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Pierre Boulez

Gavin Thomas introduces the work of Pierre Boulez (1925–).


Composer, conductor, theorist, visionary: Pierre Boulez has been many things to many people.

To some he is quite simply the single most significant classical musician of the past fifty years; to others, he’s a superannuated modernist whose natural gifts have been stifled by his constant need to intellectualize and pontificate.

Whatever one’s attitude, Boulez’s pervasive influence on today’s musical culture – from avant-garde compositional theory to the concert repertoire of the world’s major symphony orchestras – is virtually impossible to ignore.

Born in southeastern France in 1925, Boulez studied composition with Messiaen in Paris before bursting into spectacular compositional life in the late 1940s with a sequence of remarkably accomplished pieces such as the first two piano sonatas and the cantatas Le visage nuptial and Le soleil des eaux – works which at once summarize and surpass all that was then most modern in music.

Repudiating all the compromises with tradition which, he claimed, marred the work even of composers as progressive as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Boulez set about creating a brave new musical world, untouched by sentiment or retrospection – as in the fearlessly complex and nerve-janglingly dissonant Piano Sonata no. 2, which expresses an exuberance bordering almost on rage, making clear Boulez’s determination, not so much to wipe the slate clean as to smash it to bits.

Thus established as the enfant terrible of French music, Boulez embarked on a period of research into ways of writing music that would eradicate all traces of tradition, an enterprise he shared with other young iconoclasts such as Stockhausen and Nono – the so-called “Darmstadt School”, named after the German town which hosted a summer school devoted to their ideals.

It was Messiaen’s uncharacteristically austere Mode de valeurs et d’intensités which showed how, by systematically ordering pitch, rhythm and dynamics in strict numerical sequences, one could write “automatic” music.

And it was Boulez who produced, in Structures I for two pianos, the classic work of what has come to be known as “total serialism”: music (in its first movement at least) of absolute abstraction and pure process.

Boulez, the figurehead of the hyper-modernist cause, continued to promulgate the doctrine loudly in his many writings and pronouncements.

Nevertheless, his next major work, Le marteau sans maître, was remarkable more for its pure love of musical colour and its fascinatingly incantatory melodic lines than for any theoretical advances, as was the still grander work for voice and ensemble which followed, Pli selon pli.

As the 1950s and 1960s progressed, Boulez’s effortless creative confidence seemed to evaporate, though there was no slackening in his protean intellectual speculations.

He flirted with electronics in Poésie pour pouvoir, with open-ended form in Figures, doubles, prismes, and with indeterminacy in the Piano Sonata No. 3 – all accompanied by self-justificatory essays, and all subsequently withdrawn, revised or left unfinished.

It was at this time that Boulez emerged as a conductor of international standing – perhaps finding in conducting a surrogate outlet for his increasingly stifled compositional urges.

By 1970 he was holding prestigious but onerous positions as chief conductor of both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, and the compositions had virtually dried up.

The uncharacteristically sombre orchestral work Rituel was the only finished work to emerge during the entire 1970s, and the remainder of his diminishing compositional output consisted not of fresh projects, but of revisions and recompositions of earlier pieces (Boulez has made a constant and confusing habit of constantly revising certain of his pieces, of issuing them in radically different versions, or sometimes simply leaving them “unfinished” for indefinite periods).

Then, in 1977, came the greatest public challenge of Boulez’s career, when he secured a colossal grant from the French government for the establishment of the Institut de Recherche et Co-ordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) , a futuristic musical laboratory buried under the Pompidou Centre in the heart of Paris.

Overseen by Boulez, IRCAM was to provide a hi-tech venue in which leading composers and scientists would work together to investigate the possibilities of technology in music, educating musicians and public in a set-up complete with its own resident ensemble, the peerless Ensemble InterContemporain.

In the history of music only Wagner previously had been able to command patronage on this scale, and expectations were high, the greatest one being that Boulez himself would use the resources of IRCAM to produce the masterpiece which seemed to be demanded by investment on such a massive scale.

Boulez’s response, Répons, premiered in 1981, rose magnificently to the challenge of producing a huge public statement using the latest computerized gadgetry and represented a high-water mark in his career as a composer.

Répons was to be Boulez’s (as yet) last major original undertaking using the IRCAM set-up, although he has continued to work intermittently with computer music in a series of smaller works, most notably, . . . explosante-fixe . . . , for flute and chamber ensemble (this being the latest reworking of a piece that, in characteristically Boulezian fashion, now exists in no less than four different versions).

Other works of the past two decades have included exquisite miniatures such as Dérive and Memoriale and further revisions and recompositions of earlier works (notably a refulgent new version of Le visage nuptial) which have made clear just how far Boulez’s earlier theoretical postures were at variance with his natural musical leanings towards the sumptuous, the sensuous and the quintessentially French.

Even so, despite this increasing shedding of creative inhibitions, Boulez’s seeming inability since the massive undertaking of Répons to tackle fresh major projects suggests, sadly, that one of the great inspirational sources of twentieth-century music has finally run out of steam.

Article and review pages originally published in The Rough Guide to Classical Music