Pierre Boulez (b. 1925)

Pierre Boulez is perhaps the most towering figure in today’s classical music world, both as a composer and conductor.

Boulez was born in France and came of age during the Nazi occupation. He studied mathematics for a time, before switching to composition, which he studied with Olivier Messiaen and René Liebowitz. He became associated with the Darmstadt school of composers, along with fellow Messiaen student Karlheinz Stockhausen. His early works, such as the first and second piano sonatas and the cantata Le visage nuptial, were strongly influenced by the atonal and serial works of Webern. Boulez sought to expand the serial technique beyond pitch and applied it to all musical elements, including rhythms, dynamics, and timbres, in such works as Polyphonie X for chamber ensemble and Structures for two pianos.

Boulez began to find the limits of this technique too confining and revised his compositional style. The result was his best-known work, Le Marteau sans maître (“The Hammer Without a Master”), one of the landmarks of 20th Century music. Scored for voice and a small ensemble including alto flute, viola, guitar, and two percussionists, with poetry from René Char. It evokes musical language from gamelan orchestras, jazz, Japanese koto music, and other disparate styles. Stravinsky held it up as one of the main masterworks of the post-war generation. Boulez followed this Pli Selon Pli (“Fold by Fold”) for voice and orchestra, with poetry from Stéphane Mallarmé.

Boulez had also carried on a lengthy correspondence with composer John Cage and adapted some of Cage’s aleatoric techniques into what Boulez called controlled chance, in pieces like Éclat, Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna, and the third piano sonata. He mainly experimented with the idea of moving around parts of the composition or varying the order of movements.

Boulez began conducting originally to provide direction to musicians struggling with performing his music and other avant-garde pieces. He quickly established himself as one of the pre-eminent conductors of his generation. George Szell made him principal conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, so that musicians and audiences would have the opportunity to play and hear newer works that Szell considered himself unfit for. Boulez later succeeded Szell in Cleveland and later Leonard Bernstein in New York, while simultaneously conducting the BBC Symphony. His years in New York were often contentious, with musicians and audiences rebelling against his modern choice in repertoire. He was also principal guest conductor and now conductor emeritus of the Chicago Symphony and is the founding conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, dedicated to the performance of new music. Boulez has recorded definitive performances of the some of the giants of 20th Century music, including Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, Berg (including the premiere performance of the completed opera Lulu), Webern, Varèse, Messiaen, and Ligeti. He has also been renowned for his recordings of Berlioz, Bruckner, Janacek, and has recorded a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies. He also conducted the centennial production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. Boulez even collaborated with Frank Zappa.

In 1970, French President Georges Pompidou asked Boulez to create and head an international institute of music dedicated to the latest developments in technology and acoustical research. The result was the founding of IRCAM in Paris, an unprecedented partnership of science and music that has featured compositions by Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen, John Cage, Tod Machover, Xenakis, Denisov, and Zappa.

The technological possibilities created at IRCAM have greatly expanded the musical language in Boulez’s later works. Because of his busy conducting career, Boulez has composed relatively few pieces over the last few decades. He also tends to think of his music as continually in development, so established works are constantly redefined. One of his main interests has been in the area of live electronic sound manipulation. Some of his recent works performed at IRCAM have included …explosante-fixe… for flute with MIDI controls, chamber orchestra, and electronics, Répons for chamber ensemble, Sur Incises for groups of 3 pianos, 3 harps, and 3 mallet percussion, as well as Dialogue de l’ombre double for clarinet and electronics.

Throughout it all, Boulez has become one of the leading figures and champions of modern music. Starting out as a brash, outspoken “enfant terrible,” he has mellowed over the years into a thoughtful, yet still dynamic presence on stage at the age of 85. In reflecting on his art, Boulez stated:

“The aim of music is not to express feelings but to express music. It is not a vessel into which the composer distills his soul drop by drop, but a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal.”

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

Pierre Boulez: Inheriting the Future of Music .

Suggested Reading:

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