To celebrate, to commemorate: Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016)

It was with great sadness that MusiCB3 learned that the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez died on 5th January at the age of 90.

Utterly impossible, of course, to do justice in this modest space to THE giant of 20th century music. Utterly impossible to even begin to encompass his influence on the course of music in our time. Utterly impossible at this point in time to be coherent about the legacy he has left not only as a composer but also as one of the world’s most respected conductors. However, it is surely the case that without Boulez, the course of 20th century music would have been very different.

“He cast a huge shadow over the decades that followed [WWII], and as both creator and interpreter was surely the single most influential person in the musical life of our time. Forget Karajan; this was the man who moved our culture decisively forward and changed our taste for ever.” Nicholas Kenyon writing in The Guardian. 10th January 2016.

“…arguably the single dominant figure of the classical musical world through the second half of the 20th century and beyond. Without his compositions, his legacy of recordings as a conductor, his writings on music and his administrative skill and drive, the musical scene today would be of a quite different order.” Roger Nichols, The Guardian. 6th January 2016.

His publishers, Universal Edition, describe him simply: “He was a living classic.”

To these tributes, one can simple only add heartfelt agreement.

From enfant terrible, pitted against the “establishment” and outspoken to a fault, declaring that opera houses should all be blown up to an institution himself, Boulez became the lynch-pin around which the rest of the contemporary music world revolved.

Although serialism was his starting point, he developed his own inimitable musical language.  Le Marteau sans Maître, first performed in 1955 and probably his best-known work, demonstrates this new approach in which not only pitch, but also duration, dynamics and attack are organized according to serial rules. Le Marteau was followed by other landmarks such as Pli Selon Pli, settings of Mallarmé first performed in its entirety in 1962 and upon which he worked for the following 30 years. This “open work” approach characterises much of Boulez’s output – in which individual works were increasingly seen as parts of a greater whole, ‘works in progress’ to be developed as the creative need dictated. He says himself in Par volonté et par hasard (p.50): “The different works that I write are basically no more than different facets of a single central work, with a central concept”.  Répons, perhaps his most complex composition, which exploits the possibilities of the electronic equipment at his disposal at IRCAM, embodies this philosophy.

It was during the 1960s that his career as a conductor was also firmly established: characterised by his rejection of the baton in favour of simply using his hands to guide and shape performances and the extraordinary clarity of line and texture he drew from the players. In 1969, William Glock, then Controller, Music at the BBC, invited him to become Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a post he took up in 1971, succeeding Colin Davis. In the same year he was appointed Chief Conductor of the New York Philharmonic (with his famous, if short-lived, “rug” concerts where conventional seating in the stalls was removed and replaced with cushions to create a more informal atmosphere). Bayreuth sought him out and in 1976 he conducted Patrice Chéreau’s controversial Ring cycle. He left the NYPO in 1977 to take charge of IRCAM, the research institute for contemporary music which President Georges Pompidou had asked Boulez to develop and which, together with his Ensemble InterContemporaine became his powerhouse until 1991, when he left to devote more time to conducting. As well as IRCAM, Boulez was instrumental in the development of the Cité de la Musique (now Philharmonie 2) in Paris.

Somehow, amidst all his myriad activities, Boulez also found time to write articles and essays, to lecture and give numerous interviews.  Many of these are gathered together in Points de repère (1980, 1985), published in English as Orientations (1986).

Boulez: icon and iconoclast of indisputable influence, as Paul Griffiths writing in the New York Times on 6th January says: “The tasks he took on were heroic: to continue the great adventure of musical modernism, and to carry with him the great musical institutions and the widest possible audience.”

“On a perdu une boussole” Le Figaro

Without its compass, which way, one wonders, will contemporary music turn?

If you are in the UL during the coming month, then do come and have a look at the little exhibition in the Music Department which has on display some of his scores.


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7 Responses to To celebrate, to commemorate: Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016)

  1. This is an entirely one-sided hagiography. Given the problems currently raging in the world of classical music, that is: both on the compositional side and the world of practice: the central performance culture, one could easily conclude that people like PB have done a lot of damage. He has never been generally acknowledged as a ‘great composer’ or a ‘great conductor’, for that matter, he has always been controversial, and the dieals he stood for, have by now become entirely outdated and conventionalized. Academia was, in general, happy with him, because of his intelligence and writings, but the developments of serious music are not defined by academia but in the arena of performance and there, PB cut a rather different figure than this article is suggesting.


  2. Reblogged this on Film Music Central and commented:
    The music world will not be the same without him.


  3. Pingback: To celebrate, to commemorate: 2016 | MusiCB3 Blog

  4. Pingback: The Keller Bradshaw letters: a new way of communicating? | MusiCB3 Blog

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