Pierre Louis Joseph Boulez CBE (French: [pjɛʁ lwi ʒozεf bulɛz]; 26 March 1925 – 5 January 2016) was a French composer, conductor, writer and founder of several musical institutions. He was one of the dominant figures of the post-war classical music world.
Born in Montbrison in the Loire department of France, the son of an engineer, Boulez studied at the Conservatoire de Paris with Olivier Messiaen, and privately with Andrée Vaurabourg and René Leibowitz. He began his professional career in the late 1940s as music director of the Renaud-Barrault theatre company in Paris. As a young composer in the 1950s he quickly became a leading figure in avant-garde music, playing an important role in the development of integral serialism and controlled chance music. From the 1970s onwards he pioneered the electronic transformation of instrumental music in real time. His tendency to revise earlier compositions meant that his body of completed works was relatively small, but it included pieces regarded by many as landmarks of twentieth-century music, such as Le Marteau sans maître, Pli selon pli and Répons. His uncompromising commitment to modernism and the trenchant, polemical tone in which he expressed his views on music led some to criticise him as a dogmatist.
In parallel with his activities as a composer, Boulez became one of the most prominent conductors of his generation. In a career lasting more than sixty years, he held the positions of chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and music director of the New York Philharmonic, music director of the Ensemble intercontemporain, and principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra. He made frequent guest appearances with many of the world's other great orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra. He was particularly known for his performances of the music of the first half of the twentieth century—including Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartók, and the Second Viennese School—as well as that of his contemporaries, such as Ligeti, Berio and Carter. His work in the opera house included the Jahrhundertring—the production of Wagner's Ring cycle for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival—and the world premiere of the three-act version of Alban Berg's Lulu. His recorded legacy is extensive.
He founded a number of musical institutions in Paris, including the Domaine musical, the Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique (IRCAM), the Ensemble intercontemporain and the Cité de la Musique, as well as the Lucerne Festival Academy in Switzerland.
1925–1943: Childhood and school days
Pierre Boulez was born on 26 March 1925, in Montbrison, a small town in the Loire department of east-central France, to Léon and Marcelle (née Calabre) Boulez. He was the third of four children: an older sister, Jeanne (1922–2018) and younger brother, Roger (b. 1936) were preceded by a first child, also called Pierre (b. 1920), who died in infancy. Léon (1891–1969), an engineer and technical director of a steel factory, is described by biographers as an authoritarian figure, but with a strong sense of fairness; Marcelle (1897–1985) as an outgoing, good-humoured woman, who deferred to her husband's strict Catholic beliefs, while not necessarily sharing them. The family prospered, moving in 1929 from the apartment above a pharmacy, where Boulez was born, to a comfortable detached house, where he spent most of his childhood.
From the age of seven Boulez went to school at the Institut Victor de Laprade, a Catholic seminary where the thirteen-hour school day was filled with study and prayer. By the age of eighteen he had repudiated Catholicism although later in life he described himself as an agnostic.
As a child, Boulez took piano lessons, played chamber music with local amateurs and sang in the school choir. After completing the first part of his baccalaureate a year early, he spent the academic year of 1940–41 at the Pensionnat St. Louis, a boarding school in nearby Saint-Étienne. The following year he took classes in advanced mathematics at the Cours Sogno in Lyon (a school established by the Lazaristes) with a view to gaining admission to the École Polytechnique in Paris. His father hoped this would lead to a career in engineering. He was in Lyon when the Vichy government fell, the Germans took over and the city became a centre of the resistance.
In Lyon, Boulez first heard an orchestra, saw his first operas (Boris Godunov and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and met the well-known soprano Ninon Vallin, who asked him to play for her. Impressed by his ability, she persuaded Léon to allow his son to apply to the Conservatoire in Lyon. The selection board rejected him but Boulez was determined to pursue a career in music. The following year, with his sister's support in the face of opposition from his father, he studied the piano and harmony privately with Lionel de Pachmann (son of the pianist Vladimir). "Our parents were strong, but finally we were stronger than they", Boulez later said. In fact, when he moved to Paris in the autumn of 1943, hoping to enrol at the Conservatoire de Paris, Léon accompanied him, helped him to find a room (in the 7th arrondissement) and subsidised him until he could earn a living.
1943–1946: Musical education
In October 1943, he auditioned unsuccessfully for the advanced piano class at the Conservatoire, but he was admitted in January 1944 to the preparatory harmony class of Georges Dandelot. His progress was so rapid that by May 1944, Dandelot's report describes him as "the best of the class".
Around the same time he was introduced to Andrée Vaurabourg, wife of the composer Arthur Honegger, and between April 1944 and May 1946 he studied counterpoint privately with her. He greatly enjoyed working with her and she remembered him as an exceptional student, using his exercises as models in advanced counterpoint until the end of her teaching career. In the autumn he joined Olivier Messiaen's advanced harmony class at the Conservatoire and attended the private seminars which Messiaen gave to chosen students, where key works of the early twentieth century, including Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, were subjected to intensive analysis.
In January 1945, Boulez moved to two small attic rooms in the Marais district of Paris, where he lived for the next fourteen years. The following month he attended a private performance of Schoenberg's Wind Quintet, conducted by René Leibowitz, the composer and follower of Schoenberg. Its strict use of twelve-tone technique was a revelation to him and he organised a group of fellow students to take private lessons with Leibowitz. It was here that he also discovered the music of Webern. He eventually found Leibowitz's approach too doctrinaire and broke angrily with him in 1946 when Leibowitz tried to criticise one of his early works.
In June 1945, Boulez was one of four Conservatoire students awarded premier prix. He was described in the examiner's report as "the most gifted—a composer". Although nominally still registered as a student of the Conservatoire for the academic year 1945–46, he soon boycotted Simone Plé-Caussade's counterpoint and fugue class, infuriated by what he described as her "lack of imagination", and organised a petition that Messiaen be given a full professorship in composition. Over the winter of 1945–46 he immersed himself in Balinese and Japanese music and African drumming at the Musée Guimet and the Musée de l'Homme in Paris: "I almost chose the career of an ethnomusicologist because I was so fascinated by that music. It gives a different feeling of time."
1946–1953: Early career in Paris
Boulez earned money by giving mathematics lessons to his landlord's son. He also played the ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument), improvising accompaniments to radio dramas and occasionally deputising in the pit orchestra of the Folies Bergère. In early 1946 the actor and director Jean-Louis Barrault engaged him to play the ondes for a production of Hamlet for the new company he and his wife, Madeleine Renaud, had formed at the Théâtre Marigny. Boulez was soon appointed music director of the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault, a post he held for nine years. He arranged and conducted incidental music, mostly by composers with whom he had little affinity, such as Milhaud and Tchaikovsky, but it gave him the chance to work with professional musicians, while leaving him time to compose during the day.
His involvement with the company also broadened his horizons: in 1947 they toured to Belgium and Switzerland ("absolutely pays de cocagne, my first discovery of the big world"); in 1948 they took their production of Hamlet to the second Edinburgh International Festival; in 1951 they gave a season of plays in London and between 1950 and 1957 there were three tours to South America and two to North America. Much of the music he wrote for the company was lost during the student occupation of the Théâtre de l'Odéon in 1968.
The period between 1947 and 1950 was one of intense compositional activity for Boulez. New works included the first two piano sonatas and initial versions of two cantatas on poems by René Char, Le Visage nuptial and Le Soleil des eaux. In October 1951 a substantial work for eighteen solo instruments, Polyphonie X, caused a scandal at its premiere at the Donaueschingen Festival, some audience members disrupting the performance with hisses and whistles.
Around this time, Boulez met two composers who were to be important influences: John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. His friendship with Cage began in 1949 when Cage was visiting Paris. Cage introduced Boulez to two publishers (Heugel and Amphion) who agreed to take his recent pieces; Boulez helped to arrange a private performance of Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. When Cage returned to New York they began an intense, six-year correspondence about the future of music. In 1952 Stockhausen arrived in Paris to study with Messiaen. Although Boulez knew no German and Stockhausen no French, the rapport between them was instant: "A friend translated [and] we gesticulated wildly ... We talked about music all the time—in a way I've never talked about it with anyone else."
Towards the end of 1951, a tour with the Renaud-Barrault company took him to New York for the first time, where he met Stravinsky and Varèse. He stayed at Cage's apartment but their friendship was already cooling as he could not accept Cage's increasing commitment to compositional procedures based on chance and he later broke off contact with him.
In July 1952, Boulez attended the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt for the first time. As well as Stockhausen, Boulez was in contact there with other composers who would become significant figures in contemporary music, including Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, and Henri Pousseur. Boulez quickly became one of the leaders of the post-war modernist movement in the arts. As Alex Ross observed: "at all times he seemed absolutely sure of what he was doing. Amid the confusion of postwar life, with so many truths discredited, his certitude was reassuring."
1954–1959: Le Domaine musical
In 1954, with the financial backing of Barrault and Renaud, Boulez started a series of concerts at the Petit Marigny theatre. They became known as the Domaine musical. The concerts focused initially on three areas: pre-war classics still unfamiliar in Paris (such as Bartók and Webern), works by the new generation (Stockhausen, Nono) and neglected masters from the past (Machaut, Gesualdo)—although for practical reasons the last category fell away in subsequent seasons. Boulez proved an energetic and accomplished administrator and the concerts were an immediate success. They attracted musicians, painters and writers, as well as fashionable society, but they were so costly that Boulez had to turn to wealthy private patrons for support.
Key events in the Domaine's history included a Webern festival (1955), the European premiere of Stravinsky's Agon (1957) and first performances of Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques (1955) and Sept Haïkaï (1963). The concerts moved to the Salle Gaveau (1956–1959) and then to the Théâtre de l'Odéon (1959–1968). Boulez remained director until 1967, when Gilbert Amy succeeded him.
On 18 June 1955, Hans Rosbaud conducted the first performance of Boulez's best-known work, Le Marteau sans maître, at the ISCM Festival in Baden-Baden. A nine-movement cycle for alto voice and instrumental ensemble based on poems by René Char, it was an immediate, international success. William Glock wrote: "even at a first hearing, though difficult to take in, it was so utterly new in sound, texture and feeling that it seemed to possess a mythical quality like that of Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire." When Boulez conducted the work in Los Angeles in early 1957, Stravinsky—who described it as "one of the few significant works of the post-war period of exploration"—attended the performance. Boulez dined several times with the Stravinskys and (according to Robert Craft) "soon captivated the older composer with new musical ideas, and an extraordinary intelligence, quickness and humour". Relations soured somewhat the following year over the first Paris performance of Stravinsky's Threni for the Domaine musical. Poorly planned by Boulez and nervously conducted by Stravinsky, the performance broke down more than once.
In January 1958, the Improvisations sur Mallarmé (I et II) were premiered, forming the kernel of a piece which would grow over the next four years into a vast, five-movement "portrait of Mallarmé", Pli selon pli. It received its premiere in Donaueschingen in October 1962.
Around this time, Boulez's relations with Stockhausen grew increasingly tense as (according to the biographer Joan Peyser) he saw the younger man supplanting him as the leader of the avant-garde.
1959–1971: International conducting career
In 1959, Boulez left Paris for Baden-Baden, where he had an arrangement with the South-West German Radio orchestra to work as composer-in-residence and to conduct some smaller concerts, as well as access to an electronic studio where he could work on a new piece (Poésie pour pouvoir). He moved into, and eventually bought, a large hillside villa, which was his main residence for the rest of his life.
During this period, he turned increasingly to conducting. His first engagement as an orchestral conductor had been in 1956, when he conducted the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra while on tour with the Renaud-Barrault company. In Cologne he conducted his own Le Visage nuptial in 1957 and—with Bruno Maderna and the composer—the first performances of Stockhausen's Gruppen in 1958. His breakthrough came in 1959 when he replaced the ailing Hans Rosbaud at short notice in demanding programmes of twentieth-century music at the Aix-en-Provence and Donaueschingen Festivals. This led to debuts with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Bavarian Radio Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras. In 1963 he conducted the Orchestre National de France in the 50th anniversary performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, where the piece had had its riotous premiere.
That same year, he conducted his first opera, Berg's Wozzeck at the Opéra National de Paris, directed by Barrault. The conditions were exceptional, with thirty orchestral rehearsals instead of the usual three or four, the critical response was favourable and after the first performance the musicians rose to applaud him. He conducted Wozzeck again in April 1966 at the Frankfurt Opera in a new production by Wieland Wagner.
Wieland Wagner had already invited Boulez to conduct Wagner's Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival later in the season, and Boulez returned to conduct revivals in 1967, 1968 and 1970. He also conducted performances of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde with the Bayreuth company at the Osaka Festival in Japan in 1967, but the lack of adequate rehearsal made it an experience he later said he would rather forget. By contrast, his conducting of the new production (by Václav Kašlík) of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande at Covent Garden in 1969 was praised for its combination of "delicacy and sumptuousness".
In 1965, the Edinburgh International Festival staged the first full-scale retrospective of Boulez as composer and conductor. In 1966, he proposed a reorganisation of French musical life to the then minister of culture, André Malraux, but Malraux instead appointed the conservative Marcel Landowski as head of music at the Ministry of Culture. Boulez expressed his fury in an article in the Nouvel Observateur, announcing that he was "going on strike with regard to any aspect of official music in France."
The previous year, in March 1965, he had made his orchestral debut in the United States with the Cleveland Orchestra. He became its principal guest conductor in February 1969, a post he held until the end of 1971. After the death of George Szell in July 1970, he took on the role of music advisor for two years, but the title was largely honorary, owing to his commitments in London and New York. In the 1968–69 season, he also made guest appearances in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and he would continue to return to Severance Hall as a guest conductor.
With Pierre Boulez conducting, The Cleveland Orchestra won five Grammy awards in multiple categories. First, in the category of best classical performance: orchestra, in 1969 and 1970 for Debussy’s Images pour Orchestre and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, respectively. The Orchestra won both best classical orchestral performance and best classical album in 1995 for a series of works by Debussy, and best orchestral performance in 1997 for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Tristia.
Apart from Pli selon pli, the only substantial new work to emerge in the first half of the 1960s was the final version of Book 2 of his Structures for two pianos. Midway through the decade, however, Boulez appeared to find his voice again and produced a number of new works, including Éclat (1965), a short and brilliant piece for small ensemble, which by 1970 had grown into a substantial half-hour work, Éclat/Multiples.
1971–1977: London and New York
His appearances with the orchestra over the next five years included his debuts at the Proms and at Carnegie Hall (1965) and tours to Moscow and Leningrad, Berlin and Prague (1967). In January 1969 William Glock, controller of music at the BBC, announced his appointment as chief conductor.
Two months later, Boulez conducted the New York Philharmonic for the first time. His performances so impressed both orchestra and management that he was offered the chief conductorship in succession to Leonard Bernstein. Glock was dismayed and tried to persuade him that accepting the New York position would detract both from his work in London and his ability to compose but Boulez could not resist the opportunity (as Glock put it) "to reform the music-making of both these world cities" and in June the New York appointment was confirmed.
His tenure in New York lasted between 1971 and 1977 and was not an unqualified success. The dependence on a subscription audience limited his programming. He introduced more key works from the first half of the twentieth century and, with earlier repertoire, sought out less well-known pieces. In his first season, for example, he conducted Liszt's The Legend of Saint Elizabeth and Via Crucis. Performances of new music were comparatively rare. The players admired his musicianship but came to regard him as dry and unemotional by comparison with Bernstein, although it was widely accepted that he improved the standard of playing. He returned on only three occasions to the orchestra in later years.
His time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was altogether happier. With the resources of the BBC behind him, he could be more uncompromising in his choice of repertoire. There were occasional forays into the nineteenth century, particularly at the Proms (Beethoven's Missa solemnis in 1972; the Brahms German Requiem in 1973), but for the most part he worked intensively with the orchestra on the music of the twentieth century. He conducted works by the younger generation of British composers—such as Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies—but Britten and Tippett were absent from his programmes. His relations with the musicians were generally excellent. He was chief conductor between 1971 and 1975, continuing as chief guest conductor until 1977. Thereafter he returned to the orchestra frequently until his last appearance at an all-Janáček Prom in August 2008.
In both cities, Boulez sought out venues where music could be presented more informally: in New York he began a series of "Rug Concerts"—when the seats in Avery Fisher Hall were taken out and the audience sat on the floor—and a contemporary music series called "Prospective Encounters" in Greenwich Village. In London he gave concerts at the Roundhouse, a former railway turntable shed which Peter Brook had also used for radical theatre productions. His aim was "to create a feeling that we are all, audience, players and myself, taking part in an act of exploration".
During this period, the music of Ravel came to the forefront of his repertoire. Between 1969 and 1975, he recorded the orchestral works with the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra and in 1973 he made studio recordings for the BBC of the two one-act operas (L'enfant et les sortilèges and L'heure espagnole).
In 1972, Wolfgang Wagner, who had succeeded his brother Wieland as director of the Bayreuth Festival, invited Boulez to conduct the 1976 centenary production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. The director was Patrice Chéreau. Highly controversial in its first year, according to Barry Millington by the end of the run in 1980 "enthusiasm for the production vastly outweighed disapproval". It was televised around the world.
A small number of new works emerged during this period, of which perhaps the most important is Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1975).
In 1970 Boulez was asked by President Pompidou to return to France and set up an institute specialising in musical research and creation at the arts complex—now known as the Centre Georges Pompidou—which was planned for the Beaubourg district of Paris. The Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique / Musique (IRCAM) opened in 1977.
Boulez had in mind as a model the Bauhaus, which had provided a meeting place for artists and scientists of all disciplines. IRCAM's aims would include research into acoustics, instrumental design and the use of computers in composition. The original building was constructed underground, partly to isolate it acoustically (an above-ground extension was added later). The institution was criticised for absorbing too much state subsidy, Boulez for wielding too much power. At the same time Boulez founded the Ensemble Intercontemporain, a virtuoso ensemble which specialised in the performance of twentieth-century music and the creation of new works. Around this time he bought a flat on the 30th floor of a building in the Front de Seine district of Paris.
In 1979, he conducted the world premiere of the three-act version of Alban Berg's Lulu at the Paris Opera in the completion by Friedrich Cerha (and in Patrice Chéreau's production). Otherwise Boulez scaled back his conducting commitments to concentrate on IRCAM. The majority of his appearances during this period were with his own Ensemble Intercontemporain—including tours to the United States (1986), Australia (1988), the Soviet Union (1990) and Canada (1991)—although he also renewed his links in the 1980s with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
By contrast, his compositional output increased significantly during this period. He wrote a series of pieces which used the potential developed at IRCAM electronically to transform sound in real time, the first of which was Répons (1981–1984), a large-scale work for soloists and ensemble. He also radically reworked much earlier pieces, including Notations I-IV, a transcription and expansion of tiny piano pieces for large orchestra (1945–1980) and his cantata on poems by René Char, Le Visage nuptial (1946–1989).
In 1980, the five original directors of the IRCAM departments, including the composer Luciano Berio, resigned. Although Boulez declared these changes "very healthy", it clearly represented a crisis in his leadership.
During this period retrospectives of his music were mounted in Paris (Festival d'Automne, 1981), Baden-Baden (1985) and London (BBC, 1989). From 1976 to 1995, he held the Chair in Invention, technique et langage en musique at the Collège de France. In 1988 he made a series of six programmes for French television, Boulez XXe siècle, each of which focused on a specific aspect of contemporary music (rhythm, timbre, form etc.)
1992–2006: Return to conducting
In 1992, Boulez gave up the directorship of IRCAM and was succeeded by Laurent Bayle. He was composer in residence at that year's Salzburg Festival.
The previous year he began a series of annual residencies with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1995 he was named principal guest conductor in Chicago, only the third conductor to hold that position in the orchestra's history. He held the post until 2005, when he became conductor emeritus. His 70th birthday in 1995 was marked by a six-month retrospective tour with the London Symphony Orchestra, taking in Paris, Vienna, New York and Tokyo. In 2001 he conducted a major Bartók cycle with the Orchestre de Paris.
This period also marked a return to the opera house, including two productions with Peter Stein: Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1992, Welsh National Opera and Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris); and Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1995, Dutch National Opera and Salzburg Festival). In 2004 and 2005 he returned to Bayreuth to conduct a controversial new production of Parsifal directed by Christoph Schlingensief.
The two most substantial compositions from this period are ...explosante-fixe... (1993), which had its origins in 1972 as a tribute to Stravinsky and which again used the electronic resources of IRCAM, and sur Incises (1998), for which he was awarded the 2001 Grawemeyer Prize for composition.
He continued to work on institutional organisation. He co-founded the Cité de la Musique, which opened in La Villette on the outskirts of Paris in 1995. Consisting of a modular concert hall, museum and mediatheque—with the Paris' Conservatoire on an adjacent site—it became the home to the Ensemble Intercontemporain and attracted a diverse audience. In 2004, he co-founded the Lucerne Festival Academy, an orchestral institute for young musicians, dedicated to music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For the next ten years he spent the last three weeks of summer working with young composers and conducting concerts with the Academy's orchestra.
2006–2016: Last years
He remained active as a conductor over the next six years. In 2007 he was re-united with Chéreau for a production of Janáček's From the House of the Dead (Theater an der Wien, Amsterdam and Aix). In April of the same year, as part of the Festtage in Berlin, Boulez and Daniel Barenboim gave a cycle of the Mahler symphonies with the Staatskapelle Berlin, which they repeated two years later at Carnegie Hall. In late 2007 the Orchestre de Paris and the Ensemble Intercontemporain presented a retrospective of Boulez's music and in 2008 the Louvre mounted the exhibition Pierre Boulez, Œuvre: fragment.
His appearances became more infrequent after an eye operation in 2010 left him with severely impaired sight. Other health problems included a shoulder injury resulting from a fall. In late 2011, when he was already quite frail, he led the combined Ensemble Intercontemporain and Lucerne Festival Academy, with the soprano Barbara Hannigan, in a tour of six European cities of his own Pli selon pli. His final appearance as a conductor was in Salzburg on 28 January 2012 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Mitsuko Uchida in a programme of Schoenberg (Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene and the Piano Concerto), Mozart (Piano Concerto No.19 in F major K459) and Stravinsky (Pulcinella Suite). Thereafter he cancelled all conducting engagements.
Later in 2012, he worked with the Diotima Quartet, making final revisions to his only string quartet, Livre pour quatuor, begun in 1948. In 2013 he oversaw the release on Deutsche Grammophon of Pierre Boulez: Complete Works, a 13-CD survey of all his authorised compositions. He remained Director of the Lucerne Festival Academy until 2014, but his health prevented him from taking part in the many celebrations held across the world for his 90th birthday in 2015. These included a multi-media exhibition at the Musée de la Musique in Paris, which focused in particular on the inspiration Boulez had drawn from literature and the visual arts.
Boulez died on 5 January 2016 at his home in Baden-Baden. He was buried on 13 January in Baden-Baden's main cemetery following a private funeral service at the town's Stiftskirche. At a memorial service the next day at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, eulogists included Daniel Barenboim, Renzo Piano, and Laurent Bayle, then president of the Philharmonie de Paris, whose large concert hall had been inaugurated the previous year, thanks in no small measure to Boulez's influence.
Juvenilia and student works
Boulez's earliest surviving compositions date from his school days in 1942–43, mostly songs on texts by Baudelaire, Gautier and Rilke. Gerald Bennett describes the pieces as "modest, delicate and rather anonymous [employing] a certain number of standard elements of French salon music of the time—whole-tone scales, pentatonic scales and polytonality".
As a student at the Conservatoire Boulez composed a series of pieces influenced first by Honegger and Jolivet (Prelude, Toccata and Scherzo and Nocturne for solo piano (1944–45)) and then by Messiaen (Trois psalmodies for piano (1945) and a Quartet for four ondes Martenot (1945–46)). The encounter with Schoenberg—through his studies with Leibowitz—was the catalyst for his first piece of serial music, the Thème et variations for piano, left hand (1945). Peter O'Hagan describes it as "his boldest and most ambitious work to date".
Douze notations and the work in progress
It is in the Douze notations for piano (December 1945) that Bennett first detects the influence of Webern. In the two months after the composition of the piano Notations Boulez attempted an (unperformed and unpublished) orchestration of eleven of the twelve short pieces. Over a decade later he re-used two of them in instrumental interludes in Improvisation I sur Mallarmé. Then in the mid-1970s he embarked on a further, more radical transformation of the Notations into extended works for very large orchestra, a project which preoccupied him to the end of his life, nearly seventy years after the original composition.
This is only the most extreme example of a lifelong tendency to revisit earlier works: "as long as my ideas have not exhausted every possibility of proliferation they stay in my mind." Robert Piencikowski characterises this in part as "an obsessional concern for perfection" and observes that with some pieces (such as Le Visage nuptial) "one could speak of successive distinct versions, each one presenting a particular state of the musical material, without the successor invalidating the previous one or vice versa"—although he notes that Boulez almost invariably vetoed the performance of previous versions.
First published works
Before the rehabilitation of the Notations, the Sonatine for flute and piano (1946–1949) was the first work Boulez acknowledged as part of his canon. A serial work of great energy, its single-movement form was influenced by Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1. Bennett finds in the piece a tone new to Boulez's writing: "a sharp, brittle violence juxtaposed against an extreme sensitivity and delicacy". In the Piano Sonata No. 1 (1946–49) the biographer Dominique Jameux highlights the sheer number of different kinds of attack in its two short movements—and the frequent accelerations of tempo in the second movement—which together suggest the feeling of "instrumental delirium".
There followed two cantatas based on the poetry of René Char. Of Le Visage nuptial Paul Griffiths observes that "Char's five poems speak in hard-edged surrealist imagery of an ecstatic sexual passion", which Boulez reflected in music "on the borders of fevered hysteria". In its original version (1946–47) the piece was scored for small forces (soprano, contralto, two ondes Martenot, piano and percussion). Forty years later Boulez arrived at the definitive version for soprano, mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra (1985–1989). Le Soleil des eaux (1948) originated in incidental music for a radio drama by Char. It went through three further versions before reaching its final form in 1965 as a piece for soprano, mixed chorus and orchestra. The first movement (Complainte du lézard amoureux) is a love song addressed by a lizard to a goldfinch in the heat of a summer day; the second (La Sorgue) is described by Griffiths as a violent and incantatory protest against the pollution of the river Sorgue.
The Second Piano Sonata (1947–48) is a half-hour work which, according to Goldman, requires formidable technical prowess from the performer. Its four movements follow the standard pattern of a classical sonata but in each of them Boulez subverts the traditional model. Of the two middle movements Boulez said: "I tried to disintegrate slow movement form by the use of the trope, and repetitive scherzo form by the use of variation form." For Griffiths the violent character of much of the music "is not just superficial: it is expressive of a whole aesthetic of annihilation, and in particular of a need to obliterate what had gone before". Boulez played the work for Aaron Copland, who asked: "But must we start a revolution all over again?"—"Yes, mercilessly", Boulez replied.
That revolution entered its most extreme phase in 1950–1952, when Boulez developed a technique in which not only pitch but other musical parameters—duration, dynamics, timbre and attack—were organised according to serial principles, an approach known as total serialism or punctualism. Messiaen had already made an experiment in this direction in his Mode de valeurs et d'intensités for piano (1949). Boulez's first sketches towards total serialism appeared in parts of Livre pour quatuor (Book for Quartet, 1948–49, revised 2011–12), a collection of movements for string quartet from which the players may choose at any one performance, foreshadowing Boulez's later interest in variable form.
In the early 1950s Boulez began to apply the technique rigorously, ordering each parameter into sets of twelve and prescribing no repetition until all twelve had sounded. According to the music critic Alex Ross the resulting surfeit of ever-changing musical data has the effect of erasing at any given point previous impressions the listener may have formed: "the present moment is all there is". Boulez linked this development to a desire by his generation to create a tabula rasa after the war.
His works in this idiom are Polyphonie X (1950–51; withdrawn) for 18 instruments, the two musique concrète études (1951–52; withdrawn), and Structures, Book I for two pianos (1951–52). Speaking of Structures, Book I in 2011 Boulez described it as a piece in which "the responsibility of the composer is practically absent. Had computers existed at that time I would have put the data through them and made the piece that way. But I did it by hand...It was a demonstration through the absurd." Asked whether it should still be listened to as music, Boulez replied: "I am not terribly eager to listen to it. But for me it was an experiment that was absolutely necessary."
Le Marteau sans maître and Pli selon pli
Structures, Book I was a turning point for Boulez. Recognising a lack of expressive flexibility in the language (described in his essay "At the Limit of Fertile Land..."), Boulez loosened the strictness of total serialism into a more supple and strongly gestural music: "I am trying to rid myself of my thumbprints and taboos", he wrote to Cage. The most significant result of this new freedom was Le Marteau sans maître (1953–1955), described by Griffiths and Bill Hopkins as a "keystone of twentieth-century music". Three short poems by Char form the starting-point for three interlocking cycles. Four movements are vocal settings of the poems (one is set twice), the other five are instrumental commentaries. According to Hopkins and Griffiths the music is characterised by abrupt tempo transitions, passages of broadly improvisatory melodic style and exotic instrumental colouring. The piece is scored for contralto soloist with alto flute, xylorimba, vibraphone, percussion, guitar and viola. Boulez said that the choice of these instruments showed the influence of non-European cultures, to which he had always been attracted.
For the text of his next major work, Pli selon pli (1957–1989), Boulez turned to the symbolist poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, attracted by its extreme density and radical syntax. At seventy minutes, it is his longest composition. Three Improvisations—of increasing complexity—on individual sonnets are framed by two orchestral movements, into which fragments of other poems are embedded. Boulez's word-setting, which in the first Improvisation is straightforwardly syllabic, becomes ever more melismatic, to the point where the words cannot be distinguished. Boulez's stated aim was to make the sonnets become the music at a deeper, structural level. The piece is scored for soprano and large orchestra, often deployed in chamber groups. Boulez described its sound-world, rich in percussion, as "not so much frozen as extraordinarily 'vitrified'". The work had a complex genesis, reaching its definitive form in 1989.
From the 1950s Boulez experimented with what he called "controlled chance" and he developed his views on aleatoric music in the articles "Aléa" and "Sonate, que me veux-tu?", in which he wrote of "the investigation of a relative world, a permanent 'discovering' rather like the state of 'permanent revolution'".
Peyser observes that Boulez's use of chance is very different from that in the works of John Cage. While in Cage's music the performers are often given the freedom to create completely unforeseen sounds, with the object of removing the composer's intention from the music, in Boulez's music they may only choose between possibilities that have been written out in detail by the composer. This method, when applied to the successional order of sections, is often described as "mobile form", a technique innovated by the composer Earle Brown and inspired by the mobile sculptures of Alexander Calder, to whom Brown and Cage introduced Boulez when he was visiting New York in 1952.
Boulez employed variants of the technique in a number of works over the next two decades: in the Third Piano Sonata (1955–1957, revised 1963) the pianist may choose different routes through the score and in one movement (Trope) has the option of omitting certain passages altogether; in Éclat (1965), the conductor triggers the order in which each player joins the ensemble; in Domaines (1961–1968) it is the soloist who dictates the order in which the sections are played by his movement around the stage. In later works, such as Cummings ist der Dichter (1970, revised 1986)—a chamber cantata for 16 solo voices and small orchestra using a poem by E. E. Cummings—the conductor is given choice as to the order of certain events but there is no freedom for the individual player. In its original version Pli selon pli also contained elements of choice for the instrumentalists, but much of this was eliminated in later revisions.
By contrast Figures—Doubles—Prismes (1957–1968) is a fixed work with no chance element. Piencikowski describes it as "a great cycle of variations whose components interpenetrate each other instead of remaining isolated in the traditional manner". It is notable for the unusual layout of the orchestra, in which the various families of instruments (woodwind, brass etc.) are scattered across the stage rather than being grouped together.
Jonathan Goldman identifies a major aesthetic shift in Boulez's work from the mid-1970s onwards, characterised variously by the presence of thematic writing, a return to vertical harmony and to clarity and legibility of form. Boulez himself said: "the envelope is simpler. The contents are not ... I think in my recent work it is true that the first approach is more direct, and the gesture is more obvious, let's say." The works from this period are amongst his most frequently performed.
For Goldman, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1974–75) marks the beginning of this development. Boulez wrote this twenty-five minute work as an epitaph for his friend and colleague, the Italian composer and conductor, who died in 1973 at the age of 53. The piece is divided into fifteen sections, the orchestra into eight groups. While the odd-numbered sections are conducted, in the even sections the conductor merely sets each group in motion and its progress is regulated by a percussionist beating time. In his dedication Boulez described the work as "a ritual of disappearance and survival"; Griffiths refers to the work's "awesome grandeur".
Notations I–IV (1980) are the first four transformations of piano miniatures from 1945 into pieces for very large orchestra. In his review of the New York premiere, Andrew Porter wrote that the single idea of each original piece "has, as it were, been passed through a many-faceted bright prism and broken into a thousand linked, lapped, sparkling fragments", the finale "a terse modern Rite ... which sets the pulses racing".
Dérive 1 (1984), dedicated to William Glock on his retirement from the Bath Festival, is a short quintet in which the piano takes the lead. The material is derived from six chords and, according to Ivan Hewett, the piece "shuffles and decorates these chords, bursting outwards in spirals and eddies, before returning to its starting point". At the end the music "shivers into silence".
Works with electronics
Boulez likened the experience of listening to pre-recorded electronic music in the concert hall to a crematorium ceremony. His real interest lay in the instantaneous transformation of live instrumental sounds but the technology did not become available until the late 1970s and the founding of IRCAM. Before then he had produced Deux Etudes (1951) for magnetic tape for Pierre Schaeffer's Groupe Recherche de la Radiodiffusion Française, as well as a large-scale piece for live orchestra with tape, Poésie pour pouvoir (1958). He was dissatisfied with both pieces and withdrew them.
The first piece completed at IRCAM was Répons (1980–1984). In this forty-minute work an instrumental ensemble is placed in the middle of the hall, while six soloists encircle the audience: two pianos, harp, cimbalom, vibraphone and glockenspiel/xylophone. It is their music which is transformed electronically and projected through the space. Peter Heyworth described the moment at which they enter, some ten minutes into the piece: "it is as though a great window were thrown open, through which a new sound world enters, and with it a new world of the imagination. Even more impressive is the fact that there is no longer a schism between the worlds of natural and electronic sounds, but rather a continuous spectrum."
Dialogue de l'ombre double (1982–1985) for clarinet and electronics grew out of a fragment of Domaines and was a gift for Luciano Berio on his 60th birthday. Lasting around eighteen minutes, it is a dialogue between a solo clarinet (played live, though sometimes reverberated through an offstage piano) and its double (in passages pre-recorded by the same musician and projected around the hall). Boulez approved transcriptions of the piece for bassoon (in 1995) and for recorder (in 2011).
In the early 1970s he had worked on an extended chamber piece called …explosante-fixe… for eight solo instruments, electronically transformed by a machine called a halophone, but the technology was still primitive and he eventually withdrew it. He re-used some of its material in other works, including a later piece with the same name. This definitive version, recorded commercially, was composed at IRCAM between 1991 and 1993 for MIDI-flute and two accompanying flutes with ensemble and live electronics. By this time the technology was such that the computer could follow the score and respond to triggers from the players. According to Griffiths, "the principal flute is caught as if in a hall of mirrors, its line imitated in what the other flutes play, and then in the contributions of the larger ensemble.". Hopkins and Griffiths describe it as "music characteristically caught between thrill and desperation".
Anthèmes II for violin and electronics (1997) grew out of a piece for solo violin Anthèmes I (1991), which Boulez wrote for the Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition in Paris and which in turn derived from material in the original …explosante-fixe… The virtuoso writing for the instrument is captured by the electronic system, transformed in real time and propelled around the space to create what Jonathan Goldman calls a "hyper-violin". Although this gives rise to effects of speed and complexity which no violinist could achieve, Boulez restricts the palette of electronic sounds so that their source, the violin, is always recognisable.
In his subsequent works Boulez relinquished electronics, although Griffiths suggests that in sur Incises (1996–1998) the choice of like but distinct instruments, widely spread across the platform, allowed Boulez to create effects of harmonic, timbral and spatial echo for which he had previously needed electronic means. The piece is scored for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists (including steel drums) and grew out of Incises (1993–2001), a short piece written for use in a piano competition. In an interview in 2013 he described it as his most important work—"because it is the freest".
Notation VII (1999), marked "hieratic" in the score, is the longest of the completed orchestral Notations. According to Griffiths: "what was abrupt in 1945 is now languorous; what was crude is now done with a lifetime's experience and expertise; what was simple is fantastically embellished, even submerged."
Dérive 2 began life in 1988 as a five-minute piece, dedicated to Elliott Carter on his 80th birthday; by 2006 it was a 45-minute work for eleven instruments and Boulez's last major composition. According to Claude Samuel, Boulez wanted to delve into the field of rhythmic shifts, tempo changes and superimpositions of different speeds, inspired in part by his contact with the music of György Ligeti. Boulez described it as "a sort of narrative mosaic".
A distinction may be made between works which Boulez was actively progressing and those which he put to one side despite their potential for further development. In the latter category, the archives contain three unpublished movements of the Third Piano Sonata and further sections of Éclat/Multiples which, if performed, would practically double its length.
As for works Boulez was known to be working on in his later years, the premieres of two more orchestral Notations (V and VI) were announced by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for May 2006, but postponed. He was in the process of developing Anthèmes 2 into a large-scale work for violin and orchestra for Anne-Sophie Mutter and spoke of writing an opera based on Beckett's Waiting for Godot. None of these projects came to fruition.
Character and personal life
As a young man Boulez was an explosive, often confrontational figure. Jean-Louis Barrault, who knew him in his twenties, caught the contradictions in his personality: "his powerful aggressiveness was a sign of creative passion, a particular blend of intransigence and humour, the way his moods of affection and insolence succeeded one another, all these had drawn us near to him." Messiaen said later: "He was in revolt against everything." Indeed, at one point Boulez turned against Messiaen, describing his Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine as "brothel music" and saying that the Turangalîla-Symphonie made him vomit. It was five years before relations were restored.
In a 2000 article in The New Yorker Alex Ross described him as a bully. Boulez did not disagree: "Certainly I was a bully. I'm not ashamed of it at all. The hostility of the establishment to what you were able to do in the Forties and Fifties was very strong. Sometimes you have to fight against your society." The most notorious instance of this is Boulez's declaration in 1952 that "any musician who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but truly experienced—the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch."
On the other hand, those who knew him well often referred to his loyalty, both to individuals and to organisations. When his mentor, the conductor Roger Désormière, was paralysed by a stroke in 1952 Boulez sent scripts to French Radio in Désormière's name so that the older man could collect the fee. The writer Jean Vermeil, who observed Boulez in the 1990s in the company of Jean Batigne (founder of the Percussions de Strasbourg), discovered "a Boulez asking about the health of a musician in the Strasbourg orchestra, about another player's children, a Boulez who knew everyone by name and who reacted to each person's news with sadness or with joy". In later life, he was known for his charm and personal warmth. Of his humour, Gerard McBurney wrote that it "depended on his twinkling eyes, his perfect timing, his infectious schoolboy giggle, and his reckless compulsion always to say what the other person would not expect".
Boulez read widely and identified Proust, Joyce and Kafka as particular influences. He had a lifelong interest in the visual arts. He wrote extensively about the painter Paul Klee and collected contemporary art, including works by Joan Miró, Francis Bacon, Nicholas de Staël and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, all of whom he knew personally. He also had close links with three of the leading philosophers of the time: Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes.
He was a keen walker and, when he was at home in Baden-Baden, spent the late afternoons and much of the weekends walking in the Black Forest. He owned an old farmhouse in the Alpes-de-Hautes-Provence department of France and built another, modern home on the same land in the late 1970s.
In its obituary, The New York Times reported that "about his private life he remained tightly guarded". Boulez acknowledged to Joan Peyser that there was a passionate affair in 1946, described as "intense and tormented" and which Peyser suggested was the trigger for the "wild, courageous works" of that period. After Boulez's death, his sister Jeanne told the biographer Christian Merlin that the affair was with the actress Maria Casarès, but Merlin concludes that there is little evidence to support this. The author and blogger Norman Lebrecht, who knew Boulez, speculated that he was gay, citing the fact that for many years he shared his home in Baden-Baden with Hans Messner, whom he sometimes referred to as his valet. In his portrait for The New Yorker, published shortly after Boulez's death under the title The Magus, Alex Ross described him as "affable, implacable, unknowable".
Boulez was one of the leading conductors of the second half of the twentieth century. In a career lasting more than sixty years he directed most of the world's major orchestras. He was entirely self-taught, although he said that he learnt a great deal from attending Désormière's and Hans Rosbaud's rehearsals. He also cited George Szell as an influential mentor.
Boulez gave various reasons for conducting as much as he did. He gave his first concerts for the Domaine musical because its financial resources were limited: "I told myself that, being much less expensive, I would have a go myself." He also said that the best possible training for a composer was "to have to play or conduct his own works and to face their difficulties of execution"—yet on a practical level he sometimes struggled to find time to compose given his conducting commitments. The writer and pianist Susan Bradshaw thought this was deliberate and related to a sense of being overshadowed as a composer by Stockhausen, who from the late 1950s was increasingly prolific. The French litterateur and musicologist Pierre Souvchinsky disagreed: "Boulez became a conductor because he had a great gift for it."
Not everyone agreed about the greatness of that gift. For the conductor Otto Klemperer, he was "without doubt the only man of his generation who is an outstanding conductor and musician". Hans Keller expressed a more critical opinion:
- "Boulez cannot phrase – it is as simple as that...the reason being that he ignores the harmonic implications of any structure he is dealing with, to the extent of utterly disrgarding harmonic rhythm and hence all characteristic rhythm in tonal music..."
Joan Peyser considered that:
- ..."in general Boulez conducts what he loves magnificently, conducts what he likes very well and, with rare exceptions, gives stiff performances of the classic and romantic repertoire."
He worked with many leading soloists and had particularly long-term collaborations with Daniel Barenboim and Jessye Norman.
According to Peter Heyworth, Boulez produced a lean, athletic sound which, underpinned by his rhythmic exactitude, could generate an electric sense of excitement. The ability to reveal the structure of a score and to clarify dense orchestral textures were hallmarks of his conducting. He conducted without a baton and, as Heyworth observed: "there is no trace of theatre—not even the rather theatrical sort of economy that was practised by Richard Strauss." According to Boulez: "outward excitement uses up inner excitement."
Boulez's ear for sound was legendary: "there are countless stories of him detecting, for example, faulty intonation from the third oboe in a complex orchestral texture," Paul Griffiths wrote in The New York Times. Oliver Knussen, himself a well-known composer-conductor, observed that "his rehearsals are models of clear-headedness and professional courtesy—he effortlessly commands respect." Nicholas Kenyon wrote of Boulez's rehearsal ethos with the BBC Symphony Orchestra:
- "Boulez is supremely efficient...his rehearsal requirements have always been absolutely precise. He knows exactly what can be done and what cannot...He knows how to organise a rehearsal without fuss, even when there are countless platform changes, switches of personnel, elecronics and staging to consider. For orchestral administrators, concert managers, orchestral porters, he is the easiest, kindest and best organised of conductors."
Boulez also conducted in the opera house. His chosen repertoire was small and included no Italian opera. Apart from Wagner, he conducted only twentieth-century works. Of his work with Wieland Wagner on Wozzeck and Parsifal, Boulez said:
- "I would willingly have hitched, if not my entire fate, then at least a part of it, to someone like him, for [our] discussions about music and productions were thrilling."
They planned other productions together, including Salome and Elektra, Boris Godunov and Don Giovanni. However, by the time rehearsals for their Bayreuth Parsifal began Wieland was already gravely ill and he died in October 1966.
When the Frankfurt Wozzeck was revived after Wieland's death, Boulez was deeply disillusioned by the working conditions:
- "there was no rehearsal, no care taken over anything. The cynicism of the way an opera house like that was run disgusted me. It still disgusts me."
He later said that it was this experience which prompted his notorious remarks in an interview the following year in Der Spiegel, in which he claimed that "no opera worth mentioning had been composed since 1935", that "a Beatles record is certainly cleverer (and shorter) than a Henze opera" and that "the most elegant" solution to opera's moribund condition would be "to blow the opera houses up".
In 1967, Boulez, theatre director Jean Vilar and choreographer Maurice Béjart were asked to devise a scheme for the reform of the Paris Opéra, with a view to Boulez becoming its music director. Their plan was derailed by the political fallout from the 1968 student protests. Later, in the mid-1980s, Boulez became vice president of the planned Opéra Bastille in Paris, working with Daniel Barenboim, who was to be its music director. In 1988 a newly-appointed director, Pierre Bergé, dismissed Barenboim. Boulez withdrew in solidarity.
In the event, Boulez conducted only specific projects—in productions by leading stage directors—when he could be satisfied that conditions were right. Thanks to his years with the Barrault company, the theatrical dimension was as important to him as the musical and he always attended staging rehearsals.
For the centenary Ring in Bayreuth, Boulez originally asked Ingmar Bergman then Peter Brook to direct, both of whom refused. Peter Stein initially agreed but withdrew in 1974. Patrice Chéreau, who was primarily a theatre director, accepted and went on to create one of the defining opera productions of modern times. According to Allan Kozinn the production "helped open the floodgates of directorial reinterpretation of opera" (sometimes known as Regietheater). Chéreau treated the story in part as an allegory of capitalism, drawing on ideas that George Bernard Shaw explored in The Perfect Wagnerite in 1898. He updated the action to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, using imagery of the industrial age, and he achieved an unprecedented degree of naturalism in the singers' performances. Boulez's conducting was no less controversial, emphasising continuity, flexibility and transparency over mythic grandeur and weight. In its first year the production was greeted with hostility by the largely conservative audience, and a core of around thirty orchestral musicians refused to work with Boulez in subsequent seasons. Both production and musical realisation grew in stature over the following four years and after the final performance in 1980 there was a 90-minute ovation. Boulez worked with Chéreau again on Berg's Lulu in Paris (1979) and Janáček's From the House of the Dead in Vienna (2007).
His other preferred director was Peter Stein. Of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande Boulez had written: "I don't like the French tradition of sweetness and gentleness ... [the work] is not gentle at all, but cruel and mysterious." Stein realised that vision in his staging for Welsh National Opera in 1992, John Rockwell describing it as "an abstract, angry Pelléas, one perhaps over-intent on emphasizing the score's links to modernity". David Stevens described their 1995 production of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron in Amsterdam as "theatrically and musically thrilling".
From the mid-1960s, Boulez spoke of composing an opera himself. His attempts to find a librettist were unsuccessful: "both times the writer has died on me, so I'm a bit superstitious about looking for a third candidate". From the late 1960s he exchanged ideas with the radical French playwright and novelist Jean Genet and a subject—treason—was agreed on. Parts of a draft libretto were found among Genet's papers after his death in 1986. Boulez later turned to the German playwright Heiner Müller, who was working on a reduction of Aeschylus's Oresteia when he died in 1995, again without leaving anything usable. In the 1980s he discussed with Patrice Chéreau an adaptation of Genet's 1961 play Les Paravents (The Screens), which was planned for the 1989 opening of the Opéra Bastille in Paris, but this too came to nothing. In a 1996 interview Boulez said that he was thinking of Edward Bond's The War Plays or Lear, "but only thinking". When news emerged in 2010 that he was working on an opera based on Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, few believed such an ambitious undertaking could be realised so late in the day.
Boulez's first recordings date from his time with the Domaine musical in the late 1950s and early 1960s and were made for the French Vega label. They document his first thoughts on works which he would subsequently re-record (such as Varèse's Intégrales and Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No.1), as well as pieces to which he did not return in the studio (such as Stravinsky's Renard and Stockhausen's Zeitmaße). They also include the first of his five recordings of Le Marteau sans maître (with contralto Marie-Thérèse Cahn). In 2015 Universal Music brought together the recordings from this period in a 10-CD set.
Between 1966 and 1989 he recorded for Columbia Records (later Sony Classical). Among the first projects were the Paris Wozzeck (with Walter Berry) and the Covent Garden Pelléas et Mélisande (with George Shirley and Elisabeth Söderström). He made a highly praised recording of The Rite of Spring with the Cleveland Orchestra and a number of recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra, including rarities such as Berlioz's Lélio and the first complete recording of Mahler's Das klagende Lied. The LSO also contributed to the Webern edition which Boulez supervised, consisting of all the works with opus numbers. When he took up his posts with the New York Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Orchestras, and later the Ensemble Intercontemporain, he made most of his recordings with them. A particular focus of the Columbia years was a wide-ranging survey of the music of Schoenberg, including Gurrelieder and Moses und Aron, but also less well-known works such as the unaccompanied choral music. As for Boulez's own music, in 1969 there was a first recording of Pli selon pli (with Halina Łukomska as soprano soloist) and recordings of Rituel and Éclat/Multiples. In 2014 Sony Classical issued Pierre Boulez—The Complete Columbia Album Collection on 67 CDs.
Three operatic projects from this period were picked up by other labels: the Bayreuth Ring was released on video and LP by Philips; the Bayreuth Parsifal and Paris Lulu were recorded for Deutsche Grammophon.
In the 1980s, he also recorded for the Erato label, mostly with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, with a greater emphasis on the music of his contemporaries (Berio, Ligeti, Carter etc.), as well as a survey of some of his own music, including Le Visage nuptial, Le Soleil des eaux and Figures—Doubles—Prismes. In 2015 Erato issued Pierre Boulez—The Complete Erato Recordings on 14 CDs. For EMI in 1984 he recorded a number of pieces on Frank Zappa's album The Perfect Stranger with the Ensemble Intercontemporain.
From 1991, onwards Boulez recorded under an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. It centred on the orchestras of Chicago and Cleveland in the United States and Vienna and Berlin in Europe. He re-recorded much of his core repertoire—the orchestral music of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartók—and oversaw a second Webern edition, extending this time to the unpublished works. His own late music featured prominently, including Répons, ...explosante-fixe... and sur Incises. There was also a recording of Pli selon pli (with Christine Schäfer) in its definitive version, incorporating revisions made in the late 1980s. Composers new to his discography included Richard Strauss, Szymanowski and Anton Bruckner—his recording of the Eighth Symphony met with particular acclaim. The most significant addition to his recorded repertoire was the multi-orchestra cycle of the Mahler symphonies and vocal works with orchestra.
All of Boulez's recordings for Deutsche Grammophon have been collected into boxed sets of CDs. In 2015 DG issued a 44-CD set Boulez—20th Century for his 90th birthday. DVDs of two opera productions are also available on DG: the Welsh National Opera Pelléas et Mélisande and the Vienna From the House of the Dead.
In addition, many hundreds of concerts conducted by Boulez are held in the archives of radio stations and orchestras. Occasional releases provide a glimpse of the wealth of material they contain. In 2005, for example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra released a 2-CD set of broadcasts by Boulez, focusing in particular on works which he had not otherwise recorded, including Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, the suite from Debussy's Le martyre de Saint Sébastien and Messiaen's L'ascension.
From time to time in the early part of his career, Boulez performed publicly as a pianist, usually as part of a mixed programme in which he also conducted orchestral or instrumental music. In 1955 he accompanied the tenor Jean Giraudeau in a recording of songs by Stravinsky and Mussorgsky. Between 1957 and 1959 he gave several performances of his own Third Piano Sonata (a performance he gave in Darmstadt on 30 August 1959 was issued on CD in 2016). On a number of occasions he played music for two pianos with Yvonne Loriod and in the 1960s and 1970s he occasionally included songs for voice and piano in orchestral programmes, for example accompanying Dorothy Dorow in Debussy's Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé at a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert in March 1966 and Christa Ludwig in songs by Berg at a New York Philharmonic Orchestra concert in February 1972. A rare example of his pianism in later life was a short film made by Austrian television in 1992, in which Boulez played his early Notations.
Writing and teaching
According to Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Boulez was one of two twentieth-century composers who wrote most prolifically about music, the other being Schoenberg. Ironically, it was with a 1952 article with the inflammatory title "Schoenberg is Dead", published in the British journal The Score shortly after the older composer's death, that Boulez first attracted international attention as a writer. This highly polemical piece, in which he attacked Schoenberg for his conservatism, contrasting it with Webern's radicalism, caused widespread controversy.
Jonathan Goldman points out that, over the decades, Boulez's writings addressed very different readerships: in the 1950s the cultured Parisian attendees of the Domaine musical; in the 1960s the specialised avant-garde composers and performers of the Darmstadt and Basel courses; and, between 1976 and 1995, the highly literate but non-specialist audience of the lectures he gave as Professor of the Collège de France. Much of Boulez's writing was linked to specific occasions, whether a first performance of a new piece, notes for a recording or a eulogy for a lost colleague. Generally he avoided publishing detailed analyses, other than one of The Rite of Spring. As Nattiez points out: "as a writer Boulez is a communicator of ideas rather than of technical information. This may sometimes prove disappointing to composition students, but it is no doubt a peculiarity of his writing that explains its popularity with non-musicians."
Boulez's writings have appeared in English as Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, Boulez on Music Today and Orientations: Collected Writings. His Collège de France lectures were published in English for the first time in 2018 by Faber & Faber under the title Pierre Boulez, Music Lessons: The Complete Collège de France Lectures. Throughout his career he also expressed himself through long-form interviews, of which perhaps the most substantial are those with Antoine Goléa (1958), Célestin Deliège (1975) and Jean Vermeil (1989). In addition, two volumes of correspondence have been published: with the composer John Cage (from the period 1949–62); and with the anthropologist and ethnomusicologist André Schaeffner (from 1954 to 1970).
Boulez taught at the Darmstadt Summer School most years between 1954 and 1965. He was professor of composition at the Musik Akademie Basel in Switzerland (1960–63) and a visiting lecturer at Harvard University in 1963. He also taught privately in the early part of his career. Students included the composers Richard Rodney Bennett, Jean-Claude Éloy and Heinz Holliger.
An article published for Boulez's 80th birthday in The Guardian revealed that Boulez's fellow-composers had divided, and sometimes equivocal, views about him:
- George Benjamin: "[Boulez] has produced a catalogue of wondrously luminous and scintillating works. Within them a rigorous compositional skill is coupled to an imagination of extraordinary aural refinement".
- Oliver Knussen: "a man who fashions his scores with the fanatical idealism of a medieval monk minutely illuminating volumes"
- John Adams: "a mannerist, a niche composer, a master who worked with a very small hammer".
- Alexander Goehr: "[Boulez's] failures will be better than most people's successes".
When Boulez died in January 2016, he left no will. During his lifetime, he entered into an agreement to place his musical and literary manuscripts with the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. In December 2017, the Bibliothèque nationale de France announced that the Boulez estate had made a substantial donation of Boulez's private papers and possessions not covered by the Sacher contract, including 220 metres of books, 50 metres of archives and correspondence, as well as scores, photographs, recordings and about 100 other objects.
In October 2016, the large concert hall of the Philharmonie de Paris, for which Boulez campaigned for many years, was renamed the Grande salle Pierre Boulez. In March 2017, a new concert hall, the Pierre Boulez Saal, designed by Frank Gehry,was opened in Berlin under the auspices of the Barenboim–Said Academy. It is home to a new Boulez Ensemble, made up of members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle and guest musicians from Berlin and around the world.
Boulez's music continues to be taken up by interpreters of the next generation. In September 2016 Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic paired Boulez's Éclat with Mahler's 7th Symphony for an international tour, which included concerts in New York, Paris and London (at the BBC Proms). In May and June 2017 many of Boulez's major works were presented as part of the Vienna Konzerthaus 38th International Festival, concluding with performances of ...explosante-fixe... and Répons by Klangforum Wien, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann. In October 2017, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, conducted by Matthias Pinscher, gave four performances of Répons over two evenings at the Park Avenue Armory, New York, in a presentation conceived by Pierre Audi. In September 2018 the first edition of the Pierre Boulez Biennial took place in Paris and Berlin, a joint initiative by the Philharmonie de Paris and the Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim. Performances of Boulez's music were set in the context of works which influenced him.
Decorations and awards
- Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France)
- Member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts
- Knight Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany
- Sanford Medal (Yale University)
- 1963: Member of the Academy of Arts Berlin
- 1975: Pour le Mérite for Arts and Sciences (Germany)
- 1976: Prix France-Allemagne
- 1979: Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (Germany)
- 1979: Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
- 1983: Austrian Decoration for Science and Art
- 1985: Léonie Sonning Music Prize (Denmark)
- 1989: Praemium Imperiale (Japan Art Association)
- 1990: Gold Medal of Vienna
- 1992: Theodor W. Adorno Award
- 1995: Artist of the Year by the British music magazine The Gramophone
- 1995: Ceremony at the Victoires de la Musique in France
- 1995: German Record Critics' Award
- 1996: Berlin Art Prize
- 1996: Polar Music Prize (Sweden)
- 1997: Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal
- 2000: Wolf Prize (Israel)
- 2001: Grand Cross of the Order of Saint James of the Sword
- 2001: University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, for sur Incises (United States)
- 2002: Glenn Gould Prize (Canada)
- 2004: Golden Medal of Honour of Baden-Baden
- 2005: Fellowship of BASCA
- 2008: Franco-German cultural award
- 2009: Kyoto Prize (arts and philosophy)
- 2010: Edison Award (classical music) (Netherlands)
- 2011: Colburn Prize
- 2011: Giga-Hertz-Prize
- 2011: Medal of Salzburg
- 2012: Gramophone Hall of Fame entrant
- 2012: Robert Schumann Prize for Poetry and Music (Academy of Sciences and Literature, Mainz)
- 2012: The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Contemporary Music category
- 2012: Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale Musica for Lifetime Achievement
- 2014: The Cleveland Orchestra Distinguished Service Award
Notes, references and sources
- In the event Messiaen was not appointed professor of composition until 1949.
- The Nuptial Countenance.
- The Sun of the Waters,
- The Hammer without a Master.
- Fold upon Fold.
- Poetry for Power.
- The French word has many meanings, including "splinter" ("voler en éclats" means “to fly into pieces”) as well as "burst" ("un éclat de rire" means “a burst of laughter”).
- Nos. 5 and 9.
- Lament of the Lovesick Lizard.
- Mode of Duration and Dynamics.
- What do you want from me, sonata?
- Cummings is the Poet.
- Explaining the title in a letter to Glock, Boulez referred to the fact that the music "derived" from material in Répons but also that one meaning of "dérive" is the drifting of a boat in the wind or current.
- The title is a reference to plainchant, in which the solo singer alternates with a choir. It reflects the interplay between the soloists and the ensemble (or, as Samuel puts it: the individual and the community).
- Dialogue of the Double Shadow. The title refers to a scene in Paul Claudel's play Le Soulier de satin (The Satin Slipper). Boulez acknowledged that the work had a theatrical aspect.
- The title of the work is a quotation from André Breton's L'Amour fou: "convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, exploding-fixed, magic-circumstantial, or it will not be."
- The title refers to the fact that the piece elaborates "on" the piano piece Incises.
- Nichols, Roger (6 January 2016). "Pierre Boulez obituary". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 6 January 2016. Retrieved 6 January 2016.
- Decalf, Guillaume (9 August 2018). "Mort de Jeanne Boulez-Chevalier, soeur de Pierre Boulez". France Musique. Retrieved 10 August 2018.
- Peyser (1976), 21–22; Heyworth (1986), 3; Jameux, 3.
- Peyser (1976), 23–25.
- Boulez (2017), 21.
- Boulez (1976), 10–11.
- Merlin, 23.
- Peyser (1976), 23–24.
- Coleman, Terry (13 January 1989). "Pierre de Résistance". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 4 January 2017. Retrieved 3 January 2017.
- Boulez (2003), 17.
- Peyser (1976), 24–25; Jameux, 6–7; Heyworth (1986), 4.
- Peyser (1976), 24.
- Heyworth (1986), 4; Hill and Simeone, 139; O'Hagan, 9.
- O'Hagan, 13.
- Heyworth (1986), 5; Archimbaud, 24.
- Heyworth (1986), 9.
- Barbedette, 212; Peyser, 30.
- Peyser (1976), 32–33; Jameux, 15–16.
- Samuel (2002), 24; Peyser (1976), 39; Barbedette, 212–213.
- O'Hagan, 14.
- O'Hagan, 37.
- Peyser (1976), 31–32.
- Peyser (1976), 32.
- Barbedette, 212; Boulez (2017), 96.
- Culshaw, Peter (10 December 2008). "Pierre Boulez: 'I was a bully, I'm not ashamed'". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 22 April 2016. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
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- Boulez (2017), 165; Archimbaud, 39.
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- Barbedette, 213–215; Peyser (1976), 52–53.
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- Campbell and O'Hagan, 303–305.
- Campbell and O'Hagan, 4–5.
- Boulez (2017), 68.
- Samuel (2002), 421–22.
- Peyser (1976), 66.
- Peyser (1976), 60–61; Boulez and Cage, 41–48.
- Barbedette, 214.
- Peyser (1976), 76.
- Peyser (1976) 82–85; Di Pietro, 27–34; Boulez and Cage, 29–33.
- Ross, 360.
- Jameux 61–62, 71–72.
- Heyworth (1986), 21; Jameux, 62–64; Campbell and O'Hagan, 9; Aguila, 55.
- Jameux, 65–67; Peyser (1976), 111–112.
- Steinegger, 64–66; Hill and Simeone, 211 and 253.
- Jameux, 79–80.
- Glock, 132.
- Walsh, 359; Heyworth (1986), 15 and 22.
- Walsh, 385–387; Glock, 74.
- Barbedette, 216–218.
- Peyser (1976), 131–137.
- Kenyon, 359.
- Barbedette, 46–48.
- Peyser (1976), 145; Jameux, 114; Boulez and Cage, 224.
- Vermeil, 142
- Vermeil, 180–82; Boulez (2003), 4–5.
- Vermeil, 182–86
- Steinegger 2012, 260–68; Peyser 1976, 170.
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- Vermeil, 144–145 (note 27).
- Rosenberg, 378; Boulez (2017), 58 and 194.
- Vermeil, 144, note 18.
- Rosenberg, 402.
- Vermeil, 188–95
- Rosenberg, Donald (2000). The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None. Cleveland: Gray & Company. pp. 428, 505.
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- Samuel (2002), 425.
- Griffiths (1978), 52.
- Samuel (2002), 426–27
- Kenyon, 317.
- Vermeil, 189; Glock, 106.
- Glock, 107 and 109; Vermeil, 191.
- Glock, 139.
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- Glock, 139–40.
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- Vermeil, 202–203.
- Heyworth (1986), 36.
- Vermeil, 228 and 239.
- Vermeil, 205 and 209.
- Vermeil, 205, 209, 211 and 216.
- Glock, 135; Kenyon, 391–95.
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- Jameux, 187.
- Jameux, 175.
- Barbedette, 219–21.
- Boulez (2017), 117 (note).
- Barbedette, 221.
- Vermeil, 228, 231, 234 and 236.
- Vermeil, 226, 230, 233.
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- Samuel (2002), 419–20.
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- O'Hagan, 316.
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- Meïmoun, 15 (note).
- Bennett, 41.
- Meïmoun, 22.
- Bennett, 46–49; Jameux, 13; Campbell and O'Hagan, 29.
- O'Hagan, 31.
- Bennett, 54.
- O'Hagan, 38–47.
- O'Hagan, 44.
- Samuel (2002), 428.
- Griffiths (1978), 49.
- Campbell and O'Hagan, 93 and 96.
- Jameux, 228.
- Bennett, 57.
- Jameux, 239.
- Samuel (2002), 422.
- Jameux, 23, 40, 257.
- Griffiths (1978), 18–19.
- Goldman, 7.
- Boulez (1975), 41–42.
- Griffiths (1978), 16.
- Ross, 378.
- Hopkins and Griffiths.
- Ross, 363–364.
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- Boulez (1991), 162.
- Campbell, 13.
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- Boulez (1976), 93.
- Bradshaw, 186.
- Boulez (1976), 94.
- Samuel (2002), 424–25.
- Boulez (1991), 26–38.
- Boulez (1986), 143.
- Peyser (1976), 126–129
- Barbedette, 143; Borchardt-Hume, 70–71.
- Gardner and O'Hagan, 179.
- Boulez (2003), 101.
- Goldman, xv–xvi.
- Ford, 23.
- Samuel (2013).
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- Samuel (2013)
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- Vermeil, 207, 209 and 210; Jameux, 176–77.
- Campbell and O'Hagan, 297.
- Rocco, 68.
- Griffiths (1995b)
- Goldman, 169–172.
- Griffiths (2005), 105.
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- Griffiths (2005), 102.
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