This past January , Pierre Boulez , one of the most important composers and conductors of our time passed away at the age of 90 . Circumstances beyond my control kept me from posting a tribute to him immediately , but here is my attempt to do so now .
We have lost a musical giant , but also a highly controversial one . The French maestro and composer of some of the most complex and abstruse music imaginable had at least as many detractors as admirers , but no one could deny his importance to
the world of classical music or his brilliance as both a composer and conductor . Boulez was an austere cerebral genius and an extremely demanding musician , but musicians in the world's greatest orchestras , such as those of Berlin, Vienna, New York, Chicago
and Cleveland among others , had nothing but the highest regard for his enormous technical skill as a conductor and his personal kindness and warmth as a human being . He did not suffers fools gladly, as the old saying goes , and his opinions on many
other composers past and present were scathing .
Boulez sneered at any composer whose music he considered to be insufficiently avant-garde and too old fashioned , for example Dmitri Shostakovich , the Russian composer of epic symphonies inspired by the turmoil of life in the former Soviet Union .
The enormously popular music of Tchaikovsky was something he would have nothing to do with , and his contract when he assumed the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s specified that he would be exempt from conducting it !
The composers he championed were 20th century modernists such as Schoenberg, Berg, Webern , Stravinsky , Bartok, Olivier Messiaen (his teacher ) , Debussy, Ravel, Elliott Carter, Edgard Varese , as well as the late romantic Gustav Mahler and others .
He never pandered to audiences at orchestra concerts . Boulez also conducted a limited number of operas in London , Paris, the Wagner festival at Bayreuth , Germany and a few other places . Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung and Parsifal at Bayreuth ,
Debussy's Pelleas & Melisande , Wozzeck and Lulu by Alban Berg, and Moses & Aron by Arnold Schoenberg , for example .
The production of the Ring in 1976 , celebrating the centennial of the Bayreuth festival was the legendary controversial one where Wotan and the Germanic gods were portrayed as 19th century tycoons instead of wearing teutonic helmets among other
peculiar features . And Boulez's conducting was considered too cool, clinical and concerned with clarity of texture instead of a sumptuous wash of ripe romantic sonorities . Throughout his conducting career , which began when he felt the need to conduct
his difficult music himself rather than leaving it to other conductors in the 1960s , he was frequently accused of interpretations which were amazingly clear in texture , and meticulously prepared but cold and cerebral . But his performances were rarely
described as dull ! Boulez was obsessed with getting his orchestras to play exactly in tune, as his ear was amazingly sharp .
He was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 77 , and his predecessor was the glamorous and flamboyant Leonard Bernstein , renowned for his exuberant conducting gestures and leaps on the podium and his impassioned
spontaneous performances . But Boulez was extremely sober on the podium , conducting quietly and unobtrusively on the podium (he never used a baton, preferring not too .) He just stood there quietly beating time precisely . His ability to conduct
extremely complex contemporary music with dauntingly complex rhythms clearly was legendary . Many audience members were upset by his emphasis on rigorous 20th century music and his avoidance of flamboyant romantic works . But he managed
to attract audiences . His other major position had been with the B.B.C. symphony in London , where he also specialized in complex and daunting music . He was a beloved fixture at concerts of the renowned Cleveland orchestra for decades as well as
a regular guest with the Vienna Philharmonic, Chicago symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic and London symphony among other great ensembles .
Boulez was born in Montbrison, France in 1925 and showed great aptitude both for music and mathematics in his youth , and studied in Paris with the great eccentric French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908 - 1992 ) whose strange and colorful music
was inspired by bird song, Hinduism and Buddhism, among other things , and had a love hate relationship with his music , which he sometimes conducted . Boulez was a champion of the so-called 3rd Viennese school of the great Austrian composer of 12 t
tone music, and whose techniques he adapted in his own way as a composer . But he even rejected Schoenberg's music as being insufficiently modern and wrote a nasty polemic piece called "Schoenberg is dead " shortly after Schoenberg died in 1951 .
Boulez once infamously declared than any composer who did not use the serial techniques of the modern school was "irrelevant " and "useless ". But audiences did not agree with him .
Among the most famous works of Boulez are "Pli Selon Pli " (fold by fold ) and "Le Marteau Sans Maitre " ( the hammer without a master ) and "Repons ". These are not works for full orchestra , but ones for ensembles of varied instruments, percussion,
and other instruments with parts for a vocal soloist with texts based on 19th century symbolist French poets such as Rimbaud and modern ones such as Rene Char . Forget about hummable melodies ; this is not the point of the music . Instead you get
a seemingly arbitrary texture of random notes scurrying about in no recognizable key . But there is absolutely nothing random about the music ; it is based on extremely complex techniques . There are some passages which are "aleatory " or based
on improvisatory techniques . Boulez also uses electronic music at times along with traditional acoustical instruments . This is anything but easy listening , but is all worth repeated hearings which enable you to get accustomed to it .
Boulez left numerous recordings , both of his own music and works by Schoenberg, Berg , Webern, Debussy , Ravel. Bartok , Messiaen , Mahler (the complete symphonies ) , Carter, Varese , Berlioz , and other composers for such record labels as Sony
Classical (formerly Columbia Records and CBS records , Deutsche Grammophon and Erato records etc . The Bayreuth Ring was released both on LP,CD and DVD , and there are also recordings of such great 20th century operas as Pelleas & Melisande by
Debussy , Bluebeard's Castle by Bartok , and Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu . Most of these are still available .
Boulez served as a mentor and teacher to many of today's leading composers in addition .
Classical music would never be the same after Pierre Boulez, and his enormous influence on it is a tribute to his greatness both as a composer, conductor , theorist and teacher .