A tribute to Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez, Music Director and Rafael Druian, Concertmaster, New York PhilharmonicPierre Boulez

Story by Stephen Pleskun

It is a complex task to write about a complex man and Pierre Boulez certainly was that.

Born in an apartment above a pharmacy at Montbrison in France on March 26 1925, Boulez displayed exceptional ability in mathematics, chemistry and physics during his school years. Moving to occupied Paris in 1943 he upset his father (an engineer) by enrolling in the Conservatoire instead of the Polytechnique. Boulez’s winning of the harmony prize two years later can be attributed to his sharp intellect and his having attended Olivier Messiaen’s advanced harmony classes. He also learned much from pursuing counterpoint lessons with Andree Vaurabourg (Arthur Honegger’s wife) during this time.

His earliest compositions: a sonata for two pianos, a choral work and a piece for Ondes Martenot (the instrument Boulez played for a living at the Folies Bergeres) have disappeared. Yvette Grimaud premiered his Notations for piano in Paris on February 12 1945 and did similarly for his Trois Psalmodies that year. But both those works and Variations for piano and a quartet for Ondes Martenot, completed a little later, were withdrawn by the composer.

These were the earliest signs of a fastidious thinker who continually saw developmental possibilities in his scores and was to revise and expand many of them in the years to come.

The directions Boulez gave to the performance of his early compositions were confronting and he was soon recognised as being at the forefront of the avant-garde in music (not least of all for having a disdainful response to music he did not like). But his imperious attitude and insistent stalwart convictions soon ruined the friendships he had begun with John Cage, Henri Pousseur and Karlheinz Stockhausen; and in terms of association, other leading composers did not even get past a first meeting. From the start he was an iconoclast, and remained so particularly with his pronouncements on music. That they often were quoted out of context did not help.

His conducting career began tentatively when he became musical director of the Compagnie Renaud- Barrault in 1946 which allowed his analytical mind to regard the scores of Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Jacques Offenbach, Francis Poulenc and Henri Sauguet; and to travel abroad. Although he did not care for the music, he conducted the works with professional rigour and composed an unpublished theatre piece of his own: Orestie.

Compositionally, Boulez’s stringent, elaborate and intricate application of serial techniques in particularly his piano pieces was not gaining him much of an audience. On reviewing his Piano Sonata no.2 in 1952 Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks observed: “To the eye and intellect, the printed page of Boulez presents logic and design, but to the ear, its true arbiter, these are not apparent”. Something had to change.

It was at Baden Baden in Germany where the premiere of his Le Marteau Sans Maitre by alto Sibylla Plate and members of the Sudwestfunk Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Rosbaud on June 18 1955 introduced a beautiful, scintillating piece of music that was so influential aspiring composers worldwide copied the instrumentation (often much to the chagrin of their teachers) and since then including a percussionist in a chamber work has become a standard practice. The same orchestra, with soprano Eva Maria Rogner conducted by Boulez premiered another masterpiece of his: Pli Selon Pli at Donaueschingen on October 20 1962.

In the meantime Boulez became organiser, director and eventually conductor of the Domaine Musical, a Parisian chamber ensemble that presented the works of living and recently deceased composers. It became a model for similar enterprises worldwide before Boulez’s resignation in 1967.

Increasingly, Boulez’s time was spent more with conducting than composing but he worked on Eclat for 15 instruments up to the day of its performance which he conducted in Los Angeles on March 26 1965 (his 40th birthday). Typically, he expanded the work into Eclat/Multiples for orchestra and conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra for its premiere in London on October 21 1970.

In 1977 Boulez became director of the newly built Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris. IRCAM (as it became known) is an underground building for scientists and musicians to research, develop and produce music. It also houses the Ensemble Contemporain, a chamber orchestra of advanced musicians. Costing some 90 million francs to build and funded generously by the government thereafter, hostility to the project came as people wanted to see value for money. Boulez responded with another masterpiece: Repons for six instrumental soloists, 24-piece chamber orchestra and electronics which he premiered at Donaueschingen on October 18 1981.

Other works Boulez produced at that institute were Dialogue de l’ombre double (in 1985); …explosante-fixe…(in 1993); and Anthemes 2 (in 1997). Many composers from around the world also had works produced there including Frank Zappa who Boulez had commissioned to compose The Perfect Stranger.

With the passing of Boulez at his home in Baden Baden on January 5 2016 an era has come to an end. It can only be hoped that future generations will treasure the marvellous compositions he composed so meticulously.



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