Pierre Boulez

1925 2016

Pierre Boulez

Composer • Conductor


The composer Pierre Boulez is known as one of the most radical and controversial members of the Parisian avant garde. His works, which sought to combine elements of serialism with the advanced rhythms of Stravinsky and others, served as a catalyst and an inspiration for the next generation of composers to push these barriers even further. 

Born near Lyon, Boulez showed an interest in both music and mathematics from a young age. His father was an engineer and was excited by Boulez’s skills in that field, sending him to study mathematics in Lyon for a year, with the intention that he would travel to Paris afterwards and enroll in the Ecole Polytechnique. Although he did in fact move to Paris, Boulez spurned his father’s wishes, instead auditioning for the Paris Conservatoire. He failed the piano entrance exam, but luckily his background in music theory was enough for him to still be admitted.

Perhaps not surprisingly due to his restless mind, Boulez felt uninspired and confined by much of the Paris Conservatory, preferring to seek additional instruction elsewhere, including with Andrée Vaurabourg, the wife of Arthur Honegger. However there were two professors at the conservatory that had a lasting impact on Boulez. The first, René Leibowitz was the first to introduce Boulez to serialism, a profoundly important influence on his music which he described as having “a harmonic and contrapuntal richness and a capacity for development and extension of a kind I have never found anywhere else.” The second major influence was the great Olivier Messiaen, who was one of the first to recognize the unique talent of the young Boulez, and instilled in him an obsession with the idea that composition must be both strictly logical and entirely original.

By the time he had graduated from the Paris Conservatory with a premier prix in harmony, Boulez had fully adopted a radical and strictly methodological approach to composition. He began to express a disdain for any music not derived from twelve-tone serialist music, stating “any musician who was not felt … the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is OF NO USE” and frequently attending and protesting at concerts which he and his friends viewed as insufficiently radical. His early works, such asNotations (1945) and Le visage nuptial (first released in 1951) where both influenced both by Schoenberg and late Webern. The latter was revised in 1957 to add substantially to the instrumentation, as well as incorporating quarter-tones in two of the five movements. However these here later removed again by a subsequent revision in 1989, reflecting Boulez’s lifelong habit of constantly going back and reworking old pieces, so that almost all of them are still thought of as works-in-progress.

In the 1950’s Boulez began to experiment with a compositional style leaving much more of the decision-making power with the performer, although these freedoms are still often within the constructs that Boulez himself set, and thus fall short of true improvisation. For example,Livre pour quatour (1949) consists of a collection of numerous short movement, with the performer choosing the order and even which ones will be played on a given concert. A precursor to much of his later work,Livre introduces the technique known as “total serialism” to Boulez’s work, in which not only pitch and rhythm but also timbre, volume and duration are subject to the stringent modifications central to serialism. Perhaps his most famous work using this technique isStructures I (1952). Written for two pianos, the work was premiered in Paris by Boulez and Messiaen playing the two parts.

Le marteau sans maître (1954) is arguably Boulez’s most famous and critically acclaimed work, although it is certain that the composer would not care for the latter distinction. The work, written for a minimal ensemble of contralto, alto flute, xylorimba, vibraphone, percussion, guitar and viola, is based on a set of surrealist poems by French poet René Char, and features a much more personal style than his earlier works, while still falling broadly within the serialist world. The piece is extremely complex, with the premier in Germany famously requiring 50 rehearsals before it could be played properly.

Having already been an active proponent of 20th century compositional techniques for many years, Boulez finally catalogued a series of lectures he gave on the topic into the bookPenser la musique aujourd’hui in 1963. Penser la musique aujourd’hui cites numerous compositions Boulez had written in the previous five years and is extremely thorough with its analysis, perhaps a requisite for a book written on serialism.

Although Boulez continued to compose into his 90s, his most famous works are from the 1950s and 60s, although there are some notable electronic compositions from subsequent decades includingDialogue de l’ombre double (1985) and Anthèmes II (1997). Suffering from periods of decreased compositional creativity, the second part of Boulez’s career largely focused on conducting rather than composing. His first breakthroughs as a conductor came with almost simultaneous appointments as the Director of Music of both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in 1968. Subsequently he held posts as the Principal Guest Conductor of both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra, with which he won a Grammy in 1996 for their interpretation of Debussy’sLa Mer. As a conductor, Boulez was known as a renowned interpreter of contemporary music including the works of Ligeti, Messiaen and Bartok.

An active composer even until his 90s, Boulez amassed an impressive 26 Grammy Awards and continued to add the works of modern composers to his conducting repertoire right up until is last years. Although his work is now accepted and praised by a broad segment of the population, Boulez’s mission as an artist was not to please the listener, but to push the musical envelope as far as possible.