Pierre Boulez: Livre pour Quatuor (1962)

performed by the Quatuor Parisii from the DG box set

the Livre pour Quatuor, from its history as well as its overall economy, does not appear as a bloc but, in reference to Mallarmé’s Livre, like a series of detachable pages that are supposed to maintain ‘a sense and a validity, even detached from the continuous context in which they are placed…’

Buckle up. This is a long one.

(The above quote comes from the liner notes of the above-linked box set in reference to this work.) I’d originally intended to do a series of posts this week focusing on some string works of Milton Babbitt, in contrast with the baroque nature in which the String Quartet Series began, but I’ve also wanted to do something else lately. As discussed yesterday, Pierre Boulez was an outstandingly influential figure in the music of the 20th and 21st centuries; he began as a performer, quickly made a name as a composer, but perhaps his most lasting contribution has been as conductor, an interpreter of everything from 19th century repertoire of Berlioz and Beethoven to Mahler Bartok and, yes, of course, Boulez.

While I might have seemed less than interested in his works from the article yesterday, I’m not as opposed to Boulez the composer as it might have sounded. His recent passing had caused me to want to say something about him on the blog but I had no idea what. And so there’s this. He, too, wrote a string quartet, and its interesting evolution typifies the development of many of his works, so we now welcome Mr. Boulez to the blog.

As James Harley writes at AllMusic:

Livre pour quatuor was an ambitious string quartet that the young Boulez worked very hard on during the years 1948 – 1949. It was his first composition that didn’t include the piano, and he discussed it in some detail in his letters to then-pal, John Cage. Apparently, though, he didn’t quite finish it.

This problem or approach or plague (or whatever more positive term you might have for it) is not uncommon among Boulez’s works, with multiple versions or iterations of the same thing, creating related but ultimately entirely different works that spawned from the same(-ish) place. Boulez explains this as kind of an exploration of a kernel of an idea, taking off from a jumping off point and exploring and re-exploring directions but keeping the various results, like iterations of an experiment.

Harley continues to say “Four of the projected six movements were completed at that time; a further one was added in 1959, and then the composer abandoned it.” When he came back to it later, in 1968, he was more experienced, and began to revise the work, polish it, and re-score it for a full string ensemble, but that also was not completed, leaving a string-orchestra (and ostensibly quite different) version of only the first movement that later became Livre pour Cordes, to which he later returned in 1989 to make more revisions, but added no more movements. We may get to that work later (will we?) but today we have the monstrous original quartet in its 1962 form, the ‘book for quartet.’ Even in this version that’s ‘complete’ after having been withdrawn, there is still no fourth movement, and apparently now never will be (unless it was secretly finished and has yet to be published). I’ll also mention here another recording of the work released in 2015, a revision of the quartet under the composer’s supervision; it’s a great little article.

I should say I’ve read The Boulez/Cage Correspondences, and I don’t recall him speaking about it “in some detail” to Cage. There was at least constant mention of working on it, but I was quite eager to know about the piece itself, and no real discussion of it or its structure/content came up, in contrast with some of Cage’s works, specifically Music of Changes.

This… music… may be impossible for me to talk about.

While I ultimately find it fascinating, like a puzzle that can’t be solved, it is, at least for this listener, almost too abstruse for its own good. Let me explain.

I’ve been wanting for a while to write an article about the importance of structure in musical works, and essentially how, like a bridge, the larger the piece is, the stronger and more robust the structure of the work has to be. Even with larger-scale ’12-tone’ works like Schoenberg’s violin and piano concertos, while a person may not be able to latch onto the rows/series, its uses or applications, there are still melodies that most listeners can (eventually) warm up to, melodic lines to follow, things to comprehend even at the simplest levels.

Think of it like a Rubik’s Cube. Is it solvable? Sure! Does it take time? For the novice, yes. And once conquered, what in the real world has changed or been gained? It is a pursuit unto itself. “… because it’s there.”

At more than 40 minutes, the piece becomes tiresome. I enjoy the first two movements, sure, but just the length of those movements together is longer than the piece we’ll discuss tomorrow. At some point, without a narrative to follow, details to hold on to, it begins to sound like a through-composed (but very interesting, or else ‘perplexing‘) listen that challenges the listener to understand it, or even to continue listening. It becomes more and more challenging to hold my attention, because I can only be completely lost for so long before I completely lose interest.

That might work on some levels for some listeners, and to be honest, maybe I’m one of them. I’ve come back to this piece over and over and over, listened in sections, even done some research in Contemporary Music Review (nothing in Perspectives of New Music), but ultimately, even if I could spend the time and train myself to identify the series and its uses and all the rest, what has been gained? Not much, I’d argue.

While I’ve listened many times to many of the works in the DG box set (I mean, c’mon, I bought it), I can’t say that I enjoy them in the way I enjoy almost everything else I listen to. They’re puzzles, challenges, and while there certainly are people who adore and enjoy the succulent textures and harmonies of Boulez’s Le Marteaufor instance, I am not (yet) one of them.

The above-linked Contemporary Music Review article says that “the years 1949-1950 also saw the composition of two works which, though very different, can be seen as complementary cornerstones of the post-war repertoire for string quartet: the Livre pour quatuor (1948-49) by Pierre Boulez,” (p. 319) and Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts. It also says:

Significantly, Boulez represents the work as the end of a phase, rather than the start of a new one: ‘Meeting you [Cage?] has made me conclude a “classical” period with my quartet.’

The article continues on the following page:

…the score published in 1960 is, in some respects, a model of unhelpfulness; there is no preface, and therefore no indication that a quartet is free to make a selection of the movements. To that extent, it seems to be intended for ‘study purposes’ only…

…There is neither the explosive dynamism that pervades the Deuxieme Sonate for piano, nor the seductive lyricism of many parts of Le Soleil des eaux, though there is a tendency towards abstraction that could certainly be allied to the ‘slow’ (second) movement of the former.

And that’s about as musically technical as I’m going to get. Aside from the fact that the selection and order of movements is apparently up to the performers, which seems to be a page out of Cage’s book.

In contrast to this quartet, I understand very little, for example, about Babbitt’s sixth string quartet (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?) but I find it stupendously beautiful, and after only relatively few listens. Sure, I’m going to name drop, but Paul Zukofsky has reminded me in our discussions of Babbitt’s music on more than one occasion that it’s less than unnecessary to understand the music to enjoy it. And I have not found that yet to be the case with this work.

If you know this work, if you’ve performed it, love it, cry to it, whatever, then please get in touch with me. I want to get it. But you should also stop reading here.

I didn’t include this in yesterday’s Influential People article, but I’ve done lots of reading lately about Boulez, The Boulez/Cage CorrespondencesDialogues with Boulez, Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, and more, watched interviews and masterclasses, and all the rest, and I think most people would agree (or at least be hard-pressed to ignore) that Boulez is one of the greatest musical minds of our era: an outstanding conductor with an incredible ear, focus, precision, understanding, experience, and that is applied in his interpretations of performances of all sorts of works; I especially appreciate his Mahler, Webern, and Debussy/Ravel box sets, and also have his Bartok. But on a more personal level, with his music and his own polemics, I get the impression, more than anything that he is above all an intentional contrarian, and maybe even just an angry human.

He seems, at least to me, quick to contradict for the sole purpose of contradiction, of being different. I present as evidence his opposing statements, at varying points in his career, that “any musician who has not experienced- I do not say understood, but truly experienced- the necessity of dodecaphonic language is USELESS;” (from p. 113 of Stocktakings in the essay entitled Possibly…) in contrast with his later statement that “Schoenberg is dead” and that serial methodologies are too limiting to be of any real use (in so many words).

I could go on about how his contrarian, condescending, and even a bit ivory-tower criticisms of almost everyone mentioned in Dialogues with Boulez (as discussed yesterday) but ultimately, none of it helped me understand the man himself (or his music) any better, and I feel this work is a good example of that. The amateur impression I get is that the youthful, even angry Boulez tried to defy labels of any kind. Aleatory, bad. Serialist, bad. Romantic, bad. And on and on and on. So what’s left? What makes Livre pour quatuor or  Livre pour cordes or Le Marteau or any of the others the answer to all of the compositional problems that Boulez has picked to shreds in the works of other composers? I don’t know.

Criticisms aside, he was clearly an outstandingly intelligent human, very well spoken, articulate, and even though I read his writings in English, the footnotes with original French texts of his puns, literary references, entendres and the rest show that he had a dark, acidic kind of wit, a humorous side, even if it was used largely in the context of his vitriol against his fellow musicians.

The work is an interesting head scratcher, but I’m not (at this point) willing to do the research necessary (or spend the money to buy the score) to come to comprehend a work that doesn’t sell itself to me very well to begin with. I have many more thoughts on both Boulez and his thoughts but those (spoiler alert!) will (likely) come this summer. I close with a quote from IRCAM about this work (the French translated into English by the immaculate Google Translate…)

Mais face à l’extraordinaire vigueur, véhémence, et alacrité de la version initiale, il est peut-être permis de tenir l’initiative du compositeur lui-même pour plus respectable que légitime.

“But faced with the extraordinary force, vehemence, and alacrity of the initial release, it may be permissible to take the initiative of the composer himself for more respectable than legitimate.

Stay tuned for another challenging quartet tomorrow.

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