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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.”


The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

It has been a little over a year since I began this blog. Several friends, especially my pastor, had encouraged me to start one. The “blessing” of an injury at work and the subsequent 2 months off to recuperate gave me the opportunity. Once I decided in a direction to head, I was off and running with Ars Sacra. In the months since, I have appreciated watching the number of viewers grow. While I have enjoyed posting articles, it has sometimes been somewhat of a chore to maintain the weekly articles I set up. I have also found that I had departed somewhat from my original intent, which is to explore the points where culture and the spiritual life found in Christ meet and bubble forth in the creative expression of music and art.

After taking off the month of July to rethink and retool, I am ready to relaunch into the blogosphere. My life is once again feeling a little topsy-turvy with numerous changes. The first of these is a change in my primary vocation and occupation. The injury that gave me the opportunity to start blogging has been a persistent presence over the last year and has forced a change in occupation. While I haven’t left my previous job, I have dropped down to a very part-time presence and have now returned to my previous calling and passion, which is teaching. I am thrilled to reenter youth ministry through my work with students at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, a school that I previously worked at from 1994-2002 and 2004-2005. I am excited to teach in the only subject area that I had not tried my hand at before, which is foreign language. Thanks in large part to the mission work that I took part in during my two visits to Uruguay (which I have documented elsewhere in this blog), I have refreshed my Spanish fluency enough to try teaching it to 7 classes of junior and senior high school students.

Secondly, I am helping to maintain and develop a burgeoning spiritual community that has been slowly growing from my weekly small group. We have started small, but our  bonds of friendship have deepened greatly over the last year and it will be exciting to see where God leads us in the coming weeks and months.

In light of these changes and increased demands on my time, I am planning on revamping this page slightly. I will continue to feature an Album of the Week. However, the Composer of the Week feature will switch to a monthly article. I will also continue to post tribute articles (In Memoriam“) of recently deceased artists who have contributed to the artistic and spiritual life of our culture, as I believe it is important to honor those who have gone before us and we look to the road ahead. I plan to return to my original intent and will try to post more theologically oriented articles on sacred art and its impact on community, (both within the Church and in the wider world). I also want to start a spotlight feature on some important books, both established classics which I have enjoyed over the years, as well as “recent reads” that have impacted me.

To all who have followed this blog and shown your interest and support over the last 13 months, my sincere thanks. I look forward with great expectation to see where this heads over the next year and hope to add to the conversation of what the Church will (or should) look like in the 21st Century and to see how the creative vision of God’s people can bring life, hope, and truly good news to a needy world. Stay tuned…

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