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One brief Verlaine setting apart, we will never know what Varèse's creative personality was like in the days of his French youth, but we do know that it underwent massive transformation when -- and perhaps because -- he emigrated permanently to America -- yet there remains an undeniable Debussyan thread which informs his work on both sides of the Atlantic.

I realise that I am not especially known for citing Stravinsky in any context, but this noted twentieth century chameleon certainly changed his style and manner to suit the moment -- and yet his music at almost all times is in some senses 'the same'; all Stravinsky's music does not all sound 'the same', yet it really does always sound like Stravinsky, its identity so unmistakable as to suggest that he retained some kind of rubber-stamp in his Pandora's box of compositional tricks and that no composition would be allowed out of his workroom without its prior imposition upon the score.

The same or not the same?
The same or not the same?

There can be no doubt that, in the past 120 years or so, many composers' lives have, like those of their listeners, undergone far more of the kind of overwhelming disturbances which Mr Standford infers by the words 'altered, affected or damaged by circumstance'; major world events and the vast increases in travel and communication possibilities have played their parts in ensuring this. Perhaps this is why the comparative lingua franca of Haydn's and Mozart's day gave way to the plethora of concurrent stylistic persuasions wherein Ferneyhough can work alongside Tavener, Carter alongside Copland, Glass and Adams alongside Rautavaara and Sorabji. Perhaps the 'confusion' of which Mr Standford speaks may arise more potently in listeners confronted by such a wide diversity of simultaneous expressive styles and manners. Or maybe we have all taken a leaf out of Ives's book and learned to take not just our dissonance but also our polystylism 'like a man' (Political correctness obviously did not exist in New England a century or so ago!).

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Copyright © 2 November 2004 Alistair Hinton, Bath UK


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