Back

What was it about Messiaen that made Boulez ‘want to vomit’?

October 2, 2015 by norman lebrecht

25 comments.


Michael Johnson has sent us an iconoclastic piece he has written for Open Letters Monthly, deconstructing the complex relationship between former teacher and pupil, as reflected in their different styles.

At what point did Pierre Boulez say his teacher’s music made him want to vomit? The teacher, of course, was the great French composer Olivier Messiaen, and Boulez was his ex-student. Scholars have been trying to track down that unkind cut for decades but details remain clouded. Boulez has denied that he ever used the word.

Read on here.

Messiaen-+-Boulez

And here’s Messiaen’s take on the subject.

 


Comments (25)

  1. Eddie Mars says:

    What was it about Messiaen that made Boulez want to vomit?

    Envy. Forgotten as a composer within his own lifetime, it must have come hard to little Pierre that his career has ground to a halt as a second-rate conductor of the music of others. Meanwhile Messiaen’s reputation continues to grow.

    Remember the time you left a Boulez concert with the melodies coarsing through your mind? No, nor does anyone else either.

    What most people remember about this vengeful little man was how he abused his position to skewer the careers of others. He’ll go down in history as France’s Khrennikov – rather than for his outout.

    1. Ellingtonia says:

      Summed up beautifully if I may say so.

    2. Christopher Culver says:

      “Remember the time you left a Boulez concert with the melodies coarsing through your mind?”

      Sure, that happens several times a year, because I’m a great fan of Boulez’s music and if I’m in a city where his music is present in a concert or recital, I’ll go hear it. Boulez might not be to your taste, and he’s certainly a niche within the niche of classical music, but he does have his own following who are caught up in the sounds he creates.

      When people act like Boulez has no fans, I can only imagine they lead a very sheltered life and have no idea of the vast range of music consumed by today. When e.g. Japanese noise musicians like Merzbow, who go much farther out into rejection of tonality than Boulez ever did, can put on concerts or sell some CDs, then it should be obvious that there’s a following for whatever genre one cares to name, regardless of how much one might personally dislike it.

    3. Bo says:

      “Remember the time you left a Boulez concert with the melodies coarsing through your mind? No, nor does anyone else either” –
      I can’t really say that it’s any different with Messiaen…

    4. Zack says:

      “What was it about Messiaen that made Boulez want to vomit?
      Envy. Forgotten as a composer within his own lifetime, it must have come hard to little Pierre that his career has ground to a halt as a second-rate conductor of the music of others. Meanwhile Messiaen’s reputation continues to grow.
      Remember the time you left a Boulez concert with the melodies coarsing through your mind? No, nor does anyone else either.
      What most people remember about this vengeful little man was how he abused his position to skewer the careers of others. He’ll go down in history as France’s Khrennikov – rather than for his outout.”

      The above monologue is what came out of Eddie Mars’s ass in the result of an experiment in which he consumed a book of music history and crapped it out!

      Dear Eddie,
      We applaud your time, effort, constipation, and shameless stupidity!!!

  2. Joe says:

    Well, my only recollection of the interactions between the two is Simon Rattle’s reference to Boulez calling Messiaen’s work, “Brothel Music”.

    It is a weird thing to look at, historically. Boulez, today, is remembered for his compositions and his conducting, but separately. His ‘politics’ in music are largely forgotten, a relic of the recent past as much as what Wikipedia calls the “War of the Romantics” is a relic of that era. I’m not so sure the tough talk of the academic critics of that era is so important today other than as a historical relic to explain it.

    In the end the latter 20th century is always going to be judged by the same criteria as the first half: the contrast between the academic desire to move beyond pure tonality vs the audiences desires to maintain a connection to what they know.

    So the problem is what it always was: is atonality/serialism an end (Boulez), or a means to an end, or just a tool in the toolkit of composers.

    I favor the third, as, is my impression of many of the later composers I most admire (Takemitsu, Rautavaara, etc). Even Schoenberg would eventually concede that, when he wrote about these “differences” while composing the very tonal works of the late 1940s.

    So in the end, I reject Boulez’s absolutism in musical philosophy, even as I love the music that he, personally produced during that time of romantic rejection of the late 40s early 50s. I would accept that, in that world, in that time, it was necessary to declare, “I am not Strauss”. But beyond that particular political statement, the absolutism of the era was not necessary and was detrimental to the development of music in Europe at the time.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Entirely reasonable and wise words.

      However, there is one reason why these politics are still relevant, a reason generally unknown to the general public, and that is that these politics have been structurally established in musical and intellectual institutions as convention and conformism – i.e. have acquired the nature of the worst kind of conservatism, an attempt to ‘freeze’ a situation which has since completely disappeared. One has only to have a look into the ‘affaire Ducros’ to be convinced of this sorry state of affairs, or to read the pretentious books produced by the British musicologist Arnold Whittall who wants to make sure that aggressive postwar modernism gets the veneer of respectability, as if it were only a natural development within a musical tradition (which it obviousy was not, considering the ideologies, propaganda and justifications).

      http://www.lexpress.fr/culture/musique/polemique-ducros-la-musique-contemporaine-accords-et-a-cris_1503346.html

      http://bibliobs.nouvelobs.com/actualites/20130606.OBS2222/musique-c-est-la-guerre-au-college-de-france.html

      http://www.lefigaro.fr/musique/2013/06/04/03006-20130604ARTFIG00232-aimez-vous-la-musique-contemporaine.php

      http://www.huffingtonpost.fr/olivier-bellamy/pascal-dusapin-musique_b_3324837.html

  3. John Borstlap says:

    But, given the many moments in Messiaen’s work which demonstrate bad, purple and pinky-feathered taste, it is obvious that M’s music forced PB to regularly think back to his own early escapades, embarrassing memories which he wanted to exorcise with the strongest possible mental solvent. From an interview with the conductor Diego Masson, friend of PB, in the Haretz magazine, we learn the following:

    “Pierre Boulez, for example – do you know how he earned a living in his youth? He played at the Folies Bergere club and, together with his giant white piano, he would break through the stage straight into the crowd of nude women prancing around him, playing the ‘Warsaw Concerto,’ engulfed in kitsch and lit by a pinkish light – and that was while he was writing his second sonata.”

    Interesting that PB stated that Messiaen had liberated french music from its tradition (Couperin, Rameau, Berlioz, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel… etc. etc. which is ony the top of the iceberg…. with Dutilleux’ left leg in modernism and his right one in tradition). And also interesting that younger generations, not happy having seen their musical tradition threatened by the Pou Belle of modernism, try to recapture it: Karol Beffa, Nicolas Bacri, Richard Dubugnon, and others we still don’t know.

  4. Herbert Pauls says:

    Messiaen was, as he himself put it, not ashamed to be a Romantic, and thought that some of his contemporaries would do well to allow more of that aspect into their musical makeup.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      Entirely true…. It is not necessary to defend Messiaen’s stature, he was a great and very original composer, one does not need to like his music to aknowledge that. The reason that his work grows in reputation while PB’s work increasingly nestles in the margin where it belongs (nothing wrong with that), is that Messiaen always considered his music as a means of expression, he always wanted to ‘say’ something with it.

      I have great antipathy against much of his music, like the tasteless Turangulila and the pompous & pretentious Canyon aux Etoiles, and many of his atonal experiments, and I can only find his ornithological obsession a silly quirk – a desperate attempt to find common ground between God & Nature (incl. tonal music) on one side, and contemporary mores (sound art) on the other. But the gift of his early organ works, and Petites Liturgies, and other things – like the entirely unexpected and inspired ‘Visions de l’Eglise Eternelle’ for organ, a work by a genius – amply comensate for it. He had to live in an awful time, was war prisoner, and had to watch the destruction of musical tradition after WW II, and he courageously tried to make the best of it. In which he succeeded wonderfully well.

  5. jaypee says:

    Why this hatred towards Boulez? I’d expect that from “Mr. Poor Sap” (since he likes childish nicknames, let’s give him one), but the others?
    Has he come in your home and replaced your André Rieu, Andrea Bocelli and Vanessa Mae recordings with “Pli selon pli” and “Explosante fixe”?

    1. Anne says:

      André Rieu, Andrea Bocelli and Vanessa Mae being the only alternatives to PB?

      Straw man argument.

      1. jaypee says:

        Of course not. I was exagerating for effect. Or, I should say that I was answering to the people who call Boulez a “second-rate conductor”, a “vengeful little man” or, the summum of maturity, “Pou Belle”.
        I guess you find such comments acceptable, right?

        You see, there several composers I don’t like. Do you see me attacking them and giving them silly nicknames everytime their names appear on this blog?

        1. John Borstlap says:

          …. Just by way of recapitulation…. PB was much more than a contemporary composer & conductor. He sent into the musical world thoroughly primitive and aggressive ideas, cloaked in quasi-academic jargon, with the explicit intention to break down existing musical traditions. There is nothing wrong in criticizing traditions, because much of it is based upon thoughtless routine, but offering sound art not as an alternative to or extension of tradition, but as a ‘necessary replacement’ of it, and in the same time claiming the status and privileges normally related to exemplary repertoire, was giving teeth to the philistines: among other things, his ideas fed the populist attacks upon classical music in general, and gave credibility to attempts to attack composers like Dutilleux as ‘irrelevant’. If PB had been as modest and genuine as Dutilleux, they would have existed next to each other as different types of art. People like PB don’t believe in pluralism, but in Napoleon.

          In the recent ‘affaire Ducros’, it was PB who advised the conventional, half-modernist composer Pascal Dusapin to publish his angry letter to the College de France, attacking the pianist Jerome Ducros for daring to undermine the credibility of modernism in a public lecture, an attack entirely in line with quasi-Soviettic party-line politics which always have been at the heart of modernism. Only ONE of the numerous examples of the negative nature of modernism, of which PB was one of the postwar founding fathers.

          So, critique of PB should not be read as ‘hatred’, but as an entirely justified correction of pretentious claims which have done immense damage to music life.

        2. Eddie Mars says:

          More empty straw-man arguments from someone clearly well-versed in the entire Andre Rieu repertoire.

          Have you heard Boulez conducting Janacek? Apparently his DG recordings have bombed desperately.

          Where did I write “Pou Belle”? More pathetic lies from you. You discredit your own arguments without me having to do a thing.

          1. jaypee says:

            You didn’t write “Pou Belle”, someone else did. I was commenting on your comment and someone else’s. Read what I write instead of calling me a liar,

            As for Boulez “bombing in Janacek”, maybe… but I attended “From the House of the Dead” in Vienna and he sure didn’t bomb then… What about his Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok? Did he also bomb with them? Why don’t you mention those recordings? Oh, that’s right: because they don’t fit in your anti-Boulez diatribe.

          2. Michael Endres says:

            “Have you heard Boulez conducting Janacek? Apparently his DG recordings have bombed desperately.”

            Boulez’s version of ‘From the House of the Dead’ with Patrice Chéreau is a superb production, praised by many. I saw the DVD a few days ago and can recommend it most highly.

        3. Eddie Mars says:

          Boulez’s travesty recording of Janacek’s FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD is weakly conducted on auto-pilot throughout.

          Boulez made the arrogant I-know-better-than-the-composer to recast the role of Aleja as a tenor. The composer specifically wrote for a mezzo, an octave higher. Of course Boulez’s weak intellect failed to understand why the composer did so…but with his characteristic brutish ignorance did what HE wanted…instead of what the composer wrote.

          The putrid, static, stagnant trash offered up by the ‘production’ makes the infantile error of conflating a Tsarist prison-camp for vicious and remorseless killers with a soviet-era camp for political prisoners. In other words, equating Solzhenitsyn and Varlaamov with serial killers and rapists, and saying they deserved their treatment. More witless than that it doesn’t come. But what did we expect from Boulez??

          Serious lovers of Janacek’s work are directed to either of Charles Mckerras’s recordings – deeply-felt performances conducted with professionalism.

          1. George says:

            But the central character of Janacek’s opera, Alexandr Petrovitch Goryantchikov, IS a political prisoner.

  6. herrera says:

    Messiaen’s Catholic ecstatic messianic music is so over the top even Jesus would not forgive him for it.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      It seems to me that Jesus would have serious problems with its loudness and added sixths on the triads.

      1. RW2013 says:

        The added sixth chord IS Jesus.

      2. Robert Hairgrove says:

        Not to mention all of those tritones (diabolus in musica…)

        1. John Borstlap says:

          … and the number of the devil was, as I remember well from my time in hell; the 6, three times even.

  7. harold braun says:

    Whatever it was,I don’t care….


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *