When we had our Pierre Boulez day in my 20th-century music class, the professor had us arrange the desks into what he wryly called a "Circle of Love" so we could discuss the artistic integrity - or lack thereof - of music that was perhaps some of the most meticulously and painstakingly ordered and constructed music ever written but sounded, frankly, like someone who had never seen a piano before going to town on one. Reactions were widely varied, as they were when Boulez's piano pieces were composed and performed initially, fifty or sixty years ago.
Well, not that widely varied. Pretty much everyone in our class agreed that it sounded like crap; even the professor admitted that he listened to Boulez's music approximately one day per year, that day being when he taught Boulez in his 20th century music class. The question was, perhaps, what was the point? If the music didn't sound good, was it just an academic exercise? Was it like an impossibly arcane math problem, but without the possibility of being used for physics or engineering twenty or thirty years down the line? What was Boulez's deal, anyway?
"I shall be the first composer in history not to have a biography."
-- Pierre Boulez
"If you're writing about a person, I expect to find out when s/he lived and where, what s/he did that's so special, and why I should care."
-- wharfinger, Everything Style Guide
In deference to Boulez and wharfinger I will include biographical information but keep it to a minimum; Boulez's biography is not what makes him interesting.
Pierre Boulez was born in 1925 in Montbrison, France. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he started studying mathematics before switching to music at the Paris Conservatory, where he was taught by, among others, Olivier Messiaen. Boulez lived in France until the 1950s, when he moved to Germany; much of his time spent outside of France was due to his disagreements with the French government with regard to funding of the arts. He has been a professor of music at Harvard and at the Collège de France.
Bear with me. My story gets better.
Musical Style and Influences
"Such formal, visual, physical -- and indeed decorative presentation of a poem (though the poet does not include this) -- suggested to me the idea of finding equivalents in music."
-- Pierre Boulez, "Sonate, que me veux-tu?"
"To the eye and intellect, the printed page of Boulez represents logic and design, but to the ear, its true arbiter, these are not apparent."
-- Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Herald-Tribune
"As ungratifying as it is to the ear, the Third Sonata is beautiful to the eye. In fact, I have the thick sheets of the second movement Constellation-Miroir framed and hanging in my library."
-- Joan Peyser.
Pierre Boulez's goal with works such as his Second Sonata - the one we listened to in my class - was nothing less than destruction of the musical idioms of the past. This goal was for a long time the driving force in his life, informing his musical compositions and his public image. It led Boulez to be probably the most important and almost certainly the most strident proponent of the musical movement known as integral serialism.
Along with aleatory or chance music and electronic music, integral serialism was one of the three prominent musical paradigms that emerged after World War II. Its predecessor, known as either the twelve-tone system or just plain old serialism, was developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early 1920s as a systematic way of organizing pitch without recourse to the outdated rules of tonality. Schoenberg's serialism, long story short, ordered the twelve chromatic pitches with the goal of giving each an equal footing.
Boulez was intrigued and inspired by this, but took it even farther. Based on his teacher Olivier Messiaen's Mode de Valeurs et d'intensities, his integral serialism ordered not only pitch, but also dynamic level, duration, "mode of attack" and virtually every other aspect of music. To some extent it seemed to reduce the composition of music to a game and the composer to little more than a computer; work out the parameters beforehand, plug them into the computer and out comes some very bizarre-sounding music. Listening to Boulez's music, it may seem that you have nothing to hold on to, no recurring themes or motifs to maintain cohesiveness. This may very well be the point, although Boulez's work tends to have an underlying reason to it that may come out if you give it time.
The Second Sonata that we listened to in my class, judging from the time of its composition, would have been an example of Boulez's earlier and more rigid style, in addition to being the one that garnered enough recognition and acclaim to earn Boulez a place in the art music world. But it is not Boulez at his finest, and as the reactions of my usually tolerant and receptive class indicated, it is harsh, jarring and generally unpleasant to listen to. The Second Sonata was Boulez establishing a system and writing a piece as a proof of concept for it. After that system had been established, Boulez felt more free to explore within it, and the results (including what is probably his greatest work, Le marteau sans maître) are generally considered to be much more listenable.
Much of his music sounds similar, at least upon the first listen. It is typically characterized by explosive bursts of seemingly random sound separated by long stretches of silence or of relative inactivity. I find that the style is much more palatable when several different instruments and types of timbre are used, since, in accordance with the tenets of pitch class serialism, the harmonies are rarely even remotely consonant. For the most part, I think Boulez's piano pieces are virtually unlistenable, whereas Le marteau has places of sublime beauty even by my crass pop-music-influenced standards.
But Boulez's music definitely sounds like nothing that has come before it, and in this, if not in his attempts to relegate all other music to the trash can to make way for integral serialism, Boulez has succeeded. His music always calls to my mind a jagged alien landscape, different from any I'm used to, sublimely foreign, pristine and untouched. It's a nice place to look at, but I wouldn't even want to visit, much less live there.
In spite of his interest in breaking from the past, Boulez has a few significant influences. His most important early influence was Debussy, a revolutionary figure in music even if his impressionist style stands in stark contrast to Boulez's intellectual one. Probably the most fundamental one is Schoenberg himself, although Boulez had more respect for Schoenberg's two pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg, in that order. Boulez was attracted at first to the purity of Webern's work, and perhaps to its newness, but Berg grew in Boulez's esteem for his complexity, a complexity which Webern, for all his crystalline musical condensations, may have lacked. The complexity of Berg and the intricacy and precision of Webern are both evident in Boulez's work. Boulez was also, curiously but appropriately, a fan of James Joyce.
Musical Philosophy and Temperament
"All art of the past must be destroyed."
-- Pierre Boulez
"Boulez's only concern is with power. He lost the leadership of the avant-garde more than ten years ago to Stockhausen. Now others have moved in. With the need for power, where was he to go? So he chose to be a conductor. He is a wonderful musician, a wonderful intelligence. It's a pity there is no humanity there. Does he have sex? I think not. When men have no sex, they go after power in this big, obsessive way."
-- Lukas Foss. This seemed like an E2-appropriate quote.
When I said that Boulez was "inspired" by Schoenberg, I meant it in a fairly general way. After he had absorbed Schoenberg's twelve-tone system into his own integral serialism, Boulez blasted him in an essay entitled "Schoenberg is Dead." Schoenberg was dead, of course, but Boulez was referring primarily to his musical influence.
Boulez's problem with Schoenberg was that he was not revolutionary enough; though Schoenberg had been responsible for what may have been the most significant development in art music in the twentieth century, Boulez took him to task for clinging to such outdated notions as counterpoint, not to mention "vestiges of a dead world" like crescendos and fugues, for God's sake. What a fuddy-duddy!
It's debatable whether Boulez's music was as revolutionary as he seems to have convinced himself it was. It sounded little like anything that had come before it, but so did John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (aside from the fact that they were sonatas), not to mention his oft-ridiculed 4'33". Milton Babbitt was mixing serialism with electronics in Philomel. And as early as 1920, Henry Cowell had been composing The Banshee on the open strings of a piano and creating new systems of rhythmic notation for his Fabric.
In light of all the other rambunctious musical exploration in the twentieth century, Boulez hardly seems like the musical anarchist he seemed to want to be. His music still came on scores with staves, rests and note heads. Boulez was about structure, and this comes through in his music as well as in his personality, where he was quick to condemn those who didn't fall in line with where he thought music should go. sensei's quotes above exemplify this perfectly; the one about Stockhausen came at the end of a period when they worked together, during which Stockhausen's more rapid composition style resulted in his beginning to overshadow Boulez.
"You have to love Pierre Boulez, even if his reputation tells you that he's distant and severe. Maybe years ago -- when he was the enfant terrible of contemporary classical music, and later the unpopular music director of the New York Philharmonic -- he might have been like that. But now, at age 75, he's wonderfully relaxed."
-- Greg Sandow
"He’s the only conductor I’ve ever experienced who’s totally intellectual and analytical but his performances never come off sounding like that."
-- Peter G. Davis, New York Magazine
Boulez had a significant part in the founding of IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, opened in France in 1977, and he acted as director there for several years. His work at IRCAM resulted in a few more compositions making use of electronic equipment, the most famous being Répons, for which he won a Grammy award in 2000.
By and large, though, Boulez's compositional career has faded somewhat since he took up the conductor's baton in the late 1950s. Boulez mostly conducts modern pieces, in line with the zest for the modern he has always shown in his compositions and philosophy, including several works by Bartók, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Debussy. But he has also conducted some works which are just on the edges of the musical upheavals that happened in the twentieth century, such as Wagner's Ring cycle and many of Mahler's symphonies; and some even earlier works by Beethoven, Handel, and others.
Though Boulez conducts many works by composers for whom one might assume he would have only contempt, he is still not completely egalitarian in his choices. He has conducted few, if any, works by such important (by most standards) composers as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Hindemith, whom he considers to be second-rate. Boulez's temperament still leads him to focus on the music itself, disregarding the emotions that may be tied into it, which helps explain his disdain for Shostakovich. His elitism has perhaps lessened considerably from what it was, but it is still there.
It has been said that Boulez's conducting style is similar to his compositional style, in that it is remarkably precise but possibly lacking in expression. Boulez's recordings of Webern exemplify these qualities, and the combination is effective in light of the sparseness of Webern's music. The accusation that Boulez's conducting is without passion has been leveled less frequently recenty as well. By all accounts, Boulez seems to have mellowed out somewhat, and music may be the better for it. Whether or not you think of the twelve-tone system as a wrong turn in music, as many do, Boulez has left enough of a mark on music through the intensity in his past and the uniqueness of his music to secure him more than a footnote in the history of music.
References and Other Readings
Peyser, Joan. Boulez. New York: Schirmer Books, 1976.
Many quotes from Josh Ronsen's Pierre Boulez Project page:
Lebrecht, Norman. "Pierre Boulez - the destroyer of melody." From The Independent Magazine. 14 November 1992.
Talman, Jeff. "Boulez Is Dead." 25 March 2000.
Ruch, Allen B. "Boulez." 10 January 2004.
Sandow, Greg. "A Taciturn Modernist Loosens Up."
Sandow, Greg. "Boulez And Us." May 2001.
"In Search Of The New Boulez."
Also, I wrote about Boulez for my final paper in the class I mentioned above.