echoes of a distant constellation. Cutting-edge scoring, with Varese’s trademark percussion at the fore, includes a string attached to one of the drums that, when swiped with a strip of leather, sounds like a ferocious roar. It’s a phrasal instead of thematic work, with distortions and quasi-variations: an alchemical whirlwind that takes order and transmutes it into chaos.

Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra give a performance that totally meets Varese’s original somewhere in the deepest parts of space, with sound production that’s stupendous on this mid-1960s RCA recording.

Cosmic Romanticism

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Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 “Organ”

Gaston Litaize, organ / Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim

Deutsche Grammophon 2530 619

There goes the French Beethoven.

-Charles Gounod, after hearing Saint-Saens’s 3rd Symphony


I’ve always considered Saint-Saens a gateway to more “classical” classical music. His 5 piano concertos are entertaining melody machines, with few pretensions and a very big Romanticism. If you equated classical composers of the period to directors of blockbusters today, Brahms would be Spielberg, Wagner is Michael Bay, Bruckner might be Christopher Nolan, Dvorak is Tarantino (obviously!) and Saint-Saens would have to be Paul Feig, or some other helmsman of crowd-pleasing rom-coms with moments of seriousness and real sentiment. Saint-Saens is universally known for his Carnival of the Animals; probably it’s the first symphonic work marketed exclusively to children and parents. The same year it came out, 1886, marked the appearance of his grandest work.

And grandeur is a good descriptor of the 3rd Symphony. Tom Service, in the Guardian, makes a compelling case that the 3rd is one of the period’s greatest orchestral works, and that it should not deter listeners that the main theme from the finale has been used in the film Babe and as the national anthem for Atlantium, a micronation founded by three teenagers and located in Australia (and which sounds like some Borgesian jest).

For all it’s quotable melodies and larger-than-life symphonism, the 3rd is structurally experimental, employing, along with a huge symphony, a part for piano (it takes four hands to pull of the blazing figurations) and, famously, an organ. It’s also arranged in two parts instead of the obligatory four. Like a Liszt tone-poem, the 3rd is bursting with color and episode, and is arguably the best work Saint-Saens would compose. The monumental finale, even by the standards of late 19th century finales, is truly universe-rattling, with an organ outro that’s so deep and alien in the symphonic domain that it sounds like vibrations from a distant planet interfering with the sound-waves of the recording.

Mussorgsky’s Tone Paintings

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Pomp and folklore intermingle in these series of ten impressions by Modest Mussorgsky, done in 1874, and originally for solo piano. Each piece depicts one of Victor Hartmann’s paintings from an actual exhibit, with interludes called “Promenades” tracing the composer’s autobiographical jaunt through the museum. In 1922, Maurice Ravel orchestrated the piece, but today it’s often heard in the showstopper piano version for the most ambitious of pianists.

Mussorgsky’s hair-raising soundtrack to Baba-Yaga (is there anything scarier than Russian fairy tales?) in the 9th scene is a classic; the tenth, “The Great Gate of Kiev” is a big magisterial closer.

On this 1950s RCA Victor recording, with Fritz Reiner and the CSO, yet another painting shows an orchestra getting ready to perform.