Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Pierre Boulez, the Composer

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Pierre Boulez, the Composer

Article excerpt

Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) had many careers--as a conductor, an arts administrator, a founder of institutions, a critic, and a composer--but the need to express himself by writing music was the engine driving all of the other careers, each aimed at creating a more hospitable environment for the art he loved. What follows is a retrospective of the composers career.


Reminiscing about Boulezs days at The New York Philharmonic in the early 1970s, a technician who frequently worked with him remarked that he always seemed to be the youngest person in the room, and Boulezs music is as youthful as he always seemed to be. Commenting on the character of Bergs music--music stemming from the end of the German Romantic tradition--Stravinsky said that it reminded him of "an old woman of whom one says, 'She was beautiful when she was young'" (Stravinsky and Craft 1960, 98). Although it bears a certain relationship to Bergs, Boulez's music is neither decadent nor autumnal but fresh as a spring thunderstorm: Boulez brought the same fraicheur to the dense chromatic music of the 20th century that the impressionists brought to painting in the 1870s.

That Boulez was a leading figure in the post-war European avant-garde is well known. One of a group of figures that included Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Gyorgy Ligeti, there was aperiod in the early 1950s when he attempted to make tabula rasa of tradition, to liquidate his heritage and start afresh. Nevertheless, it's a mistake to place too much emphasis on the radical break with tradition that his music supposedly embodies. If Boulez belongs to an avant-garde, it's to a French avant-garde tradition dating back two centuries to Berlioz and Delacroix, and his attitudes are deeply rooted in the avant-garde of the later nineteenth century. As a young man, he had already discovered "a Debussy-Cezanne-Mallarme reality at the root of all moderni ty," and his essays are dotted with references to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Manet, and Monet.

Stemming from the French tradition, Boulez was profoundly influenced both by the textures and sensitivity to sonority and by the reticence so characteristic of Debussy and Ravel. At the same time, he continued the explorations of a chromatic post-tonal language begun by Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. "In German music," as Boulez once remarked, "there is a continuity and development such as in Beethoven and Wagner that the French have rarely had. [...] I tried to know more about this tradition. I had something to acquire. This Frenchness--this instinct for harmony--is [something] I have in myself and didn't have to fight for" (Stearns 21-22).

Like Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), Boulezs comrade in arms throughout the 1950s, Boulez rejected certain elements of his heritage, but only in order to embrace others. Boulez and Stockhausen were immenselyimpressedby the works that Schoenberg and Stravinsky had written before World War I--works like Erwartung (1909) and Le sacre du printemps (1912) that date from the period when these composers produced their most original and freewheeling work--but they were disappointed by the comparative conservatism of the music that these same composers had written between the wars. Boulez and Stockliausen hoped to bring back the exhilaration characteristic of the original voyage of discovery that these composers had made in the period before World War I while exploiting and transcending their most radical innovations.

Setting Out

When Boulez arrived in Paris to study at the Conservatoire at the age of 18 in 1943, musical life in Paris was dominated by Stravinsky and a Franco-Russian neoclassicism, but there were dissenting voices, and Boulez's would soon be among them. Reacting against the artifice and formality of Stravinsky's neoclassicism, the composer Andre Jolivet wanted "to return music to its original meaning, when it was the magical incantatory expression of the religious beliefs of human cultures" (Cadieu 3), a view to which Boulez was not unsympathetic, while Messiaen dismissed Stravinsky's neoclassical works as mere pastiche. …

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