by David Maw
Pierre Boulez was born on Thursday 26th March 1925 in the quiet provincial Loire town of Montbrison. An older brother of the same name had been born in 1920 but survived only a few months. His older sister, Jeanne, born in 1922, was to be a staunch supporter and confidante well into adult life. Eleven years younger was Roger, future librarian of the Ecole Normale Supérieure. The family lived initially above a pharmacy in the flat where Pierre was born. When he was four they moved to a newly built detached house.
Boulez’s upbringing was a contented, middle-class, Catholic one, unremarkable in inter-war France. Between the ages of six and sixteen he attended the Catholic Seminary Victor la Prade in Montbrison, completing the final year of the baccalauréat in 1941 at the Pensionnat St Louis in nearby St Etienne. He was an able student with special aptitudes for physics and chemistry.
His musical upbringing was that of his milieu. He first encountered orchestral music in 1931, when his father brought back a radio from a trip to the USA. He was not to hear an orchestra live until his student years in Lyons. Like his sister, he received piano lessons as a child. By the age of nine he had reached a fairly advanced competence, able to play difficult Chopin.
Leon Takes Us Outside
Léon Boulez was a severe and strict character. An engineer and technical director of a steel works, he intended that his son should follow the same path into engineering. After his baccalauréat, Pierre was enrolled in a course of higher mathematics in Lyons with the end of proceeding to the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. Pierre had different ideas and wanted to study music. He applied to the Lyons Conservatoire at the end of his first year in the town but was turned down. He set to persuading his father to let him spend another year in the town studying music in order to reapply to the conservatoire. Léon Boulez was against the plan; but the recently married Jeanne Chevalier-Boulez interceded on her brother’s behalf. Pierre was enrolled in a further course of mathematics at the University of Lyons pursuing simultaneously private lessons in piano and harmony with Lionel Pachmann, son of the Chopin specialist Vladimir Pachmann. Thereafter it was to be Paris, but the Conservatoire not the Ecole Polytechnique
As Boulez remembered events: ‘Our parents were strong. But finally we were stronger than they.’ Yet once the decision had been made, Léon Boulez was supportive, helping his son with both the practicalities and the finances of his move to Paris. In 1943 Boulez enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire in the harmony class of Georges Dandelot. Impatient to study counterpoint, he took weekly private lessons with Andrée Vaurabourg, who thought ‘he always seemed capable of anything at all.’ The following year he entered Olivier Messiaen’s advanced harmony class, obtaining his prize within the year.
Messiaen later said of him: ‘His father was very angry when he chose music, and his father was a very severe, very closed man. Today Boulez resembles his father in being exceptionally closed. Even if he is nice and polite there are always hidden things going on. Even if he’s smiling, there is more underneath than a smile.’
(You Will) Set the World on Fire
During the period of his studies with Messiaen, Boulez would often travel back on the metro with his teacher after class. ‘Musical aesthetics are being worn out. Music itself will die. Who is there to give it birth?’ Messiaen replied, ‘You will, Pierre.’
Boulez was as good as Messiaen’s word. Lillian Kreisler, widow of the architect and sculptor Frederick Kreisler, recalled Boulez’s first trip to the United States in 1952, as a musician with the Renauld-Barrault Theatre: ‘Boulez was the White Knight of the time. I remember a performance of his work at Carl Fischer Hall. All the abstract expressionists came. His name was legendary even among painters. We knew that conventional music had been carried to its limits and that here was a genius, a genius who brought a tidal wave of the new.’
The work that really set the musical world on fire was Le Marteau sans maître, a cycle of nine movements developed from settings of three poems by René Char. It was premiered in Baden-Baden on 18th June 1955. Its sound world – soprano, flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone, xylophone and percussion – was a revelation and much imitated by composers of the time. Here was a music that completely embodied the ideals that its composer had set out in an essay of 1948: ‘music should be collective hysteria and magic, violently modern…’
Boulez was the leading light of a group of composers that saw the way forward for music after the Second World War through a wilful erasure of the past and reconstruction of musical language from first principles. His own early compositions took the dodecaphonic technique of Anton Webern’s late works as a starting point, further developing the rigorous structure of their musical language. His Second Piano Sonata (1948) overtly tackled the model of Beethoven, pulverizing it beneath strident modernist ambitions. The infamous Structures, Book 1 for two pianos (1952), initially subtitled after Paul Klee ‘à la limite du pays fertile’, brought all the elements of musical composition – pitch, rhythm, attack, dynamic – under the same kind of formal organization. The resulting composition had limited aesthetic appeal, but it was necessary to Boulez’s compositional development: by stripping away from the musical language everything that could be, an essence was revealed that would serve as the basis for reconstruction.
The summer schools in music held annually at Darmstadt from 1949 were the occasion for Boulez and other like-minded composers – Gyorgy Ligeti (b.1923), Luigi Nono (b.1924), Luciano Berio (b.1925), Karlheinz Stockhausen (b.1928), Henri Pousseur (b.1929) – to discuss their work and ideas. These composers were quite different in the aims and accomplishments, and ultimately developed in disparate ways; but having a common aim of rebellion against the past they achieved an identity as a group through the Darmstadt meetings. For Boulez, the shibboleth was characteristically unequivocal: ‘Any musician who has not experienced … the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS.’
After his appointment to the New York Philharmonic, Boulez was interviewed on the Dick Cavett show in June 1972. No doubt the show’s researchers had prepared its host for fireworks of a firebrand, but the Philharmonic’s management had counselled their Musical Director against taking such a stance. Boulez obligingly played down his rebellious edge: not so many subscriptions had been cancelled at the Philharmonic through his programming; when he booed Stravinsky in 1945, he was one of many students to do so to highlight issues not get at the distinguished composer. He demonstrated his perfect pitch and his ability to conduct different times with each hand. The rebel could be a company man. He remained, though, notably consistent in his views and ideals right up to the end, mollifying only his polemical tone.
The polemical tone once got him into trouble. ‘I once said that the most elegant solution of the problem of opera was to blow up the opera-houses, and I still think this true.’ Needless to say, people heard the in this remark a call to destroy opera houses rather than reasonable criticism of the inefficient administration of opera houses that had frustrated Boulez on numerous occasions. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, the 75-year old composer was roused from his bed in a five-star Swiss hotel by police wanting to interrogate him as a potential security threat.
A New Career in a New Town
Boulez was never one to mince his words. When in 1966 Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux appointed the conservative composer Marcel Landowski as head of the governing body for new music, Boulez was indignant. He responded with an outspoken article in the Nouvel observateur in which he declared: ‘I am therefore on strike against the whole of French musical officialdom.’ He noted that this was not a heroic act as he earned none of his income in the country at the time.
Since 1958 he had made his home and career outside France. He arrived in Baden-Baden in June of that year at the invitation of Heinrich Strobel, then director of the music department of Südwestfunk. He was to stay for a fortnight in order to finish Poésie pour pouvoir, whose premiere was scheduled for autumn in Donaueschingen. He returned to the town at the end of the year; and early in 1959 he signed a contract with Südwestfunk to conduct concerts of twentieth-century music. He resolved to settle there, registering with the German music copyrighting agency and eventually taking a house of his own. ‘I left Paris because, on the organisational level of musical life, stupidity was even more prevalent there than elsewhere.’
Uneasiness remained in his relationship with France, though by 1970 his international stature was such that he could no longer be ignored by French officialdom. Georges Pompidou asked him to help establish a centre for music as part of the newly conceived Pompidou Centre. The result was IRCAM – the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique – which opened in 1977 and soon established itself at the forefront of applied research into electro-acoustic music. Many composers have used it, including, of course, Boulez himself – …explosante-fixe…, Anthèmes 2, Répons, Dialogue de l’ombre etc..
The invitation to set up IRCAM represented a turning of the tide in his relationship with his home country. In 1976 the French Minister of Culture Michel Guy supported his foundation of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the first such officially instituted group dedicated to the performance of contemporary music in the world. Boulez took a leading role in the creation of the Cité de la musique, opened in 1995, and in the Philharmonie, which opened a couple of months before his ninetieth birthday in 2015. But he retained his domestic base in Baden-Baden to the end of his life and was buried there.
Where are we now?
On the 13th May 1968, as the rest of France came out on general strike and a million people descended on Paris to demonstrate, Boulez returned to his old school in St Etienne to address a hall full of dutifully attentive pupils with a talk entitled ‘Ou en est-on?’ – Where are we now? One wonders what they made of his patient assessment of the various stages of his career, presented with no concession for age or knowledge. He outlined a crossroads both for him – conceding that he was now no longer young – and for musical culture. The innovations of him and his contemporaries were accomplished: ‘The discoveries we made between 1945 and 1950 were comparatively easy.’ The remaining problem was one of communication, ‘to promote musical expression to a point at which it becomes a means of general communication.’ Part of this would be achieved through a synthesis of inherited musical means and the emergent ones of technology. In this respect, his remarks were prescient of the next phase in his creative work.
Yet concern for communication had been part of Boulez’s activities from the outset. Writing, talking, lecturing about music was a third strand to his career. ‘Propositions’ of 1948 set out his own compositional ideas in a typically provocative way, placing a central emphasis on rhythm (following Stravinsky and Messiaen in particular) but seeking to find for this a more integrated reconciliation with the control of pitch than had his precursors. He wrote articles prolifically, addressing points of compositional technique and aesthetic, issues of the day, important works, composers and other figures, often in a truculently polemical tone. The high esteem in which his contribution to musical thought was held led to his appointment to a professorial chair at the Collège de France in 1976 on the recommendation of Michel Foucault, the first musician to be so nominated in the institution’s history.
Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Joyce, Char, Michaux, Artaud, Genet, Beckett, Messiaen, Webern, Schoenberg, Stockhausen – and, of course, Mallarmé. Many think his portrait of Mallarmé – Pli selon pli (1957-62; rev.1983, 1989) – to be his masterpiece.
Sex and the Church
There was a monkish quality to Boulez. He lived alone and worked with an unremitting discipline twelve or more hours a day, rising at 5am and eating nothing until lunchtime. These habits had been instilled in him at an early age. Each morning the young Pierre set out at 5.40am on the 20 minute walk to the Catholic seminary where he spent 13 hours before returning home. He was a brilliant student, especially gifted in mathematics and chemistry. He sang the music of Josquin and Bach as well as plainchant in the choir. Faith in God did not remain with him into adult life. When the biographer Joan Peyser visited the school, the priest declined to show her the Chapel where the young Boulez had prayed twice daily for a decade.
Nothing is known of his personal life, which may simply be because there was none. A short-lived and highly intense affair in 1946 culminated in a double-suicide pact; but this lurid outcome was evaded. What resulted for Boulez was rather a concentrated phase of composition. During the decade following he composed twenty works, many of which were groundbreaking and original – the flute sonatine, the three piano sonatas, the first book of Structures, Le Marteau sans maître. So far as anyone knows, his subsequent life was chaste. There have been speculations of homosexuality. From 1972, he was accompanied by Hans Messmer, whom he described as his ‘valet’. Messmer occupied a flat in the basement of the house in Baden-Baden. But only speculation accords Messmer a more intimate relationship to the composer.
Not that the rising star in the international musical firmament did not present an attractive prospect: highly cultured, witty, urbane. In the 1970s, he was often surrounded by an entourage of elderly ladies, the most prominent of whom was Marguerite Staehelin. A wealthy Swiss in her seventies, she courted him with a photo of herself in a bikini and a serious proposal of marriage. But, as Hilda Strobel, widow of the musicologist and new music promoter Heinrich Strobel, remarked: ‘Boulez is a prisoner of his brain. He does not have the courage to let his feelings go.’
Except, perhaps in his music; but if a troubled and intense eroticism can be heard in some works – notably Le visage nuptial and Le soleil des eaux – the legacy of the church can also be: the second movement of the Third Piano Sonata, Trope, with its subsections Glose and Commentaire, takes concepts from scholastic theology; Répons derives its form from responsorial psalms; the titles of Trois Psalmodies, Anthèmes, Rituel and Mémoriale speak for themselves.
During an interview with the journalist Joan Peyser in 1969, Boulez dismissed the idea that he was being considered for the post of Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic to succeed Leonard Bernstein. He indicated that in any case he wouldn’t accept the post if he were offered it. Less than three months after the interview was published, the announcement of his appointment was made. He held the post until 1977.
This was to be a busy time for Boulez. He had been appointed a guest conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1967, serving as their musical advisor from 1970 to 1972. He was appointed chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1971, holding the post until 1975. He was now at the forefront of music-making internationally. He used the posts in London and New York to revolutionise orchestral programming. Rather than just the safe classics from Mozart to Brahms, he looked both earlier and later – Frescobaldi to Elliott Carter. He sought out seldom performed works by canonical composers – Haydn, Berlioz, Schumann, Liszt, de Falla – as well as less familiar works of Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg and Messiaen. His informal concerts at the Roundhouse in London and the Rug Concerts in New York attracted a new, younger audience to orchestral music.
Boulez had never set out to be a conductor, though his first post after leaving the Paris Conservatoire was as musical director of the Compagnie Renaud-Berrault. In 1954 his career as a conductor began in earnest, with the foundation of the Domaine Musical concert series. The aim was to present new works alongside classic compositions from earlier in the twentieth century – Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and Varèse – and works from the more distant past that fitted the historical lineage – Machaut, Dufay, Gabrieli, Bach. Boulez took up direction because there was no one else around to do it. It turned out that he did it well. His technique remained throughout his career a distinctive and personal one. Without a baton, he used just his hands to obtain the effects he was looking for. He could be more expressive, he claimed, with ten fingers than with a single baton.
Nor was his conducting limited to orchestras. He was invited to conduct Wozzeck in Paris in 1963. He made his debut in Bayreuth in 1966 and went on to conduct the centenary production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen there in 1976, returning in 2004 for a controversial production of Parsifal. There was also a memorable production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with the Welsh National Opera in 1992.
Boulez kept on conducting right into his late eighties, but he always described himself as first and foremost a composer. When asked why he continued to conduct when it took time away from his composition, he replied that the concert programming of institutions, with its seemingly ineradicable conservatism, motivated him to continue. He was constantly proselytising for new music, seeking to win it new audiences. ‘I don’t think music is an entertainment product. It’s a product of culture – not for marketing, but to enrich lives.’
The necessary consequence of his increasing work as a conductor was a lessening of his compositional activities. The rapid fertility of his first decade led to a more measured rate of production: Pli selon pli emerged over five years and was then revised two decades later; Figures, doubles, prismes gradually took shape over a decade; Eclat/Multiples was five years in the making, Répons four, Dérive 2 eighteen, and the various versions of …explosante-fixe… were produced over two decades.
A lack of time does not entirely explain this. There was a strong element of reflection in Boulez’s creativity, and many of the earlier works were withdrawn – Quartet for ondes martenots and Polyphonie X – revised – Le Visage nuptial and Le Soleil des eaux – or declared to be work in progress – only two of the five movements of the Third Piano Sonata were published, the other three were intended for revision. Indeed, the idea of a closed and finished musical work, which is what can he conceived in the first two piano sonatas, for example, was abandoned in favour of an open aesthetic inspired by Mallarme’s Livre: the third movement, Constellation-Miroir, of the Third Piano Sonata comprises a series of musical fragments through which a variety of different pathways is envisaged. The performer is left with the choice of the precise pathway to adopt in any particular performance.
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town
The distinction of Boulez’s international career led to his receipt of a large number of prestigious awards. Amongst them were Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Honorary CBE, Austrian Decoration for Science and Art, the Grand Cross of the Order of St James of the Sword, the Sanford Medal, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, the Gold Medal of Vienna, Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society, Golden Medal of Honour of Baden-Baden, the Kyoto Prize, the Colburn Prize, the Medal of Salzburg. His conducting career earned him 26 Grammy awards.
How could it be that he never received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford?
We Are the Dead
Boulez’s friendship with Bruno Maderna was uniquely constant and untroubled. With Stockhausen and Pousseur, for example, there were arguments, tensions, rivalries; but with Maderna, an amity born of mutual respect and personal affection was never challenged in this way. He was, then, greatly saddened to learn of Maderna’s sudden death on 13th November 1973 and quickly set about composing a memorial to him. Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna is one of his most frequently performed and accessible works, based on a seven-note musical figure representing the letters of Maderna’s name. The hieratic repetition and permutation of its musical ideas recalls oriental music, revisiting an influence that had coloured also the much earlier Le Marteau sans maître.
It was not the first memorial in his output. The final movement, Tombeau, of Pli selon pli reworked a piece first written to mark the death of Prince Max Egon von Furstenberg in 1959. After the death of Stravinsky in 1971, Boulez was asked by the British new music magazine Tempo to contribute to their memorial issue and he produced a piece – or rather, a set of fragments with instructions for their assembly – which was the starting point of …explosante-fixe…; this in fact supplied material for Rituel and for Mémoriale, dedicated to the memory of the Canadian flautist Lawrence Beauregard, who died shortly before the premiere.
Boulez retained enduring health and vitality into old age as one by one his Darmstadt colleagues disappeared: Nono in 1990; Berio in 2003; Ligeti in 2006; Stockhausen in 2007; Pousseur in 2009. Failing health led him to abandon work in his final few years and kept him from the numerous celebrations worldwide of his ninetieth birthday in 2015. On 5th January 2016 he too was carried off by un peu profound ruisseau calomnié la mort.