Classical Music Commentary: “Boulez est mort”

And yet, for all the violence of his youthful polemics and his unflinchingly-held beliefs, Pierre Boulez was neither demagogue nor ideologue.

The late Pierre Boulez --

The late Pierre Boulez — his extensive work as a conductor demonstrated much broader tastes than his writings (or his own music) might suggest.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

What is one to make of the life and career of Pierre Boulez, the dynamic French composer and conductor who died on Tuesday in Baden-Baden aged ninety? To his detractors – who number not a few – Boulez represented all that was wrong with classical music of the postwar era. His uncompromising dismissal of much of the standard canon (he described Mozart as “trivial” and famously loathed both Tchaikovsky and Sibelius; Shostakovich was damned as “the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler”) and other outspoken opinions, often expressed with dictatorial force and uncommon assurance; his embrace of controversy; his immense self-confidence; and his total appropriation of an uncompromising, dissonant musical language that extended, as Boulez saw it, the vocabulary of Schoenberg and Webern; all of this fed the image of the man as a cold, austere Destroyer of Musical Worlds.

To his acolytes, who also number not a few, Boulez was a prophet, misunderstood by the masses but not seeking their approval to begin with; the composer of some of the 20th century’s seminal scores; a visionary writer and theorist unafraid to puncture the bourgeoisie’s sacred cows; a musician with an exceptionally sharp ear and a keen sense of sonority; a man constantly on the creative move, never settled in one place for longer than he needed to be. Much like Wagner, whose Ring Cycle he conducted so memorably in 1976, Boulez the Composer and Musical Thinker was designed to evince strong reactions one way or the other: if one thing’s for sure it’s that he’s not for the faint of heart.

Philosophically, Boulez represented an aesthetic view that crystallized in the immediate aftermath of World War 2: namely, that, after the physical destruction of Old Europe (and, particularly, following the corruption of its most potent musical icons, Beethoven and Wagner, by the forces of fascism), a new order, one not reliant on the tainted accomplishments of the past, was necessary to take its place. It was a sentiment perhaps most thoroughly expressed in Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music and one to which one of Boulez’s best-known aphorisms – “any musician who has not experienced…the necessity for the dodecaphonic language is USELESS” – speaks. (Indeed, Boulez’s teacher, René Leibowitz, sounded a similar call in his book Schoenberg and His School, arguing that atonality, which had been banned by the dictatorships only to emerge in the aftermath of the Holocaust as a type of “pure” music, displayed “uncompromising moral strength.”)

And yet, for all the violence of his youthful polemics and his unflinchingly-held beliefs, Boulez was neither demagogue nor ideologue. One can’t argue that he “experienced…the necessity” of Serialism. He did. But his own music only used the Serial technique as a launching pad for further experiments: of form, harmony, technique, rhythm, technology. As far as the latter goes, no other musician of his generation possessed the combination of political savvy, fundraising ability, or vision to form IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), the research institute/laboratory Boulez founded in Paris in 1977 and which has been on the vanguard of developments in sound and electronic music for nearly forty years. Indeed, Parisian musical life today owes a significant debt to Boulez: the Cite de la Musique and new Philharmonie are both direct results of his advocacy and clout.

Similarly, Boulez’s extensive work as a conductor demonstrated much broader tastes than his writings (or his own music) might suggest. Building on a core repertoire of Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartók, Webern, and Berg, Boulez became one of the great Mahler and Bruckner conductors of the 20th century; his Wagner stands among the most transparent and visionary interpretations of that repertoire on record; late in life, he even took a shine to Haydn (having also conducted some very controversial Beethoven and Handel’s Water Music in New York in the 1970s) and confessed to enjoying listening to (though still not wanting to conduct) Tchaikovsky and Sibelius.

Taken all together, Boulez’s is a bewildering, somewhat contradictory, legacy, one that’s at once forward-looking but also, paradoxically, traditional in how it followed in the footsteps of a number of earlier musicians who blazed similar paths. “I may be wrong, but I equate music with culture,” Boulez told Gramophone’s Philip Clark in 2010, in a quote that might have come from Beethoven or Debussy or Wagner or Charles Ives. “I don’t think music is an entertainment product. It’s a product of culture – not for marketing, but to enrich lives. All these years, I’ve been trying to convince people that music is not there to please them; it’s there to disturb them.”


boulez score-logo

And disturb he did, both as a writer and a composer. The young Boulez was an angry man – “like a lion that had been flayed alive” was how his first important teacher, Olivier Messiaen, described him at the time – and his first infamous publication, a vicious obituary of Arnold Schoenberg, bears this out. “From Schoenberg’s pen flows a stream of infuriating clichés and formidable stereotypes redolent of the most wearily ostentatious romanticism,” runs one passage; the essay’s final phrase (“SCHOENBERG IS DEAD”) ensured Boulez’s place as a new generation’s musical rabble-rouser.

Yet Boulez’s acrimony wasn’t just an act: there’s a consistent thread that weaves its way through his writings and interviews, one that’s primarily frustrated by the innate conservatism of musical institutions and thought, disdainful of the artistic timidity of the masses, and crabbed by the unwillingness (as he saw it) of the previous generation of composers to take their most revolutionary impulses to their logical conclusions. His solutions to these conundrums are refreshingly radical if, at times, impractical. “All art of the past must be destroyed,” he decreed in 1971, the next year clarifying that he “meant to urge the public to grow up and once and for all to cut the umbilical cord attaching it to the past…We must restore the spirit of irreverence in music.” That restoration might involve “blow[ing] up the opera houses,” “exciting the curiosity of the snobs” (to engage audiences with new music), and “getting rid of history” (to replace the artifacts of the past with new creations).

For all the acerbity of his writings and his strong views on his contemporaries (John Cage was, to Boulez, “a performing monkey”; Karlheinz Stockhausen, “a hippie”; and he famously turned his back on Henri Dutilleux following the premiere of Dutilleux’s lush, diatonic Symphony no. 1), Boulez wasn’t all sound and fury. By his later years, he combined a razor-sharp intellect with rich reserves of Gallic charm; he was known for for his humor and love of musical gossip. Thankfully, though, he never really mellowed. “They’re wasting their time…I cannot polemicize with these people – they don’t exist, simply that,” he told Clark in that 2010 interview, speaking of a young generation of French, neo-tonal composers. His creed remained the same, even as it was framed more diplomatically and Boulez seemed to concede its inherent subjectivity: “I don’t estimate music in order of importance; simply it is, or isn’t, interesting. Hindemith:” – insert any number of similar composers here – “music which is very well put together, yes, but that says nothing to me.”

Boulez’s compositional catalogue may not be as big as some of his contemporaries but it’s just as potent as Berio’s or Ligeti’s. Much of his most important music was written by 1960 and among this outpouring stands some of the most significant music to emerge in the first decade after World War 2: Notations, the first two piano sonatas, Structures, Le marteau san maître, and Pli selon pli. Later major works include Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, Répons, and Sur incises (the last a score for three pianos, three harps, and three percussionists, that won Boulez the 2001 Grawemeyer Award), though much time in Boulez’s latter decades was given to revising and expanding earlier works (including the orchestrations of several of his piano Notations).

It almost goes without saying that none of his music is easy – each piece makes formidable philosophical, aesthetic, technical, and musical demands – and they all preclude any sort of easy acceptance. Yet to reject Boulez’s compositions out of hand is to err pretty grievously. On the one hand, they represent a pivotal era in recent Western history, one that, as far as the arts and contemporary classical music are concerned, remains too little known and widely misunderstood by the general public. Two, they form the bedrock for a potent body of music by the subsequent generation of European composers like George Benjamin, Tristan Murail, and Gerard Grisey. It’s impossible to imagine any of them without first Boulez. Additionally, the best of Boulez’s music offers a remarkable bridge between the pre-war generation of European composers and our own time. His understanding of the music of Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, and Bartók greatly informed his own works, from Le marteau san maître to …explosant/fixe… to Dérive 2 (the last one of his final major scores, completed in 2006). And, related to that, there is a lush beauty to be found lying not far beneath the hard surface of nearly all Boulez’s mature music. Oftentimes there’s also a sort of inexorable, driving energy or momentum to it as well: just listen to the Piano Sonata no. 2, thirty minutes of nonstop intensity that simply doesn’t let you go; like Beethoven for the Nuclear Age. Indeed, if you take it on its own terms, Boulez’s music will – even the knottiest of it – begin to give up some secrets.

That said, I’ve personally held serious reservations about a number of Boulez’s works: some of them (like the flute Sonatine and Livre pour cordes) strike me as emotionally chilly, lacking meaningful expressive depth, too caught up in their own assumed importance to make a lasting musical statement. To paraphrase Boulez’s observation about Hindemith, the music may be very well put together but it’s consistently failed to speak to me.

At the same time, a handful of his scores are pieces I simply can’t shake. Répons is, arguably, one of the greatest Modernist compositions of the 20th century, an extraordinary blend of acoustic instruments with electronics that crafts a sound world of beguiling textures and ravishing beauty; there simply isn’t anything else quite like it. Messagesquisse, an essay at once both wild and subdued, is another. Built on a tone row spelling out the name of new music patron Paul Sacher and scored for solo cello plus an ensemble of six cellos, it’s a piece that crafts as bracing a musical argument as anything Boulez wrote. And then there’s Dérive 1, (which happens to draw on elements of both Répons and Messagesquisse), another short piece, this of sensuous stasis, that proved an important musical guide for me in graduate school.

Regardless of personal bias, perhaps the biggest takeaway from Boulez’s canon is that his music is a kind that can’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) simply be listened to, it must be encountered in some visceral, living way. What, precisely, that experience looks like (and whether it’s one specific way or not) remains unclear. What is apparent is that the ways in which we encounter it now – occasionally in the concert hall but more often on record or video – don’t always do it justice. At the end of the day, it seems, there isn’t much distance between the the belligerent youth and contemporary music’s elder statesman: the writings and the music from all periods of Boulez’s career are but opposite sides of the same coin, both designed to make the complacent uncomfortable and always edging – however slowly – the ways we hear, think about, and understand music forwards.



No discussion of Boulez’s life would be complete without at least a mention of his work as a conductor. Beginning in the mid-1950s with the Domaine Musicale concerts he organized in Paris (devoted mainly to music of the avant-garde), Boulez’s career as a conductor quickly took off, first in Europe and, after his 1964 debut with the Cleveland Orchestra, in the United States. Boulez possessed a famously sensitive ear, which proved quite an asset in his chosen repertoire: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ives, Varese, Berg, Messiaen, Carter, and the thorny works of his contemporaries. The “Boulez sound” – Apollonian and emotionally cool but texturally crystalline and marked by a tight rhythmic focus – was a direct outcome of it. If it didn’t suit all his chosen repertoire (some of his Mahler, for instance, comes across as rather detached), it certainly fit Boulez’s Stravinsky, Debussy, Wagner, Berlioz, and virtually all the contemporary music he touched like a glove. And it resulted in some of the best Bruckner ever captured on disc.

By the late ‘60s, Boulez was one of the leading composers of his generation: in his prime in the early ‘70s, he was simultaneously musical advisor to the Cleveland Orchestra, principal conductor of the BBC Symphony, and music director of the New York Philharmonic. His tenure in New York (where he succeeded Leonard Bernstein) was famously rocky, though not nearly as dire as it’s often been made out to have been. And, though he conducted widely on these shores, Boulez’s most important relationships with American orchestras proved to be with those of Cleveland and Chicago (where, in 1993, he became principal guest conductor; at his death he was the Chicago Symphony’s conductor emeritus).

In Europe, where he conducted at Bayreuth and built lasting relationships with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, London Symphony, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and Berlin Staatskapelle, Boulez’s most important work as a conductor was arguably his leadership of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the crackerjack house ensemble for IRCAM. With them, he led (and recorded) nearly all of his own music, as well as major scores by (among others) Ligeti, Xenakis, Birtwistle, Ferneyhough, and – late in life – Mozart (!). And, while he shunned a teaching career (though he participated in countless residencies and masterclasses at conservatories around the world), Boulez established the Lucerne Festival Academy in 2004 for the express purpose on training young musicians in the performance of contemporary music.



I met Pierre Boulez twice, the first time after finding my way backstage seeking an autograph following a concert in 2001 in which he had led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in Mahler’s epochal Resurrection Symphony. I got the autograph (see above), a picture, and a quick exegesis of Mahler’s repetition of a two-note figure in the Symphony’s second movement (“it is simply to establish the sonority,” Boulez explained in his gently-accented English).

Two years later I was part of an “audience” of young musicians who were given an hour to sit in one of the Symphony Center rehearsal rooms with the maestro during breaks in his preparation for performances of Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet Symphony, also with the CSO. Again, he didn’t disappoint. There, for forty-five minutes (the rehearsals for Romeo ran long and our time was commensurately cut short), he expounded on his music and his life, paying special heed to his years in Paris during the German occupation and his studies with Messiaen and Leibowitz (the only thing the former couldn’t teach him, he noted with a wry smile, were “his religious beliefs”). It was one of the most compelling near-hours of my life, filled with insight, warmth, humor, deep intelligence, and candid opinions steeped in conviction.

And now Boulez, along with the rest of his greatest generation of 20th-century composers, is gone. What will become of his life’s work – what position Boulez’s music and ideas will hold in future discussions of musical art, how they may (or may not) influence new generations of composers, and how they will fare without their most forceful advocate to shepherd them along – is anyone’s guess. Two things, though, are sure. The first, to paraphrase the great man, is that Boulez is dead. The next is that, for better or worse, we won’t see his like again anytime soon.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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