Boulez disappears into the landscape

In the news today is the passing of Pierre Boulez, the French composer and conductor who was a monumental figure in twentieth century classical music.


Young Boulez (the “Z” in his name is not silent) belonged to an international movement which pushed the boundaries of conventional composition, first inspired by Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique as a student of Oliver Messiaen, who last appeared here on the Hymie’s blog. The music was often atonal and decidedly modern, a response to the way in which the traditional repertoire was co-opted for nationalistic purposes during the Second World War.

His early works took form from serialism, musique concrète and aleatoric music. This last a technique which leave an element of chance in the composition. Boulez’s conception of aleatoric music was different from the indeterminate works of composers like John Cage — we think of his aleatoric approach as more like the “Choose your own adventure” books we read as kids. The performer may follow through several composed outcomes.

In 1955 Boulez set the surreal poetry of René Char to music in “Le Marteau Sans Maître” (The Hammer without a Master), his first major work and a landmark in modern classical music. The score calls for no bass instrument, and the way it employs the vibraphone and guitar imply exotic influences, as well as that of Messiaen. When debuted in the United States it was well received by Igor Stravinsky.

Beginning in the 1950s, Boulez focused on conducting, and by the end of the following decade had stood before the podium of nearly every great orchestra of the time, making his American debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1965 at the invitation of George Szell. We’d say he took up the baton, but the phrase would not fit because Boulez did not conduct with one. He was, nonetheless, known for his precision, as well as his attuned ears. Today’s New York Times obituary notes the “countless stories of him detecting faulty intonation, say, from the third oboe in a complex piece.”

His repertoire as a conductor remained limited and modern, and even into the sixties he writing and public remarks were polemic and controversial. Boulez refused to conduct Tchaikovsky, for instance — once putting it in no uncertain terms: “I hate Tchaikovsky and will not conduct him. But if the audience want him, it can have him.”


Boulez’s status as an iconoclast was why he was unexpectedly chosen to succeed Leonard Bernstein as the musical director of the New York Philharmonic in June, 1969. The two could not have been more different in the eyes of the public. Under Boulez the orchestra was brought begrudgingly into the twentieth century, although his first season had a focus on Liszt (when choosing music from past generations Boulez always identified with the progressives). Over six years in New York, splitting his time with the BBC Symphony in London, Boulez became controversial and at times unpopular with audiences and even musicians for his focus on modern material.


His appointment to the position in New York offered new opportunities for his contract with Columbia Records, which had begun with a successful recording of Alban Berg’s influential opera, Wozzeck, several years earlier. Conducting the New York Philharmonic, Boulez made excellent recordings for Columbia of several other early 20th century works, notably Stravinksy’s ballets and late works by Claude Debussy. Recordings of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe earned Grammys in 1973 and 1975.

boulez conducts debussy

In 1970, Columbia released the most unpopular recording Boulez would make with the New York Philharmonic, an interpretation of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with the first movement taken at an agonizingly slow tempo. Decades later Boulez must have stung from the criticism it received, because he requested the album not be reissued on CD (his 7th is no treasure either). In a 2003 book by Jean Vermeil, Conversations with Boulez, he mentions the incident. “As for Beethoven’s Fifth, I probably would take that rather faster. At the time it seemed to me that people took off like a bat out of hell in the first movement, thereby diminishing the movement’s substance and weight, despite the dynamics. I probably overcompensated.” Aside from its inclusion in a gigantic sixty-seven disc box set of Boulez’s Columbia recordings, it remains out of print.

Love it or hate it, at least he had the courage and conviction to try. In a statement released yesterday, French President François Hollande said of Boulez that, “He never ceased to think about subjects in relation to one another; he made painting, poetry, architecture, cinema and music communicate with each other, always in the service of a more humane society.” Yet for all his fame and all the influence he had on classical music over decades, Boulez remains in death an enigma, just as described in the title of Joan Peyser’s 1976 biography, Composer, Conductor, Enigma.

He was famously guarded about his personal life, once saying he would be the only composer to die without a biography. There is little to be found about his personal life in the pages of Peyser’s psychoanalytic book. Any to be found insight comes from observations of Boulez at work rehearsing. His own works offer even less — his works for voice borrow their words, from poet René Char in “Hammer without a Master” and other works, and from Stéphane Mallarmé in Pli Selon Pli.

A notorious perfectionist, Boulez’s later compositions could be described as ongoing works in progress — often exploring the electronic music he first approached in the 50s — and some never came to a true conclusion. He also frequently revisited and revised even his earliest material. As a conductor, there was some much-noted mellowing of his polemic views, although he never once conducted a note of Tchaikovsky, whether the audience would want it or not.

A 1992 recording of Bartók ballet pantomime The Wooden Prince is one of our favorite pieces he conducted in his entire career, paced perfectly and capturing all of the rootsy beauty of its composer.

Biographer Peyser revisited Boulez in her history of 20th century music, in which his turbulent career was placed in the foreground. In To Boulez and Back, he describes in his own words how he approached a great work of art:

If it were necessary for me to find a profound motive for such a work, it would be the search for anonymity. Perhaps I can explain it best by an old Chinese story: a painter drew a landscape so beautiful that he entered the picture and disappeared. For me that is the definition of a great work — a landscape painted so well the artist disappeared into it. 


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