Pierre Boulez talks: ‘My humour is not always very well understood’

Pierre Boulez talks: ‘My humour is not always very well understood’


norman lebrecht

January 06, 2016

About Stravinsky:

About Mahler:

About the fear of new music:

About his own music:
boulez in the kitchen


  • debussyste says:

    “My Humour is not well understood ” : to say the least !

    But he was a great conductor ( I hear his Ravel and Debussy recordings all the time ) and a great composer who will be more appreciated as time goes on. I like particularly the second piano sonata by Pollini, Pli selon pli which reminds me Ravel and Repons.

    Requiem in Pace, Pierre Boulez.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The first minute of Pli is pure Ravel from the period of the Mallarmé songs (Ravel’s). After that: it’s pure Boulez, alas.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Maybe his ideological utterances were his form of humour, that the world took more or less seriously, at the time.

    • ruben greenberg says:

      I think, John Borstlap, that he was provocative, but dead serious when making ideological statements. He was what we call in French: “un homme du pouvoir”. Few major musical decisions were made here in France without his seal of approval, unbeknownst to most people. Ironically, he was well-nigh impossible to pin down politically: he was close to Pompidou and close to Mitterrand and especially the latter’s Minister of Culture, Jacques Lang. Complex music and a complex figure. At any rate, musicians found it a memorable experience to work with him. Rest in well-deserved peace, Pierre Boulez.

      • John Borstlap says:

        …. I know he was dead serious, I tried to be ironic.

        I heard from French musicians that he was sometimes referred to as ‘notre nouveau Saint-Saëns’.

        It is utterly apalling to try to exercise ‘power’ in music life, instead of letting people be free to like and to think what they want. PB’s ‘idealism’ made him actively try to get Dutilleux out of the way, who was so much more musical than he. PB could have stopped at offering his opinions and let other people make sense of them.

        In the eighties I had an interesting conversation with producer Yves Prin of Radio France who insisted to give attention to Dutilleux, against the wind blowing from the IRCAM bunker; on the wall a big poster with Dutilleux’ friendly and somewhat anxious face. ‘We don’t like the Boulez ideology here at all’, he insisted.

        Composers needing power games to achieve their ends, do that out of a deep-seated insecurity about their work – why would it be necessary? Because music life is ‘too bourgeois’? It did, in the end, not prevent it from recognizing Dutilleux, and fortunately concert life calmly continued to perform the repertoire of really musical composers, old and new.

        I’m sorry to say but PB will eventually end-up in an extensive and curious footnote in music history, but he will not become part of the regular repertoire of music: he may remain a touch stone of sonic art, as presented in the margins of music life: specialized festivals, specialized ensembles giving pleasure to specialized minority audiences, nothing wrong with that. But only if there is still some money around for such things.

        Have we forgotten the ‘affaire Ducros’?


        This was the result of the emergence in France of Boulezbianism as a kind of politbureau pressure. Bah. Nowadays, fortunately, they have younger composers like Nicolas Bacri, Karol Beffa, Guillaume Connesson and Richard Dubugnon who revive the multifarious and inspired music life of prewar France when the country still was an international hub of musical creativity and inspiration.

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    I think it’s fair to say we all learned quite a bit from him.

    On a more flippant note, perhaps his pallbearers could carry his coffin into the chapel to that most famous of times signatures from Le marteau sans maitre: 4/3 over 2.

  • Alexis Hauser says:

    His “special” sense of humour:

    – I remember a comment he made during his NY Phil era, pressed about the
    need for capacity audiences and box office success:
    “A SMASH HIT more often than not means MASS SH…”

    – Perhpas better known the story of advertising a “VIENNESE EVENING” , also with the NY Phil, which was sold out
    in no time. What the ticket purchasers found then on their menu was: Berg, Schönberg and Webern.

    – In the 60’s when he gave these fantastic open end concerts in Vienna with the LSO, introducing a young Viennese public as never before
    to the 2nd Viennese School, followed by questions from the
    audience which he answered enthusiastically in all possible intellectual/technical detail, the last question came from a music critic:
    “so, and then what does music really mean to you, Mr. Boulez?” His reply: “Let’s that question open
    to keep at least a bit of MYSTIQUE for the rest of the evening”.

    • Kurt Rongey says:

      Here’s Joan Peyser’s account from the bio “To Boulez and Beyond”:
      “Carol Frankel reported that at a diner in Cleveland a jukebox repeatedly blared out a pop record. Boulez asked what it was. She replied ‘James Taylor, a smash hit.’ Boulez said, ‘You mean it’s mass shit.'”

  • John Borstlap says:

    I like the little photograph underneath with PB mixing a salad in that sterile environment, as if he is going to have a meal within one of his pieces.

  • Hilary says:

    His sense of humour is evident in this quite conventional 80th Birthday Tribute to Solti. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=0I7_oceeFMU