Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez (born 1925) was the most important French musician after World War II. His activities as composer, conductor, and lecturist made him the uncontested leader of music in the second half of the century.

Pierre Boulez was born in Montbrison and attended a technical school, majoring in mathematics. Immediately after the war he went to Paris to study composition with Olivier Messiaen. Boulez, always a man of strong opinions, led a protest against Igor Stravinsky's neoclassic music and was one of the first French composers to adopt Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone method of composition. He attended the Summer School for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany, and became acquainted with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, and other young avant-garde composers who were to create musical styles for the next two decades.

In time Boulez outgrew the strict Schoenberg dogma, and on the death of the founder of the Viennese school, Boulez published an obituary that created quite a stir. Entitled "Schoenberg Is Dead, " it was fashioned after the French proclamation on the death of their kings, "The King is dead; long live the King." The new king in Boulez's view was Anton Webern, whose music is structurally purer than Schoenberg's and has fewer connections with 19th-century music.

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Activity as Composer

Following cues in some of Webern's compositions, Boulez became one of the creators of the ideal of "totally serialized" music. This musical style includes a serial pattern not only for the notes, but also for durations, dynamics, and attacks. His Structures (1951) for two pianos was one of the first pieces in this style, which was to become one of the dominant styles of the next decade.

Soon after the creation of serialized music, Boulez was in the vanguard of another radical musical style, called aleatoric, or "chance, " music. In this kind of music certain elements are left up to the performer: the order of the notes, their duration, and, indeed, even the notes themselves. Boulez's Third Sonata for piano is so intricate that it is printed in several colors of ink, each representing different "routes" that the performer can follow. In aleatoric music no two performances are ever exactly alike, because there are so many alternatives from which the performer can choose.

Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître (1952-1954) is a setting of three poems by René Char, a surrealist poet, for alto voice and six instruments. Although structural devices associated with serial music are used in the piece, its outstanding characteristic is its luscious sound. The low register of the flute and the viola carry many of the melodies, surrounded by the ever-present shimmer of the vibraphone, xylorimba, and guitar. Two other works for voice and a small group of instruments are Le Soleil des eaux (1957) and Improvisations sur Mallarmé (1958).

The later compositions of Boulez show an interest in stereophonic effects gained through the use of spatially divided orchestral groups. His Poésie pour pouvoir (1958) calls for three orchestras and two conductors, a tape recording of a poem that has been subjected to all manner of distortion so that the words are incomprehensible, and recorded electronic sounds. Pli selon pli (1964) and Figures doubles prismes (1964) are also huge sound montages.

Activity as a Conductor

For several years beginning in the late 1940's, Boulez was the musical director of the Théâtre de France; and in an extension of that post he organized a series of concerts of avant-garde music in Paris, the Domaine Musica, in 1954. Further opportunities to conduct followed, particularly in Germany, but also in England and the United States. His conducting career gained further prominence in 1970, when he was engaged as Leonard Bernstein's successor as musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as conductor of London's BBC orchestra.

Boulez left the Philharmonic in 1976 to form an experimental music research center, IRCAM, Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Institute for Research of Coordination between Acoustics and Music) in Paris, France. Critical reviews of the first creation from the institute, Répons (Response), which toured the United States in 1986, were mixed. The success of IRCAM itself has also received cautionary praise. Although most critics applaud the intentions of bringing the best musicians together and providing them with complete freedom, the results have had little impact on the world of music.

Boulez answered those critical of IRCAM and the intentions of the institute in an interview with Dennis Polkow in The Instrumentalist, "The problem is that people interested in the new piece will not be attracted to the horses, and people brought in by the horses will not be interested in the new piece." Boulez went on to express his desire as a musician to disturb the listener: "If we don't disturb, we do not grow. If we have nothing absolutely new, we are only recreating the past, which is not very interesting and, in fact, is very dangerous. As difficult as it may be to grasp, all old music was once new music."

Boulez continued to serve as guest conductor for the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic while creating at IRCAM. One of Boulez's experiments with modern music was collaborating with rock musician Frank Zappa. Although Boulez achieved his greatest successes as a composer early in his career, his successes as a conductor and experimentalist have assured his place as one of the signature artists of the second half of the twentieth century.

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Further Reading on Pierre Boulez

Dennis Polkow interviewed Boulez, published as "The Paradox of Pierre Boulez, " in The Instrumentalist, June 1987, and David Schiff provides an overview of the career of Boulez in The Atlantic Monthly, September 1995. Two biographies are also available: Peyser, Joan, Boulez, Schirmer Books, 1976, and Vermeil, Jean, Conversations with Boulez: Thoughts on Conducting, translated by Camille Naish, Timber Press, 1996.