Influential People: Pierre Boulez

(title image located here, from the Dutch National Archive)

In this video of Mitsuko Uchida speaking about Schoenberg’s piano concerto, she mentions how Debussy and Schoenberg approached their rebellion against tonality in different ways. She says (I’m paraphrasing; just go watch the video. It’s excellent.) that Debussy just kind of tossed it aside and started doing his own thing, while Schoenberg, on the other hand, ‘actively fought against it.’

We’ve done Influential People articles on both Schoenberg and Debussy, and let’s add to that list another one, in great contrast to two composers who took daring, innovative leaps in their music: Haydn. In that article I shared the interesting point I found (I believe made by the composer himself) that his own influence was rather a result of his isolation at the Esterhazy estate, apart from other composers and whatever trends there were, so his influence was unique.

But here we have Pierre Boulez, who passed away just a few months ago and this week would have been 91. His influence was of a far more… direct? violent? polemic (!) kind.

He was born on March 26, 1925 to (apparently) non-musical parents. His father was an engineer. Wikipedia cites Ivan Hewitt from The Telegraph, saying of Boulez’s childhood:

From the age of six he was educated at the local Catholic school, where he spent 13-hour days and prayed in the chapel every school day for ten years. The grueling schedule instilled in him an iron discipline but, for him, “the Catholic God was the God that Failed”.

He showed great aptitude for music even as a young child, as well as for mathematics (like Babbitt, actually) and eventually began to study music, most notably with Olivier Messiaen. Wikipedia says:

Through Messiaen, Boulez discovered twelve-tone technique‍—‌which he would later study privately with René Leibowitz‍—‌and went on to write atonal music in a post-Webernian serial style.

That seems to be a bit of an oversimplification. We haven’t really gotten into it before, but Messiaen’s Quatre études de rythme proved to be a huge influence on a number of his students, and while not technically serial itself, proposed the ideas that would later produce what is now considered to be ‘total serialism.’ The “through Messiaen” statement also kind of fails to mention that “twelve-tone technique” began before Boulez was born, and it was Messiaen who began to hint at the idea of total serialism, inspiring his students to work in that direction (as opposed to Babbitt, who by this time had already begun writing totally serial works, like his Three Compositions for Piano). In any case, Boulez was highly influenced by both Messiaen and Leibowitz, but had a notable falling out with the latter in 1946, as elaborated upon in this excellent article, after some outbursts regarding Boulez’s first piano sonata, which had originally been dedicated to Liebowitz, but subsequently was not.

More to a quick point about his relationship to Messiaen… we won’t discuss it now, but I quote Richard Toop’s article Messiaen/Goeyvaerts, Fano/ Stockhausen, Boulez (creative name) in Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 13, No. 1, Autumn – Winter, 1974, p. 144. He describes in the first paragraph why “Messiaen’s study is not a series, but a mode of 36 notes, divided into three 12-note groups.” That is to say not serial. However, people, including Boulez, found it inspiring. Perhaps that’s not the right word. Boulez took an important step with his work Structures. Toop says:

… Boulez takes the first divsion of Messiaen’s mode, and converts it into a series by bringing all the pitches within an octave. Once reduced to this format, the series is susceptible to transposition, inversion, and all the other technical prerequisites of serial composition….

[Boulez] was in searchof a linguistic synthesis “which would not be marred by the start from foreign bodies- in particular, stylistic reminiscences…”* More recently, Boulez declared quite explicitly that his intention was “to reach the limits of a musical language unknown to us… The technique I found while working on this piece was reproduced in other works, which are oriented less to technique than to expression.”** Crudely speaking then, the aim of Structures, or at least of Structure 1a, is technical rather than expressive.

  • *from “Nécessité d’une orientatino esthétique.”
  • **from U. Stürzbecher, Werkstattgespräche mit Komponisten (Gerig Verlag, 1971)

Sorry for that long quote, but I found it very interesting. It expresses, at least to me, an idea, or a thought process, or something, which I find rather consistent throughout Boulez’s works, as I listen to them, that he was focused on technique, on ‘reaching limits’, but I’m not so sure about being related “less to technique than to expression,” or at least expression as many people would conceive it.

Keep all that in mind; we’ll kind of get back to it later. Boulez’s earliest works were solid, robust examples of ‘total serialism’, as discussed. Ultimately, his music went through a few periods, though, the first, as discussed, totally serial. Wikipedia says:

Boulez’s strongest achievement in this method is Le marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master) for ensemble and voice, from 1953 to 1957, a “keystone of 20th-century music”.

It may potentially be his most famous, well-known, successful work. But after screaming about how any musician who hasn’t “experienced… the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS” (caps his), he proceeded to move away from serialism, finding that it was too limiting for him. He spent years in correspondence with John Cage, and they exchanged ideas about aleatory (“controlled chance” in music), nonstandard timbres (Cage’s prepared piano) among much else. Many of Cage’s ideas it seemed Boulez (14 years Cage’s junior) seemed enamored with, but they, too, ultimately had a falling out. It seems this would also prove to be a feature of Boulez’s musical career. He had a notable clash with Stravinsky about the neoclassical trend, which Boulez has described in so many words as worthless.

In Rocco Di Pietro’s Dialogues with Boulez, virtually no one is safe from the composer’s criticisms, especially fellow composers, many of whom he describes as “amateurs,” who lack the necessary skills to solve their compositional problems. I’ll give him credit for what he says about Cage’s bags of tricks, how it’s gimmicky and a lazy way to solve compositional problems, i.e. to make them (philosophically, existentially, whatever) part of the experience. The only composers mentioned (and there were many) by Boulez who did not come under scrutiny were Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, and of course, Boulez. Schumann and Schubert were spoken of almost positively, but everyone from Ives to Stravinsky, Bartok to Messiaen, Stockhausen, Satie, almost everyone else was disparaged or considered amateur. It was both enlightening and frustrating, as this article may be for lovers of Boulez.

His compositions and polemics aside, the man is a phenomenal conductor who apparently has a phenomenally sensitive ear, not only to pitch, but equally to intonation, timbre, color, balance, and this is readily apparent in his conducting, even in interpretations of music he speaks very negatively of.

I’d argue his Mahler cycle is one of the best cycles on the market. There are no gushing theatrics and over-gilded emotion like you might get from Bernstein, but generally (to my ear) incredibly true-to-the-score readings of these enormous works. The only one I really can’t get behind is his approach to the seventh, even if it is dead accurate to Mahler’s notes and indications. Every performance is spot-on accurate, clear, transparent, solid. Some would argue that his second, for example, is cold and dry, but I’d say that’s only in comparison to more outlandish readings. While I’m less familiar with his other box sets (Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel/Debussy), what I’ve listened to from them shows me Boulez the conductor as a servant to the music, not an artist, but a craftsman, with a goal in mind, not of his own, but of the composer, and that is something to respect.

I’ll close this nonbiography with a few interesting thoughts.

  1. The incredible exactness and solidity of his recordings as a conductor (of what’s generally held to be incredibly difficult music to interpret: Bartok, Stravinsky, Mahler, and more) show that he was truly a great musical mind, but I want to reconcile that with his own compositional output, to find the exactness and craftsmanship in his work. I listen to his pieces now like I fiddle with a Rubik’s cube, knowing (or assuming) there’s something in there, but not really sure how to get it out.
  2. While I may not at the present be able to appreciate either his compositions or his highly opinionated views on music, there are a few things I respect him for, not least of which being his wonderful recordings of modern works (as stated above). While Boulez the composer seemed always to be negating the validity of some movement or other, reducing it to less than nothing in more than a few scathing analyses, it seemed he was always in pursuit of a perfect system (as quoted above). Serialism too confining, aleatory too random, neoclassicism just regurgitation. While this may seem more than anything to be contrarian, it also seems (at least to Boulez himself) that he was in search of limits, of balance, of perfection, of newness, and even if I don’t care much for the result (or don’t understand it yet), I can respect it.

Opinions aside, it really cannot be denied that Pierre Boulez, who died on January 5, 2016, was one of the most influential music people (if not the most influential) of the 20th and 21st centuries, and not just as a conductor, but as a performer, conductor, writer, critic, and thinker. Agree with him or not, his influence has been immense, and it will be interesting to see how his legacy lives on.

Tomorrow, to go along with this article, we’ll be addressing one of his compositions (or trying to). Stay tuned.

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