Is France rejecting the Boulez line for the Bacri solution?

Is France rejecting the Boulez line for the Bacri solution?


norman lebrecht

May 03, 2017

Analysis by John Borstlap:

On April 27, the French Radio Orchestra presented a concert entirely dedicated to a French composer who began his career within the established modernism, where Pierre Boulez was arbiter of taste and executive of a ‘party line’.

Bacri’s first works were modernist, dense in ideas, and filled to the brim with dissonance as was custom at the time – until he encountered the works of Giacinto Scelsi. Bacri met the eccentric composer in Italy while spending – in the early eighties – his obligatory period at the French Academy in Rome after winning his Premier Prix. The works of Scelsi, being the extreme opposite of Bacri’s in its concentration on a minimum of material (often merely one tone with microtone oscillations), made Bacri realize that a wealth of extreme material is not necessarily saying more that a single, concentrated tone that has enough of itself.


Scelsi’s minimalist works acted like a pin, puncturing the modernist balloon in Bacri’s mind. He came to understand the reason of the timelessness of the great music which already exists and has been able to bridge vast spaces of time and place, and still forming the repertoire of classical music today, alive and kicking in spite of the critique from socialist and populist quarters. From then on, Bacri began to explore tradition, without surrendering to compromise or imitation.

This fell beyond the scope of established new music in France, with the result that Bacri found himself outside the establishment. But with the withering of modernist ideals in recent years, Bacri’s music has got increasingly performed and began to be understood as a viable way out of stagnating modernism. In this he was not alone: Karol Beffa, Richard Dubugnon and Guillaume Connesson are, like Bacri, trying to find alternative ways of looking at new music and of finding stimulating perspectives away from the mental prison that new music in France had become.

So, this concert at Radio France is, in fact, a spectacular confirmation of the place new tonal music has acquired in the heart of the French musical establishment, and it celebrates Bacri as one of its most gifted and muscially profound composers. In 2012 a lecture at the Collège de France by the pianist Jerome Ducros criticising atonal modernism, drew a flood of furious, hateful condemnations from the modernist establishment. The ‘affaire Ducros’ created a flow of articles pro and contra that ran in the media until 2015. But this Bacri concert by the French radio orchestra seals the end of the Boulez domination …. and opens-up a perspective of hope for new music as an organic part of the normal, regular performance culture.

The concert can be heard on this link:

Bacri’s music is not ‘conservative’ because of its interpretation of traditional values, because his interpretations are always personal, expressive and authentic, using a familiar-sounding musical language but what is ‘said’, is always new. Basically, it is a return to normal practice of how a musical tradition functions. As John Allison wrote in The Times: “Bacri is a composer capable of renewing an old-fashioned medium.” But Bacri does not discard the idea of modernism altogether, there is in his music a certain tension breaking-through the harmonous surface and creating moments of ambiguity and instability, with unexpected and subtle surprises. Bacri wrote two very interesting booklets, in which he describes his artistic development and how he came to find a new understanding of the tonal tradition: “Notes étrangères” and “Crise (notes étrangères II)” – unfortunately as yet not available in English.

As he said himself: “My music is not neo-Classical, it is Classical, for it retains the timeless aspect of Classicism : the rigour of expression. My music is not neo-Romantic, it is Romantic, for it retains the timeless aspect of Romanticism : the density of expression. My music is Modern, for it retains the timeless aspect of Modernism : the broadening of the field of expression. My music is Postmodern, for it retains the timeless aspect of Postmodernism : the mixture of techniques of expression.”

Photo (c) Thierry Martinot / Lebrecht Music&Arts


  • Ungeheuer says:

    Jack Heggie is the new Bacri (-:
    Running for cover ….

    • John Borstlap says:

      Heggie is really good, though. Maybe a bit slick here & there, but thoroughly musical and well-crafted.

  • Fabio Luisi says:

    Thank you Mr. Borstlap for this interesting comment. I am not failiar with Bacri’s music, but I am with Scelsi’s. A very interesting field worth to be explored, after the often so useless “density” of notes of the “other” – well established – line.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Thank you….. The ‘official’ revolution, which has become establishment (contradictio in terminus!), as is the case in both France and Germany (but much more so in Germany), could only survive with the crutches of ideology and state support…. There is nothing against the works of Boulez, Dusapin, Xenakis, etc. etc., but everything against the contradictory claim that it is new MUSIC, a further and modern development of the art form, while in the same time based upon a total break with the art form’s fundamentals. If you do that, you have a new and different art form, requiring a different reception framework from music. I can’t imagine a work by Scelsi within a regular classical programme would be good for both Scelsi or the classical works….. listening for an hour or so to one single tone requires a listening attitude and a concert format quite different from those appropriate for, say, a Mahler symphony.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    By rejecting the tradition set about by Boulez, France will lose it’s place among the pantheon of great musical heritages. The rush to return to this new tonal simplicity is a fools errand. Tonality is dead, and it would be wrong for anyone to attempt to resurrect it. Bacri represents several steps backwards for French music, and music in general. If anything, the case of Bacri represents the lack of musical understanding and taste in serious music generally. Bacri’s music will not survive a generation after, and will be resigned to the dustbin of musical history.

    • DAVID says:

      Tonality is dead? I guess that’s probably why most non-classical (as well as an increasing amount of “classical”) music being written today — and listened to — is still quite tonal. I’d be tempted to say that it’s actually atonal music, or music devoid of any tonal center or reference, that is dead — perhaps was it actually never quite born — confined and relegated to the closed spheres of a few exclusive circles, without ever being capable of capturing a wider audience. Shouldn’t that tell us something?

      • boringfileclerk says:

        You suppose, following your logic, that popularity is the only and true metric of high art. In that case, enjoy your Katherine Jenkins. She’s the sad future of music.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Popularity in itself is no indication of high quality, but the other way around – that being throughly unloved means: a master piece – is not true either. It is more complicated than that. Music happens within a tripartite context: composer, performer, listener. They all three form musical culture, you cannot leave one out without destroying the whole.

          • boringfileclerk says:

            Perhaps, but your argument is based on two false assumptions. Firstly, there is no tripartite component. The public is no where near as musically educated as previous generations. The average Joe or Jane public today would not know a musical masterpiece, or decent performance if it slapped them in the face. The public you include would think that Yanni is just as valid and equally worthy of merit as Xenakis. This is absurd.The listening public therefore must be told what to like.

            Secondly, true masterpieces are often hated at first, only to be recognized later as the works of art that they are. Given your criteria, Beethoven, Debussy, and Stravinsky would not be considered masters. True art engages, and often enrages the public to think. It provokes them to examine their prior assumptions about what art is, and what it should say about a given subject. The current crop of New Age, pseudo serious composers do none of this. It’s a cheap way of making a buck from a public that deserves better.

          • John Borstlap says:

            To the boring file clerk: I don’t think I gave criteria…. and again, the subject is more complicated than that. Concerning new music being misunderstood at first: that is certainly true, but as often it is not true at all. Against examples which met resistance by audiences at their first appearance, there are countless other examples where the music was received well. The historical evidence suggests that there is no rule there, and certainly no condition: if the audience hates it, it must be good. Haydn’s music was always received well while being very original, explorative, unusual. He singlehandedly created the archetypal classical orchestra with its technique. Most of Mozarts works were popular immediately, only his more complex music took longer – but not much. Even Beethoven’s late quartets had enthusiasts in his own life time. The ‘avantgardist’ Chopin almost always had immediate success with his salon recitals for sophisticated listeners. Both Brahms and Wagner met resistance at first but both experienced definite and widespread audience success in their life time (the resistance against Wagner mainly came from the academic world). Debussy’s Faun prelude and his Nocturnes were ‘hits’ immediately as was Stravinsky’s Sacre at its first concert performance the year after the scandal of the ballet première. Ravel’s most original and high quality music was always received very well from the beginning. Some counter examples: Mahler was performed regularly during his life time but never got really widely recognized before the sixties. Prokofiev’s operas are only now getting a following in the West, and they are great.

            The protests against new music may have meant very different things in different contexts. For instance, the resistance Schoenberg experienced in Vienna can also be explained as the correct realization by audiences that such music was a frontal attack upon their music culture, which it was. And that musical culture was of the highest calibre. Schoenberg’s early music is part of the repertoire but his atonal attempts are as indigestible as ever.

            And what about someone like Charles Ives, the insurance company director who composed in his free time? His works are fun, but also amateurish and lacking musical substance. When in the sixties the culture of repudiation got onto steam, Ives was discovered as a forerunner and for some time, he was hailed as a ‘great composer’ (even Schoenberg said as much – which is no surprise). So, what was the meaning of Ives’ recognition? And so on and so forth….

            There is no rule and there are too many parameters having their influence upon audience reception. And painting ‘the audience’ as stupid as this comment does, is unfair, I strongly believe that there are still many audiences of classical music that function as a meaningful part of the music culture.

            The myth of the new being always hated at first, is a postwar modernist myth to defend a very weak position: sonic art as music, claiming performance space in a context where it does not belong, it is like a gorilla at a wedding party. Where new music has formed its own scene, with its own specialized performers, that is how it should be. But ideology and falsification of music history are totalitarian methods, agitprop really, and don’t belong in music life. The fact that such comment appears on a site supposedly for classical music lovers, is revealing that such nonsensical mythology is still around, attacking the very thing that tries to heal a schism that threatens the existence of the art form.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A burp from the postwar modernist world view…. when people with limited knowledge of history thought that in the arts, there exists something like progress. The only progress in culture is when something bad becomes, or is replaced by, something that is better. Before WW II, new works were anticipated with a general curiosity – except those from Schoenberg and his pupils – and that connection with the audience has been lost, thanks to a new art form claiming to be music.

      So, music like Bacri’s is a step backwards, indeed, to a much better time and to a situation where new music is an organic part of the central performance culture, instead of a marginal reserve only kept alive by state subsidies and ideology. If there is still someone around who did not know that modernism was a totalitarian ideology:

      • Karlheinz says:

        I guess you’re an accomplished composer given the fact that you describe Charles Ives as “amateurish and lacking musical substance”.

    • Robert Davidson says:

      Tonality, of course, never died. That is an extremely quaint thing to read way over here in 2017, more than half a century after In C.

  • John Borstlap says:

    I forgot to mention French composer Thierry Escaich, a striking talent like the others:

    Beffa’s mini piano concerto:

    Another Bacri work:

    Theory does not count in art, only the effectiveness and expressive qualities of the works themselves. These pieces alone refute any claim of musical progress from the Boulezbian camp.

    • Maarten Brandt says:

      Mediocre rubbish and not whatever alternative for Boulez.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That is how it must seem for people who think that Boulez is music and that textural complexity (which is surface) and sophistication in timbre (which is surface) signifies musical quality. Musical ears however, hear in the music of the mentioned new tonal composers the relationships between the notes (which is music). People like Boulez introduced a new way of listening, devoid of musical meaning, hence the crowds of people being relieved to have only to deal with surface, so much in tune with modern times.

        I remember an interesting & revealing conversation with a member of an ensemble specializing in atonal works, claiming that there is not the slightest difference between R. Strauss and Xenakis, because both were dealing with pure sound. One can easily imagine how this man would play Strauss. The same with many other performers specializing in the (meanwhile very old) modern, when they occasionally turn to what they think is ‘old music’ (premodernist music), the sound of music is the only thing heard, the psychological dimension deleted. Lord, forgive them, since they don’t know what they are not hearing.

        • Dr Robert Davidson says:

          I think you make good points, but there’s no need to exclude one way of making music from the term “music” altogether – it is unwarranted, given the diversity of putting sounds together globally.

      • Dr Robert Davidson says:

        Mediocre? Come on, you are not listening carefully enough. It’s beautiful and wonderfully crafted music. Boulez is excellent of course too, his petulant ridiculousness in stupid statements when young notwithstanding.

  • Louy says:

    C’est ce qui s’appelle un titre d’article putassier.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Translated: “Ich habe keine Ahnung worum es sich hier handelt”. (Alternative version: “Al sla je me dood, ik heb geen idee wat dit allemaal is.”)

  • George says:

    The reference to boulez in the title is entirely pointless and even misleading.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Boulez wanted himself to stand for a modernist attitude to be dominant in France and elsewhere, like a party line to be followed. Were PB alive today, he would certainly have protested against the mentioned Bacri concert, as he had against the lecture of Ducros at the Collège de France, which provoked a ‘hetze’ from the modernist camp.

  • Tim Poulus says:

    Maybe it’s time to end this silly controversy and simply enjoy all music.
    There is nothing against tonality, as long as you find novel ways of using it. People ranging from Peter Maxwell Davies to James MacMillan and Arvo Pärt have certainly been able. I’m not sure where Bacri is in this. A character such as Dubugnon fails hopelessly, IMHO.
    Let’s also simply accept that Angry White Men such as Mr. John Borstlap will never acknowledge that there is so much more to music.

    • boringfileclerk says:


    • John Borstlap says:

      That is funny…. since when is defending music against a perverse ideology, which is still much around in Europe, something by an ‘angry white man’? This sounds like saying,’Oh those crazy Jews with their objections against nazis.’

      It is the defense of pluralism without ideology that made me writing about the Bacri concert, an event which is – in Paris – a very positive signal.

      Also, outside Germany and France, new music has already long ago left the narrow-mindedness of modernism, fortunately. In these two countries however, the struggle against ideology is still a sensitive and acute one, and given their extremely rich and important musical history, all the more significant.