Edgard Varèse

By: Brian Berger
December 22, 2011

“One must exhaust adversity,” declared French-American composer EDGARD VARÈSE (1883-1965). He could have chosen an easier way. Varèse’s education was first-rate, with such notable composers as Vincent D’Indy and Albert Roussel among his teachers in Paris. But while Varèse recognized the achievements of myriad eras, contemporary music was in a post-Wagnerian malaise. While the innovations of Debussy — whom Varèse befriended in 1907 — offered a way forward, the future he sought was in Berlin. There he found ambivalence and revelation, the latter in Ferrucio Busoni’s essay, “The Sketch Of A New Aesthetic In Music,” which included such aphorisms as “Music was born free, and to win freedom is its destiny.” In 1915 Varèse moved to Greenwich Village; among anarchists, Dadaists and other radicals (and with future wife Louise Norton, later a lauded translator of French literature), he began realizing that destiny. From 1918 to 1936, he composed nine unique works, demonstrating his Busoni-inspired belief that “music is organized sound,” no rules required, among then Amériques, Hyperprism, Arcana, and Ionisation [see below]. In 1950, the first album of Varèse’s compositions appeared, to be discovered three later by a Lancaster, California teenager named Frank Zappa: “I thought it was great a mad scientist had gotten to make a record.” Varèse wasn’t done: Déserts (1954) included magnetic tape and the astonishing Poème électronique (1958) was filmed by Le Corbusier [see below]. Again, Varèse: “Dying is the privilege of the weary; the present-day composers refuse to die.”




On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenneth Rexroth.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Psychonaut (1874-83) and Modernist (1884-93) Generations.


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