Edgard Varèse: Arcana, performed by the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Pascal Rophé

Duration : 20 minutes

Pascal Rophé conducts the Orchestre National de France performing "Arcana", work for orchestra composed by Edgard Varèse between 1925 and 1927. Excerpt from the live concert recording on 24 May 2018 at the Radio France Auditorium (Paris).

In 1925, living across the Atlantic, Edgard Varèse came over to Paris to stay on the Île Saint-Louis. On 9 October, he wrote to his wife: "The two Fanfares I dreamed—I was on a boat that was turning around and around—in the middle of the ocean—spinning around in great circles. In the distance I could see a lighthouse, a very high—and on the top an angel—and the angel was you—a trumpet in each hand. Alternating projections of different colors: red, green, yellow, blue—and you were playing Fanfare No.1, trumpet in right hand. Then suddenly the sky became incandescent—blinding—you raised your left hand to your mouth and the Fanfare 2 blared. And the boat kept turning and spinning—and the alternation of projections and incandescence became more frequent—intensified—and the fanfares more nervous—impatient…and then—merde—I woke up. But anyways they will be in Arcana". Varèse composed the two fanfares in question, meant for him and him alone, and immediately destroyed. Yet, their presence is undeniable in the explosive opening of Arcana. The title refers to the mysteries of alchemy. As an epigraph to the score was an excerpt from Paracelsus's Hermetic Astronomy: "Six stars are established. Besides these there is still another star, Imagination, Which gives birth to new stars, And a new heaven." 

Through Arcana, Varèse continued his exploration of the realm of dreams, convinced that the birth of art comes not from reason but the unconscious, precious at a time of fervent psychoanalysis and surrealist fantasy. French composer Florent Schmitt understood this aspect completely, describing Arcana following its première as "a magnificently stylised nightmare, a nightmare of giants".

Having finished his studies in electro-acoustic engineering, Varèse moved to America in 1915. There he became interested in sound itself rather than music, no longer working with fixed notes but rather frequencies, timbres, durations and densities, introducing new instruments into the orchestra, such as the string drum in Intégrales and sirens in Ionisation. As for Arcana, the programme for the première explains that the work may be considered "as an large-scale and free interpretation of the passacaille form: the development of an initial idea through melodic, rhythmic and instrumental transmutation". 

Within these swarming motifs lies therefore an idea essential to the general cohesion. However, the phrases, harmonic and rhythmic patterns are above all motivated by a powerful and irresistible momentum, leading to powerful chords called "skyscrapers" by Arthur Hoéré, built by gradually adding notes, capable of occupying the entire soundscape, from the lowest frequencies to the highest.

The momentum is occasionally broken, interrupted or simply halted by long silences, but each element seems launched in the same direction, as if subservient to a vectorial force dictating the direction for all objects to follow, no matter their temporal differences or registers. From this is born an irresistible music from start to finish, climaxing in the highest registers over an enigmatic percussion accompaniment. The work is almost reminiscent of the work Amériques, first performed in 1926 in Philadelphia. In his methods of transforming instrumental and orchestral sounds, Varèse was quite possibly the most experimental of composers.

Musical alchemists

More than Faust, it is Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice that first comes to Varèse's mind when asked about alchemy. However, countless composers have dabbled with the science in search of the philosopher's stone or immersed themselves in mysterious tomes: Jean de Garlande in the Middle Ages, or the Pascal Colasse from Versailles. In Mantua, Monteverdi himself fell in love with the dangerous discipline whilst serving the Gonzague family. The composer explained: "I hope to find a je-ne-sais-quoi, to make then a je-ne-sais-quoi, and then, if it pleases God, to explain a je-ne-sais-quoi". Though ultimately unconcerned by this unlikely quest, Monteverdi's son on the other hand would later require the help of his father in getting out of the jails of the Inquisition, imprisoned for the possession of censored books.

Text by François-Gildas Tual

L'Orchestre National de France performs Webern, Dusapin, Stravinsky and Varèse
Full concert
The Orchestre National de France performs Webern, Dusapin, Stravinsky and Varèse
Auditorium de la Maison de la Radio
Edgard Varèse
All artists
  • Pascal RophéConductor
  • Orchestre National de FranceOrchestra