When Pierre Boulez stopped speaking to me

When Pierre Boulez stopped speaking to me


norman lebrecht

October 25, 2019

It was George Crumb’s 90th birthday yesterday. Twenty years ago, I wrote a column on his 70th, pointing out that George was possibly the most undervalued living composer and contrasting the modesty of his birthday with the fireworks the music biz was putting on for the 75th of Pierre Boulez.

This is part of what I wrote.

HERE is a wad of ammunition for those who maintain that musical reputations are manipulated by a metropolitan clique of critics, broadcasters and publishers.

Next month, Pierre Boulez will preside over celebrations of his 75th birthday. The bash begins with an LSO series at the Barbican, followed by an extended tribute at the Festival Hall, every note reverentially aired by the BBC. A gush of records will hit the stores. Interviews will appear in most serious dailies. Until winter’s end, it will be hard to avoid the sight and sound of the amiable French ringleader of post-war avant-gardism. It seems only yesterday that we went through a similar carnival for his 70th.

Last weekend, the American composer George Crumb flew in to play percussion at a 70th-birthday concert in the Wigmore Hall. The gig was put on by a guitar magazine and attended by cognoscenti. No broadcast, not a word in the press – this was as private a party as an MI5 reunion.

The next day I got a call from an orchestra PR saying that my meeting with Boulez in Paris the following week had been cancelled. When I asked why, she said he had taken against being compared to an American composer, especially one as obscure as Monsieur Crumb.


Well, maybe it was the next two pars that made him see red.

Without stretching the contrast, Boulez is a relic of an empirically discredited movement. He has not composed a work of substance for 18 years. His pseudo-scientific theories of musical progress are laughed off by today’s composers. Not one of his works is standard repertoire. Boulez is starting to resemble Arthur Scargill and Egon Krenz, true believers whose creed collapsed.

Crumb, on the other hand, is one of the few composers to change the perception and function of new music in the last third of the 20th century. His electronic string quartet, Black Angels, was an ear-opener to America’s Vietnam generation, suggesting that Haydn’s art form could grapple with post-nuclear conflict. Hearing Angels inspired the formation of Kronos and other front-line ensembles; it has been recorded four times and performed, I suspect, more than any modern string quartet.

Whatever (which is English for quand-meme)…. at 75 and still vituperative about any composer who did not follow his route, Boulez might have been expected to be able to take a little rough with the supersmooth. Mais, non. With skin as thin as a newborn’s cranium, he banished me from his presence for a few years, after which I may have lost interest in renewing our acquaintance. Tant-pis. I don’t think we ever met again.

Thanks to Abbie Conant for reminding me of the Crumb column.


  • Fabio Luisi says:

    Chapeau, Norman.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Both of these composers deserve to remain in the repertoire. Boulez definitely will, but Crumb may take a bit longer, before hopefully there may be more recognition. It always helps to be an extrovert in order to achieve success.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Is there any good reason why Boulez should remain in the repertoire, except as a specimen of an extinct cult?

      • Olassus says:

        Le marteau sans maître (1955), Répons (1985), Douze notations (1945).

      • Doofus says:

        Why extinct cult? It is one thing to not like his music but to refer to it as a specimen of an extinct cult is small- minded and a little ignorant. Wagnerism is an “extinct cult” also. So is impressionism etc…So you don’t like Boulez’ music and are defending Mr. Lebrecht: super.

      • The View from America says:

        “Extinct cult” is just about right.

        Boulez will end up being a footnote in music history. These days he’s best-known for successfully stamping out any hint of neo-romanticism in music, jack-boot style, and stunting an entire generation of French composers.

        None of his IRCAM musical progeny will matter to future generations, either. What a waste of talent.

  • Daphnis says:

    Bravo, Norman. Crumb’s music displays his phenomenal talent for evoking fascinating and provocative timbres, while Boulez’ works demonstrated what happens when hyper-intelligence over-intellectualizes art and deadens communication. Their personalities could not have been more dissimilar. Crumb was warm and appreciative towards musicians, in contrast to Boulez’ starkly critical nature. I will always treasure the memory of performing Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) with Crumb in attendance, and speaking with him afterwards.

    • Doofus says:

      Absolutely wrong. Of course Crumb’s pieces are more accessible. So you disparage that which you dont like? Boulez’ Sonatine for flute is a tougher nut to crack (and much harder to play). Maybe the Lowell Lieberman Sonata is more to your liking? Why bash Boulez?

      • Daphnis says:

        IMHO, the few flutists who have performed Boulez’ Sonatine are those who wish to prove that they can. It’s not bashing, it’s simply informed observation. If his Sonatine were written by a composer with no name recognition, I venture to say say that nobody would ever perform it. But it’s Boulez, so that makes it important? Forget accessibility, it simply lacks many of the elements that distinguish great music.

        • John Borstlap says:

          PB wanted to create a new music which was new to such an extent, that it became a different art form altogether, so he was, in fact, more radical than he was aware of – leaving the territory of music behind and creating sound art, like Xenakis and Stockhausen. Trying to find musical elements in PB’s works is like searching for roses in a cement factory.

          • Daphnis says:

            Exactly the point: almost everyone finds a rose garden a vastly preferable place to be compared to a cement factory. Calling it “sound art” does not make It more meaningful, let alone a greater cultural achievement.

        • Crumb is very underrated says:

          “the few flutists who have performed Boulez’ Sonatine are those who wish to prove that they can.”
          let’s not forget, the flutist the Sonatine was written for/dedicated to, Jean-Pierre Rampal, refused to perform it and said he doesn’t like music that goes ‘click-clack’.
          He also said, ‘they call it avant-garde, but avant-garde to what, Sir?!’
          the Sonatine is worthless and a waste of time both for performer and audience. I totally agree that if it wasn’t a Boulez piece nobody would be interested at all. I’d rather play Vox Balaenae for all eternity than ever again play anything by Boulez.

  • Suzanne says:

    Why resort to Boulez-bashing to honour Crumb? Many of us respect them and their music equally.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    No denying your right (and, as critic, your obligation) to share your opinion of him. However, he had rights as well, one of which was to pick and choose those commentators with whom he wished to engage.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    A shame Boulez spent so much time playing the Emperor of France and making proclamations. He should have locked himself in a room and composed more.

    Or maybe he did all that proselytising because he was burnt-out composing wise ?

  • Brian says:

    Where is Sally?

    • Clarrieu says:

      Probably taking care of a bed-ridden JB who caught the flu, otherwise he would soon have posted a page-long reply (not that we don’t know its content in advance…)

      • John Borstlap says:

        He no longer wanted to offend SD readers with ‘glimpses of embarrassing truths’ as he called it, claiming that Schopenhauer already had explained why people cling to their illusions, and he forced me to read the Parerga und Paralipomena, while a big pile of letters had to be written! We get angry protests against his blurb on Boulez on a daily basis & I’ve to answer them all which is quite distracting especially since I do sympathize with them. But I reread it regularly to remind myself of its offensive nature to prevent blunting of my receptors.


        At night I console myself with listening to my beautiful Intercontemptorain recording of the first Pli of Pli selon Pli in the cellar, thinking of another job.


      • John Borstlap says:


        I find all of this something like harrassment in the work place & made a complaint at the Personal Assistant Union. Boulez is about freedom! not patriarchy etc. and intolerant aesthetics. PB saved me from insanity.


  • MWnyc says:

    Boulez’s late-life birthdays got as much attention as they did because he was such a prominent conductor, not merely because of his compositions.

    If Crumb had been a famous conductor as well, he’d have gotten a similar amount of attention. And if Boulez-as-maestro weren’t a box-office draw, he probably wouldn’t have gotten such big birthday celebrations, at least in the anglophone world.

    I agree that Crumb is underrated as a composer — or, to put it more precisely, isn’t as well-known as he ought to be. (People who get to know his music do tend to rate it highly.)

  • cym says:

    ‘Classically’ trained, I do listen however to some amount of contemporary and living composer’s works. I am familiar with a few opus of G. Crumb and P. Boulez, and find them quite too complex for my ‘untrained’ ear…

    BUT, unable to formulate why, I feel more attracted to G. Crumb – the atmosphere, a more human projection and occasional sense of humor.

    I find Boulez piano sonata unplayable and unlistenable (although played and memorized by M. Pollini and others)

    When I heard that long sonata laced with its monstrous technical challenges and difficulties, my only and short reaction was:
    « WHY ? »

    I predict a longer legacy for G. Crumb’ music.

  • Thank goodness you wrote this. I thought I was a voice in the wilderness. One day I will write about my experience on the jury that awarded him the Glenn Gould prize.

  • Mick the Knife says:

    Thats the thing about “Black Angels”. To justify it, to make it relevant, you have to spout phrases like “…was an ear-opener to America’s Vietnam generation, suggesting that Haydn’s art form could grapple with post-nuclear conflict.” Perhaps so to a few teenagers used to combining drugs with a steady dose of Lead Zepplin. But this is in stark contrast to the music of Boulez, that justifies itself to listeners purely on its musical merit. Listeners who know Boulez’ world of Ravel, Stravinsky, and Webern.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==I find Boulez piano sonatas…unlistenable

    PB was a mastert at mixing piano with other instruments (esp percussion) for example in Pli selon Pli, Repons, Derive 1, Eclat, Sur Incises
    But his works for solo piano seem quite dry and dated

  • RVS Lee says:

    I would point out that Boulez conducted the premiere of Crumb’s Star Child with NYP during the ’76/77 season.
    I played hand bells in those performances and one of my formative memories is of Boulez’ complete support of Crumb during rehearsal.
    At one point, the (famously ‘stubborn’) principal winds, asked to shout ‘Dies irae,’ were mumbling their way through one of the composer’s more apocalyptic passages. Crumb, ever gentle and self-effacing, very quietly opined that it might perhaps be a little more forceful.
    Boulez’ translation (at least in memory): Gentlemen, the score says, “shout.” Now – shout!

    • Paul Pellay says:

      The recording of that premiere was eventually issued by the NYP as part of their ‘American Celebration’ set some 20 years ago. I remember reading elsewhere that Boulez had told Crumb that he thought the piece was unrecordable – at least under any conditions other than an unbroken, warts-and-all concert recording. That said, Thomas Conlin’s recording of it that Bridge issued for Crumb’s 70th is really pretty good.

  • Doofus says:

    After Mr. Lebrecht was dissed by Mr. Boulez, the critic sought to discredit Mr. Boulez. (By writing, among other things, that Boulez technique is “discredited” by modern composers.) So the critic tries to promote his favourite by meanness and ignorance. In this case a critic should be confused with an expert, which is fine, but the whole thing is somewhat hypocritical and certainly mean -spirited.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Critique is always mean-spirited, because they don’t like what other people are doing. I’m criticized all the time here & if I hadn’t PB to listen to, I would take a hammer and slash the interior!


  • Tristan Jakob-Hoff says:

    Not to mention Pli selon pli, the Second Piano Sonata, Sur incises, Anthèmes 2, Messigesquisse and Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna.

    I enjoyed Crumb growing up but I feel much of his music relies heavily on

  • Tim Page says:

    I was told that my comments in the NYT in December 1985 did not exactly please William Schuman.

    “Mr. Schuman is a strong personality. Other composers have 75th birthdays; he has the William Schuman 75th Birthday Celebration, complete with distinguished sponsors, fancy letterhead and coordinated events throughout the country. In no way should Mr. Schuman’s enviable organizational abilities be held against his music; at the same time, they should not cloud our judgment.”

  • Jack says:

    Gee, I can’t understand why someone would cancel a meet-up with you after you wrote what you wrote that “Boulez is a relic of an empirically discredited movement. He has not composed a work of substance for 18 years. His pseudo-scientific theories of musical progress are laughed off by today’s composers. Not one of his works is standard repertoire. Boulez is starting to resemble Arthur Scargill and Egon Krenz, true believers whose creed collapsed.”

    I’m mystified! Shocked! Why wouldn’t he take time to sit with you???

    On the other hand, I wonder which of you two we’ll be talking about in a hundred years.

    • The View from America says:


    • Hectorg says:

      In 50 years nobody will be talking about Norman L, but for sure we will talk about Pierre B.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Most people will not be saying much that is kind about Boulez: they will mostly discuss how he sabotaged the career of those contemporary composers whose music he disliked, rather than his own music.

    • John Borstlap says:

      We are still talking about Hitler and apparently the subject is much enjoyed. His works however, have not entered the canon.

    • John Porter says:

      Agreed. This is pretty funny. Boulez doesn’t like the ad hominem attack and is turned into a demon for it! So, Lebrecht and others don’t like his music. Fair enough. Others do. No one is forcing any of you to listen to it. And you all wonder why people think classical music lovers are pretentious.

  • Couperin says:

    Crumb is kitsch. But I like it, it’s fun to perform and fun to listen to. Boulez is way more difficult to prepare and perform and is more rewarding intellectually. To each their own. Discerning audiences love the music of Boulez and in my opinion he wrote more than enough quality music. Quality over quantity.
    Wanna play Crumb? Grab your slide whistle, your thimbles, glass slides, paper sheets, prayer stones and have a blast! Wanna play Boulez? Get ready to dive deep and find your true virtuosity

  • Lance Hulme says:

    I wounder how much of the impression of the importance of Boulez (at least, in his own mind) in comparison to Crumb is due to the former’s access to state-subsidized orchestras. Crumb has only a few orchestral works and to a European, this might indicate obscurity. I recently presented “The Night of the 4 Moons” on my public concert series to great audience enthusiasm. I plan to try again with “Marteau sans Maitre”. I”ll be curious if it also is well-received.

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    PG Wodehouse describes a Frenchman who thinks he’s not getting enough respect, in RIGHT HO, JEEVES:

    *** START ***

    He spoke, in part, as follows:

    “Hot dog! You ask me what is it? Listen. Make some attention a little. Me, I have hit the hay, but I do not sleep so good, and presently I wake and up I look, and there is one who make faces against me through the dashed window. Is that a pretty affair? Is that convenient? If you think I like it, you jolly well mistake yourself. I am so mad as a wet hen. And why not? I am somebody, isn’t it? This is a bedroom, what-what, not a house for some apes? Then for what do blighters sit on my window so cool as a few cucumbers, making some faces?”

    “Quite,” I said. Dashed reasonable, was my verdict.

    He threw another look up at Gussie, and did Exercise 2—the one where you clutch the moustache, give it a tug and then start catching flies.

    “Wait yet a little. I am not finish. I say I see this type on my window, making a few faces. But what then? Does he buzz off when I shout a cry, and leave me peaceable? Not on your life. He remain planted there, not giving any damns, and sit regarding me like a cat watching a duck. He make faces against me and again he make faces against me, and the more I command that he should get to hell out of here, the more he do not get to hell out of here. He cry something towards me, and I demand what is his desire, but he do not explain. Oh, no, that arrives never. He does but shrug his head. What damn silliness! Is this amusing for me? You think I like it? I am not content with such folly. I think the poor mutt’s loony. Je me fiche de ce type infect. C’est idiot de faire comme ça l’oiseau…. Allez-vous-en, louffier…. Tell the boob to go away. He is mad as some March hatters.”

    I must say I thought he was making out a jolly good case, and evidently Aunt Dahlia felt the same. She laid a quivering hand on his shoulder.

    “I will, Monsieur Anatole, I will,” she said, and I couldn’t have believed that robust voice capable of sinking to such an absolute coo. More like a turtle dove calling to its mate than anything else. “It’s quite all right.”

    She had said the wrong thing. He did Exercise 3.

    “All right? Nom d’un nom d’un nom! The hell you say it’s all right! Of what use to pull stuff like that? Wait one half-moment. Not yet quite so quick, my old sport. It is by no means all right. See yet again a little. It is some very different dishes of fish. I can take a few smooths with a rough, it is true, but I do not find it agreeable when one play larks against me on my windows. That cannot do. A nice thing, no. I am a serious man. I do not wish a few larks on my windows. I enjoy larks on my windows worse as any. It is very little all right. If such rannygazoo is to arrive, I do not remain any longer in this house no more. I buzz off and do not stay planted.”

  • Edgar Self says:

    You might be better off, Norman. Boulez had a public “discussion” on the Orchestral Hall stage, Heny Fogel asked his first question, and Boulez was off like a shot for an excited and uninterrupted quarter-hour, while Henry bit his lip. I’ve no idea what it was about and wouldn’t have understood if I did.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    A century prior to Boulez and Crumb, we had Hanslick refereeing the fight between Brahms and Wagner. Both of their music lives on.

    Perhaps, both the music of Boulez and Crumb will live on as part of the canon as they both represent different artistic styles during the 20th century.

    As we have witnessed with Pachelbel, it only takes one work to remain in the canon for eternity.

    There is no telling which particular work of these two composers will make the cut of posterity, but my guess is that each of them have at least one composition that will go on to represent 20th century music and their impact on the arc of the art form.

    In the case of Crumb, Black Angels certainly may be the one. And in the case of Boulez, Hammer without a Master could be the one.

    Let’s all check back in 200 years and see if we agree!

    • John Borstlap says:

      A comment by someone who has read too many postwar modernist music histories and came to believe it.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      How often is the music of Boulez actually performed by “major orchestras”? It was written what thirty years ago? Fifty years ago? Seventy years ago in some cases. It has had more than enough time to find its place in the repertoire, and it has pretty much failed. It really is tiresome for the “select group of true-believers who portend the future” to keep making these claims that the future belongs to them. It really doesn’t.

      I am happy for those who enjoy his music. Really…that’s great. But please don’t pretend it isn’t anything but a niche interest among those who listen to classical music.