Boulez cannot hear beyond his knee-jerk aversion to tonality

Boulez cannot hear beyond his knee-jerk aversion to tonality


norman lebrecht

October 23, 2020

From composer Matthew Aucoin’s demolition job in the New York Review of Books of a new collection of Boulez pensées:

Boulez cannot hear past his knee-jerk aversion to anything resembling functional tonality in the work of a twentieth-century composer. In the spirit of experimentation, Stravinsky was willing to run the risk of sounding innocent or even sentimental—a risk Boulez would never have admitted to his oeuvre’s steel fortress. This reductive attitude, this refusal to listen past Stravinsky’s surfaces and meet the music on its own terms, is a harbinger of the bullying narrow-mindedness that Boulez brings to his analyses of more recent music.

Over the course of Music Lessons, Boulez trains the automatic weapon of his disdain on practically every school of twentieth-century musical thought. He does not reserve his ire, as I expected he might, for composers whom he considers backward-looking; he is equally intolerant of artists who dare to make music using new sound sources (often electronic ones), who experiment with improvisatory practices, or who use unconventional notation. Given the ferocity of these broadsides, it is perhaps merciful that Boulez almost never specifies who or what he’s attacking, but this also makes it impossible to take his criticisms seriously. There is nothing more boring than the spittle-spewing invective of a demagogue railing against ill-defined, possibly illusory enemies, and unfortunately this book seethes with such denunciations….

And more here.



  • Doc Martin says:

    Classical music as composed by the Greats (Bach, Handel, Purcell, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert etc) effectively died out after Brahms.

    The tuneless wonders of the 20th century like Boulez are now pushing up the daisies. They ended up down a blind alley.

    Here is some real Irish harp music by Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), he once played a duo with Francesco Geminiani, which led to his piece known as Carolan’s Concerto.

    Farewell to Music
    Turlough O’Carolan
    Ciara Taaffe

    • J says:

      Everyone has their preferred tastes but I for one cannot imagine closing my ears to all but 200 years of music. Of course the Bach-Brahms period is amazing, but nor can I live without 20th and 21st century music, or, for that matter, music composed before Bach. These are by no means mutually exclusive. On the contrary, I find my enjoyment and appreciation of music from all periods enhanced and deepened by taking in the whole gamut.

      • Novagerio says:

        Exactly. It’s like saying “the art of painting died after the Pre-Raphaelites” – Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Cubism or Dadaism is apparently not art.

      • Doc Martin says:

        No I’m right, the bulk of 20th century music is utter rubbish. It takes time and talent to compose something worth a second listen and will any be heard 100, 200, 300 years hence? No. Bach, Beethoven etc will though.

    • Alexander T says:

      Wagner, Mahler, Berg, Schönberg, Webern, Strauss……

    • Reed says:

      Beyond any opinion of the current avant-garde, you’ve missed several generations of the Greats between Brahms and Boulez.

      If anything, your attitude towards ‘acceptability’ seems as reactionary as Boulez was ‘anti-reactionary’.

    • William Safford says:

      As I wrote to you elsewhere, music remains wonderfully alive in the 20th and 21st centuries. This includes music whose structures and harmonic languages are based on 18th and 19th century models.

      Your attention span died.

      There is a difference.

    • Mihi libertas Necessest says:

      I quite agree with you. You make a valid observation. The vast bulk of 20th century “classical ” music is either very boring or utter garbage, it went downhill rapidly from the 1950s onwards.

      I doubt any of it will be performed 100, 200, 300 years hence, unlike Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms. Audiences come to hear the Greats not Boulez et al.

      It takes time and real genius to compose music which will be performed centuries afterwards.

      • William Safford says:

        You wrote: “I doubt any of it will be performed 100, 200, 300 years hence.”

        Guess what? Much of it *is* being performed 100 years hence. That is to say, right now!

        Much of the music that you decry as too modern, is over 100 years old! This includes all of the music of Debussy, most of the music of Ravel, Elgar, and others, the famous Richard Strauss tone poems and his most adventurous operas, most of the famous output by Stravinsky, the earliest music of what became the Second Viennese School, early works by the likes of Prokofiev, Poulenc, and Gershwin, and much more.

        Quite a bit of it has entered the classical canon. Afternoon of a Faun, La Mer, Firebird, Petroushka, Rite of Spring, the Classical Symphony, Enigma Variations, Mother Goose, Daphnis and Chloe, Til Eulenspiegel, Elektra, and Salome–all in the canon, and much more. Even the likes of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony #1 get performed–and I bet that that particular work will appear more often on programs in the next year, if for no other reason than its size of only 16 musicians.

        Even going back just to compositions of fifty to 100 years ago, many of them are part of the canon: several of the Shostakovich symphonies and concerti, various Prokofiev works (especially Peter and the Wolf), many works by Copland and Bernstein, the Ravel piano concerti, Vaughn Williams, Britten, Poulenc, later Stravinsky, and much more.

        You do realize that none of the composers you listed, perhaps with the exception of late Beethoven, wrote their music to be performed 100 or more years hence.

        Those composers wrote brand new music to be performed as brand new music for new music audiences–that is to say, for audiences.

        Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies, because his employer paid him to provide new and fresh music for each concert.

        Mozart wrote over 20 piano concerti, in large part so that he would have fresh concerti for his audiences, who demanded it.

        Etc. for the others on your list.

        Furthermore, they did not perform music from the past. To the best of my knowledge, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven–none of them performed music by the likes of Bach or Handel. For sure they studied it, and they may have played it privately, but they didn’t perform it.

        As far as I know, the oldest music that Beethoven performed in public was Mozart.

        Late in his life, Beethoven studied Handel’s music. Did he perform it, or arrange for it to be performed? No. He composed works such as the Overture to the Consecration of the House, and incorporated styles and structures from Handel into his own compositions. Again, new music.

        NL posted a video by Glenn Gould, who suggests that Mozart’s piano concerti are not as good as people say they are. Whether or not you agree with GG’s conclusion, his argument certainly is food for thought. Not all old music in the canon is universally held to be great.

        Many critics disliked new works by Beethoven, Brahms, and others you listed. What we view today as some of the greatest works of the classical canon were not necessarily viewed that way when new.

        That is to say, there is nothing sacrosanct about old music.

        New music is being written and performed as I type this. Some of it is lousy. Some of it is mediocre. Some of it is workmanlike. Some of it has some inspiration. Some of it is promising. Some of it is excellent.

        This is exactly the same as 100 or 200 or 300 years ago.

        But we won’t know the difference, if we don’t listen to new music, and if as musicians we don’t perform it.

        If music of the Second Viennese School and its followers is not to your taste, even if you are not drawn to Debussy, Stravinsky, or those who came after them, even if the minimalists go too far in the other direction of tonality and repetition for your taste, that still leaves an enormous amount of 20th and 21st century music. Much of it is tonal and based on 18th and 19th century models.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Good comment.

          Mozart’s piano concerti are great, maybe apart from the very early ones. And that is not a matter of taste. They are highly original, high-quality works that offer meaning and depth with every hearing. And the late d-minor and c-minor concerti are incredible masterpieces.

          Schoenberg’s 1st Chamber Symphony is his greatest work and his only piece where he equals Beethoven in symphonic thought. He integrates the different movements of the symphony form into one single explosive movement, like Liszt’s b minor piano sonata, and it is all still entirely tonal, demonstrating that his later developments were not necessary to become a true master.

          The diference between music life of today (i.e. concert life) and in former times, is that – say, before WW II – there was a filter of knowledgeable people responsible for programming, and performers and an audience curious for ‘the new’ – new music was hotly debated. And ‘new’ meant: as yet unheard, not ‘progressive’. Filter and audience interest have gone, and the art form has turned into a business. So, much of a natural context has disappeared. Read Norman’s books.

        • William Safford says:

          N.B. There are a few instances of older secular music being revived or still performed in the 18th century, before Mendelssohn’s forays into Bach.

          One example is when Mozart was hired to reorchestrate Handel’s Messiah.

          But this still remains an exception rather than the rule.

    • Kevin says:

      Yes real Irish folk music and Carolan is miles better than modern classical which is lugubrious to say the least.

    • Kevin Scott says:

      I read your petulant and abrasive commentary about music of the last and current century as being “tuneless”…

      So let’s see, now…
      Madama Butterfly, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Der Rosenkavalier, Rhapsody in Blue all tuneless, eh?

      So I guess Strauss’ richly rewarding Four Last Songs are tuneless, huh? And even though some consider his music one step short of muzak, I guess you think very little of John Rutter’s Requiem, eh? I also have a feeling you find some of the great film music from Korngold, Steiner, Herrmann, Newman, Tiomkin and Rozsa to be very grating to your ears, not to mention guys like Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams who, when they’re not composing experimental music, have composed some very enriching and memorable scores that are melodic. But I guess you’re just another elitist who feels that film music is one step short of being a wanton mercenary on a street corner.

      The same goes for the music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Barber, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Profokiev, Shostakovich, Menotti, William Grant Still, Amy Beach, Walton and a whole slew of composers who composed music that is melodic.

      Not every composer from the last century is the atonal boogeyman. Not every composer has it in them to be an experimentalist.

      My suggestion? Give the music of George Lloyd a listen and then come back to me and tell me he’s an atonal boogeyman. I think he would be quite amused being lumped in with composers that he could not relate to during his lifetime:

      And as for Boulez…he will be remembered more as a conductor than as a composer, even if his music has a raw power that eludes most folks.

  • KANANPOIKA says:

    Ca. 1969, I asked Boulez: “What do you think about contemporary Polish music…?”

    He replied: “What can I say about a country which has moved from the ox-cart to the automobile in only a matter
    of several years….”

  • Bone says:

    Fascinating review. Late Boulez “relaxing?” “Sur incises” is one if the most invigorating things I’ve ever heard. Now I have to hear some Matthew Aucoin to get some perspective give.

    • Hilary says:

      It’s very attractive in a way but overlong. There’s a scintillating 15 minute piece in there somewhere.

      Also:Compare motoric rhythm/ toccata character to that of some of his Avant -Garde peers. Cage, Ligeti, Xenakis, Feldman and Stockhausen all seem less stiff.

  • The View from America says:

    I give Pierre Boulez another 25 years, after which he’ll be nothing more than a footnote in music history — his greatest notoriety being the vandalism he attempted to commit on the musical traditions that preceded him.

    Boulez’s star has already begun to sink rapidly since his death, and the future portends more of the same trajectory. It couldn’t be happening to a nicer guy …

  • Liam Allan-Dalgleish says:

    Anyone who cannot see the austere beauty and the incredible genius for building great architectural structures from a mixture of sound colors and relative relation of rhythmic patterns in the manner of Guillaume de Machaut shouldn’t be writing about Boulez. Such a person simply does not understand French music. Never forget: Classical music as such is an invention of the French mind.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Where would such idea come from?

      With Machaut, the notes stand in relation to each other and in these relationships the meaning of the music resides. With PB’s sound art, the notes are only there for the colour patters, so: the reverse. This means that sound art is materialistic. Nothing wrong with it, but it has not much to do with music.

      Classicism in music was born from the German lands, and cultivated to a high degree by German minds. The French had other fishes to fry – French classicism is very different in character.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Welcome to the SlippedDisc bullring, everyone!
    Are we all ready for the corrida? Avanti….
    Matthew Aucoin.
    Pierre Boulez.
    (Note the strict alphabetical order.)
    Let the up- and down-voting begin.
    Spoiler: I know how Borstlap will vote.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Like Wagner, much of Boulez’smusic is better than his writing… (and much of his conducting is better than either).

  • sam says:

    Matthew Aucoin is at his best when he does a bang-up imitation of Boulez in demolishing Boulez, lol.

    But truth is, isn’t there a little bit of Boulez in each and every one of us, dying to get out? Tyrannical and dogmatic, when we encounter a piece or a composer or a period we don’t like, especially in a genre we don’t like.

    What Boulez sounds like to the rest of us is exactly what we sound like to each other on this site when we dismiss pop music and rap are inferior to classical music.

    Except, we don’t express ourselves in the theoretical language that comes out of French and German phenomenology that Boulez tries to adopt for his musical analysis. But neither does Aucoin with respect to Boulez. Just as Boulez imposes his Franco-German phenomenological framework on composers he despises, Aucoin imposes his American emotive/psychological framework on Boulez.

    What we get is a dialogue of the deaf. Except Boulez can’t respond now. I assume Aucoin must read French. He should have written his review of Boulez’s original French lectures while Boulez was still alive, so that the man could respond.

    But I think Aucoin would’ve been intimidated, and rightly so, the very standing of Boulez in the establishment from Paris to Berlin to Chicago to Cleveland would’ve derailed Aucoin’s conducting and composing career.

    That was Boulez’s real invidious effect on the classical music establishment, shutting down dissenting voices. Covid is having the effect of shutting down the whole classical music apparatus, posing an existential threat, so this environment is finally permitting the slaying of an Idol (great concert halls in Berlin and Paris are named after Boulez, afterall).

    Boulez est mort. As it should be.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Aucoin, of course, wrote his review when the New York Review of Books sent him the review copy — not when he might first have become aware of Boulez’s lectures.

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      “ I assume Aucoin must read French.”

      I did so too, at first.
      After carefully reading his NYRB piece, twice, I doubt it. Or if he does, he can hardly have used much of that capacity to read Boulez, at any rate.
      Not that Boulez wasn’t perfectly capable of expressing himself in English (even more remarkably so in German). But the layers of concise subtlety of which he was a master in French are missing, and they would have been unmissable for a French reader.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The typical Boulezbian nonsense like posing banalities in quasi-intellectual terms, and describing emptiness in pompous ellipses, is perfectly matched in translation and that is the point. He would take a relatively simple subject and try to describe it in such a way that it suddenly looks ‘scientific’ and sophisticated for the innocent reader. It is a simple trick: don’t write ‘a cadence rounding-off a phrase’ but ‘concluding structure signifying a termination of previously intensified expectation’. Don’t write ‘notation is needed to read and to play the notes’, but ‘there is the property which indicate the placing, and the specific property which result in the production’. It is academic posturing.

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          Good point. I would rather say “bad academic posturing”. Good academic writing is to be precise and clear, what cannot be stated with understandable precision dos not exist.

          Where are the (young) Wittgenstein and the Karl Krauss of our time?

          • John Borstlap says:

            Hello! Wake-up!

          • Pianofortissimo says:

            “Naïve” posturing, of course, but guiding of my own academic writings – since I’m in life sciences I don’t need to be PC (yet). But I quite understand your call.

          • William Safford says:

            Thank you. Wittgenstein and Krauss came immediately to my mind as well.

  • Harold says:

    A silly headline to use the Macbeth quote and sloppy editing where the review cites ‘his’ but no name is referred to. Consign this to the category of hatchet jobs that, Voltaire once pithily remarked to a petty reviewer, would soon be behind him, while he sat on the toilet.

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      À propos of sloppy editing, what about sloppy scholarship?

      Quoting Aucoin:
      “His early piece Le Marteau sans maître (1955), a setting of the poetry of René Char, is a scorching, cathartic embodiment of the predicament in which midcentury European modernism found itself tangled.”

      ‘Le Marteau sans maître’ was drafted in 1953, concluded and published in 1954, revised and engraved in 1957. The date given by Aucoin, 1955, is only relevant because June 18, 1955, happened to be the date of the Uraufführung at Baden-Baden.
      As this is the only work by Boulez for which Aucoin indicates a date, one could reasonably expect a modicum of accuracy, hatchet job notwithstanding.

      And could anybody explain how a predicament can be embodied?
      How an embodiment can be cathartic, let alone scorching?

      But such vacuity is par for Aucoin’s course.

  • Anonymous says:

    Amazing brain. Appalling music.

    • michele zukovsky says:

      i loved playing under Boulez. The performances were brilliant and we could feel in underlying passion for each composer…
      He was one of the greats, for me…
      michele zukovsky

      • McHammer says:

        Hearing first hand from players on the field is always great and very revealing, also a great equalizer to some of the other comments. Thanks for sharing.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Frankly I would have thought that it was impossible to take anything uttered by this pseudo left-winger seriously.

    • Human says:

      Frankly I would have thought that it was impossible to take anything uttered by this pseudo right-winger (M McAlpine) seriously.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    Playing the Emperor of France was always Boulez’ least attractive feature. Thanks for posting this

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    My impression on Boulez: He composed two very interesting works: the Second Piano Sonata, the ultimate pianistic nightmarish dream, an attempt to compose a “Hammerklavier Sonate” for the XX Century (alas, as far as I know until now only one pianist has been able to play that piece in the tempos AND dynamic marks provided by the composer), and “Le Marteau sans maître” a work admired by Stravinsky as a generation’s master piece. To those, I would add his student work “Notations”, a set of 12 miniatures for piano (yes, the twelve…) that were so much cannibalized by the composer to the point that after some years he did not had any copy of the score (fortunately, Stockhausen made an own copy of the score done when he met Boulez by the time they were students, remarking that “Notations” is the only work by Boulez that he genuinely admired). After “Le Marteau…” it seems that Boulez never completed a score, everything was work-in-progress and subjected to further “revisions” (enlargements with grace notes here and there, and diluting, long passages that made already meaningless works, well, Boulezian as we know them, esthetically as interesting as furniture, as is usual with non-Chopin French composers, yes as pointed by the article’s author “everything sounds like everything else”).

    Boulez as conductor: perfect in Webern, wonderful in Mahler (my “reference” before approaching more “interesting” interpretations, like those by Bruno Walter, Tennstedt, Bernstein), and lamentable that from Bruckner he conducted only the Eight. Considering his opinion about Messiaen’s “Turangalila” (brothel music, sic), I wonder what he though when conducting Ravel’s “Bolero” and other French banalities from his repertoire.

    • Hilary says:

      Agreed with Stockhausen ( and you) : the early set of “notations” is the standout piece .Glad he saved it!

      Initially, I loved the orchestral fantasies on a selection of them but nowadays find them rather superficial.

    • Al Simon says:

      He conducted the 9th as well with LAPhil

  • John Holmes says:

    This reminds me of a very good article by NL on Boulez which ends “In the annals of 20th-century music, now closed, Pierre Boulez will appear as a powerful curator, not as a creator.”

    I must say I find the revised versions of Repons and Derive 2 like a warm bath. All fire and invention had gone by then.

    • McHammer says:

      I assisted to a performance of “Répons” at Boston Symphony Hall in February of 1986 with 3 ensembles set up on the floor (not the stage) of the BSH around Boulez at the center conducting in a 360 motion with the huge 4X computers in the aisles processing the live sound and if anything else I can’t help but remembering some pretty powerful creative forces in motion there…imho

  • John Holmes says:

    >>“deliberately excluded…as too specific a whole series of references to particular works and composers.”

    That’s a shame. It was always great hearing Boulez sound off about the composers he hated, like Britten and Hindemith. A bit of bitchiness can be quite amusing. This reviewer writes incredibly well and has a great eye for Boulez’ more absurd side. The book itself is apparently >600 pages and the review has saved me buying it

  • Mike Dobson says:

    <<"Boulez is…..intolerant of artists who dare to make music using new sound sources (often electronic ones), "

    Well Boulez wrote one of the worst electronic pieces of all time. Admitedly he withdrew this work "Poésie pour pouvoir" – but it should have left him with sympathy and admiration for other composers persevering with the medium

  • John Borstlap says:

    ‘Tant de bruit pour une ommelette….’

    He gives him at least the credit of being a composer, without noticing that PB is a sound artist, approaching the art form entirely materialistically, thus emptying it of any meaning (sound alone is not music).

    It is not difficult to sense the emptiness underneath the surface of both the works and the writings which form the Boulezbian little ‘universe’. In the end, PB simply lacked musicality, like the people falling for his gospel.

  • James Weiss says:

    Only one word comes to mind when I think of Boulez: overrated.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    When I first engaged with classical music, Boulez was appointed principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Gone was Sir Malcolm Arnold Vaughan Williams from its repertoire.

    We didn’t need Malcolm Arnold apparently, when we had Boulez’s own music to listen to. Or Moeran, Bax or anybody like that either one assumes.

    However, on BBC TV we also had André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra who played Vaughan Williams and Rhapsody in Blue.

    We also had them play Grieg’s piano concerto with Morcambe and Wise.

    A fiiting tribute to Boulez might be to say, long after he is forgotten, people will still remember Previn, Morcambe and Wise playing Grieg’s piano concerto. They played the right notes, not necessaily in the right order. In Boulez’s music, does it matter in which order the notes are played?

    • John Borstlap says:

      In Boulez, the notes are like confetti at wedding celebrations: it’s the gesture that counts, not their position.

      • Hilary says:

        True, gesture is uppermost in the hierarchy.
        However, you must concede that the pitch content has a consistency. I defy anyone to improvise similar configurations of notes.

        • John Borstlap says:

          At rehearsels of PB’s orchestral works, or Le Marteau, it is quite hard to know whether everybody is playing the right notes, because there are no wrong notes in such pieces. If the note collection as played is more or less in time and dynamics are OK, and the gesture sounds ‘convincing’, it’s ‘right’. It is the general impression which is the main thing. Ironically, in spite of all the complexities, this makes PB’s sonic art somehow easy.

          If you play PB’s 2nd sonata, or the original version of Notations, to a class of attentive music students, and you play it a second time with half of the notes chromatically altered – i.e. a half tone higher or lower – nobody will notice. You can repeat the exercise many times and again, nobody will notice. Try that with Bach, or even Debussy.

          The French pianist Jerome Ducros demonstrated such obvious properties in his famous lecture at the Collège de France – which caused an uproar in French modernist circles:

          • Alexander T says:

            What complete and utter cr@p (John Borstlap’s comment).
            Any “attentive music student” failing to notice that half the notes of Boulez’s 2nd sonata had been “chromatically altered” should be studying something else. Certainly not music.

          • John Borstlap says:

            I have witnessed that experiment with a group of brilliant young musicians, who all of them went into a high-level musical profession. Ducros demonstrated the point clearly in his lecture. No wonder Boulez got furious about that lecture and set in motion a campaign to have Ducros hounded and his reputation destroyed. (Which did not work-out, fortunately.) The party line has to be followed.

  • Michael says:

    For me, Boulez was not a musician, and certainly not a conductor. The vaunted ears were, based on my experience, mythological. While he was in his last decades a kinder man than the ‘enfant terrible’ of his early years, I never found a shred of musicality in the man.

    • McHammer says:

      I met many musicians who played under Boulez (NY Phil, IRCAM, BBC etc…) and while they all had very different opinions about the man himself or the composer, I never heard anything but praises about his conducting (esp. for Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartok or Debussy) and his exceptional ears (“the French correction” nickname ), I’m wondering how your own experience led you to the non musician non conductor with mythological vaunted ears label, which seem to go well beyond not liking the composer or his conducting style.

      • John Borstlap says:

        PB conducted the score, not the music. His fortes had volume, not intensity. His gestures were about phrasing of the sound. In his treatment of ‘old’ music, there never was any emotional mobilisation from his conducting that could fire-up the players. It was always very able, according to witnesses, but for many people (including players) it is not so easy to make a distinction between the outward gesture of expression and its inward intensity. ‘The most important thing in music lies between the notes’ – Mahler. ‘Music is the silence between the notes.’ – Debussy. Taken with a grain of salt, this means: the notes are a vehicle of expression, which results from the context and approach: music is the language of the human psyche.

        In comparison, PB’s works are reflecting the terror of the modern world or the souave emptiness of ‘La Défense’, the Parisian modernist imitation of New York’s skyline. ‘Derive’ tells you how that miserable quarter looks, and ‘Notations’ (orchestra) how it feels.

        • Hilary says:

          Too generalised.
          In a recent roundup -by the US critic David Hurwitz- of recordings of Mahler 1, Boulez made it into the top20.

          • John Borstlap says:

            That says nothing. It is difficult to hear the difference between able conducting and well-balanced monitoring of sound, a clear rendering of the score, and a truly musical performance. If you look at videos of PB conducting, you see the bored, aloof way in which he gets his results. They can be impressive but they lack inner life. But it is possible that occasionally the music got under his skin and that some inner life bubbled-up against his ‘better self’.

            I attended his conducting of the Wales production of Pelléas in the eighties, which turned Debussy’s subtle brushwork into a stained-glass piece, removing the atmosphere, the warmth and the mystery. He did not understand the music and its sources, thinking that clarity and mystery are mutually exclusive.

        • McHammer says:

          Well at least he fired up one player, from a comment posted here:

          michele zukovsky
          October 25, 2020
          i loved playing under Boulez. The performances were brilliant and we could feel in underlying passion for each composer…
He was one of the greats, for me…
michele zukovsky

    • Alexander T says:

      “Your experience” being?

    • Doofus1714 says:

      Dear Michael!
      I am curious about his vaunted ears being a myth! Do tell! Thank you!

  • Ken says:

    Such an offensive (albeit extraordinarily well-written) screed along the lines of a mosquito biting an elephant. Matt used to be such a nice kid, too. I guess “respect your elders” isn’t woke.

  • We privatize your value says:

    There are many things to be said against Boulez, and some in his favour, too (such as that he had a sense of humour, he really did). But whenever I hear about his tirades, or get a glimpse of them, I am reminded of his embarrassing comb-overs. The man was ashamed of his bulbous dome (he shouldn’t have been) and maybe he was searching to detract from it by any means?!

  • Margaret says:

    When I was a student at Goldsmiths, I worked with Boulez in a performance of a work by George Newsom, a late night Prom from the Round House….remember those? and me in charge of the Goldsmiths’ chamber choir’s arrangements aged 19. In the piece Chamber Choir had to act as students are perceived to act – sit-downs, protests, and the like – shouting slogans, not always very polite, at various points in the work from amongst the Prommers, done in the ‘best possible taste (not’!) Alongside were the King’s Singers, BBCSO, Cleo Laine no less and Joe Melia as narrator. BBC TV filmed it and Radio 3 would have broadcast it – although how it came across on air goodness knows! Boulez was phenomenal; his wizard ear kept everyone in musical order. He could hear every detail and tell if anyone was out of tune by the smallest possible margin. His conducting style was more like an endless series of karate chops as opposed to the clear down beat we all rely on. I think this Prom coincided with his period as (chief) conductor of BBC Singers/Symphony Orchestra. Incredible performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms I recall. What I remember most, apart from the fact that we seemed to get on well, was his wonderful ear, able to detect the slightest off-note no matter what battery of sound. Absolute musical accuracy was key…at least that is how his approach came across to me. Unforgettable experience even so.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Clarity of the score is only appropriate with certain music – Stravinsky is a case in point. But there is so much other music where textures are mixed and are supposed to be experienced as such: Wagner, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, etc. etc.

  • Peter Chun says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with what Aucoin has written… They’re all true… Boulez was as close minded as the charge here…

  • As a composer, I had an interesting, admittedly self-serving, reaction reading this article. I found myself wondering whether any listener had ever approached Boulez after a performance and said his music had moved them to tears, or laughter. Or that they were deeply moved. I have and it seems to me now so much more important than fussing over whether the music “failed to stimulate genuine reflection on the very compositional practice it posited.”.

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      I have, and found him, after a somewhat dour approach, charming, gracious, and phenomenally insightful. In less than a dozen sentences, he shed light on René Leibowitz, Frank Zappa and Paul Sacher. To this day I regret not having been rigged for stealth recording.

    • William Safford says:

      There are composers who may leave me deeply moved.

      There are other composers who may not leave me deeply moved, who may not give me much of an emotional reaction, but whose music I still enjoy performing or listening to. Hindemith is one such example.

      Schoenberg created a mathematical system that became his muse, but even he reverted to functional harmony from time to time.

      The problem with certain strains of 20th century music: if one composer creates mathematical systems to generate every single detail of his compositions, and another throws ink blots on a staff of paper and puts note stems on the dots, and any listener short of Gunther Schuller can’t tell the difference–then what’s the point?

  • McBreen says:

    Boulez was the fella who wanted to blow up opera houses or was it Stockhausen?

    Really you could not consider their stuff music at all. I have heard better noise from my old Massey Ferguson ploughing my top field.

    • Violinist says:

      Liver pour cordes reduced me to tears of frustration. Totally anti musical.

    • BrianB says:

      While ploughing that field you were creating musique concrète without knowing it. And it was probably a jolly good example at that.

      • McBreen says:

        There is no concrete in my top field Brian.

        The Massey is an old paraffin one which I overhauled it used to have chickens living on top of it, you have to warm it up on petrol and switch to paraffin DERV, the noise it makes once its warmed up is fantastic.

    • Doubting Thomas says:

      Stockhausen was off his bap, he claimed he was abducted by aliens.

      This bloke has successfully managed to use a top loading washing machine in the well known festive song Jingle Bells. I doubt either Boulez or Stockhausen could top it.

      Just think what you could do with your tractor and slurry tank!

      I think using domestic appliances and farm machinery could point a way forward for 21st classical music.

  • Stephen Gould says:

    We are all too near the music to know. Now my betting is that in 100 years’ time much of Boulez’s music, as with that of many other modernist classical composers, will be played only as a curiosity or for academic interest. But we don’t know.

    Consider Berlioz’s account of hearing some old buffer complaining about tuneless modern rubbish after a performance of a Beethoven symphony – or my mother’s noting that when she was a child, Rite of Spring was considered horribly modern and difficult.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    I don’t know what is worse, the words or the music.

  • RobK says:

    A brilliant article in most respects. Boulez couldn’t write (words) to save his live, but one work, Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna, is wonderful: graspable, melodic (well, sort of…) complexity-in-simplicity, genuine moving in its Messiaenic monumentality. For most of his output I find that after the initial fascination with the glittering surfaces, most of his works refuse to give up their secrets with repeated listenings. Oh, the little ‘Derive 1’ is very beautiful.

    • Hilary says:

      I’d add Eclat/ Multiples to that list. Many pieces followed in the wake of this (and at great length!) but without the same freshness.

      • John Borstlap says:

        In Montreal the main hospital named a foot disease ‘multiple eclats’. I will spare you the description because it is rather unpleasant, altough not lethal.

        • Alexander T says:

          You have a fixation with Boulez.
          One can but wonder why.

          • John Borstlap says:

            It’s not a ‘fixation’. It is being amazed that so many so-called ‘music lovers’ are so ignorant of what happened post 1945 and prefer to shuffle so much historical evidence under the carpet of their well-meaning indifference.

  • Bruce says:

    I enjoyed reading this review much more than I have enjoyed any of Boulez’s music.

  • Couperin says:

    People just love love love to hate hate hate Boulez. If it’s not your cup of tea then ignore it. If only we could ignore post-minimaliam and socially-conscious activist operas about sexual abuse by self-described “sonic artists”. Can someone write a polemic about that?

  • William Safford says:

    As composers go, he was a talented conductor.

    • McHammer says:

      thanks for sharing, that’s a great read, J. Adams’s analysis is way more insightful IMHO than the writing by Aucoin, but I’m probably biased because ironically it matches my appreciation of the 2 composers’ work..

  • John Borstlap says:

    Britten and Shostakovich did not write ‘more conventional music’, but new music that was still rooted in tradition. The idea that they were ‘conventional’ is one of the results of the nonsensical belief that there is something like progress in the arts, a gospel that Boulez has done his very best to spread.

    Why being grateful for an ideology that raised walls everywhere and did immense damage to the art form because of its totalitarian intentions? Boulez was a product of WW II and not a reaction to it. The materialism, the nihilism, the cynicism, the pretentious intellectualism, the anti-humanism, it all represents the worst of the last century.

    • John Borstlap says:

      All nonsense….. There is only one form of progress and that is improvement. But historical progress in the sense that science has progress, does not exist in art. There is progress in available means, but that is on another level. The more means are available, the more varied and rich art can become. But that does not mean that there is progress. If this were so, then we would conclude that Mozart is an improvement on Bach, Beethoven on Mozart, Brahms on Beethoven, Mahler on Brahms etc. etc. and every thinking music professional knows that this is simply not true.

      I don’t dismiss atonal ‘music’, or sound art, at all, but the claims that it would be a natural development (a progressive development0 of the musical tradition, and a form of music. That is just not true. The comment above is merely echoing half a century of ideology, and you see how easily people buy that stuff without thinking, and without getting to the sources. Look at the tone of contempt: this is also a part of the ideology – if you don’t buy the avantgarde commandments, you are narrow-minded…. while there is no more narrowminded and conformist mindset as the postwar avantgarde vision of music and music history. It has a medieval quality about it, complete with inquisitional condemnations. That whole vision of music is intellectually dishonest, in its refusal to engage in a real rational discussion – as is shown in Boulez’ furious condemnation when Jerome Ducros dared to question the ‘truth’ of postwar atonalism in his lecture at the Collège de France. Ligeti was already criticizing this idiocy, and it led him to seek other paths than the Boulezbian one.

      So, this comment is a fine ecample, an ‘objet trouvé’, of convention created by postwar nonsense.

      Modernism – as it began with Schoenberg and Webern – is deeply ideological, and painting music history from Wagner’s Tristan onwards as a line of development, of progress, via Mahler, Schoenberg and Webern, to Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis etc. etc. and all of that is a serious distortion of historic reality. Change and development is something different from progress. But it is easier to follow the conventions of postwar modernism than look into the reality of what happened since Tristan.

    • Marfisa says:

      Simon Behrman — I wish you had stopped after the first paragraph. And I wish that the value-laden concept of ‘progress’ (to what?) in history could be recognized for the insidious nonsense that it is.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The only work by PB that moves close to music, is his early ‘Notations’ (it was impossible to find any other title that could somehow represent the ‘meaning’ of the work), in its orchestral garb, where PB harks back to Schoenberg and Berg, and tries to be more aggressive, more ugly, more nightmarish than the Viennese Angstmongers:

    One has to listen carefully and attentively what the work ‘says’: hatred, destruction, violence, angst, and a gaping abyss of nothingness. It is the only work by PB in which he reveals himself. That he went back to it later in life and scored it, thereby magnifying its effect, may have been the result of nostalgia, an admission of something lost – some life blood, however negative and perverse. It is an impressive work, in all its terror, telling the listener how awful life is and showing the darkness in the heart of this frustrated and emotionally-handicapped man. This is how life feels if you are a Boulezbian, and which sounds are heard in Hell.

    • Hilary says:

      I beg to differ. ‘Notations’ is better ( fresher) in the piano solo original.

    • McHammer says:

      “hatred, destruction, violence, angst, and a gaping abyss of nothingness..This is how life feels if you are a Boulezbian, and which sounds are heard in Hell.”…Oh, the humanity!…LOL, protect us from Boulez the Antichrist and the Viennese serial killers.

      I’m just surprised how such a non-musical emotionless composer and mediocre conductor can deserve so much passion…I didn’t expect that when reading through the comments on a music article you’d feel as you have to chose your camp, Boulezbian or anti, it seems to match the times we’re leaving in I guess.

      Interesting nevertheless because thanks to the links your are posting I’m re-discovering some of his works and listening to some I didn’t know. All good…

    • AnnaT says:

      John, really, a “Boulezbian?” Are you 12 years old (and has all your flailing for the glorious past inured you to the fact that, well, calling someone gay isn’t really an insult anymore, however much you want it to be)?

  • Hilary says:

    Murky sonics but PB rises to the occasion in Brahms’s Requiem:
    The later years he seemed to lose some bite…the Chronochromie with Cleveland is an insipid affair for instance.

  • sam says:

    68 comments and counting. The New York Review of Books, which doesn’t even have a comments page for this article, ought to pay SD a fee for all the clicks to the article.

    Say what you will about SD, it gives visibility to things not otherwise noticed, and provides a forum for (no holds barred) discussions that often are not available at the original publication. (And that includes the NYT classical section, where often they are shy about letting readers react to their articles, which I see as a fear of hearing from the readership).

    Good for Aucoin for his ho holds barred review, and good for SD for providing a forum for feedback.

  • Anon says:

    1) First of all, other (ahem, dare I say better) composers don’t share Aucoin’s assessment:

    John Adams, The New York Times:

    “Readers can now take stock of the daunting, demanding Boulezian worldview and, whether they warm to his own works or not, appreciate him as one of the most important writers ever about music. Although Boulez was to live over 20 years after the final lecture, Music Lessons has the feel of a vast expository Gesamtkunstwerk that ponders and probes musical experience to its very essence. It ranges over music’s fundamental building blocks — its modes of organization and how we perceive it, both acoustically and culturally — to how memory both aids and interferes with the process of cognition, and on to matters of notation, style, idea, technology and tradition.”

    Bernard Rands, Pulitzer Prize– and Grammy-winning composer and Bigelow Rosen Professor Emeritus, Harvard University:

    “Not since the nineteenth century has a composer of major stature written so eloquently, elegantly, and profoundly as Boulez did in these leçons. They read, engagingly, like a journal of discovery, evolution, and defining of a personal artistic aesthetic. From iconoclastic enfant terrible of the European avant-garde to the equally demanding but avuncular orchestra maestro, Boulez insists (autocratically) on the obligation of composer, performer, and listener to think about music, not just feel it. The translations are rendered sensitively and comprehensively, resulting in a book of historical significance.”

    2) Second of all, other (ahem, shall I say better) critics don’t share Aucoin’s assessment:

    Alex Ross
    “The long-awaited English translation of Pierre Boulez’s Collège de France lectures is a major event. Comprehensive and incisive, his brilliance tempered by wisdom and profound experience, Boulez gives essential insight into the craft of composition.”

    3) Third of all, judge for yourself, why read a review when you can read the entire 650 page tome for only $40 in cloth or $24 in ebook format:

  • McBreen says:

    There are some folk on here who think there is “classical” music from last century worth hearing.

    Personally I don’t agree, it does not give me a buzz like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc. Music is a personal taste and the stuff last century just does not appeal at all. I have none in my library.

    What I do have is a vast amount of very obscure baroque and early music which I can listen on my tractor until the cows come home and I don’t mean VWs cowpat music!

  • Garech de Brun says:

    There is no audience for 20th century classical music and it is not because cov-19 shut down the concert halls. It is because their brains cannot follow it as it has no clear structure, pattern commonly called a tune. They can follow Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven etc, because they have a clear definite pattern, melody or rhythm or tune. But the 20th century stuff (Bartok, Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, etc) does not, nor is it easy on the ear. It turns folk off.

    Remember all music apart from that composed for the church, is mere entertainment, if it makes you want to turn it off why listen to it or for that matter perform it at all.

    In the last 20 years has anybody composed a symphony, sonata, concerto, quartet, Mass, or opera which is worth hearing and which is liklely to be performed for the next 200 years? No.

    Beethoven said his Hammerklavier sonata would challenge pianists for the next 50 years, that was a real underestimation. He would be amazed his stuff is still being played and he would laugh at the stuff from last century.

    • John Borstlap says:

      What a nonsensical comment. It does not deserve serious opposition.

      • Garech de Brun says:

        I am entitled to voice my dislike of crap 20th century music, your stuff is boring. You are not Bach, wise up no one comes to hear it at all.

        It’s all Bollocks John, Boulez was a nutter.

  • John Porter says:

    So, Boulez liked what he liked and that’s news to people and also bothers them? Boulez was entitled to have an opinion, it’s partly what made him what he was: a great conductor and a great composer. I would think a lot of people who read this column would be thrilled that he didn’t like minimalism either. He was honest and didn’t fake it, or at least didn’t fake it much past his directorship of the New York Philharmonic (yes, he made a somewhat pedestrian recording of Handel). The hostility of so many people here towards anything later than Brahms is extraordinary.

    • Garech de Brun says:

      “The hostility of so many people here towards anything later than Brahms is extraordinary”. John that is to be expected. The best music was all composed well before 1900, who wants to listen to wrong notes, random notes and noises resembling my old paraffin tractor.

      The trouble with 20th century music is that it is not easy on the ear, it demands too much from the listener. The other reason of course is it does not give you the same “Buzz” as Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert do.

      • Hilary says:

        “It demands too much from the listener”
        A remarkably lazy perspective.

        The first time I encountered Debussy’s “Jeux” when I was nine or so I found it hard to relate to compared to what I knew but I listened to it repeatedly.
        Eventually, I formed an understanding and appreciation. This-in turn- eased the way into other repertoire.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Nonsense. PB was, apart from a sonic artist, an ideologue, campaigning for an entirely falsified vision of music history. He tried to be ‘truly 20th century’ and inflated the misunderstandings of modernism to absurd proportions. You should get some correct information:

  • Brook Noidiots says:

    We should only speak good of the dead. Boulez is dead. Good.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Recent neurological research by a team at the Texas Institute of Technology has revealed that postwar modernist ideology creates a thin layer of fungus on the brain which hinders the exchange of neuron energy between the two brain halves. The left half gets overblown while the right half – where the emotional field resides – withers away, with devastating effect on the brain’s interpretation faculties of the surrounding world.

  • Stuart says:

    A pretty interesting post with more than 100 divergent comments. A lot of dislike for 20th century music in general and for Boulez (as composer and even conductor) in particular. I don’t understand why people think ill of others who like something that they do not. I could care less if someone dislikes Boulez’ compositions and I don’t think they are idiots for that dislike. I have collected a couple of hundred gigabytes of classical music over the past 50 years of listening. Mainly 1700’s on and all genres and types. I like all a healthy dose of Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi – many do not. I like all of Wagner’s works – many do not. I do not care for Brahms or Tchaikovsky – many do. So what. Don’t think ill of me if regularly listen to the works of Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, Janacek, Schoenberg, Berg and Boulez. I like Boulez as a conductor as well, especially his Mahler recordings. I lived in Chicago for 40 years and met Boulez backstage at the CSO several times – a charming man. And with deference to John Borslap (his posts delight and infuriate me in equal measure) I consider Boulez as a composer of music (not soundscapes or sound pictures or whatever). If you like to listen to Boulez, good for you. If you don’t, good for you. Don’t judge me just because our tastes are different. And don’t lump 120 years of music (20th century forward) into one basket – it is not all the same. Music continued to evolve after 1900 and should not be treated like a historical museum. I continue to like the journey.

    • Stuart says:

      John Borstlap – I typed your name incorrectly – apologies.

    • Alexander T says:

      One of the best posts I’ve come across on SD.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That is not the point at all, because PB wanted so much more than merely be a ‘composer’ and writing ‘music’, he wanted ‘the revolution’ taking hold in music life. It did not work out that way, but he did a lot of damage to the art form with his totalitarian attempts and intellectual dishonesty. If he had quietly and gently (in the style of his ‘Derive’) written his soundscapes and performed them, he could have earned the accolade of having invented an alltogether new art form – and be much more radical than he thought he was. But his claims of ‘progress’ and writing music, and denunciation of the competition (Britten, Shostakovich, etc. etc.) destroyed all genuine credits he otherwise may have had.

      And his conducting has always been something like a side salad. Maybe he conducted to battle the loneliness of his sterile room where the four pots of parameters would stare him in the face all day long.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    It seems to me that the important words in N.L.’s introductory sentence are not “Pierre Boulez” or “Matthew Aucoin” but rather “New York Review of Books.” All of this is typical NYRoB disputation, usually lavished on matters of politics or the fine points of bookish intellectual ideology. First you drink a toast to the memory of Julius and Ethel, and then you have at it.

    Find a book author who takes no quarter in staking out and defending their territory, and then retain someone who thinks just the opposite to review the book, and then sit back and enjoy watching the fur fly. The only unfortunate thing is that we are denied the opportunity to read a responsive letter by M. Boulez invariably titled (always politely titled, the responses) “A reply to Matthew Aucoin.”

    It helps sell the books … and the magazine.

  • B. Guerrero says:

    Upon entering the room that says “actions speak louder than words”, let it be noted that Boulez conducted not just Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Stravinsky, but also Bruckner (#8), Szymanowski, Scriabin, De Falla, Varese, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, R. Strauss (Zarathustra), Mozart (just a tad) and, yes, G.F. Handel. All of it quite well, I might add.

  • Max_B says:

    Capitalism happened… (creation/destruction).

    Live Orchestras are just too expensive for producing auditory information. Other Smaller mobile audio formats won out. Formats that took advantage of cost savings and improved productivity. Virtually nobody has a handy orchestra available to try out ideas at 2am in the morning. Not enough people were left in the classical orchestra realm to produce the competition that would drive the cream of composers to the top. We have generally poor or mediocre classical orchestral stuff, with the odd good bit thrown in.

    But Classical music kept going in film and tv… because it was tagged onto a new technology, – visual information distribution – that made enough money to pay for a live orchestra. Even here, they are now feeling the pinch… hence people like Hans Zimmer used technology (computers, and sampling technology) to compete in audio production for film and tv – saving the costs of a real orchestra, when working up a demo.

    But sampling technology is now so good, film and tv directors often use the samples in the final film and tv production.

    The cost of the sample technology has now fallen so far, and the user interface, and sample quality has improved so much… that I predict we’re now on the verge of a new flowering of classical orchestral music again…

    The problem is getting good classical composers to sit down and learn how to use the technology… technology that will allow them to test out their ideas cheaply… and refine them quickly.

    Classical musicians and IT are still rather at odds with each other. The skill set of an IT expert, and great composer combined in one individual is very rare.

    The good creative classical composers tend to hire IT experts to run their computer network systems. Or the composers are classical amateurs from an IT background with limited classical background.

    But this flowering of classical orchestral music is happening… it’s really happening.

    As the music distribution industry is being shaken to its core, all things are aligning…

    I’m beginning to hear the odd bit of classical music from unknowns on streaming platforms that support creatives (Bandcamp)… recorded and mixed digitally on an audio workstation with a virtual orchestra.

    At last I’m hearing the rare odd bit of new classical music outside of film and tv, that interests me, sound that makes the hairs on my neck stand up, and just occasionally brings tears to my eyes.