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).
The work is in one movement which lasts around twenty-three minutes, with full orchestral involvement almost 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 to those found in 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 winds. 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 in the manner of Stravinsky. The blocks are marked primarily by texture and timbre, with melody and rhythm being much more malleable. This remained common practice for Varese throughout his career.
A number of these blocks are built out of direct quotations from other works, including the Peripetie from Schoenberg's Fünf Orchesterstücke Op. 16, the first movement of Mahler's Third Symphony, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, along with references to the big band sound of the 1920s.
Commentary on Amériques has focused on its elemental power, and its vivid representation of New York, not failing to incorporate its howling police car sirens. Varèse used the sirens for structural importance, as representions of 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 Orchestre des Concerts Poulet under Gaston Poulet at the Maison Gaveau. It was first recorded in 1960 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.
The original version of 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