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Pierre Boulez (1925 - 2016 ) . A Belated Tribute .

  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 .  

Posted: Mar 31 2016, 06:38 PM by the horn | with no comments
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