|Intro||French composer, conductor, writer, and pianist|
|Was||Musician Conductor Composer Musicologist Music theorist Professor Pianist Author|
|Type||Academia Literature Music|
|Birth||26 March 1925, Montbrison, canton of Montbrison, arrondissement of Montbrison, Loire|
|Death||5 January 2016, Baden-Baden, Karlsruhe Government Region, Baden-Württemberg, Germany (aged 90 years)|
Pierre Louis Joseph Boulez CBE (French: [pjɛʁ bu.lɛːz]; 26 March 1925 – 5 January 2016) was a French composer, conductor, writer and organiser of 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 commitment to the modernist project and the trenchant, polemical tone in which he expressed his views on music led some to criticise him as a dogmatist, a reputation which softened in later years.
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 New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, 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 Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra 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 and he received 26 Grammy Awards.
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.
Pierre Boulez died at his home in Baden-Baden on 5 January 2016, aged 90.
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 (b. 1922) 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 whilst not necessarily sharing them. The family prospered, moving in 1929 from the apartment above a pharmacy at 29 rue Tupinerie, where Boulez was born, to a comfortable detached house at 46 avenue d'Alsace-Lorraine, where he spent most of his childhood.
From the age of seven he 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 fifteen he was sceptical about religion ("what struck me most was that it was so mechanical: there was a total absence of genuine conviction behind it") and by eighteen he had repudiated Catholicism, although later in life he described himself as an agnostic.
As a child he 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 St. Etienne. The following year he took courses in advanced mathematics at the University of Lyon which his father hoped would prepare him for a career in engineering. He was in Lyon when the Vichy government fell and the Germans took over. The city became a centre of the resistance and Boulez later recalled the terrible reprisals: "when there was a bomb in a café where the military had been drinking next day there was a poster saying hostages had been shot. It was not a gentle time, and nothing to eat, and terribly cold."
It was in Lyon that he 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 accompany her in arias from Aida and La Damnation de Faust. Impressed by his ability, she persuaded Léon to allow his son to apply to the Conservatoire in Lyon, but the selection board rejected him. 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 would later say. In fact, when he moved to Paris in the autumn of 1943, Léon accompanied him, helped him to find a room (at 14 rue Oudinot, near the Invalides) and subsidised him until he could earn a living.
1943–1946: Musical education
In late 1943 he entered the preparatory harmony class of Georges Dandelot at the Paris Conservatoire. There 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. He also studied the piano privately in the hope of entering Jean Doyen's class, but he was unsuccessful. On 26 August 1944, the day of de Gaulle's return to Paris, Boulez was among the crowd in the Place de la Concorde which came under sniper fire from the few remaining Germans and collaborators.
In the autumn of 1944 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 Rite of Spring, were subjected to intensive analysis.
In January 1945 Boulez moved to two small attic rooms at 4 rue Beautreillis 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, a follower of Schoenberg. The piece was a revelation to him and he organised a group of fellow students to take private lessons with Leibowitz. It was here that he first studied twelve-tone technique and discovered the music of Webern. Around this time he was one of a number of Conservatoire students (organised, it was said, by Leibowitz) who booed a performance of Stravinsky's Danses concertantes, a work whose neo-classicism represented the pre-war culture he was determined to reject. Eventually he also found Leibowitz's approach too doctrinaire and he broke angrily with him in 1946 when Leibowitz tried to criticise one of his early works.
In the spring of 1945 he gained the Conservatoire's first prize in harmony. In the autumn he entered Simone Plé-Caussade's fugue class, but he was so infuriated by what he described as her "lack of imagination" that he boycotted the class and organized a petition that Messiaen be given a full professorship in composition. In the winter of 1945/46 he was introduced to 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 needed someone to play the instrument for a production of Hamlet for the new company he and his wife, Madeleine Renaud, had formed. Honegger suggested Boulez. He 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, whilst leaving him time to compose during the day. It also broadened his horizons: in 1947 the company toured to Belgium and Switzerland ("absolutely pays de cocagne [land of plenty], 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 at St James's Theatre in London at the invitation of Laurence Olivier; and between 1950 and 1957 there were three tours to South America and two to North America. 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, including the Sonatine pour flûte et piano, the first two piano sonatas and initial versions of two cantatas on texts by René Char, Le Visage nuptial and Le Soleil des eaux. In October 1951, whilst Boulez was in London, a large work for eighteen solo instruments, Polyphonie X, caused a scandal at its première at the Donaueschingen Festival, some audience members disrupting the performance with hisses and whistles. He also experimented for the first time with electronic music, producing Deux Etudes for magnetic tape for Pierre Schaeffer's Groupe Recherche de la Radiodiffusion Française but he was dissatisfied with the results and withdrew them.
Around this time he 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."
Boulez quickly became one of the philosophical 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." Many composers of Boulez's generation taught at the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany, which Boulez attended for the first time in July 1952. 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. According to Scott Burnham, the so-called Darmstadt School composers created a style that, for a time, existed as an antidote to music of nationalist fervour; an international style that could not be co-opted as propaganda in the way that the Nazis had used, for example, the music of Beethoven.
In May 1952 Boulez gave the first public performance of Structure 1a for two pianos (with Olivier Messiaen). Towards the end of that year 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.
1954–1959: The Domaine Musical
In 1954, with the financial backing of Barrault and Renaud, he started a concert series at the Petit Marigny theatre, which became known as the Domaine Musical. The concerts focussed 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, taking charge of everything from hiring instruments to managing subscriptions and arranging accommodation for artists. The theatre was small, the wooden seats hard and the programmes inordinately long, yet the concerts were an immediate success. The composer Francis Poulenc observed: "there is a touching atmosphere at the concerts. Crowds of young people cram in together for standing room." 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, in particular Suzanne Tézenas.
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.
At the ISCM Festival in Baden-Baden on 18 June 1955, after fifty rehearsals, Hans Rosbaud conducted the first performance of Boulez's best-known work, Le Marteau sans maître. 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."
In the early years of the Domaine Musical Boulez left most of the conducting to others, including Hermann Scherchen and Hans Rosbaud. On 21 March 1956 he gave his first full concert as a conductor in a Domaine programme which featured the French première of Le marteau sans maître. When he 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. According to Glock, who sat between Stravinsky and Boulez at dinner afterwards, "the atmosphere was electric with discontent."
In Darmstadt in September 1957 Boulez played an early version of the Piano Sonata No.3. In January 1958 the Improvisations sur Mallarmé (I et II) appeared, forming the kernel of a work 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 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, moving eventually into a large hillside villa at Kapuzinerstraße 9, which was his main residence for the rest of his life. Robert Piencikowski suggests a number of reasons for the move to Germany: excellent rehearsal conditions with the orchestra of the Südwestfunk, an electronic studio where he could work on a new piece (Poésie pour pouvoir), but also disenchantment with the cultural and political climate in France under de Gaulle at the time of the Algerian war.
During this period he turned increasingly to conducting. His first engagement as an orchestral conductor had been in 1956, when he conducted the Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra whilst 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 20th-century music at the Aix-en-Provence and Donaueschingen Festivals, culminating in a performance of Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin which Boulez remembered as "explosive." 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 Le Sacre du Printemps 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 Jean-Louis Barrault with designs by André Masson. The conditions were exceptional, with thirty orchestral rehearsals instead of the usual three or four and the critical response was unanimously favourable. He conducted Wozzeck again in April 1966 at the Frankfurt Opera in a new production by Wieland Wagner. Wieland had already invited him to join the Bayreuth Festival's roster for Wagner's Parsifal later in the season—after Hans Knappertsbusch died—and he 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 March of the same year he made his orchestral debut in the United States with the Cleveland Orchestra, an orchestra with which he had a particular affinity because of its virtuosity and tonal refinement. 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 Adviser 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.
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. Boulez and Yvonne Loriod gave the premiere at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in October 1961. Midway through the decade, however, Boulez appeared to find his voice again. Éclat, a short and brilliant piece for small ensemble, had its first performance in Los Angeles in March 1965 and by 1970 it had grown into a substantial half-hour work, Éclat/Multiples. In 1968 the final version of Figures—Doubles—Prismes for large orchestra, a version of two movements from Livre pour quatuor for string orchestra (Livre pour cordes) and the two versions of Domaines (clarinet solo/clarinet and ensemble) all received first performances.
1971–1977: London and New York
Boulez first conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in February 1964, in an unlikely place—the seaside resort of Worthing—and in some unlikely repertoire, accompanying Vladimir Ashkenazy in a Chopin piano concerto ("It was terrible, I felt like a waiter who keeps dropping the plates"). His appearances with the orchestra over the next five years included his debuts at the Proms and at Carnegie Hall (1965), and a tour to Prague, Berlin, Moscow and Leningrad (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 the 1972–73 season, for example, he conducted Schütz's Fili mi, Absolom and Haydn's L'incontro improvviso. He also liked to construct programmes out of extreme contrasts ("like a shower that runs hot and cold"): a concert in June 1974 began with Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks and ended with Ligeti's Aventures via Mozart, Webern and Varèse. 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 Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies—but Britten and Tippett were absent from his programmes. His relations with the musicians were generally excellent. Indeed, Dominique Jameux refers to "Boulez's elective affinity with English musicians" which he ascribes to "a liking for work well done and for telling jokes—an ability that Boulez possesses to a surprising degree." 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 a Prom in August 2008, when he conducted a concert of the music of Leoš Janáček, including his Glagolitic Mass. In January 2016 BBC Four broadcast the hour-long documentary Pierre Boulez at the BBC: Master and Maverick.
In both cities he 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."
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 Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. The director was Patrice Chéreau. Highly controversial in its first year, by its final year in 1980 it was praised as one of the great Wagner productions. It was televised around the world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, few new works emerged during this period: Cummings ist der Dichter was first performed in Stuttgart in September 1970; an early realisation of ...explosante-fixe... (later withdrawn) in New York in January 1973; his music for Jean-Louis Barrault's stage adaptation of Nietzsche's Ainsi parla Zarathoustra in 1974; Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna in London in April 1975; and Messagesquisse in La Rochelle in July 1977.
In 1970 Boulez was asked by President Pompidou to return to France and set up an institute specializing 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 an apartment on the 30th floor of a building at 21-25 Quai André Citroën in the Front de Seine district of Paris.
Boulez wrote a series of pieces which used the potential developed at IRCAM electronically to transform sound in real time. The first of these were Répons (1981–84), a large-scale work for soloists and ensemble, and Dialogue de l'ombre double (1985), a more intimate work for clarinet and electronics. He also revised earlier works: Notations I-IV (transcriptions for large orchestra of short piano pieces from 1945) were premiered by Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestre de Paris in 1980; and in the 1980s he radically re-worked his cantata on poems by René Char, Le Visage nuptial (1946).
In 1979 he embarked with Patrice Chéreau on an operatic project scarcely less groundbreaking than the Ring: the first performances of the three-act version of Alban Berg's Lulu at the Paris Opera in the completion by Friedrich Cerha. 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.
During this period retrospectives of his music were mounted in Paris (Festival d'Automne, 1981), Baden-Baden (1985) and London (BBC, 1989) and he was composer in residence at the 1992 Salzburg Festival. From 1976 to 1995, he held the Chair in Invention, technique et langage en musique at the Collège de France.
1992–2006: Return to conducting
In 1992 Boulez gave up the directorship of IRCAM to concentrate on composing and conducting. He was succeeded by Laurent Bayle.
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 and New York, which culminated in a residency in Tokyo, where he was joined by the Ensemble Intercontemporain and the CSO. In 2001 Boulez conducted a major Bartók cycle with the Orchestre de Paris.
This period also marked a return to the opera house. He worked with Peter Stein on two productions: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1992, Welsh National Opera and Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris); and Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1995, Netherlands Opera and Salzburg Festival). At the Aix-en-Provence Festival he conducted Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle (1998, directed by Pina Bausch) and a triple bill of music-theatre pieces: Falla's El retablo de maese Pedro, Stravinsky's Renard and Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire with Anja Silja (2003, directed by Klaus Michael Gruber). In 2000 he conducted Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps and Symphony of Psalms for the Zingaro equestrian theatre in an exhibition centre near Charles de Gaulle Airport. In 2004 and 2005 he returned to Bayreuth to conduct a controversial new production of Parsifal directed by Christoph Schlingensief.
Boulez wrote two further pieces using IRCAM's resources: ...explosante-fixe... (1993), which had its origins in 1972 as a tribute to Stravinsky; and Anthèmes II (1997) for solo violin and electronics. In 1998 he completed sur Incises, for which he was awarded the 2001 Grawemeyer Prize for composition, and he contributed a short piece for six instruments (Petite dérive—en écho) to a 90th birthday tribute to Elliott Carter in the British journal Tempo. In 1999 the orchestral version of Notation VII was given its first performance in Chicago.
He continued to involve himself closely in 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
Boulez's last major work was Dérive 2 (2006), a 45-minute piece for eleven instruments. He left a number of major compositional projects unfinished, including the remaining Notations for orchestra.
He remained active as a conductor over the next six years. In 2007 he was re-united with Chéreau for a production of Leoš 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 (Boulez conducted numbers 2, 3, 4, 6 and 8), repeating it over twelve days at Carnegie Hall in 2009. In late 2007 the Orchestre de Paris and the Ensemble Intercontemporain presented a retrospective of Boulez's music.
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 May 2013, to mark the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Le Sacre du printemps, he gave a public interview with Robert Piencikowski at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris about his encounters with Stravinsky. The same year he oversaw the release on Deutsche Grammophon of Pierre Boulez: Complete Works, a 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.
He 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, 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.
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 them 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 (Prelude, Toccata and Scherzo and Nocturne for solo piano (1944–45)) and then by Messiaen and André Jolivet (Trois psalmodies for piano (1945) and a Quartet for four ondes martenot (1945–46)). It is in the Onze notations pour orchestre that Bennett first detects the influence of Webern: "virtually diatonic passages alternate with others in a style more nearly resembling Webern's own jagged chromaticism."
Boulez and the work in progress
The Onze notations were an early attempt to orchestrate eleven of the Douze notations pour piano (1946). In the mid-1970s Boulez embarked on a second, more radical transformation of these short piano pieces into extended works for large orchestra, a project which pre-occupied 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." 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. Reflecting on the relatively small number of works Boulez completed, the composer George Benjamin wrote: "The world today doesn't need huge numbers of pieces, as it did in, say, Haydn's time. What are needed, surely, are essential statements, singular and unique works. And these he has provided, without question."
First published works
Before the rehabilitation of the Notations, the Sonatine pour flûte et piano (1946–49) 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. Gärtner writes that Boulez revised the work for publication in 1949, re-composing about a third of it and eliminating traces of the influence of Messiaen and Jolivet in favour of a more rigorously dodecaphonic style. 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) 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 then followed two cantatas based on the poetry of René Char. Of Le Visage nuptial 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". He explored modes of articulation between song and speech, as well as quarter-tones. 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 (1985–89). Le Soleil des eaux (1948) originated in incidental music for a radio drama by Char. It went though 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, in an atmosphere which Jameux characterises as "fluid and nonchalant". By contrast the second movement (La Sorgue) is described by Griffiths as a violent and incantatory protest against the pollution of the river Sorgue, "with shouting chorus and a bounding quaver rhythm".
The Second Piano Sonata (1947–48) is a half-hour work of extreme virtuosity. 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.” He characterised this as a deliberate attack on Schoenberg’s attempts in his later music to revive older forms. 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.” When Boulez played the work for Copland, the older composer asked "But must we start a revolution all over again?"—"Mais oui," Boulez replied, "sans pitié".
That revolution entered its most extreme phase in 1950–52, 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. Messaien had already made an experiment in this direction in his Mode de valeurs et d’intensité for piano (1949). Boulez's first sketches towards total serialism appeared in parts of Livre pour quatuor (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 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.
Boulez's 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). György Ligeti published a detailed analysis of the first chapter of this last piece in 1958, concluding that its "ascetic attitude [was] akin to compulsion neurosis", and that Boulez "had to break away from it ... and so he created the sensual, feline world of the Marteau." 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
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. His first venture into this new kind of serialism was a work for twelve solo voices titled Oubli signal lapidé (1952), but it was withdrawn after a single performance. Its material was reused in the 1970 composition Cummings ist der Dichter.
Boulez's strongest achievement in this method is Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master, 1953–55), a "keystone of 20th-century music". Three short poems by René Char form the starting-point for three interlocking cycles. Four movements are vocal settings of the poems (Bel Édifice et les pressentiments 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.
Pli selon pli
For the text of his next major work, Pli selon pli (1957–89), Boulez turned to the symbolist poetry of Stephane 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. For Griffiths these outer movements, Don and Tombeau, "represent ... the birth and death of the poet, but they stand too for the birth and death of the work of art". Boulez’s word-setting, which in the first Improvisation is straightforwardly syllabic, becomes ever more melismatic, to the point where direct comprehension is impossible. 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'". His use of chance is very different from that in the works of, for example, 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 (1955–57/63) 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 (1961–68) 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 (1970/86)—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.
In parallel with this there were a number of fixed works with no chance element. Robert Piencikowski describes Figures—Doubles—Prismes (1957–68) 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. Boulez later acknowledged that "this arrangement is bound up with the idea of stereophony, which was new at the time: the sound is distributed on the platform in a way which is potentially mobile."
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. He sees this shift reflected in Boulez's writings from the period in which he senses a great concern for the audience, for the way his works are to be perceived, not only the way they are conceived and constructed. 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 of cancer in 1973 at the age of 53. The piece is divided into fifteen sections, the orchestra into eight groups. Whilst 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 sort of verse and response for an imaginary ceremony … ceremony of memory … ceremony of extinction, ritual of disappearance and survival." Griffiths refers to the work’s "awesome grandeur."
Messagesquisse (1976) is a short, ebullient work for solo cello and six other cellos, based on a formula derived from the name of Paul Sacher, its dedicatee.
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." 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.
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 composed two short pieces on tape (the Deux Etudes of 1951, withdrawn) and a large-scale piece for live orchestra with tape, Poésie pour pouvoir (1958), but he disliked the fact that the orchestra was straitjacketed by the need to follow the tape and never returned to the piece.
Between 1972 and 1974 he worked on …explosante-fixe…, an extended chamber piece for eight solo instruments, electronically transformed by a machine called a halophone, which effected a degree of continuity between different instrumental timbres and made the sounds travel around the concert hall. He performed the piece in various versions in New York and around Europe in 1973/74 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.
The first piece completed at IRCAM was Répons (1980–84). 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 for clarinet and electronics (1982–85) 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 acknowledged that the work had a theatrical aspect, indeed its title refers to a scene in Paul Claudel's play Le Soulier de satin. For Paul Griffiths the piece evokes another dramatist: the obsessive and enclosed world of Samuel Beckett. Boulez approved transcriptions of the piece for bassoon (in 1995) and for recorder (in 2011).
The piece now known as …explosante-fixe…, and recorded commercially, was composed for MIDI-flute and two accompanying flutes with ensemble and live electronics at IRCAM between 1991 and 1993. 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." 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." 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. The piece falls into six sections, the last of which is longer than the preceding five combined.
In three further late works Boulez relinquished electronics, although Paul Griffiths suggests that in sur Incises (1996–98) 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. Boulez acknowledged the influence of both Stravinsky’s Les noces and Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, describing it as a concertante work, in which virtuosity plays an important role. 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.”
Derive 2 began life in 1988 as a five-minute work dedicated to Elliott Carter on his 80th birthday; by 2006 it was a 45-minute work for eleven instruments and Boulez's last major work. 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 appears to have put to one side despite their potential for further development. As for the latter category, the archives contain two unpublished movements of the Third Piano Sonata and further sections of Éclat/Multiples ("it is almost finished ... I have practically twice the length of the work as I play it now"). At one stage he planned to add a second part, of equal length, to Répons, creating a work which would occupy a full evening.
As for works Boulez was known to be working on in his later years, the premieres of two further orchestral Notations (V and VI) were announced by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for May 2006 but later postponed. In an interview in 2010 Boulez said that he had finished Notation V in short score and was now working on Notation VIII (albeit he had said exactly the same in an interview ten years earlier). 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.” Boulez's hostility was not only directed against the establishment. When, in 1951, Henri Dutilleux, who was only a few years older than Boulez, presented his First Symphony, Boulez greeted him by turning his back. As Dutilleux said many years later: "the problem was he had a lot more power than me. Indeed, he has often seemed to enjoy expressing his contempt for other musicians who do not share his musical views." 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 the great French conductor Roger Désormière was paralysed by a stroke in 1952 Boulez sent scripts to French Radio in Désormière's name so that his mentor 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." His close friends included Daniel Barenboim and Patrice Chéreau.
Boulez read widely and identified Proust, Joyce, Kafka and Musil as particular influences, as well as Paul Claudel, whom he knew from his days with the Barrault-Renaud company. 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 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 also 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" and that apart from his older sister, Jeanne, "few others were able to break through his reserve." Boulez acknowledged to the biographer 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. Aside from this his personal life remained almost entirely invisible. Music critic Norman Lebrecht, who knew Boulez personally, speculated that he was gay, citing the fact that for many years he shared his home in Baden-Baden with Hans Messmer, 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 Roger Désormière's and Hans Rosbaud's rehearsals. He also cited George Szell as an influential mentor. It was Szell who persuaded Boulez to accept the appointment with the New York Philharmonic.
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 around 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." For the critic Hans Keller he was "incapable of phrasing. It's as simple as that ... That's why he conducts Bach, Beethoven or Webern in exactly the same way." His biographer 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."
His repertoire expanded and contracted in the different phases of his career: in the 1950s it centred on the music of his contemporaries and their modernists predecessors; in the 1960s and 1970s it broadened to include music from the classical and romantic periods, as well as baroque and early music; from the 1980s onwards Boulez reverted to the music of the twentieth-century and gave authoritative performances of contemporary music, including composers of the next generation, such as George Benjamin, Matthias Pintscher and Olga Neuwirth. Of earlier repertoire only Mozart, Berlioz and Wagner remained a consistent presence. 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, indicating time with the forefinger and thumb of his right hand and—in legato music—making sweeping, karate-like gestures with the fingers of that hand pressed together. Meanwhile, the left hand, which rarely imitated the right, was used more sparingly to indicate dynamics. As Heyworth observed: "there is no trace of theatre—not even the rather theatrical sort of economy that was practised by Richard Strauss". 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 distinguished composer-conductor, observed that: "his rehearsals are models of clear-headedness and professional courtesy—he effortlessly commands respect."
When asked about the audience, Boulez said: "For modern music, I prefer an audience that has vertical interests—that is, people who are interested in modern movies, modern art, modern literature [rather than] those who are interested in Beethoven as they would be in a cup of tea".
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. Things might have been different had his attempts to find a long-term collaborator, and to reform operatic institutions, not been consistently frustrated.
Of his early 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, but 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, not long after the Spiegel interview 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—to close the Opéra-Comique, merge its orchestra with that of the Palais Garnier, end permanent singer contracts and focus on a smaller repertoire—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 the incoming Culture Minister Jack Lang appointed Pierre Bergé (president of Yves Saint Laurent) as Director. Bergé dismissed Barenboim and Boulez withdrew in solidarity, taking his planned productions with him.
In the event Boulez conducted only specific projects—often in landmark 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, helping to usher in the era of Regietheater. He 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 19th and 20th 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 noisy hostility by the 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 by the end of the final cycle in 1980 they received a 45-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 WNO 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 parts of a draft libretto were found among Genet’s papers after his death in 1986. He later turned to the German playwright Heiner Müller, who was working on a reduction of Aeschylus's The Oresteia for Boulez 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 two of his five recordings of Le Marteau sans maître (with contraltos Marie-Thérèse Cahn in 1956 and Jeanne Deroubaix in 1964). 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 Le Sacre du printemps 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, Moses und Aron, Erwartung and Pierrot lunaire, but also less well-known works such as Die Jakobsleiter and the unaccompanied choral music. As for Boulez's own music, there were two further recordings of Le Marteau sans maître (with Yvonne Minton in 1972 and Elisabeth Laurence in 1985), 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.). There was a Stravinsky cycle—including his only recording of the complete The Soldier's Tale—as well as a survey of some of his own music, including a second recording of Pli selon pli (with Phyllis Bryn-Julson as soloist) and recordings of Le Visage nuptial, Le Soleil des eaux and Figures—Doubles—Prismes. In 2015 Erato issued Pierre Boulez—The Complete Erato Recordings on 14 CDs.
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 a fifth recording of Le Marteau sans maître (with Hilary Summers in 2002) and a third 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. It began with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a 1994 studio recording of the Sixth Symphony and ended with the same orchestra in a live recording from the 2011 Salzburg Festival of Das klagende Lied (this time omitting Waldmärchen). Coupled with Berg's Lulu-Suite, it was his final recording.
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 WNO 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, focussing 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. Between 1957 and 1959 he gave several performances of his own Third Piano Sonata. In 2016 a performance he gave in Darmstadt on 30 August 1959 was issued commercially. 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. He also played music for two pianos with Yvonne Loriod. Their recital at the 1965 Edinburgh International Festival was characteristic, consisting of Boulez's Structures and Debussy’s En blanc et noir, alongside works for flute played by Severino Gazzelloni. 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 the 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 Boulez avoided publishing detailed analyses, other than one of Le sacre du printemps. 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."
A third edition of the French texts, with previously uncollected material, appeared under the title Points de repère I, II, and III. The third volume brought together the Collège de France lectures, which will be published in English for the first time in 2018 by Faber under the title Pierre Boulez, Music Lessons: The Complete Collège de France lectures. His other writings have appeared in English as Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, Boulez on Music Today and Orientations: Collected Writings.
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 1954–70).
Boulez taught at Darmstadt 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. According to 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". For Oliver Knussen he was "a man who fashions his scores with the fanatical idealism of a medieval monk minutely illuminating volumes." By contrast, John Adams described him as "a mannerist, a niche composer, a master who worked with a very small hammer." Alexander Goehr thought that "[Boulez's] failures will be better than most people's successes."
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, was opened in Berlin under the auspices of the Barenboim-Said Akademie. It is a flexible space, designed by the architect Frank Gehry, which 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.
Decorations and awards
- 26 Grammy Awards
- Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France)
- Member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts
- Merit Cross 1st Class of the Federal Republic of Germany
- Pour le Mérite (Germany)
- Sanford Medal (Yale University)
- 1963: Member of the Academy of Arts Berlin
- 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