A Special Tribute


A Special Tribute

Pierre Boulez needs no introduction. His 27 Grammys barely begin to convey his international reputation and his towering influence over the music of his century.
This portrait helps to discover the many aspects of the composer's career, and the fundamental unity of his vocation.

Pierre Boulez,
from lightning to delight

By Claude Abromont

With such a dizzying range of achievements, the career of Pierre Boulez defies any summing-up. It may still be too early to draw conclusions about a man who has imposed his mark on the entire second half of the 20th century. He has divided opinion like few musicians before him; there are pro-Boulez and anti-Boulez camps but little or no middle ground.
In attempting to identify the driving force behind his immense activity spanning nearly three-quarters of a century, the dynamics emerge with blinding clarity: Pierre Boulez is a composer, first and foremost. Everything else follows with the rigor of a mathematical proof.

Boulez's vocation as a composer is at the heart of his career. When his music needed a conductor to be performed, he became a conductor. If the thinking behind his music was utterly unique, if the concepts needed to be made known and discussed, he turned to theory. If the technique in the works of the 1950s was hard to grasp, and required a guide to show the way, he lectured and wrote. Because his and his colleagues' works were underperformed, he created the Domaine musical series and then the Ensemble intercontemporain. Because his and his fellow musicians' music requires new technological and sound processing tools, he founded l’IRCAM. Finally, if his music was derided, attacked, and mocked, from the outset, he became a passionate advocate and polemicist.


Pierre Boulez was born March 26, 1925, in Montbrison, Loire, France. He has been particularly reserved regarding his childhood and his parents, about whom little is known, except that his father Leon was an engineer, was somewhat austere, and once returned from a trip to the United States with a radio; his mother, Marcelle née Calabre, carried discretion to such an extreme that during Boulez's tenure as music director at the New York Philharmonic, a biographer was unable to make contact and finally had to give up trying to meet her. Boulez has reported that he enjoyed hearing elder sister Jeanne (born in 1922) play the piano, and wanted to learn. He took private lessons in the neighboring town, Saint-Étienne. Blessed with absolute pitch, he sang in a choir, and his interest in chamber music helped him discover the intensity of his calling. By the time he composed his first pieces of music at the age of 17, under the influence of Baudelaire and other poets, he had already passed his baccalaureate and was enrolled in advanced mathematics in the city of Lyon.

In September 1943. Boulez enrolled in Georges Dandelot's harmony class at the Conservatoire, in occupied Paris. The following year marked a major turning point, when he joined Olivier Messiaen's class. Messiaen, a compelling composer and organist, brought a fresh breath of innovation, curiosity and rhythmic exploration to classes that would be attended by many composers over the next four decades (including Pierre Henry, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Tristan Murail, Betsy Jolas). The next decisive encounter took place in 1945, with René Leibowitz, who had worked with Schoenberg in Berlin. As a composer and theorist, Leibowitz aimed to introduce the language of the Vienna School to France, but Boulez was exasperated by his dogmatism and soon returned to studying with Messiaen.

With pianist Yvonne Loriod. Donaueschinger, October 1956
Photo Willy Pragher/Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg CC BY 4.0

First flashes

While studying composition and analysis, and already diligently composing, Boulez continued performing on the piano. (Note that Boulez recorded the piano sounds for Studies 3 and 4 of Pierre Schaeffer's Five Studies of Noises, Études de bruits, the pioneering "concrete music" work broadcast in 1948). The transition to another keyboard instrument, the electronic ondes Martenot, to earn his living working nights at the Folies Bergère nightclub in Paris, took an unexpected turn. The actor and director Jean-Louis Barrault was looking for an "ondist" for the incidental music by Arthur Honegger for his production of Hamlet, when someone recommended Boulez. Sensing the creative potential of the young man he later described as "bristly and charming like a young cat," Barrault hired Boulez as music director of his Théâtre Marigny, and Boulez conscientiously fulfilled that role from 1946 to 1956.

Pierre Boulez has often expressed his view that education should be short and explosive. He applied this rule to his own life and was entirely self-supporting from the age of 21. His apartment on Rue Beautreillis in the Marais district was a meeting place for the avant-garde Modernist movement, and had a spare room where John Cage stayed whenever he came to Paris.
He had a knack for meeting the right people. Madame Suzanne Tézenas, who welcomed Boulez as a guest to her salon, and Pierre Souvtchinsky, who was close to Stravinsky, were both instrumental in the Domaine Musical project and helped to advance his career.

Études de bruits by Schaeffer (Piano sounds by Boulez, starting at 4:52)

Études de bruits by Schaeffer (Piano sounds by Boulez, starting at 4:52)

habillage du diaporama
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Boulez conduct
Roger Picard/RF
habillage du diaporama

Boulez as conductor

The first time Boulez conducted a large orchestra was in 1957, when Hermann Scherchen stepped aside and recommended that the composer should conduct his own cantata Le Visage nuptial in Cologne. Boulez instantly imposed his nearly inimitable style, conducting without a baton, which combines precision with roundness, suppleness with rigor.
Previously, in Paris he had founded the Concerts du Petit-Marigny in 1953, and the Domaine musical concert series the following year, thus providing an opportunity for performances of the newest mid-20th century music. A hundred international composers had their works performed — 360 pieces in all — often in premieres conducted by Boulez himself. He had never formally studied conducting, and except for Désormières' rehearsals, which he attended without fail, his craft was shaped by actual practice; and his reputation has grown ever since.

Baden-Baden. Allemagne. 1971

It would be impossible to summarize his conducting career; the 67 CDs in the Complete Columbia Album Collection released by Sony Classical give just a glimpse, as do the box sets from Erato and Deutsche Grammophon. Among the achievements in a gigantically broad repertory, alongside a host of young composers, we find both Frank Zappa's The Perfect Stranger and Haendel's Water Music. Landmarks include his first, 1963, recording of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring; both operas by Alban Berg, Wozzeck (1964, staged by Jean-Louis Barrault) and Lulu (1979, with the premiere of the third act, staged by Patrice Chéreau) at the Paris Opera; and the legendary centenary production of Wagner's Ring tetralogy in Bayreuth, also directed by Chéreau, in 1976.
A tireless traveller, Boulez was with the Cleveland Orchestra from 1967, served as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1971-1975) and also as music director of the New York Philharmonic (1971-1978), and was named principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1995.
To measure the evolution of Boulez's approach to conducting over the course of his career, one could compare the two complete recordings of Webern's music. The first was recorded before 1971 and fills 3 CDs, whereas the second, released in 2000, has 6 CDs and includes the works without opus numbers. The style of the first is tense, possibly aggressive, but tremendously energetic, whereas the later recordings are even brighter, more supple, and more sensuous.

Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1992

Boulez conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1992

Conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Sound and Fury by Philippe Manoury, 1999.
Photo Philippe Gontier

Advisor and official

Boulez's move to Germany in 1958 and his decision to live in Baden-Baden allowed him to establish a critical distance from France, while continuing to weigh upon institutional developments. A number of proposals that could have facilitated his return ultimately failed to materialize. His disappointment is evident in the famous article on government intervention in the arts, "Pourquoi je dis NON à Malraux" ("Why I say 'no' to [Culture Minister André] Malraux"), published in the Nouvel Observateur after Landowski was assigned responsibility for music by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 1966. A comprehensive proposal for reforming the Opéra prepared jointly with director Jean Vilar and choreographer Maurice Béjart in 1967 also went nowhere. But it was only a matter of time. Boulez participated in the early planning of the Cité de la Musique in Paris and provided the impetus for the Philharmonie de Paris complex, which was only recently inaugurated. Detractors, on the other hand, considered him to be a ubiquitous éminence grise, a man in the shadows, influencing decision-makers.
IRCAM can be considered his crowning achievement in the French institutional landscape. IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music) opened in 1977-78. The largely underground facility, part of the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris, has enabled composers collaborate with IT specialists and discover the possibilities of real-time sound transformation. This is where the legendary 4X computer used in Répons was developed. IRCAM is also celebrated for its performances, spearheaded by The Ensemble intercontemporain and its 31 soloists dedicated to music from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Pierre Boulez about his music: "The reconquest of freedom"

Pierre Boulez about his music: "The reconquest of freedom"

With Andrew Gerzso and the 4X at IRCAM, 1989.
Photo Philippe Gontier

Educator and theorist

Boulez has never held an official position in the Conservatoire system, but teaching has been an important aspect of his career, notably at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Germany, where he first went in 1952 to hear Yvonne Loriod perform his Second Piano Sonata, before returning in 1956 for a series of courses with Stockhausen and Nono. He was then invited by Paul Sacher to teach music analysis in Basel from 1961 and was a professor at the prestigious Collège de France from 1976 to 1995.

This experience provided the opportunity to develop his theoretical work, with numerous publications including his celebrated analysis of the Rite of Spring (Stravinsky demeure, 1953, translated as "Stravinsky Remains" in Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship), and his groundbreaking Penser la musique aujourd’hui (published 1963, translated as Boulez on Music Today). Here he defined an unprecedented relationship with sound material — a complex, deductive, inventive relationship, as he forged the concept of the multiplication of chords. The multiplication technique expanded serialism beyond pitch, opening harmonic fields that could be shaped and sculpted; Boulez has revisited and enriched this line of research, up to and including in his latest compositions

Second Piano Sonata

Second Piano Sonata

Master class in conducting at Lucerne Festival Academy (2011)

Masterclass in New York, 2005.
Photo Marion Kalter

Passionate advocate

Passionate advocate

Boulez the theorist was also a fierce polemicist, his mordant wit ready to strike at a moment's notice. His mockery of composer André Jolivet ("Joli navet") was on a par with Debussy's greeting "Cher d'Indouille" for Vincent d'Indy. Sometimes, however, Boulez proved less flamboyant, as when he clashed with Michel Schneider, the former Director of Music and Dance at the French Ministry of Culture (on national television February 19, 1993, on a program hosted by Bernard Pivot)
Two Boulez quotes about which much — possibly too much — has been written cast light on his passionate advocacy and the strength of his convictions. The first could have chilling implications. "Any musician who has not experienced — we do not say understood, but truly experienced — the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. Because the entirety of his work places him below what is demanded by his time". The key word here is "experienced" (the French term means "intimately experienced" or "felt") as opposed to "understood." Boulez is not attempting to impose a method or an esthetic, but simply stating the fact that there has been a Copernican revolution in musical thought. To take examples from different forms of music, it can be argued that the spectral composers and Steve Reich both "experienced the necessity," and that they have responded in their own original, personal manners. The second quote may seem at odds with the first, as relates to Boulez's own project. It is a reflection on how the poet and actor Antonin Artaud read from his own works — in a rough guttural voice, while proclaiming a wild, original expressive freedom. "More and more, I imagine that to create effectively, we must consider delirium and, yes, organize it."

Pierre Boulez on the 20th century music

Pierre Boulez on the 20th century music


Who is the real Pierre Boulez? Opinions are divided. Where some see a captivating, magnetic creative genius, others point to an austere, insufferable sectarian. Boulez has been formidably secretive and protective of his private life. Facile simplifications fail to do justice to Boulez the man. Generous, ready to personally fund a concert for a composer whose work would otherwise go unperformed, donating prize money to fund research, ready to help, easily approachable and considerate to his performers — unlike many star conductors – the real Pierre Boulez is likely to remain a mystery.

Manuscript score of Explosante fixe, 1991.
Photo Philippe Gontier

The composer

Composition has been central to Pierre Boulez' life. How can we appreciate his legacy? Will his music still be performed a century from now?

Paradoxically, with the passage of time, Boulez increasingly emerges as the most "classical" of the Modernist revolutionaries, the composer closest to Music with a capital M. The catalog of works by the champion of the tabula rasa, who so often explored territories "at the limit of fertile ground, on the border between plough land and desert," to quote a title he borrowed from Paul Klee, contains no concerts for helicopters (Stockhausen, Helicopter String Quartet), no movements of uninterrupted silence (John Cage, 4'33"), no oversaturated sounds or creaking doors with sighs (Pierre Henry, Variations for a Door and a Sigh). With the exception of those works that use computers or spatialization, the music calls into play the same fundamental materials as Berlioz employed — timbres, melody lines, rhythms, and sound discoveries. Time will doubtless show the extent to which this is consistent with the tradition of characteristically French sonority, in the lineage of Debussy and the other great masters of harmony.
For readers curious about Boulez's compositions, we propose to ignore chronology and begin a subjective journey through his works, starting with what we consider the most accessible pieces, and concluding with the most mysterious.
Why not begin with one of the rare recent works that audiences, after hearing it once, often demand to be performed again as an encore, the orchestral version of the Notations (1980/1999, following the piano version of 1946), in which the orchestration is so warm, colorful, and explosive?
Next we will listen to Le Visage nuptial (1947-1989), ablaze with the young composer's excitement, with its micro-rhythmic texture, incandescence, and captivating sensuousness. This is followed by works in the composer's latest manner: Sur Incises (1996-1998), Mémoriale (1985), or Anthèmes II for violin and electronics (1997), masterpieces of a more mellow, "hedonistic" Boulez; each work is a complex universe — captivating, elegant, with trills and powerful harmonic innovations.
Répons (1981–1984) is best discovered in concert because spatial acoustics play such an essential role. The signature work of international tours, Répons is an adventure in sound. It features a chamber ensemble in the middle of the room, six soloists surrounding the audience, and six groups of loudspeakers projecting the electronics in real time.
Schoenberg's name is firmly associated with Pierrot lunaire and Stravinsky's with The Rite of Spring; these may be simplifications, but they are nevertheless useful ones. In textbooks on the history of music, Boulez will surely be identified as the composer of the dazzling Marteau sans maître (1955) which, as musicologist Dominique Jameux writes, ended his "rigorist parenthesis" of the early 1950s. The Marteau, chamber music for six instruments and voice, on poems by René Char, with ceremonial, hieratical aspects evocative of Japan, was one of Stravinsky's favorite works.
The tour concludes with Éclat (1965) for 15 instruments — sometimes called a "concerto for conductor" because of its open-form structure, with a calculated unpredictability left to the initiative of the conductor who, through a series of cues, can reverse sequences, change nuances, and stretch or contract the beat. This secretive work shows an enigmatic, cryptic side. Listeners familiar with Mallarmé's lines: "cet unanime blanc conflit d'une guirlande avec la même" (This white and undivided / garland's struggle with the same") from the poem "Une dentelle s'abolit" (Lace sweeps itself aside) will grasp the significance of the initial piano cadenza — a struggle between the bass and treble registers. Mallarmé's "vols qui n'ont pas fui" ("flights never flown") will come into play at the center of the composition, as the notes gradually freeze, in a metaphor for Mallarmé's white swan caught by its reflection in the frozen winter lake. In Boulez' work, the poetry is often interwoven in the structure and is only gradually revealed.
After completing this tour, the other compositions will gradually fall into place. Works like Pli selon pli, the Sonatas and the Sonatine, Rituel, Cummings ist der Dichter, Domaines, and Le Soleil des eaux, will provide an opportunity to truly appreciate the distance traveled from the initial lightning flashes to the central masterpieces, and finally, to the sheer delight imbued with elegance and distinction.

Claude Abromont
I have two lives, one of a composer and one of a performer

I have two lives, one of a composer and one of a performer

Baden Baden, 2009. Photo Philippe Gontier

About Pierre Boulez

A special event on France Musique dedicated to the composer, with interviews, concerts and unpublished archives.