Boulez Piano Sonata no. 1

performed by Paavali Jumppanen (from his album of the three sonatas) or below by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (from Boulez’s Ouvres Completes box set), both fantastic performances

We now jump forward a little bit in time to another of Boulez’s still-early works, the first piano sonata. First, let’s clear the air a bit. There’s that story of the red pen and the letter opener and the “Vous êtes de la merde!” comment and all that. This is where our friend Leibowitz comes back into the picture.

As previously discussed, Leibowitz was a significant influence in preserving and promoting the works of the Second Viennese School, one of the primary ways in which Boulez got connected with him. They had both been influenced by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire at one point or other, as we have seen and shall again see, but in the early days, Boulez was hard at work on his first piano sonata. He presented Leibowitz with the manuscript, to whom the work apparently bore a dedication, but not for long.

This is where the stories of the red pen and the letter opener come in, and I’m not sure how truthful much of this is, but as it’s told, Leibowitz went to marking up the manuscript with errors or things to correct and Boulez uttered the above words (pardon his French), and hacked out the dedication to Leibowitz, tearing the manuscript to pieces and only later reconstructing it for publication. It seems Boulez was young, headstrong and ambitious, and Leibowitz had hoped that his student’s first sonata would be composed under his tutelage and guidance, but this was not the case. C’est la vie.

The reason I stated in the Notations article that I don’t believe it was composed to ‘make fun of the dogmatism of Leibowitz’ was because they hadn’t had this great falling out yet. The sonata was dedicated to Leibowitz at some point, and bore marks of a more traditional approach to serialism, adherence to a series and all the rest, even if it was still slightly more loosely applied. Only after their little scuffle over this work did they really finally fall out, so I give more credence to Boulez’s statement that he composed the Notations  because he wasn’t ready to work in large forms than that it was a caricature. It’s nice music.

But this sonata is different. While it is of around the same length as the 12 miniatures played back-to-back, it is in only two movements and is much more substantial in form, obviously with lots more real estate to go developing ‘themes’ and ideas in whatever forms they come than in a dozen twelve-bar pieces.

First of all, we have an important question to ask. It was a realization I had years ago when I started listening to more modern classical music and I suddenly realized something, but also was pretty sure I knew the answer, and it went something like this: “Wait… if the structure of a sonata form is based on two themes with related but separate tonal areas, then how does anything like an ‘atonal’ work express these relations? If there’s no C major and transition to G major and a development in all sorts of keys, then how is this structure represented?” I was kind of proud of myself for making that connection, but was also pretty sure I knew the answer, so I asked around. Basically, it’s no longer about Am and C major, or D major and A major, but about contrasts of ideas, concepts, that are juxtaposed, conflicted, and resolved. Pretty simple, right? And kind of obvious. So let’s look at the work at hand.

First, actually, I want to draw your attention to a few resources. First is John Keillor’s write-up of the work at AllMusic. Listen to just the first movement, and then read his article. He makes allusions to Beethoven, and says things like:

Hearing this work brings to mind the few musical prodigies of history whose work from this young age has maintained our interest: Mozart, Schubert, and perhaps a couple of others.

Most people would think it nothing less than absurd that this work calls to mind Mozart or Schubert in any manner save as the antithesis of what they’re hearing. But I have to say he has some points, and they come to mind more clearly after reading this paper, part of a thesis by one M. W. Wait that discusses, briefly enough that I’d suggest you read everything up to and including the first sonata. He makes a few things quite clear, which I’ll elaborate on momentarily. He gives a concise, read-worthy summarization of Boulez’s education, and the discussion of this sonata begins on page 7. He says:

The First Sonata consists of two movements, each containing many tempo changes and expressive markings. While Boulez disapproved of Schoenberg’s adaptation of serial elements to classical forms, his own use of the sonata form is structural only, without the implications of harmonic tensions evident in Schoenberg’s use of the form. The first movement, for example, contains only suggestions of the larger functions of sonata-allegro form.

So, as we said, the piece is in two movements. The first movement begins with a ten-bar introduction. The first two bars, though, lay out the basics of what we can expect to hear in the work, actually. Idil Biret’s website has a brief discussion of the work here, which says:

In the first four bars of the work the composer presents five characteristic and very different figures, easily distinguishable by the listener. These will serve as the basic material of the first movement…


Even in just the first two bars we have those things: an interval of a major third, the low E flat with an appoggiatura, a very high E, a small run of 128th notes, and a big wide chord that ends the second bar. These few items continue to show up in this ten-bar introduction, and the eleventh bar is marked Mouvement, beginning with almost the exact same figures, except with the hands switched: interval in left hand, note with appoggiatura in right. Okay, so we’re in the first movement, which is ‘slow’, quarter note equals 58, but the effect, with appoggiaturas and 128th notes and stuff everywhere is a buzzing, kind of electrifying start-and-stop energy, not really ‘slow’ like many people think of it.

But what about Beethoven? Well, this idea of an introduction that feeds us elements of the larger piece, something that establishes (in this case not a tonal center but) an atmosphere, the content of the movement, is very Beethovenesque, and obviously not just of him but of that entire era. There aren’t many composers’ piano sonata cycles that can compete with what Beethoven did, and even Mozart only wrote 18 for the piano. There’s a handful of composers with two or three piano sonatas to their names: Chopin, Schumann, Brahms; Liszt wrote an incredible piano sonata, and there’s the Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff has two, but the first is (unjustly) rarely played. The next greatest sonata cycles, in my opinion, are those of Scriabin and Prokofiev, and I’m much more partial to the former, but Boulez isn’t shy of the sonata label, and jumps in head first to ignore Beethoven’s shadow and attack the traditions and history of the sonata with 20th century weapons.

What you’ll also see if you try to find the row is that…. well, there isn’t one, really. At this point, Boulez had already absorbed what he wanted to absorb from Webern and all the rest, and adapted it to how he felt it was best used. Again, read that thesis I linked above for more detail on this, because it is fascinating. Instead of a series of twelve tones, Boulez groups his pitches into cells that center around a specific pitch, and uses these two cells with their own structures to develop his content. So instead of a series like you’d see with Webern, Wait’s paper has two chunks comprised of nine pitches that have some very interesting properties, upon which (it seems) this entire work is based.

So the first movement comes and goes, and if you have the score, or are just really good at listening, you’ll notice that some of those figures that we were presented with in the opening bars appear and reappear throughout this movement. The nature of Boulez’s cells means that we see lots of major and minor thirds, lots of semitones, and I really do mean it when I say this work starts to make sense after a few listens. There’s apparently even a recapitulation of sorts (perhaps some stuff on the last page? I’m not sure).

The thing that stands out the most is the fluidity, the (I know, but seriously) expressiveness of the music… the score is covered with notes about changes of tempo and expression, and it gives the work a kind of …. living feeling, pulsing, like an inhale and exhale as the first movement progresses. When you look deeper, it’s not just a cascade of random notes.

The second movement is the faster one, and it, too, gives us a ten-bar introduction. It’s marked Assez large at the top, but with ralent—tir up to the end of the introduction, beginning the eleventh bar with Rapide, and dotted quarter = 152, the dotted quarter suggesting a triple meter even though there’s no time signature or even terribly regular bar length. It’s described in Wait’s paper as “a rapid perpetuum mobile”, and somewhere else as ‘a hellacious toccata’ or something similar. It seems that the content of the second movement is based still on the cells of the first, but I’m not entirely sure.

What I have to say about this movement sounds perhaps a bit less enlightened, but it’s genuine enough. If you can kind of… sit back and think of the first movement in the terms I mentioned above (and it really helps to have the score), and ‘get it’ that way, then the second movement shouldn’t sound any different than… a slightly more dissonant Prokofiev sonata…? I’m not saying they have anything in common, but listen to the first ten bars; there’s an eighth-note rest right before the rapide section begins, and that last chord almost sounds tonal.

A toccata is defined as “a musical composition for a keyboard instrument designed to exhibit the performer’s touch and technique.” There’s phrasing, pauses, contrast, tension, extreme ranges of the piano expressed, with significant passages having both hands notated in either the treble or the bass, and new expressive markings or tempo indications every few bars. It’s breathtaking… There is movement in both hands, either alternating or against each other in contrapuntal fashion, and while the first (or fifteenth) impression may be one of featureless sounds and leaps and contrasts, the piece does begin to show its form, like a faint, indiscernible outline of figures and shapes in a dark forest before sunrise, gradually lit from behind to show mountains, trees, a rooftop here and there, and you can finally find your bearings, and it’s only then, when you can see the scenery in all its glory, can it take your breath away. Until then, it’s all confusion.

This is a piece I was not looking terribly forward to writing about, but, believe it or not, have come to enjoy, having gotten to know it. I had the privilege of seeing Jean-Efflam Bavouzet perform it last year on an incredible program that also included Beethoven, Ravel and Debussy. It was a shame I wasn’t as enamored with it then as I am now, but was still spectacular to see live, a rare treat. This has been one of the most enjoyable gems of the Darmstadt series so far (I’ve already listened/warmed up to most of the works we’ll be doing this month), and Idil Biret’s write-up of the piece (link above) closes this way:

In this early composition there are already evident some of the elements that will define the compositional style of Pierre Boulez: clarity and rigour of expression, and a tendency to brilliant outbursts.

There isn’t much better way to put it. Next on the Boulez sonata list is the monstrous and apparently terrifyingly difficult second sonata, something I am looking more and more forward to discussing. For now, we’re done with Boulez’s piano, and will be jumping forward about a decade to something else this week, so stay tuned.


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