Edgard Varèse’s Octandre

HearThisInConcert-01OpusNovus: Through Time & Space
Sunday, 18 November 2018 at 5:00pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Orchestra Hall

See also: Composition Seminar presented by Assistant Professor, Dr. Chen ZhangYi

Contributed by Tai Yun Ming (BMUS1, YST)


Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse, also known simply as Edgard Varèse (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965) was a French-born American composer.[1] 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 appealed to Modernist composers such as Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who later regarded Varèse as a major influence on their work.[2]

In the same way that technological advancements were keeping pace with scientific thought, Varese sought to offer the music world novel and versatile sound possibilities. He coined the term “organized sound” as his definition of music. Emphasizing timbre and rhythm,Varèse is best known for pieces centering on percussion, and for electronics combined with acoustic instruments. Poeme èlectronique, which Varèse composed with only electronic sounds, established him as the “Father of Electronic Music.” [2]

Varèse often insisted that music is both a science and an art. [3] The artist in him always introduced sounds that never existed before in music, and the scientist in him was a self-critical perfectionist. 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.” [4] Varèse’s output is small but his influence is big. He actively promoted performances of works by other 20th-century composers and founded the International Composers’ Guild (ICG) in 1921 and the Pan-American Association of Composers in 1926. [1]


Octandre was composed in 1923, first published by J. Curwen & Sons of London in 1924. [5] It premiered in New York on January 13th 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” is a quasi-mathematical term referring both to its eight-player ensemble and the word’s literal meaning, a flower with eight stamens. It is scored for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet (doubling E-flat clarinet), bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, and double bass. [2]

Unlike Varèse’s other works, the percussion is absent in Octandre. Being a sonic researcher, he perhaps wanted to test his ability to work without his favorite tools and so, deliberately limited himself. Without straying away from his usual aesthetic, Varèse gives power to the winds, brass and double bass in order to make up for the absent percussion instruments. They are often used to articulate nervous rhythmic motifs that unexpectedly accumulate from solo passages into massive, weapon-like pounding as if they were percussion instruments. [3]

The piece is in three movements:

  1. Assez lent
  2. Très vif et nerveux
  • Grave-Animé et jubilatoire

The first movement is framed by a plaintive oboe melody that exhibits one of Varèse’s chief stylistic characteristics; a penchant for the minor second interval and its inversion, the major seventh. The answering clarinet passage employs another melodic gesture characteristic of Varèse; a series of repeated notes. The second movement is a fleeting scherzo with interesting rhythmic patterns distributed among ever-changing combinations of instrumental colours. The third movement opens with a somber introductory passage that leads into a brisk fugal section . The fugue subject is broken into its component parts and subjected to a series of rhythmic transformations. The original subject returns at the very end to close the work. [4] This is interesting because the employment of such a traditional form is unusual for Varèse.

Octandre is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. For example, the oboe melody that opens Octandre recalls the high bassoon solo that opens the Rite of Spring. Some of the metric dislocations heard in the third movement seem to be inspired by “The Glorification of the Chosen One” from Stravinsky’s masterpiece. [4]  However, despite the allusions to Stravinsky, Varèse’s Octandre stands on its own as an innovation of sound colours that sheds new light on traditional octet works.


[1] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edgard-Varese#ref159180

[2] https://cmi-sa.org/octandre-edgard-varese/

[3] https://www.allmusic.com/composition/octandre-for-flute-oboe-clarinet-bassoon-horn-trumpet-trombone-and-double-bass-mc0002362320

[4] https://www.umwindorchestra.com/single-post/2010/07/04/Edgard-Var%C3%A8se-Octandre

[5] http://www.chouwenchung.org/works/varese_1923_octandre.php

Categories Compositions

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