Boulez Piano Sonata no. 2

performed by Paavali Jumppanen (from his outstanding release of the three Boulez sonatas), or in an (at least) equally superb reading from the wonderful Maurizio Pollini

Boulez and tradition.

L’enfant terrible. A polemic. A rebel. A radical. The guy who said all art from the Renaissance forward should be destroyed to let us start again (or something like that)… he writes a sonata.

Well, it’s not his first, nor was it to be his last. It was completed in 1948 and given its world premiere on April 29, 1950 by Yvette Grimaud. As is elucidated in The Boulez-Cage Correspondence, which I read most of, Boulez was able to secure an American performance of the piece, given by David Tudor that same year.

It is in a traditional-ish four movements, with a playing time of about a half hour. Unsurprisingly, it is “notoriously difficult to play, and the pianist Yvonne Loriod “is said to have burst into tears when faced with the prospect” of performing it (Fanning n.d.).” The movements are as follows:

  1. “Extrêmement rapide” (extremely fast)
  2. “Lent” (slow)
  3. “Modéré, presque vif” (moderate, almost lively)
  4. “Vif” (lively)

Let’s have some background on this piece, though.

My stomach turned a little when I wrote that.

With so much other music, like Mozart or Beethoven, as we have recently seen, we don’t really need to know all the mechanisms and innerworkings of the music. That information can certainly give us a far greater appreciation for the high quality of the work, the real craftsmanship behind the piece, beyond just enjoying the sound of the music itself, but it’s not necessary.

I’d argue, though, that with music like this, especially of Boulez’s pen, these nuts and bolts are the fundamental idea behind the work, they are the work: the compositional techniques and approaches, making it perhaps far less accessible to listeners or to anyone, like me, who’s going to say “let me explain this to you.”

But I’m really not going to be able to.

Boulez was only 23 years old when he completed the work, which, considering the monumental, historic nature of this piece, is shocking, and supports the statement I will quote that closes this entire article. Remember that. 23 years old…

If you can handle the mouth noises and a little bit of drawn out pontification, this little lecture about the work seems to be an excellent one, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t finish it, and here’s why.

Have you ever dreaded to start cleaning because you knew that a little dusting or vacuuming would ultimately end in an entire renovation of the house, or tearing out the walls to start from scratch? I feel like any attempt at real analysis of this work in the way that the speaker does in that above video will turn into a rabbit hole that I must find the bottom of, and I’m just not ready for that .What I will say is that one of the most memorable points he made about the work was that (he claims) Boulez uses the approach of sonata form to its own demise, in a self-destructive way. And that’s probably true. He seems like the kind of person who would do that.

At the very least, you should know how truly extreme Boulez was (or is said to have been). The first sonata was to be dedicated to one of his teachers, Rene Leibowitz, until they had a cataclysmic falling out over some ‘corrections’ that Leibowitz made to the sonata. He also later attacked, even protested, another of his teachers, Olivier Messiaen, for how antiquated (or traditional or something) his music was. He’s famous for his critical statements about Stravinsky, and being pretty harsh to just about everyone and everything, at one point claiming that Schoenberg was a messiah of sorts when he said that any composer not making use of 12-tone techniques was “useless” (or something), but then later uttering his famous “Schoenberg is Dead” statement. So he always had something to fight for, or else against.

What I find terribly, far more interesting is John Keillor’s description of the work at AllMusic. Please just read it all so I can relax knowing you’ll have enjoyed the entire article and won’t be compelled to quote the whole damn thing. Thank you.

So back to Boulez’s idea of ‘tradition’ and sonata form. The mechanics of sonata form are a pillar of musical tradition that stretch back hundreds of years, so it’s odd that Boulez chooses the form (more than once) in which to write. But as the above lecturer says, he uses it for destructive purposes. I can’t quote much more than that, and maybe he gets into what Keillor does in his article, but I want to address one specific point about Keillor’s approach before some of my own listening experience.

He begins:

Like the first sonata, Beethoven is an important subject in the second one as well. The German master’s Hammerklavier fugal subject from the Op. 106 is quoted on the first page. Boulez‘s Second Piano Sonata reflects such a rigorous understanding of Beethoven‘s style that it breaks through the academic stranglehold on Beethoven scholarship.

Wait, what? Beethoven? Yeah. This is fascinating, you guys! After saying that “it rejuvenates Beethoven‘s artistic relevance again,” Keillor expresses one of the only things that I can say that I myself noticed and became fascinated with, how clearly and strictly Boulez adheres to the structures of sonata form.

I first listened to this work years ago, and would listen to it in the same way I’d listen to, say, an Albanian news broadcast, or a commencement speech in Finnish. I’d put it on, listen to 30 seconds and think to myself, “Someone understands this,” and turn it off, or else only put it on if there was something more annoying to drown out.

But when the time came to crack into these more modern works, after I’d gotten through the first sonata and some of the rest, I gave this work a real, genuine listen, a few different recordings, but the biggest difference was that I had the score in hand. I wasn’t able to follow it (all) at first, and would get lost here and there, only to pick up again where a new section started, but it was enough for me to have a whole new appreciation for the work.

It’s kind of like watching someone complete a long, complex math problem with various equations and variables. Seeing them work through it is interesting, and even if you can’t follow it, there’s some kind of assurance that they know what they’re doing because it all seems to work out, and this is a compelling argument that there’s logic behind what they’re doing. They came to a conclusion, didn’t they? So even if I can’t point to sections and figures and examples in this work, my repeated listening and reading of the score told me that actually, yes, there is something magical and amazing about this piece, that it’s not just splashes of anger on a page, and that, I must say, is exhilarating.

Regarding the comment about how Boulez ‘rejuvenates’ Beethoven’s artistic relevance, he says:

Boulez does so by displaying a flawless, trained eye for how a Beethoven piano sonata is structured, as Brahms did in his Op. 1. Themes, development, and recapitulation are handled with rigor and panache. In direct homage to the Hammerklavier fugue, Boulez‘s Second Piano Sonata frequently proceeds in imitative counterpoint. Throughout the work’s four movements, the composer will not let the alert listener forget for an instant that he knows Beethoven‘s Op. 109 as well as anyone, and can use it to make a very fine piano work of his own.

Sorry for the long chunks of quote, but this says something important to me.

People criticize, say, Schoenberg, for example, by saying he wouldn’t know a melody if it bit him on the face, or that he was a talentless, pedantic person, but clear, outstanding proof to the contrary lies in works like his Verklärte Nacht or Gurre-Lieder. They give solid, convincing proof that Schoenberg knew exactly what he was doing and had simply said all he wanted to say about that.

In like manner, then, I feel that Boulez’s references to Beethoven give him a certain kind of clout, a musical street cred, for any who seem to think he still needed it. It’s an acknowledgement that, yes, I know of these things and what came before, but the juxtaposition it creates is a fantastically exciting one.

Speaking of Beethoven, we tend to marvel nowadays, I think, at some of the stories about how Beethoven bested his competitors in piano duels, of improvisation or technique or whatever, writing significant piano parts for himself into works where he was to be an accompanist, such as in the horn sonata. He’s kind of a musical superhero that way, a legend, but at the time, maybe he was thought of as kind of a jerk.

Perhaps Boulez is showing off here, too, compositionally, showing his mastery of music from Beethoven’s time forward, tying intractable knots of musical complexity for people like us to try to pick at for decades to come. Keillor says:

It is so strenuously interconnected that following its many courses can be an intense challenge. The listener may feel dared to keep up with the internal associations, though that gauntlet was thrown down specifically for the academics to pick up. Boulez’s mission was what fascinated historians, and his attack on the academic grip on Beethoven was actually directed towards composers.

Of the four movements, the only thing I really want to discuss in any kind of depth is the first movement. I read somewhere (and I’m not going to go look for it because I just can’t, mentally or even emotionally, jump down that rabbit hole right now) that so much of this is built on cells as motifs, rather than, say, Schoenberg’s entire rows (or ‘series’) of serialism, and if you take a look at the first few beats of the work, those initial gestures of three and four notes, you will indeed see them everywhere you look in the first movement, and perhaps elsewhere.

I think even without much patience, and just a little interest in or desire to understand this piece, you could quite easily come to grasp at least enough to say, “Whoa, there really is something to this.”

The one thing I can say simply from listening experience, but not really explain in any kind of musical terms, is that the final stroke of this first movement, with its commanding finality, is just sublime… but only when you become familiar with it, have it in your head, and go back and listen to the first movement, and hear that it’s being alluded to, hinted at, prefigured everywhere in this piece, so that for me personally, the final stroke, the last nail in the coffin for the first movement (I know that’s a misuse of that metaphor, I know) strikes me as the only way that this movement could ever end, as if it was hiding in plain sight, taunting us all along, only to give us the big reveal at the end.

The first movement is short. The second and final movements are substantial to say the least, and the second offers a contrast to the relentless energy of the first movement, but overall, what I love about this piece is its rigor and excitement.

The statement I was making earlier about showing off… I feel like Boulez is doing that, but in a way that makes us wonder, not scoff. I listen to it as if he himself is playing, and the man’s genius just oozes from this piece. You (very well) may not like the work or anything from Boulez, but even a little bit of study should be enough to show that he really was a musical mastermind. And that’s scintillatingly interesting, to me.

Equally interesting is the unwieldily complex nature of this piece, to me, that it seems it holds an infinite stockpile of gems and treasures to be discovered, and as a listener, I’m extremely happy with just knowing that they’re there, even if it takes me years of slowly picking away at a piece to begin to appreciate them fully (who are we kidding? I’ll never appreciate them fully).

But look at that. It’s a story from me about how I came to be just… enthralled, excited, intensely pleased by a piece that I hadn’t the stomach for years ago. It took some time to get there, and by ‘there’ I perhaps only mean a place where I can appreciate that there’s so much to appreciate about this work.

This piece is without question one of the most monumental musical compositions of the 20th century, dare I say of any century. It is an astounding musical achievement, and one that it might take you some time to enjoy, but are you in any rush?

I’ll close with a statement from Keillor that mirrors really one of the only things I wanted to convey about this piece in this article, so while it seems like my rambling on above is a result of his statement, it seems very much that we have the same conclusion about the work:

One can listen to it for its mind-boggling sophistication and discover that there is more to hear with every listen. Perhaps more pleasurably, one can hear in it a young genius for whom music holds an overwhelming importance that bears not even the rumor of a competitor.

Thank you for reading, and do stay tuned for more of this and other things.

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