In memoriam Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)

The last of the great Darmstadt composers has died at the age of 90. Pierre Boulez, notoriously divisive as a composer, renowned the world over as a conductor who worked with pretty much every world class orchestra of the 20th century, as well as being the founder of the Ensemble InterContemporain, the pioneering ensemble dedicated to performing and recording new music, and also founding IRCAM, the EIC’s home and a hotbed of development at the bleeding edge of electronic music. Boulez is one of the key figures of post-war music in the 20th century, and one of the most influential musical thinkers for the 21st century. Alongside his rivals and colleagues, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and many others, he changed the face and expanded the possibilities of music in our time.

Boulez first rose to prominence in the 1950s, not only composing radical integral serialist works such as Le marteau sans maître, but also penning notorious articles such as Schoenberg is Dead, and attacking composers of the old guard such as Stravinsky, whom Boulez deemed to have failed to live up to the promise of the famous Le sacre du printemps. His works were sharp and his tongue even sharper, and he courted controversy frequently, his iron fisted leadership of the European avant garde and politicised bullying of composers who did not toe the line being likened to fascism. The famous Darmstadt School (as in school of thought) which he had developed on the back of Messiaen’s developments in the serialisation of musical elements beyond pitch, and alongside Stockhausen, was perhaps the last great flourishing of dogma in music, for it was so extreme in pushing its agenda that ultimately it exploded under its own pressure, and the gaps between the fragments of what had been there before suddenly found themselves filled with a new order of the day: freedom of thought.

The ‘60s and ‘70s were one long cosmic release of tension, as the chain reaction set up, most people think, by Wagner with those first few impossibly tense bars of Tristan und Isolde, through Mahler, Debussy, and Schoenberg, to the constrictions of the absolutely prescriptive integral serialism of Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel and Boulez’s own Polyphonie X, reached at last its inevitable conclusion. From the ‘60s onwards Boulez embarked on his international career as a conductor, shaking things up at the New York Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras with his difficult programs of music from cutting edge composers, meanwhile tinkering quietly away at new music which itself would escape the strictures of his own formalisms and evolve into something entirely new, eventually again putting him at the forefront of classical music in post-war France, and indeed the world.

His phenomenally prolific career as a conductor has seen him tackle pretty much every important composer from Wagner through to almost the present day, not just the arch progressives but also Brahms, Ravel, and Stravinsky, as well as great eccentrics such as Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, and even Frank Zappa. His many recordings of the Second Viennese School composers Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg are frequently cited as the best documents of their work on record; his Mahler cycle and live performances are rigorous and full blooded; his Stravinsky witty, lean, and to the point; his Varèse an oft-forgotten alternative to the great yet perhaps unfair target of Varèsian monomania that is Chailly and the Concertgebouw. Not only was he prolific, he was also very popular, a hugely respected figure among musicians and composers, and the winner of almost thirty Grammy awards.

What remains to be seen now, once the mourning period is over, is where classical music goes from here. I’ve thought for many years that Stockhausen made the avant garde obsolete, after all, aside from gimmicky uses of new technology, where else is there to go? Now with Boulez’s death the end of an era is at hand, and there are any number of possibilities as to what happens next. Do we carry on as we are, swimming “out in the ocean,” as John Cage puts it, or are we destined to repeat the cosmic cycle of tension and release, beginning now with Boulez’s death and a sudden near Soviet reactionary response to the music, borderless in geography and style, of our time? Does classical music return to politics as national tensions flare up, and we head into an ideological retread of the nationalist schools of thought which dominated the 19th century? Who knows, but maybe in Boulez there lies the answer, because no matter how improbable it may seem, he has shown us that it is always possible to go one step further.

Recommended Listening
A selection of Boulez favourites, from his integral serial period to his late idiosyncratic works, in recordings conducted by the composer. They are presented in chronological order, but newcomers may be best served by checking out the Notations, a short collection of piano pieces arranged as orchestral showpieces, for a first taste. Boulez may prove challenging at first, but his unique style is highly rewarding and well worth a little time and patience

Le marteau sans maître (1955)
Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1975)
Notations pour orchestre (1978, rev. 1999)
Répons (1984) (see also: live version)
Dérive 2 (1988, rev. 2006)

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