What’s to become of the house Pierre Boulez built?

What’s to become of the house Pierre Boulez built?


norman lebrecht

January 10, 2017

His nephew has put it up for sale.

His admirers want to turn it into a shrine.

Boulez, who died a year ago this week, made his home in Baden-Baden in 1959 as a protest against French conservatism. He expanded the house on Kapuzinerstrasse and bought the surrounding parkland. It is a beautiful retreat.

Now it seems likely to be sold since the family needs to pay exceptionally heavy French inheritance tax.

Read on here (auf Deutsch).


  • John Borstlap says:

    Indeed it would be ideal if the Deutsch-Französische Klangkünstlerbund would buy the house for a generous sum (they are rich enough) so that the family is amply compensated, and turn it into sonic art’s place of pilgrimage, where the Four Pots of Parameters can be admired and prayers said for the Second Coming of Serialism. And maybe they can also restore that irritating corner in the ceiling that upset the Master so much.

    (For new readers of SD:)


    • George says:

      Your assessment of Boulez’s compositions is somewhat misguided, and I think there is much to admire, and even enjoy. Most of Boulez’s work is not strictly serial, but it concerns the organic development of chords, which is full of color and rhythmic vitality. One can admire that his works are conceived directly for the orchestra and cannot be reduced to a piano score, to perform La Mer as piano score is a disgrace to its colors. Most importantly, it plays on the listeners memory and aids them in a journey from one experience to the next, or maybe jostles them from one experience to a totally different one, much like life. For me, Boulez’s music is beauty and excitement.

      You might say that Boulez was obsessed with structure. Well, all the great composers were. Look at Bach, Rameau, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. Nothing is more structurally beautiful and complex than the slow movement of the Hammerklavier sonata, and the slow movement of Boulez’s 2nd sonata (a complex yet HIGHLY unsystematic serial piece) is a remarkable complement to that. Maybe, Boulez was not as “experimental” as Berio, but there is nothing wrong with that, it’s just different, just as Berg admits for heterogeneous elements to be incorporated into his music, and Webern, no less passionate, is very “pure” structurally.

      Boulez certainly had his preferences of composers (as everyone does), however, he never asserted them as “law”. Certainly, he considered some composers second rate for specific reasons, but that does not mean that there was not a place for them in his concerts. (He must have conducted almost a thousand pieces in his career.) he even said that “history does not proceed like a well-oiled toboggan”, and I think that he was fascinated by the numerous silmultaneous currents of history. He just conducted what he was interested in and wanted people to hear. By the way, we must hear very different things in Boulez’s Sacre recordings, because I hear something that is powerfully exciting and visceral.

      P.S. Did you know PB personally? You speak of him in your article as if you did.

      • clarrieu says:

        George, you’re new to John B’s literature, aren’t you? A quick search on SD should come up with 450 of his comments, for your serialist enjoyment…

      • John Borstlap says:

        I do not consider PB as a strict serialist at all, in fact, it is impossible to find-out to which extent his work – after his first serial period – was serial at all. There are moments in PB which are beautiful, but not as music if you realize what music really is and especially, what it does. PB did not want to write music, but something very different: pure sound art. And where the gestures seem to imitate music, they are gestures, of sound, not of music. With music, there is a tonal ‘perspectyive’ like in a figurative painting where a vanishing point binds the lines (i.e. the relationships between objects) together and suggests depth in a flat surface. The ‘vanishing point’ in music is the tonal centre which may be ambiguous or shifting, but it binds the notes together with the suggestion of an imagined space, as in the above-mentioned painting. PB’s work is ‘flat’ like abstract painting, it is about patters and colour, and the notes are obviously chosen for their relative coloristic value, not for their relationships with other notes in a tonal, spatial sense. All of that is OK, but the problem emerges where he (and his collegues) claimed recognition and performance space in a musical context, which was a disastrous strategy. You cannot have your cake and eat it: first breaking with the past (in his writings, he was quite aggressive about that) and then, claiming the thing you created from scratch (well, almost from scratch) is a continuation of the very tradition you denied. In the postwar period a misunderstanding about the nature of tradition took hold, …. and you can read everything PB thought about that in the collection ‘Orientations’, Harvard Un. Press 1986. The complete man is there. (And no, I did not know him personally, I think we would immediate have a serious quarrel.)

        • John Borstlap says:

          Interesting that you mention La Mer. The orchestral colouring is indeed essential to the entire musical vision. But: if you listen carefully to the 2 piano version, the music still stands, it sounds at places a bit like Cesar Franck, but all the musical dynamics and rhetoric: the harmonic narrative, the building-up of climaxes, and the like, are still the piece: it is like a black-and-white photo of a colourful painting. It seems to me obvious that the piano score reveals the underlying structure, the expressive narrative, of the music, and the colouring of the orchestral scoring is an extra layer on top of that. Hence the impression of ample richness in the orchestral version. I am convinced that a 2 piano score of Le Marteau would sound completely random and meaningless, because the colourful surface is all there is and the notes are not part of a relational network. And that is not a defect by PB but his intention: if there is any poetic quality, it is the aesthetics of pure patterns of colour and surprise – because there is no logic in the aural trajectory as there is in La Mer.


          • George says:

            Thank you for your reply. In my opinion, Boulez’s late works deal with what is perceptible to the listener, and his uses of consistent chords for development is certainly not random. Also, you may be familiar with the preface to the score of Marteau. In this, Boulez specifically draws connections between each of the instruments. He uses them both for there continuity and for their heterogeneity, and this to me is not only not random, but it is a fascinating use of color.

            It is true that in Boulez’s early works, the serial harmonic development is almost completely imperceptible. However, one can admire him for recognized this and trying to remedy this in his later works.

            In my opinion, music is not something which exists in nature, but it is contrived by and created for humans. Therefore, there is no law regarding what does and does not consistute music. That question is entirely subjective to the individual. Therefore, while you are certainly entitled to your opinion, you should not declare Boulez’s work as NOT music as a fact according to certain perceived qualities. This falls into the same polemicist rhetoric of which you accuse Boulez

      • Maarten Brandt says:

        George, i couldn’t hardly agree more. John Borstlap uses always many words to attack composers like Pierre Boulez, but he really doesn’t know the most of his fantastic works, like e.g. Le visage nuptial, Repons, Derive I en II, Explosante-fixe and Sur incises (to mention only a few), works which prove that Boulez was the only real and highly original successor of Claude Debussy.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I know Repons and the 2 Derives…. most of that is ‘flee music’ organized in gestures, difficult to perform but very effective if played well. The misunderstanding is always a) critique is ‘attack’ based upon not understanding, implying that understanding inevitably leads to acceptance as music, b) organisation in other ways than a tonal one is an equivalent, c) tonal organisation is a human construct and can be replaced by another construct, d) modernist works have to be surrounded by an air of holiness and may not be treated ironically, not even where obvious nonsense is in play.

          Concerning c), which seems to be the more difficult to grasp for PB lovers: tonal organisation is an interpretation (construct) of physical (natural) laws which operate within the construct. Where the element of nature is left-out, one can be sure of lack of musical talent. There is something like the ‘holistic nature of human perception’ (Steven Semes) and most musically-talented performers instinctively grasp the difference between music and sonic (sound) art. The reason that so few performers take-on PB’s work, is the feeling of something essential missing in it – if you expect music.

          • George says:

            I came to admire Boulez from listening to his compositions, not from reading his biography or reading about his compositions. As with any great composer, it was from an originality and mastery that the music both fascinated me and left an impression of expressive power. Boulez’s music communicated directly to me.
            “Tonal organisation is an interpretation (construct) of physical (natural) laws which operate within the construct.” This is certainly true, however it is not right to say that non-tonal composers are talentless just because they do not conform to the tonal hierarchy. whether consonant or dissonant harmonies are used in tonal or atonal music seems irrelevant to me because either way, it still retains its expressive function. Therefore, the fact that tonal music is based on “physical laws” is superfluous. Consonant or dissonant harmonies can be used just as artfully either way. To me, this is certainly evident in Boulez – the “consonant” sound world of “cummings its der dichter” and the 1st sonata, the violence and anguish subsiding to calm of the anarchic intervals of the 2nd sonata, the rich chromaticism of “Repons”…Just from the harmonic point of view, there is certainly much to admire in Boulez.
            Besides, there is so much outside the world of tonality to be explored, and so much that has already been done with tonality that tonality is dried up for composers today. You might argue that the use of constant dissonance is an extravagance -an over-indulgence- compared to its use in tonal music. However, I think this is true in all periods of music; stylistically, music is extravagant compared to its predecessors. Certainly, the works of the Baroque and Classical are wonderful, but it is necessary to do something different today. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. were all throughly modern. Even “2nd rate” composers prior to the 19th century were still composing in a more or less modern style. It is only with the 20th century that there is a divide. In my opinion, the most original composers are the ones who remain thoroughly modern.
            Furthermore, in my opinion, Boulez’s complex compositional “artifices” – tone rows, permutations, chord multiplication, etc. are not much different from traditional tonality, counterpoint, form, etc. Yes, the beloved tonal composers used just as much compositional predetermination as Boulez did, within which they composed spontaneously just as Boulez did. What is the difference? Tonal music is a universal artifice, whereas Boulez creates his own artifices. Indeed, it is necessary for contemporary composers, without tonality, to each invent their own artifices. Musical evolution survives on artifice, and the expressive power of music over the centuries is generated from artifice.

          • George says:

            What I previously said about Boulez using consistent chords for development, I was referring to a kind of tonal center, or rather, a center of polarity. For me this can have many definitions, including a fixed register for certain pitches and frequent pitch repetition.

          • Sue says:

            I’d say you absolutely know what you’re talking about!!

      • David Osborne says:

        George, you know not to whom you speak. But best of luck in any case!

        • George says:

          From Wikipedia:

          “John Borstlap (4 June 1950, Rotterdam) is a Dutch composer pioneering a renaissance of tonal and classical traditions. He is an author on cultural subjects, related to music and the visual arts.”

          I think I do know.

          • John Borstlap says:

            “…… however it is not right to say that non-tonal composers are talentless just because they do not conform to the tonal hierarchy.” I should have been more clear: I don’t want to say atonal composers are talentless, but when they claim their work is music, i.e. based upon the same fundamentals as the musical art form, and denying that they write in a different art form, in THAT case the suspicion is justified that they don’t understand what music is, and that is a signifyier for lacking musical talent. And that invites both criticism and irony.

            Consonance / dissonance; this is something different from the distinction between tonal and atonal. In fact, in Boulez there are no dissonances, since dissonances can only exist in a context where differences in harmonic tensions are part of the expressive means, and this is only possible in a tonal context, however dissonant or ambiguous (for that reason Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces – highly dissonant music – is still tonal, as Berg’s Violin Concerto is). If there is no tonal centre, there is no dissonance and for that reason the ’emancipation of the dissonance’ as Schoenberg proclaimed, is impossible.

            Modern: all good music is modern because it is good, not because it is ‘of its time’ since all music is per definition of its time. ‘Modern’ may mean very different things in different periods. The trouble with PB is not that it is modern – it is no longer today – or that it was modern in the fifties and sixties – which it certainly was – but his claims that he wrote music and that it represented a logical development of serious art music, of the Western tradition. In contrary, he wanted to totally break with that tradition. When Renaissance artists in Italy wanted to revive the art of antiquity, which was at the time 1000 years in the past, they were modern. Also in the 15th century artists had to explain they were truly modern and not crazy cranks (read Vasary about the art of his time).

          • David Osborne says:

            No sorry, a glance at a wikipedia page is no substitute for a thorough grounding in the Borstlapian world view. You must give it time. When steam starts coming from your ears you will know you’re there.

          • George says:

            What I previously said about Boulez using consistent chords for development, I was referring to a kind of tonal center, or rather, a center of polarity. For me this can have many definitions, including a fixture registry for certain pitches and frequent pitch repetition.

          • George says:

            Sorry, fixed register is what I meant.

    • Joel T says:

      And I suppose that the dichotomy involves a concert hall that is supposed to become a tonal museum that one visits in order to reflect on past glories. This is a modern tragedy that even Shakespeare could not think up!!!

    • Joel T says:

      And I suppose the dichotomy involves preserving concert halls in which tonal glories are sanctified and petrofied. This is a modern tragedy that even Shakespeare probably could not think up.

  • Simon Evnine says:

    ==exceptionally heavy French inheritance tax.

    You would things PB would have left millions in ready cash and a property sale would not needed. All those decades of conducting gigs in Salzburg, Bayreuth, NY, CHicago etc

  • Richard D says:

    I think this house should
    be destroyed, like Hitler’s parents house in Austria 🙂

    • George says:

      I do not understand the parallel between Boulez and Hitler. Please explain your position instead of making pseudo-witty remarks…and don’t try to accuse Boulez of polemicism because you have just fallen into that category yourself.

  • Sue says:

    All of this reminds me of the blub which accompanied a Rothko painting for the Philips Collection which I saw in 1988. The painting was a square; grey on ochre. That’s all. The blub said, “Rothko denies the existence of a horizon line”. Any kindergarten student could have told me that!! In any case, I used the blurb to teach ‘creative writing’ to 17y/o at high school. I gave them a ball of string and asked them to write a sophisticated piece ‘selling’ the ball of string as an artwork. You’d be amazed what they came up with. We all had a good laugh.

    That’s what I think about arcane and impenetrable music. I’ll bet the composer denies the existence of form.

    • Joel T says:

      Ok, ok. But you may not be so lucky in coming decades to find such accommodating artists who felt compelled to placate concert audiences whims and biases. To think that most concert listeners still cannot read music is the true pedagogical dilemma here. And Boulez lived and breathed the concert hall, unlike Babbitt, and I am truly horrified that concert audiences still maintain this illiterate posture to this day and may view him adversely. May he and his house rest in peace and bravo to his considerable accomplishments. Shame on your sarcastic tone!!!

  • Sue says:

    I’m just tempted to say about the Boulez house that they should burn it down, just like the fate Boulez wished on opera houses. That’s fair.