Boulez: Le Marteau sans Maître

performed by Hilary Summers and the Ensemble Intercontemporain under the composer’s baton

Claude Samuels: I have one final question: what do you expect of the listener? You have an enlightened music lover who has this set of discs in hand; what approach do you advise, what do you expect of him?
Boulez: First of all, to rid himself of prejudices if he has any. And that he listen with an open mind, quite simply. That he begin with the simplest things and end with the most complex. In some oeuvres, there are always simpler works, more direct and open, and then more complex, more difficult works. Even in Beethoven, if you listen to the early string quartets, it’s very easy to swallow. If you listen to the last, it takes much more concentrated attention… They have to acquire this culture in modernity. Let them first acquire it by patience, because it is not always easy, so it is necessary to listen again, and especially again saying to oneself, no, I’m not wrong, but I can bed [sic] wrong. For me, that is the true attitude.

Claude Samuels interview with Pierre Boulez
from Boulez box set booklet, p. 248
Eng. Translation: John Tyler Tuttle

Well, this is intimidating… and also like a glimmery, shimmery, treasure chest full of beautiful gems.

I included the above quote not at the beginning of our Boulez week, or at the beginning of this cycle, but now, because this is the ‘more complex, more difficult’ of Boulez’s oeuvre, at least for me. Notations was easy, but what we’ll see now is that this is mature, fully-formed Boulez, not the early serialist attempts.

In the interest of full disclosure, I almost always roll my eyes at anything labeled ‘avant-garde’, because to me that translates to ‘different for the sake of being different.’ There. I’ve said it.

The term ‘avant-garde’ is also used to describe today’s piece. I’d deliberated on whether to include it in the series because the two smaller piano works were pretty intimidating, but while there’s still a lot in between, the jump to Le Marteau marks a jump forward in Boulez’s career, from the more youthful ‘dogmatic’ serialism to something else, something new and different… and intriguing.

The question I have asked myself in listening to it, looking at the score and the text and all the rest is… can this music be enjoyed with zero knowledge of the work, with no context, no pre-concert lecture, nothing? Boulez has his admirers (and for good reason) who are shouting adamantly (if any of them even bother to read here) “Yes, you imbecile!” but for the vast majority of the population, this piece, completed in 1955, is well beyond the threshold of what is considered ‘normal’, ‘modern,’ or even the broad and vague ‘interesting.’ To be honest, not just music of half a century ago, but of a full century ago still grates on the ears of many listeners, listeners who ‘love classical music’, so jump forward in time to something really modern, and I don’t think it should come as a surprise that many people’s reaction to this is less than positive. But I will admit that I had a very hard time listening to it not too long ago, really, and I truly do now see shining, glimmering beauty in the work, especially as sung by Ms. Hilary Summers, whose interpretation is, for me, above all others.

(Speaking of music from a half-century ago, there are clear parallels with Schoenberg’s  Pierrot Lunaire here, the same piece that inspired Leibowitz to dedicate himself to music. Could we then possibly view both Le Marteau and L’explication des metaphores as two broken-up composers’ works in response to the same inspiration? Peut être…)

As I mentioned back in the Livre pour Quatuor article, I get the impression Boulez struggles with being rigorously logical but also spontaneous. And speaking of that and thinking of analysis, here’s a quote from Wikipedia, the Composition section of the article about this work:

Despite having been published in 1954 and 1957, analysts were unable to explain Boulez’s compositional methods until Lev Koblyakov in 1977 (Heinemann 1998, 72). This is partially due to the fact that Boulez believes in strict control tempered with “local indiscipline,” or rather, the freedom to choose small, individual elements while still adhering to an overall structure compatible with serialist principles. Boulez opts to change individual notes based on sound or harmony, choosing to abandon adherence to the structure dictated by strict serialism, making the detailed serial organization of the piece difficult for the listener to discern (Lerdahl 1992, 97–98).

I’ll refer to Koblyakov’s book a bit later, but to put it simply, Boulez has found a balance between “strict control” and freeness of expression that seems to suit him, meaning that looking for clearly defined patterns is less straightforward, so we won’t be doing that. Instead, below:

  1. I’ve tried to find a way to discuss this piece that can make it as approachable and interesting and enjoyable as possible rather than dissect it and analyze it from a theoretical or compositional standpoint, and to do that, I’ll need you to…
  2. Please put away all preconceived notions about anything you’ve ever heard. Don’t come into this with the slightest inkling of a thought about even Pierrot Lunaire, or Webern or Schubert, or Beethoven, or anything else. Whatever the musical version is of a sensory deprivation tank is, be in it. No other stimuli, and let’s listen.

The piece is in nine sections, and we’re actually not going to talk about them one by one. Per Wikipedia:

The work has nine movements, four of which set the text of three poems of René Char. The remaining movements are instrumental extrapolations of the other four:

  1. Avant “l’artisanat furieux” (before “the furious craftsmanship”)
  2. Commentaire I de “bourreaux de solitude” (first commentary on “hangmen of solitude”)
  3. “L’artisanat furieux” (“the furious craftsmanship”)
  4. Commentaire II de “bourreaux de solitude” (second commentary on “hangmen of solitude”)
  5. “Bel édifice et les pressentiments”, version première (“stately building and presentiments”, first version)
  6. “Bourreaux de solitude” (“hangmen of solitude”)
  7. Après “l’artisanat furieux” (after “the furious craftsmanship”)
  8. Commentaire III de “bourreaux de solitude” (third commentary on “hangmen of solitude”)
  9. “Bel édifice et les pressentiments”, double (“stately building and presentiments”, again)

These nine movements make up three cycles, which should be apparent if you look at the names. They are as follows: 1, 3, 7 based around L’artisanat furieux (hence the titles before and after for 1 and 7); 2, 4, 6 and 8 basedon Bourreaux de solitude (the three commentaries with no. 6 as the focus), and 5 and 9 for Bel édifice et les pressentiments. 

Vocal parts appear only in numbers 3, 5, 6 and 9, as the focus of each of the three cycles (bolded above). With that in mind, we see that the cycles are interwoven, integrated into each other. Nonlinear narratives have been part of literature and movies for a very long time, but this is an example of it in music. What we have, then, if the three cycles are labeled A, B and C is this progression:


The first part of the third cycle, Bel édifice et les pressentiments, occupies the center of the work (fifth movement) as well as the end, and closes the work by connecting all the pieces together, so no. 9 (the third C) serves not only as the double for the third cycle, but as the unifying factor to the entire work, which is (maybe) why both movements of that set have vocal parts, but with the same text.

So that’s pretty simply what’s going on… As for instrumentation, again directly from Wikipedia:

  1. Alto flute, Vibraphone, Guitar, Viola
  2. Alto flute, Xylorimba, Tambourine, 2 bongos, Frame drum, Viola
  3. Voice, Alto flute
  4. Xylorimba, Vibraphone, Finger cymbals, Agogô, Triangle, Guitar, Viola
  5. Voice, Alto flute, Guitar, Viola
  6. Voice, Alto flute, Xylorimba, Vibraphone, maracas, Guitar, Viola
  7. Alto flute, Vibraphone, Guitar
  8. Alto flute, Xylorimba, Vibraphone, Claves, Agogô, 2 bongos, Maracas
  9. Voice, Alto flute, Xylorimba, Vibraphone, Maracas, Small tam-tam, Low gong, Very deep tam-tam, Large suspended cymbal, Guitar, Viola

It’s easy enough to see that the final movement is the most involved, but there are a few other things we can notice before even taking a listen. The alto flute is the only instrument that appears in the first three movements, and when you do listen, you’ll hear that it takes on a kind of special place in the ensemble, a special voice, a leader of some kind. The second movement adds more color, with viola and percussion, as the first movement of the second cycle.

It’s only with the third movement that our alto voice enters, and this movement establishes kind of a special relationship between the only two ‘voice’ instruments, the vocalist and the only wind instrument in the work, the alto flute. Obviously, the sung part is the star of the show, delivering the text upon which the entire work is based, so I’d say… if you’re only going to listen to portions of this work, listen to 3, 5, 6 and 9, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

Something else to be aware of is… the obvious strangeness of this ensemble. There’s only one wind instrument, one bowed string, a vocal part, and everything else is struck or plucked. Also, as many resources on this work will point out, everything is ‘squarely in the middle register.’ There’s no bass voice, the vocalist is an alto, not a soprano, and even the flute isn’t your plain old flute flute, but an alto flute; there’s no piccolo doubling either. All the instruments kind of lie in the same range, but there are important differences among them, as elucidated below:

That image comes from here, and shows the relationships between the types of voices, the mechanical means of each of the main (pitched) instruments.

I really can’t get into it, but the analysis for this work is incredibly complex. If you want to read a much simpler explanation of the underlying principles, you can find analyses of the first, second and third cycles in their respective sections of the Wiki article. And in those analyses, most of the information comes from one single book, which I currently have in my possession, Lev Koblyakov’s Pierre Boulez: A World of Harmony. I’d read about the book online, wrote down the title, and was thrilled to see its big blue spine poking out of the shelf in my local library. Opening it up, however, was quite different. Koblyakov, who I tried futilely to contact, goes into incredible detail about Boulez’s use of cells, multiplication, sound regions, domains, and all sorts of other qualifications and organizations and hierarchies upon which the piece is based, giving it the pitch content and all the rest on which the music is based.

I should probably state more clearly that each cycle derives its material from the sung text, as if it is an inherent part of the poetry. The L’artisanat furieux cycle, for example, is comprised of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ movement that surround the sung movement. There are similarities to be heard in each of the cycles, like the flute either foreshadowing or echoing lines that will be or were sung by the vocalist, and that’s one of the reasons I suggested listening to the movements with the vocal parts. For one, they’re gorgeous. You might not think so if you’re used to listening to opera excerpts or Schubert or Mahler song cycles, but if you can manage it, get familiar with the vocal lines in each section of the work, and then put the cycle together and see what you recognize.

I will say I had a very hard time warming up to this work, thinking it was truly absurd and nonsensical, but the instant you (or I, at least) start recognizing relationships and correlations, it starts to come together, to make some sense. It’s something to latch onto. It very likely at first sounds like clacking and clanging, like a flute and viola warming up to the sounds of boxes of percussion instruments rolled down sets of stairs, and I will admit that the score for the percussion parts is very difficult for me to follow, but the final movement is epic and breathtaking.

There’s a thing that happens in this work where the soloist slowly disappears, in a way. She enters in the third movement, and overall, sings for a relatively small portion of the 38-ish minutes of this work, but after singing the text of the fifth movement in the ninth, she’s still around, but no text. There are a few spots early on in the ninth movement where the vocalist has the notation bouche fermée, or ‘mouth closed.’ Singing with your mouth closed is called humming. After she finishes the text of the poem with ‘…la tête habitable…’, she is mouth closed for the entire rest of the work, as if fading away.

Also noticeable from the above information is the richness of the  percussion in the final movement, and up until now, we’ve been pretty much entirely without a bass voice to underpin this ensemble, so when the deepest sounds in the entire work, the ‘low gong’ and ‘very deep tam-tam, thunder out, it gives me chills. It’s shimmery, but powerful, awe-inspiring, heart-stopping, bringing a real sense of climax and wonder to the final moments of this fascinating triple-cycle of music.

It’s three cycles, sure, but they too are related, brought together at the very end. I’m not going to lie, I can’t hear “harmonic fields” and “pitch-duration association” in the work, although it is fascinating to see in the score, in small areas, how each sound is assigned a duration for certain passages of the work. However, all of this is secondary to just listening and enjoying the music.

I know it seems absurd to some that I would say that, that there’s anything to enjoy here, but again, you don’t need to know about the modulations and harmonic or technical stuff that Chopin does in a nocturne or ballade to enjoy it, so what’s the necessity of knowing or forcing yourself to hear these (far more complex) harmonic relationships? It’s enlightening, and certainly creates a sense of awe and respect for the complexity of the work, but with just a little information about what the work represents (and some dedicated listening to a fantastic recording like this one), you can get to the point where you hear the music in your ears after listening like you still taste on your palate that sip of red wine you just had even after its gone, and makes you want more.

Well, folks, that’s all for Pierre Boulez, and I must say… I was a little bit dreading what it would take for me to prepare these articles, and I won’t say I’ve broken any new ground here, but… the process of learning about them myself has been very enjoyable, and I’m actually excited to get around eventually to that second sonata… Stay tuned for more from someone else next week.




2 thoughts on “Boulez: Le Marteau sans Maître

  1. You are right, the trick is to warm up by repeated listening. That’s also the problem with Boulez and others: You go to a concert and you listen to a piece once. It is easy to like Mozart and Beethoven, even some pieces by Schoenberg if you have only one shot. Not with Boulez. And that’s why he will never be a popular composer. Few people first study a recording of a Boulez piece and then go to a concert. Only nutty freaks like you and me do that!

    1. Well, it’s a good argument for why the move away from diatonic music into 12-tone or serialist music didn’t really take off until around the time recorded music was available. Schoenberg’s piano concerto is another work that I couldn’t stand at first, but kept being drawn back to, and now I love it.
      But I would say that Boulez IS a popular composer, even if it’s more infamy than anything else. His name is one of the most common, perhaps the most highly-regarded among anyone who was writing music and/or innovating in the mid-to-late 20th century. I’d think that (if we’re sticking with Frenchmen) anyone who’s heard of Dutilleux or Messiaen or Murail or Grisey surely knows of Boulez and his music. But “popular” is a tricky term to begin with.

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