Boulez: Douze Notations

performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, or the first Notation performed by the composer, also below


We start off our discussion of the Darmstadt school with Pierre Boulez. Needless to say, this is going to be a tough month of articles, for a few reasons:

  • The nature of serialist works means that their important qualities are often not (at least for me) intelligible by ear. Where some people (still usually not me) might be able to get an idea of the harmonic structure of a Classical or Romantic-era work by paying attention to key areas, modulations, and/or certain motifs and their permutations, this kind of work is sometimes much more difficult to ‘get’, even with the score at hand.
  • It’s new. The stuff we’ll be talking about this month (some of last week aside) comes from the ’40s and ’50s, so some of it has been around for coming up on 70 years, but that still doesn’t compare to the centuries that we’ve had to digest and discover and rediscover and read program notes on Mozart and Beethoven.
  • This might be a repeat of the above, but there’s just not a whole lot out there about some of these works,  And in many cases, what is out there is far too academic and pedantic for my abilities, for the same reason that there isn’t like… “Biochemistry for Babies” or “Calculus for Kids.” Anyway.

So, then, it will be my attempt to digest these works as best I can and do something to share them in some manner that might make them more easily approachable, and today’s piece is a good place to start, and many of Boulez’s works are famous enough that there’s at least some information to draw from.

Thankfully, for today’s work, we have a wonderful resource in explorethescore.org’s plethora of material on Boulez’s Notations. It’s flash-based or something, so there’s lots of interactive stuff. It discusses five of the seven ‘movements’ (1, 2, 4, 5, and 7, and actually a small video on 8 that’s not included in the side-bar), with a follow-along score and recording, videos of the composer explaining the works (quite rare, I’m told, for Boulez), its history and context, and really tons of stuff. But it’s also a lot to navigate, and there don’t appear to be direct links to specific portions of the work, so go check that out.

I feel I should probably go back and update my article on Pierre Boulez. I’ve read a number of books about or by him, as well as a long ‘Conversations with….’ type book with Messiaen, one of Boulez’s most influential teachers, and come to learn more of Leibowitz. But if you read the ‘A journeyman Composition‘ portion of the History and Context section on Explore the Score, it summarizes the (very) young Boulez’s growth and early relationship and experiences with music. He was originally to study mathematics, but ended up beginning to study counterpoint with Andrée Vaurabourg-Honegger, wife of the composer. This must have been wonderful, but it was Messiaen and Leibowitz who put his wheels on new tracks, and I feel like that’s what this piece represents. The article says of Boulez’s studies with Messiaen:

The main focus of the lessons, which took place several times a week, was on training the ear and the musical imagination, creating an awareness of harmony, and examining music from an analytical standpoint. The works studied ranged from Monteverdi to Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky.

This, to me, sounds very much like Messiaen. If you read his writings, or about him, or about his music (as we discussed last week), these seem to be things he prizes highly, the aesthetics of music, be it color (literally or otherwise), rhythm, texture, etc., and what a fine chance to come to learn about those things very keenly from someone like Messiaen.

Now Leibowitz. As we discussed briefly last week, Leibowitz did tons to preserve and promote the music of the Second Viennese School through the Second World War. It was an experience of Boulez hearing Leibowitz conduct a Schoenberg work that was such a revelation to him that he began to study twelve-tone technique. That’s all the very short version. He also heard Leibowitz conduct Webern’s op. 21 and there were private studies and on and on, but these are the two bodies Boulez came into orbit around when he produced his first 12-tone work that would be published (there were earlier, I assume now never-to-be-published attempts). It’s important to mention here that the biggest influence on Boulez, at the time, I’d argue, was Leibowitz, not Messiaen. Remember that Messiaen’s Quatre Etudes, including especially the Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, that would inspire greater efforts towards more full serialism, had not yet been written. A bit more on Leibowitz’s influence on Boulez in a moment… 

It was only after I was able to steal a look at the score that I began to notice things I’m sure I wouldn’t have heard. But what are those factors? For one Boulez’s piano writing clearly owes something (perhaps a great something) to Messiaen and Debussy, the latter especially in some of the more delicate pieces. Secondly, there’s Leibowitz, or Webern or the entire Second Viennese School (although Boulez doesn’t speak much of Berg). His youthful sudden fascination with serialist methods is a factor in writing these twelve sketches, each of only twelve bars. The composer says that the number 12 was like ‘a magical number’ back then. Each piece is quite short, because the composer also admits that he knew he didn’t have the chops to craft large-scale works with his newfound interest in serialism, so this is what we have. Interestingly though, the composer speaks of this work differently in different places. In the video featured on Universal Edition’s page for the work, he claims the Notations were “to make fun of the dogmatism of Leibowitz.” Stay tuned later this week for why I think that’s probably not true.

I feel like with the layout of the work into a dozen miniatures, little sketches or thoughts quickly but exactly expressed, that this is a mid-century version of Schoenberg’s op. 11. That might perturb Schoenberg’s fans, due to what Boulez later said of Schoenberg, but from the standpoint that this is an early work from a composer digesting and developing ideas that are new and exciting to him, it fills a similar place in Boulez’s oeuvre.

As intimidating as the music might sound, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to realize that in some (very basic) ways, it’s quite straightforward. There’s more than just serial analysis to do here, which means, at least for me, that there’s more to enjoy without getting too pedantic. It also shows the value, to me, of pretty basic, subjective score analysis, asking basic questions about what you see and hear. Let’s go.

No. 1: Fantasque, Modere The composer describes at the above Explore the Score link, that this work is unique, and must be analyzed in a different manner from the others. It is to sound free, like an improvisation. The first note is an A flat, followed by a figure the composer calls an arabesque, that ascends to an A natural. This same figure, with the same pitches, appears at the very end of the piece, at the very low end of the piano, but descending. There is a repeated low G that prefigures a repeated high G# in the right hand, and a few of the other motions call the contour of the opening arabesque to mind. It’s quite free-sounding. The second bar, with dry, descending 16th notes, is in contrast with the freeness of the opening gesture.

No. 2: Très vif Very different from the first, this one is violent, even jarring. It opens with two enormous glissandi figures, starting at the very bottom of the piano, before jumping to a middle section that’s heavily rhythm-driven, no change in the right hand content except in meter, 2-2-3; 2-2-3-2, etc., and then the crashing chords come back, effectively as a coda to this short 12-bar piece. There’s not a development as much as there is juxtaposition and contrast, straightforward presentation of ideas.

No. 3: Assez lent- The only things I have to say about this one are that it reminds me the most of Debussy or even late Scriabin, and that the figure that opens the work in the right hand closes it in retrograde in the bass, note for note. That’s an example of something I’d never have noticed had I not been looking at the score. It also shouldn’t pose too foreign a language to most listeners, lyrical and (gasp) even expressive.

No. 4: Rhythmique- In this work, we have things that don’t change, as well as things that do. What doesn’t change is the five-note figure of 16th notes in the left hand. It’s just about the same every time, and the composer says that the other notes of the series appear in the right hand, eventually, and with different lengths and rhythms, but the left-hand figure drives the piece.

No. 5: Doux et improvisé- “The piece consists of two phrases, each preceded by a chord: chord 1 plus ascending and descending motion; chord 2 plus ascending and descending motion.” After commenting that each phrase reaches ‘almost the same pitch level,’ he shrugs, palms up and says “There’s not much more I can say about it.” So yeah, apparently not much arcane complication here, and the aesthetic is one that’s quite pleasing to the ear, hence the ‘soft and improvised’ marking. It’s quite lyrical, but does end in a final, sudden low note.

No. 6: Rapide- This movement looks on paper like an etude and/or like a mountain range with offset peaks and vales, and is indeed quite rapide. The first bar is 13 sixteenth notes, with the left hand starting two sixteenth notes behind, mirroring the right hand a few octaves lower, offset unison, but as soon as we reach bar 6, something happens. That mirroring breaks down, and after the final two beats of the first half in the bass (two sixteenth notes into bar 7), we see contrary motion. They start a major third apart, and are just the inverse of each other. It’s quick, pianistic, and etude-like.

No. 7: Hiératique- I had to look that word up after I translated it, since in English it was surprisingly still ‘hieratic’. Go look it up. I’d have been quick to interpret the almost chirpy, sharp (in expression, not pitch) C#-G figure as bird-like, although not nearly as elaborate as Messiaen’s avian articulations. But the composer says it was inspired by a funeral he attended, of Asian music, where people sang a dirge to save the soul of a man who’d drowned. Again, what doesn’t change (at all, save the duration of the notes) is the bass. The treble is made up of the clack-like ostinato of C#-G, and between each ‘call’ there is a more lyrical contrasting phrase.

No. 8: Modéré jusqu’à très vif This is marked fast, but it’s essentially the same figure in the right hand, and increases in intensity until an almost shriek-like single bar, like the moment a character is murdered in a Hitchcock film. Everything in this once-flowy, quiet work freezes in one screeching halt. The composer says it was inspired by hearing marimba-like instruments played in Africa and Mexico, and the effect of hearing them played over water. (What was the Young Pierre doing with his life that he heard Asian funeral music and over-water concerts in Mexico and Africa?)

No. 9: Lointain- Calme- Distant and calm. It certainly is distant, pensive, almost mournful, and what stands out to me here is the contrast between these soft sections of upward motion at various speeds in bars 1, 4, 6 and 11, and the ominous thud of the lowest three notes on the piano sounded in distant, ppp unison in bars 5, 8, 10 and 12. This one is notated in three staves.

No. 10: Mécanique et très sec– We haven’t talked about it yet, but this one is the first that jumps out and reminds me of the second movement of Boulez’s first piano sonata. While the other works have static lines against motion elsewhere, or opposite contours or whatever, this is the first that pits the two hands against each other in almost constant motion, like a frantic conversation between two strong personalities. It is very dry, crisp, no pedal, marked martelé, absolutement sans nuances. 

No. 11: Scintillant- Sparkling. This one contains two large chords at its very center (bars 6 and 7) with cascading, shimmering up-and-down figures at either end. In a 12-bar piece, which two bars would booked the very center? Of course, bars 6-7, and in these two bars, we have two towering (really!) chords, the one in bar 7 the inversion of bar 6, and then the next six bars begin as a retrograde inversion of the first six bars, creating a palindrome that centers around the two enormous chords. This is also one of the much more delicate, softer-on-the-ears pieces, something that sounds Ravel-ian, maybe.

No. 12: Lent – Puissant et âpre– This is at least the third piece where the extreme low register of the piano figures into play  (see also 2 and 9), the lowest A, B flat and B on the (standard) keyboard. In this case the piece (and the whole set) ends with this cluster played, pedal down, fff, and directed to laissez vibrer longtemps...

This piece (twelve pieces?) was a head-scratcher at first, because I didn’t know how to think about it, but I do think it’s another fantastic example of how knowing what the music is about or is purported to be about informs the listening experience, makes the music intelligible, approachable, and even enjoyable. Granted, these aren’t works I’m necessarily moved by, nothing that’s going to give me chills or bring me to tears, but they’re very interesting little pieces.

Whatever they’re meant to mean, whether the composer was eager to get his sea legs with serialist forms, test the waters, or make a caricature out of his teacher’s pedantic ideas (very different motives, there no?) they’re still interesting works. No matter how un-seriously the composer might have taken them in his later years, I’m inclined to take them as genuine endeavors. He did, after all, use them as the inspiration for a set of orchestral works with the same name, which we shall eventually get to.

Stay tuned this week for two more (larger) Boulez works. So many words.

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