BoulezPierre Boulez, (March 26, 1925–January 5, 2016), composer, conductor & author

Pierre Boulez was perhaps the most important and influential classical musician of the last 60 years. As a child, he showed a great talent and understanding of mathematics and music and began taking piano lessons. He then enrolled at the Paris Conservatory and studied with Olivier Messiaen, as well as private instruction in 12-tone method with René Leibowitz. During this early period, he became well-known as a brash, opinionated, yet articulate spokesman for modern music, particularly serial music. He was a great champion of Webern and took the next steps implied in Webern’s music to greatly systematize and serialize all aspects of a musical composition, such as rhythms, dynamics, instrumentation, and articulation. Some of his works from this period include the cantata “Le Visage Nuptial” and the highly-acclaimed Second Piano Sonata. He became associated with other composers of the Darmstadt school, such as fellow Messiaen student Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, and John Cage, who introduced Boulez to elements of chance.

One of his most celebrated pieces is Le Marteau sans Maître, (“The Hammer Without a Master”), written during the 1950’s. It was an important serial composition, but it differed significantly from the music of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and his students, due to the inclusion of world music elements like the metallic sounds of Balinese Gamelan music, as well as African wood percussion instruments. Le Marteau seemed to combine the worlds of chance music, post-war Serialism, and earlier impressionistic sounds of Debussy and Ravel, along with the poetry of René Char. Other significant works include Pli Selon Pli (“Fold By Fold”), Éclat-Multiples, …Explosante-Fixe…, Repons, and Incises. He often regarded works as unfinished and frequently would revisit composition to either revise them or develop new pieces from older material.

In his role as conductor and recording artist, Boulez had a profound impact on music. He was a great champion for the works of the great 20th Century masters such as Stravinsky, Bartók, Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Varèse, and Messiaen, as well as older composers such as Hector Berlioz and the post-romantic music of Wagner, Mahler, and Bruckner. Although he was demanding in his expectations, he was also considered to be quite kind and charming. Boulez was beloved by the members of the orchestras he worked with and had a longstanding relationship with several American orchestras, including the Cleveland Orchestra, (where he served as Principal Guest Conductor), New York Philharmonic, (music director from 1971-1977), and the Chicago Symphony (Principal Guest Conductor and Conductor Emeritus). He also served as conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and was the founding conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain. He was especially noted for a centennial performance of Wagner’s 4 opera Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1976 which was later filmed and released on DVD. He also conducted the premiere performance of the completed version of Berg’s opera Lulu in 1979.

As an author, Boulez could be quite blunt in his assessment of music and musicians. He was outspoken in his criticism of what he considered to be a “museum culture” in classical music, which he considered to be detrimental to current musical innovation. His time as conductor in New York was controversial, in which some patrons expressed displeasure with his emphasis on modern repertoire. Many of his articles and liner notes were collected and publishing in the book Orientations.

Another  of Boulez’s great accomplishments was the founding of IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic/Music) at the Pompidou Center in Paris. IRCAM continues to be an important place for the development of new techniques and ideas in electronic and acoustic music, with a modular concert hall and the latest in music technology.

During Boulez’s career as a conductor, he produced a large number of benchmark recordings of 20th Century music for Sony/Columbia. He later became an artist for Deutsche Grammophon and rerecorded much of the same repertoire for this label, as well as expanding to new pieces. The comparisons of the the recorded versions from different periods of his life can be quite interesting. He was noted for the clarity and transparency he brought to the most complex scores, as well as for a sensitive ear that could detect mistakes in the remotest places of the orchestra. He served as mentor to many younger conductors, including Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle.

Boulez was highly honored throughout his career, including 26 Grammy Awards, a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2015, named an honorary commander of the British Empire, and numerous other honors and awards throughout Europe, the United States, and Asia. No other figure so thoroughly dominated modern musical life during the last half of the 20th Century. The loss of Pierre Boulez will leave an enormous hole in the musical life of the modern symphony orchestra.

Visit the Pierre Boulez page at his publisher, Universal Editions Boulez, or his biography page at Deutsche Grammophon Bio.

“Creation exists only in the unforeseen made necessary…  For me, curiosity is life. If you are not curious, you are in your coffin.”