Written between 1918 and 1921 and revised in 1927, it is scored for a very large, romantic orchestra with additional percussion (for eleven performers) including sirens. It was the first work Varèse composed after he moved to the United States, and although it was not his first work, he destroyed many of his earlier pieces, effectively making Amériques his opus one (although he never used that designation).
Formally, the work is in one movement which lasts for around twenty-three minutes, with full orchestral involvement virtually throughout. Although it opens quietly, with "Debussy-like musing", it quickly builds in dynamic power, and is punctuated by massive crescendos which are similar in style Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring but on a much larger scale. The work is marked by its fiercely dissonant chords, and rhythmically complex polyphonies for percussion and wind. It develops in continuous evolution with recurring short motifs, which are juxtaposed without development.
Structurally, the work is assembled by placing a number of self-contained 'blocks' of music against one another a la Stravinsky. The blocks are marked primarily by texture and timbre, with melody and rhythm being much more malleable (as would be common practice for Varese throughout his career.)
A number of these blocks are built out of direct or indirect quotations from other works. Some of the works quoted:
- The second piece of Schoenberg's Fünf Orchesterstücke Op. 16 (1909) - The first movement of Mahler's Third Symphony - Generic references to 1920s Big Band music - Stravinsky's Rite of Spring
Opinions of the work have focused on its elemental power, and its vivid expression of New York (replete with howling police cars). The siren was for Varèse of structural importance, however, representing a continuum pitch beyond twelve-tone equal temperament. Varèse intended the title Amériques to symbolize "discoveries - new worlds on earth, in the sky, or in the minds of men."
The original version of Amériques was premiered on 9 April 1926 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. The revised version was premiered on 30 May 1929 by the Orchestré des Concerts Poulet under Gaston Poulet at the Maison Gaveau. It was not until 1960 that it was recorded by the Utah Symphony Orchestra and Maurice Abravanel. In recent years it has emerged as a popular modernist showpiece in the orchestral repertoire, with recordings by Pierre Boulez, Christoph von Dohnanyi and Riccardo Chailly, among others.
Amériques is scored for the following very large orchestra with additional percussion:
13 Percussion Players
The revised version of 1927 reduced the instrumentation to the following:
9 Percussion Players
The Low Rattle, Triangle, Sleigh Bells, Whip, Gong, and Bass Drum 2 are shared by more than 1 player
String Notes: The number of players is not specified in the revised version
- Composer Biography - Varese, Edgard
- Gramophone Magazine, September 2001
- Varèse and the Music of Fire | Rudhyar Archival Project | Musical Works and Writings
- Quoted in Cambridge Companion to the Orchestra (2003) ed. Lawson, p. 63
- Gaston Poulet
- Edgard Varèse: Ameriques (Score), Colfranc, New York 1973, ed. Chou Wen-Chung