Memoir: End of a world as Pierre Boulez departs

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.

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  • One of the worst composers ever and a conductor of nondescript.

    His alleged dislike of Tchaikovsky’s music was probably born out of jealously. Tchaikovsky was a great, natural, fluent composer, Boulez was not.

    Tchaikovsky was our gain and his loss.

    • Leaving aside your graceless dancing upon someone’s grave, you seem misinformed concerning Tchaikovsky. Boulez was endlessly misquoted on that. He was talking about star conductors, conducting Tchaikovsky (whom he used as an example), being engaged in the cult of the self. It was not a remark about the composer as such. Indeed, he arranged some of Tchaikovsky’s music for a Marigny performance of Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard) in 1955; it was one of his very first appearances as a conductor and may even have been his first.

      • Presumably you wouldn’t wish to defend his description of Mozart’s music as “trivial” or that of Shostakovich as “reactionary”?

      • How is “R” gracelessly dancing on someone’s grave, as you say. I always thought that to mean celebrating someone’s death gleefully.
        Does the death of a composer and conductor result in an immediate ban of all criticism regarding his creative output or technique?

        • Well said. One can argue the merits of Boulez as a conductor or the innovative nature of his compositions, but to indulge in an unlimited hagiography and suggest that Boulez will be remembered as one of the greatest musical figures of the 20th century is not a universally held view.

          • The view that he will *not* be remembered as one of the greatest musical figures of the 20th century is not universally held, either. Many respected and successful musicians do indeed revere him as such. Your loss if you don’t, since his music and recordings contain many unique pleasures which I hope one day you will come around to exploring.

            But, please, people, have some tact when someone (especially one so renowned) passes away. You might not appreciate his achievements, but kindly respect the fact that others do and wait a bit before you trash their legacy.

    • Norman has it that Boulez “abhorred” Sibelius’s music. On what evidence is this claimed? While he may never have conducted any of the Finn’s music, there are said to be interviews in which he says it interested him. Apparently Szell (so that dates it) offered PB Sym 4 in Cleveland but he declined as “not being ready”. One can that imagine PB would have done Sibelius’s 4th wonderfully.

    • I like PB’s Notations quite much, especially as conducted by Manfred Honeck:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIlfuf2wUok

      It is a bit ‘oldfashioned’ for PB, harking back to expressionistic Schoenberg and his two pupils. It is an orchestral version of an early piano work….. nostalgia of old age?

      Regrettably, it is not music- though at various moments ALMOST music. Imagine what these gestures and sound patterns could have been if part of a musical vision, i.e. a vision where the notes make meaningful and expressive sense in themselves, so much so that the narrative also makes musical sense if played in a piano reduction (as with Debussy’s La Mer, which is still an entirely logical and expressive narrative in its 2-piano version, with all orchestral colour removed). Here, the notes are the result of sound colouring, they could as easily have been very different notes. It seems to me that a work where the notes are that arbitrary, cannot be considered a musical work. But as sound art, it is very interesting.

  • A mind that searched to the farthest reaches of what creativity is and can be while challenging, sharing and exercising discernment every step of the way. I’m so grateful I’ve lived on this earth at the same time as Pierre Boulez.

  • ‘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.’ More of this type of culture-warfare can be found in ‘Orientations’, Harvard University Press 1986. It is the core idea of modernism: music history as one single line from the past into the future, and ‘progressive’ works marking the various stages of development. Comparable with totalitarian world views which rest on exclusion and streamlining. So, Wagner’s Tristan counts, but not his Meistersinger. Mahler counts because of his one foot into the neighbouring territory of ‘atonalism’. Debussy’s ‘explorations’ count as far as they predict postwar sonicism, as in a couple of bars in Jeux. And so on….

    • ‘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.’
      I can’t take a musician seriously who makes such a statement, if it’s indeed said without any irony. To me this view seems very limited & one-dimensional, a bit like Glenn Gould who said in all honesty that almost all Romantic composers (except Wagner and R. Strauss) are “a colossal waste of time”…
      As for their own music, I gave up listening to it already decades ago…

  • I think it was John Bird who once advised wary listeners about modern music, “Try listening to it more superficially”. Being JB, his tongue seemed to be slightly in his cheek, but underneath the apparent witticism I think he was making a serious point, and one that certainly resonated with me. Indeed, I’m not musically or technically equipped to listen to it other than ‘superficially’. Having said which I have long found much of Boulez’s music mesmerizing and often exciting, while being unable to grasp its underlying structure. I have also often found him a brilliant and illuminating conductor, both at live concerts and on disc.(Why is it, though, that while I found his Ravel ravishing, I often found his performances of Debussy a bit clinical and uninvolving?).

    What I disliked was his coldly dismissive attitude towards composers who did not fit into his own personal agenda. To describe Shostakovich as irrelevant because of the evident influence of Mahler misses the point. It’s rather like an anatomist saying that this skeleton looks much the same as that one, while ignoring the fact that it’s the flesh on the bones that makes the essential difference.

    And while I’m on the subject, I understand that Pierre and his modernist mate Nono (what an appropriately negative sounding name!) attended premieres of Henze operas for the express purpose of walking out halfway. At the very least this was childish, insulting and unprofessional. To me, it just smacks slightly of the Nazis publicly burning proscribed books in the 1930’s. But others may disagree. After all, I should hate to appear didactic!

  • And you think neotonal composers and militant antimodernists are not just as “coldly dismissive” regarding Boulez? What hypocrisy!

  • ‘Hypocrisy’ is a little strong,’ I feel. Perhaps ignorance of the nameless ‘neotonal composers’ to whom you allude might be nearer the mark. A few examples might have lent your invective a little more credibility. Not that I would support ‘cold dismissiveness’ towards any artist who had chosen their path from true conviction, including Boulez. And whatever my views, I did say ‘others may disagree’.

    Perhaps you should read a little more closely and think more clearly before rushing into print with petulant over-reactions.

  • Mr. Lebrecht,
    I am wondering because you were fairly close with Boulez, if you know what he was doing in his last days (2014-2016). He seems to have disappeared from publicity. Was he still composing? Had he become senile? What did he die from?

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