End of a world as Pierre Boulez departs

End of a world as Pierre Boulez departs


norman lebrecht

January 06, 2016

In 1945 he declared ‘Stravinsky is dead’. Six years later he pronounced ‘Schoenberg is dead’.

Pierre Boulez, who died yesterday, was a post-war musical revolutionary, determined to slam the door on the past. And that included the radical and modernist composers who were his greatest influences.

He told me in the late 1980s: ‘The history of music proceeds from Bach, through Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, and then via Schoenberg and Webern to Stockhausen and me. All else is irrelevant.’ His certainty was unshakeable, his arrogance almost humble.

He dismissed Mozart as ‘trivial’, Shostakovich as ‘reactionary’.

When he finally became chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1971-75) and the New York Philharmonic (1971-77) it was, he told me, an act of political entryism: ‘You cannot always stand outside, barking like a dog.’

His revolutionary zeal, however, was tempered with immense personal charm, great humour and an insatiable love of musical gossip. Rehearsal breaks with orchestras would turn into veritable gab-fests. Even the composers whose career he blighted – men like Dutilleux and Ohana – were susceptible to his warmth and grace.

Pierre Boulez was born on March 26, 1925 at Montbrison in the Loire and returned there often for refreshment. He moved to Baden-Baden in the 1960s with a lifelong partner, whom he sometimes referred to as his valet, and it was there that he died. In the 1950s, he led the revolution with Stockhausen from a summer base in Darmstadt.

A serial composer, he became aware of the possibilities of electronic and digital manipulation in the 1970s and founded a Paris research institute for composers, IRCAM. But he came too late to the party to benefit from advanced technology. The last third of his life was – like that of Sibelius (whom he abhorred) – creatively barren.

The major works by which he will be remembered are mostly orchestral: Le Marteau sans maitre, Pli selon Pli, Rituel (pour Maderna) and Répons. Many of his works exists in several, obsessively revised versions.

He had long relationships with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Lucerne Festival and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Pierre was the Prince of Modernism, the last of his kind. A world dies with him.

He was, among other things, such fun.



  • Hilary says:

    Boulez seems to have had a soft spot for Haydn. I really like this:https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=FBtkFTRYWL4

    • Pedro says:

      Excellent indeed! I heard them live in Paris in that work, in a concert that also included Mahler 5. His Grand Partita with the EIC was qlso outstanding. The same of Mozart’s D minor piano concerto with Pires and the BPO, which is available on youtube.

  • Max S. says:

    It’s a sad chapter of the defeat of human aspiration by the “flesh”.
    They were all corrupted by the conveniences of the material world. They all became clowns in a way, dancing in the circus of the “establishment”, their words, their ink, not lived, only exclaimed.

    • Max S. says:

      “they” aka “the modernists”, who believed something was inferior, only because it was old.

      I will always remember his wonderful Centennial Ring in Bayreuth 1976-80, most transparent, not “kitschy” Wagner, with a congenial Patrice Chéreau for the mise-en-scène.

      R.I.P. and may you be remembered long.

      • Hilary says:

        But there’s no indication that key modernist composers disparaged older music.
        Boulez was primarily drawn to composers who he felt were progressive
        eg. Wagner as opposed to Brahms.

        • Max S. says:

          Modernism as I see it, was more a political and pseudo-philosophical movement. In art and music it was as such possibly the first ideologically conceived concept, that did not evolve out of the art itself and was in effect using art for making political statements, as a means of political expression. It was a time time that was highly politicised and for good reason.

          I hope you differentiate between “modern” and “modernist”?

          • Hilary says:

            I don’t quite follow your argument to be honest, but that may be my brain not in shape!
            Like many people I’m mainly drawn to music on a visceral level and some modernist pieces tick the boxes very well in this respect. That much I know in respect of my own tastes. I can’t speak for others though.

  • Dennis says:

    Mozart trivial? One hardly knows where to begin with such an inane opinion. How could such a brilliant musical mind hold such a blinkered opinion of one of the greatest – if not the greatest – musical geniuses the world has even known?

    In any case, it’s a safe bet Mozart’s music will long outlast Boulez’s own. And in the end, I think Boulez conducting legacy – particularly his Wagner and Mahler – will itself outlast his own music, which is virtually unlistenable.

    • jaypee says:

      While some of Boulez early works are indeed difficult, I find ‘Répons’, ‘Sur incises’ and ‘Rituels’ quite enjoyable.

    • Peter says:

      There have been schools of thought in modernism (emerging about the beginning of the 20th century) that were – consciously or subconsciously – disconnecting the strong vertical connections of the levels of our nervous system who process music – from the basic visceral levels to the higher cerebral levels – and detaching music from its “primitive” and ancient roots deep in the subconscious.
      Basically they were trying to have sex without sexual organs.
      Twelve tone music for instance is such a brain child that has no testicles to be fertile.

      In the context of its time it can all be explained. The industrial revolution brought with it the idea, that man can detach himself from his natural roots and be elevated from nature. That’s the very short version.

  • Paul Kelly says:

    What a brave and lovely judgement on Mozart. I would have said ‘facile’ rather than ‘trivial’. But yes, Haydn to Beethoven and onwards is the route. Mozart is a very popular and scenic branch line rather than a through route.

    • Peter says:

      That’s a strange way of “thinking”. To define a box of “right” and then put music into it in historic context.
      I don’t think music is so easily and linearly described.

      We haven’t even fully understood all the meanings and effects of music in our lives and on us. We do know that the ear is – unlike the eye – directly connected to not only the cortex, the “conscious” brain, but also to the lower and historically older levels, sometimes called the “reptile brain”. Mozart’s strong effect on those primal levels of our brain is well documented, but not yet fully understood.

      Music is much more than what you think it is.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There is no ‘historic line’. All music has been written by individuals, reacting to other individuals’ work, randomly, being them in earlier periods or contemporaries. Such ‘historic routes’ are mere projections into the past and with modernism, a political tool to defend an indifensible position. The most you can say about music history is that there has been a ‘river’, which is a musical tradition, which has spread itself during the 19th and 20th century into a wide ‘delta’.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Well I saw something that shocked me: the crawler on the TV screen for Fox News actually mentioned he had died. Mentioned he would be remembered as a brilliant exponent of Mahler and Beethoven(!!!!). His music will be ultimately forgotten. His pronouncements on Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius will be seen as the rantings of a very jealous man who could only dream of achieving their level of popularity.

    • Not a Cubs Fan says:

      Please tell us more about the future…

    • John Borstlap says:

      On one side, we have the central performance culture wich has always gone its own way – mostly ignoring PB – and on the other the specialized little world of ‘contemporary music’ with its specialized centres, festivals, etc. and all on the margins of music life. It is not music life that failed to understand modernism, but modernism failing to understand music life.

      • Peter says:

        True, which points out the main problem with modernism in my understanding: the ideological precondition, that music is supposed to only be perceived and processed as quasi-thought by the cerebral brain. Modernist music doesn’t speak to the heart.
        There is lots of modern music, who *does* also speak to the heart, but modern is not modernist.

        A brain child like twelve tone music failed to affect people, so did much of PB’s oeuvre. It was worth a try, but now we know, that some universal foundations of musical perception, like harmonic relations and tensions and their emotional impacts, are much more fundamentally rooted in us than we thought at the beginning of the industrial age all the way to landing on the moon.

        Possibly also a lot of this lack of compassion about PB’s passing we can read here is related to the lack of “love” in his music, the disconnect of it on that subconscious level of musical perception. And who doesn’t give love doesn’t receive love, we all know that.

  • Ivor Morgan says:

    To read Jaypee’s comment makes me feel sad at what he is missing. We have to learn the composer’s musical language and the secret of Boulez’ early works are the numbers 4 and 3. The flute Sonatine, the marvellous Piano Sonata no2, and the “difficult” Structures 11, for example, are either based entirely on a four-note rhythmic cell or act as markers for each change of idea and development in the music. Three notes form the basic cell of Le Marteau sans Maitre. What Boulez does with these music motifs is a source of wonder. Shakespeare wrote ’tis wondrous how cats’ guts hail the souls from men’s bodies’. The greatest Boulez does precisely that.

    • John Borstlap says:

      All this merely happens on the surface of the works. It is sophisticated sound art, or ‘structuralism’ if you wish. The entire dimension of psychology and expression is not there, the dimension which creates an inner space in music and which is only possible by using tonal relationships. The idea at the time (postwar W-Europe) was to begin from scratch and arrive at a pure art, without the irritating appendixes of ‘expression’. People like PB clearly formulated this ideal many times at many occasions, read ‘Orientations’ (Harvard University Press 1986). People with underdeveloped or absent emotional musicality loved this stuff, because their inadequacies could be sported as assets. All the efforts went into rational structuring, which means: a materialistic approach, not a musical approach. Voilà PB.

  • George says:

    I am not convinced that this was his opinion on Mozart. It is probably only one facet of a much more complex view of Mozart. Maybe he was referring to mozart’s themes which can be trivial but are developed in a much more complex manner. In that sense Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, and Mahler can be just as “trivial”.

    I know that Boulez conducted a lot of Haydn because of he is much neglected compared to Mozart. But, Boulez’s extraordinary “Gran partita” and piano concerto performances do not indicate a conductor who thinks the music is trivial. He even said in an interview that he admired the contrasts of mood and the wind sonority in the “Gran partita”. He also had the desire to do Don Giovanni with Wolfgang Wagner. In the famous “blow up the opera houses!” interview, he cited Mozart as one of the few opera composers he was interested in.

    He cites Mozart in some articles he wrote in 1961 for a musical encyclopedia. In one on counterpoint, he calls the Jupiter symphony “one of the most striking models of virtuosity in the handling of strict contrapuntal forms.” In another on chromaticism, he says, “Some of Mozart’s mature works include very daring chromatic modulations.”

    Didn’t he even conduct a concert performance of “Die Zauberflote” at the proms? If Lebrecht says he called Mozart “trivial”, I can’t dispute him, but in was boulez necessary being negative and condescending toward Mozart? I don’t think so.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      He never conducted Mozart at the Proms and his disparagement of Mozart was a regular mantra of his, possibly pour épater la bourgeoisie.

      • George says:

        Ok, Boulez never conducted Die Zauberflote (my memory was wrong), although he did conducted som Mozart concertos at the proms and plenty of other Mozart works. He did occasionally conduct composer to whom he was apathetic. I was very surprised to see Saint-Saens, Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Chabrier among his programs with the NY Phil. However, the things I wrote about his Mozart comments in the articles and interviews, as well as the remarkable Gran Partita with the EIC seem to contradict a dislike for Mozart. Perhaps he was only trying to be controversial for its own sake.

        I am wondering, Mr. Lebrecht, because you were close with him, if you happen to know what he was doing in his final days, 2014-2016? He seems to have disappeared from publicity. Was he still composing? Was he still mobile and “in his right mind”? What did he die from?

        • norman lebrecht says:

          Your memory is still wrong. So far as I know, he conducted a Mozart serenade on a recording. I have no recollection of any other Mozart performance by Boulez. And there is no reason to intrude on his privacy in his last two years.

          • George says:

            Boulez conducted these works by Mozart with the NY Phil (source: NY Phil digital archives), in all, 33 performances of Mozart:
            CONCERTO, CLARINET, A MAJOR, K.622 (1)
            CONCERTO, FLUTE AND HARP IN C, K.297C (OLD K.299) (1)
            CONCERTO, FLUTE NO. 1, G MAJOR, K.285C (OLD K.313) (1)
            CONCERTO, HORN NO. 2, E-FLAT MAJOR, K.417 (2)
            CONCERTO, PIANO NO. 09, E-FLAT MAJOR, K.271 (JEUNEHOMME) (2)
            CONCERTO, PIANO NO. 10, E-FLAT MAJOR, K.316A (OLD K.365) (2 PIANOS) (1)
            CONCERTO, PIANO NO. 15, B-FLAT MAJOR, K.450 (1)
            CONCERTO, PIANO NO. 19, F MAJOR, K.459 (1)
            CONCERTO, PIANO NO. 20, D MINOR, K.466 (1)
            CONCERTO, PIANO NO. 24, C MINOR, K.491 (1)
            CONCERTO, PIANO NO. 27, B-FLAT MAJOR, K.595 (2)
            CONCERTO, VIOLIN NO. 3, G MAJOR, K.216 (2)
            CONCERTO, VIOLIN NO. 5, A MAJOR, K.219 (1)
            COSÌ FAN TUTTE (OVERTURE), K.588 (1)
            MAGIC FLUTE, THE (OVERTURE), K.620 (1)
            QUARTET, STRINGS, NO. 23, F MAJOR, K.590 (1)
            RONDO, PIANO, D MAJOR, K.382 (1)
            SERENADE NO. 9, D MAJOR, K.320, “POSTHORN” (2)
            SERENADE NO. 12, C MINOR, K.384A (OLD K.388) (1)
            SYMPHONY NO. 36, C MAJOR, K.425, “LINZ” (2)
            SYMPHONY NO. 39, E-FLAT MAJOR, K.543 (1)
            SYMPHONY NO. 40, G MINOR, K.550 (1)
            VORREI SPIEGARVI OH DIO, K.418 (1)

            Also, According to the Proms archive, he conducted several Mozart concertos. There is a live recording of the coronation concerto with Clifford Curzon: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9720R8IStzo

            He recorded some early Mozart concertos with The Domaine Musicale and Yvonne Loriod who was making a complete cycle.

            Finally, who could forget this remarkable performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 with Maria Joao Pires and the Berlin Phil? https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DvZ6BlCYjzQ

            The quotes I gave of Boulez on Mozart are REAL. You can check the encyclopedia articles one chromaticism and counterpoint in “Notes on an Apprenticeship”.

          • norman lebrecht says:

            Thank you. He was in denial.