Pierre Boulez
The Universalist

Pierre Boulez during the rehearsal of the opening concert of the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2008
Pierre Boulez during the rehearsal of the opening concert of the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2008 | Photo: Rolf Haid dpa / lsw © dpa – Report; picture-alliance / dpa

Germany has always represented a challenge for Pierre Boulez. Schönberg, Stockhausen, Darmstadt, Bayreuth – the composer and conductor from the Loire in France has intervened in and inspired, shaped and advanced the European music scene since the 1950s. He died in January 2016 – a maestro with a vision.

There are trained conductors who cherish an unfortunate love for composing, such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, who never let up writing his own symphonies à la Bruckner. Conversely, there are trained composers who, like Krzysztof Penderecki or Hans Werner Henze, place themselves as conductors primarily in the service of their own work and maintain a distinguished reserve towards the traditional repertoire. Pierre Boulez belongs to neither of these usual categories, for he was a professional at all levels: as composer, conductor, teacher, cultural functionary, studio founder and music organizer. And because he did everything with the authority and incorruptible consistency of man of conviction, Boulez had the most important influence on French music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Starting point: science

Boulez, who was born on 26 March 1925 in Montbrison in the Loire, failed to fulfil (or fulfilled only partly) his father’s professional wishes for him. Instead of maturing into a scientist, he studied music in Paris with Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz, who stand in particular for modernism. For them, music after Wolrd War II was no longer a lubricant of big emotions, but rather an internally coherent, almost scientifically worked-out construction in which every little nut and bolt is useful, though not necessarily expressive. Like many of his generation, the young Boulez was an enthusiast of such an approach – as in serialism, with which he wanted to “wipe the slate clean” in art as well after the defeat of the fascists and their false pathos. Organizing his early piano works and ensemble pieces according to series of mathematical proportions, and precisely regulating all the qualities of tone from volume to timbre, he insisted on an unbroken, purely musical “meaning”, without regard to narrative or emotional aspects.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, however, the fundamentalist of serialism Boulez moved more and more towards a tonally sensuous, transparent, yes “French” style. To this was added contemporary poetry, and the two cycles Le marteau sans maître, based on texts by René Char, and Pli selon pli, with the words of Boulez’s favourite poet Stéphane Mallarmé, are among the greatest examples of modernist vocal music. “Schönberg est mort”: thus commented Boulez in 1951 in an article upon the death of Arnold Schönberg in Los Angeles. In any one else, we would have regarded the irreverent double meaning of this remark as arrogance. But Boulez has never held back his verbal barbs; think of his famous Spiegel interview in 1967, in which he considered the demolition of existing opera houses as an expensive yet elegant solution for the problems of contemporary music theatre.

“Schoenberg est mort”

With the dictum “Schoenberg est mort”, Boulez issued the aesthetic order of the day, according to which all traditionalisms were to be rigorously rejected, even if they came from a father of modernism. At bottom, he has adhered to this line into his own later work. He has rarely been satisfied, however, with the finished results. Many pieces such as the monumental, almost unperformable string quartet Livre or the Third Piano Sonata were never finished; others Boulez reworked again and again. For orchestra he has, in any case, composed little; the long contemplated opera was delayed until the favoured librettists, Jean Genet and Heiner Müller, had died.

For all Boulez’s passion, distance to the achieved is one of his principles. And when in the early 1960s the composer Boulez fell into a crisis, he switched metier without further ado and perfected his craft as a conductor, which he had learned in Paris and later refined under Hans Rosbaud and Hermann Scherchen. “How can the man manage it all?”, wondered the aged Otto Klemperer, who registered Boulez’s steep conducting career. In an almost obsessive round of activity, Boulez was guest and chief conductor in Cleveland, London and New York – until, in the mid-1970s, he again returned to the grande nation and established in Paris the musical research institute IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) and the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

Bayreuth and Baden-Baden

Both as a composer and as a conductor, Boulez desired not merely success and a knowledge of the repertoire, but also to leave his aesthetic mark. Not only his fantastic ear and his understanding for the inner life of a score, but also his protest against the traditional self-dramatization of the “maestro”, have made him a model for the younger generation of conductors round Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Ingo Metzmacher. Boulez has thereby promoted not only classical and contemporary modernism, but also re-interpreted the tradition up to Gustav Mahler. In 1966, at the invitation of Wieland Wagner, he went for the first time to inner sanctum of the Wagner cult, Bayreuth; the Ring of the Century in 1976 became a dramaturgical – directed by Patrice Chéreau – and musical milestone in a new image of Wagner. Boulez’s last appearance on the Green Hill in 2004/05, when he conducted Wagner’s Parsifal in Christoph Schlingensief’s production, united precision, clarity and tonal sensuality in a mature late style.

Pierre Boulez and his music, source: Universal Edition / Youtube

The interest in Wagner, Mahler and Alban Berg makes plain that Boulez has never been fixed on French culture. German musical life of the 1950s shaped him. In 1952 he was already a guest at the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music for the first time, and in 1967 was active there as a teacher and the conductor of the Darmstadt Chamber Ensemble. We have heard him as guest conductor of the Southwest Radio Orchestra and leading the Berlin Philharmonic. Boulez has conducted premieres in Germany, as in 2008 at the Donaueschingen Music Festival, and has owned a house in Baden-Baden for half a century. Thus he is somewhat reminiscent of the thinker and poet Heinrich Heine, who once crossed the Rhine in the other direction and, like Boulez, united in himself two cultures and mentalities into a creative and explosive mixture.

Pierre Boulez died on 5 January 2016 Baden-Baden.

Updated in January 2016, the editorial staff