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Pierre Boulez 85th Birthday Feature: March 22, 2010

Pierre Boulez
Stravinsky: Pulcinella; Symphony in Three Movements; Four Études
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Pierre Boulez


CSO Resound
Rel. 16 Feb 2010

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Boulez, the Composer
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Boulez, the Conductor
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Pierre Boulez, whose 85th birthday we celebrate on March 26, is among the most esteemed musicians of our time, holding a preeminent position equally as composer and conductor. As such, he belongs to a rare cadre of musicians, alongside the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler, whose fame and influence extends to both disciplines – and distinct from the much larger number of composers who conduct principally their own music, such as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland.

Boulez’ talents as a conductor are on grand display in the new Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording of three Stravinsky neo-classical scores: Symphony in 3 Movements, 4 Orchestral Etudes, and the complete ballet Pulcinella ­ (including several rarely heard vocal movements) – which has garnered high praise, and is featured here. Boulez has been the Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1995 (now the Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus), and the release in January of the recording on the CSO Resound label was part of a month-long Boulez celebration by the orchestra, which included numerous concerts and lectures not only in Chicago, but also in Ann Arbor and New York. The new recording stands as a welcome addition to a number of celebrated recordings Boulez has made with the CSO, most notably the 1993 recording of The Firebird.

In celebration of Boulez’ 85th birthday, Classical Archives proudly presents a special Feature that highlights the musical and intellectual talents of this modern master. First, we here include a pair of special Boulez Playlists, one each dedicated to his activities as composer and conductor. Next, we present a brief overview on Boulez’ career in these two disciplines, as well as his achievements as a creative musical thinker – including a short excerpt from a 2010 interview by Phillip Huscher, the program annotator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – on the nature of “modernism”. Each of these segments likewise includes a set of short videos, taken from live performances and interviews. Enjoy!

“When I compose, I have Debussy, Stravinsky and Berg in my background. For an audience to listen to my compositions, it must have the same background as that.”
– Boulez, New York Times interview, 1969

Part I. Pierre Boulez, Composer

Pierre Boulez was born on March 26, 1925 in the small commune of Montbrison in the Rhône-Alpes region of central France, where as a child he excelled in both mathematics and music. After an early emphasis on the former, he gradually turned toward music, studying first in Lyon and then at the Paris Conservatory – where his teachers included Olivier Messiaen and Andrée Vaurabourg, wife of Arthur Honneger. From Messiaen – and privately from René Leibowitz, Boulez became aware of the potential of serial or 12-tone composition, which underpinned his most influential works in the early part of his career. His fierce advocacy of the technique first culminated in works such as the Second Piano Sonata (1947-48), and especially in his Structures, Book 1 for piano (1951-52), Boulez adopted an extremely rigorous approach, often called integral or total serialism – in which every aspect of the musical discourse (pitch, rhythm, dynamics, attack) is determined via a pre-figured plan or “row”.

Such a strict approach, not surprisingly, came under attack from many, including from other progressive composers, such as György Ligeti; partly in response, Boulez eased the reigns on this structural rigor, while at the same time increasing the expressive dimension, and in the mid- to late-1950s produced two of his most celebrated works: Le marteau sans maître, for alto and chamber ensemble (1953-57) – often considered a “keystone of 20th century music”; and Pli selon pli, for soprano and orchestra (1957-59). In these works too he introduces an element of chance or “aleatoric” construction, giving the performer and conductor an element of freedom that would characterize his works of the next decade and beyond – as in the works Éclat, for chamber ensemble (1965) and Domaines, for clarinet and ensemble (1961–68).

Since the 1970s, Boulez has lessened his compositional output as his conducting career intensified. Much of his effort has gone into a continual expansion and re-working of earlier compositions – such as ...explosante-fixe... (1972-93) and Notations (1945-99), where the instrumental forces have likewise evolved over time. Another important preoccupation of Boulez starting in the mid-1970s (though with efforts going back to 1950s) was composition involving electronic sound. In particular, Boulez became interested in the potential to manipulate the electronics in the course of performance, as opposed to working with a fixed tape. Critical to his increased interest was an invitation in 1970 by then French President Georges Pompidou to lead a new institution for music research – known as IRCAM, which opened in 1977. Among IRCAM’s principal mandates was the integration of computer science and technology with musical composition; chief among Boulez’ creations during this period is his Répons, for soloists, orchestra, and electronics (1981-84) – where the sound of the instrumental soloists is manipulated electronically in “real time”. Since then, Boulez has continued to compose new, purely instrumental works as well, including Sur Incises, for 3 pianos, 3 harps, and 3 mallet percussion (1996-98) – for which he won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award.

Without doubt, Boulez’ music is unapologetically modern, a position echoed in his own writings on music and aesthetics (see Boulez, the Musical Thinker, below). Through the force of his exceptional talents and personal ambition, he became a crystallizing force in defining exactly what “avant-garde” classical music was to be in the mid-late 20th century: rigorous, highly-organized, austere, and infused in subtle but highly imaginative musical color. For many, his music is too abstract and acerbic, and a weary model of “mathematical” music written strictly for other contemporary composers and their small group of dedicated followers. But with patient listening, even the most resistant will find an uncanny brilliance for imaginative musical gesture and texture, gripping contrasts of density and space, and very often the warmth of sincere, humanistic expression that can indeed be deemed “beautiful.” It is unlikely that Boulez’ music will ever dominate classical hit parades, but through his rich output over a long and influential career, it will not likely fade into obscurity either.

Part II. Pierre Boulez, Conductor

As he himself notes during a recent interview with the CSO (see video below), until the late 1950s, Boulez had never much considered himself a conductor; he had conducted a few chamber groups, primary performing his own music, but never a full orchestra. Then, in 1959, he received a distressed invitation to conduct the Grosses Orchester der SWF at the Contemporary Music Festival at Donaueschingen, Germany of several new pieces and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite – to replace the ailing Hans Rosbaud (who had been an ardent champion of Boulez’ music). With the triumphant success of this concert, so launched Boulez’ esteemed conducting career, which has continued with few interruptions to this day.

His initial conducting work continued with this German orchestra, based in Baden-Baden, where he took up residence – in part as a reaction to the musical conservatism he perceived in Paris. Pivotal to his growing reputation was a successful performance in 1963 at the Paris Opéra of Berg’s Wozzeck, which quickly led to numerous requests from orchestras around the world. His association with American orchestras began in 1967, when he became an active guest conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, with whom he made a number of celebrated recordings. His conducting career reached its apex in the 1970s, when he became principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1971-75) and music director of the New York Philharmonic (1971-77). Since then, he has conducted, and often recorded with, several major orchestras around the world, including the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the London Symphony, the Orchestre de Paris, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (from 1969), among many others.

In his orchestral conducting work, Boulez has focused, not surprisingly, on the masterworks on the 20th century, in particular the works of Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Stravinsky, and his former teacher Messiaen – as well as his own orchestral works. In the past several decades, however, he has increased his attention to the staples of the Romantic era, with particular attention to the works of Berlioz, Bruckner, Strauss, and Mahler – including the latter’s complete symphony cycle for DG.

In addition, Boulez has dedicated considerable attention to the conducting of opera, most notably those of Richard Wagner – including several high-profile performances at Bayreuth (Parsifal, 1966, 2004; The Ring Cycle, 1976-80). Among his other key opera performances was the first complete rendering of Berg’s Lulu in 1979 at the Paris Opéra.

Boulez’ conducting is noted for its supreme clarity and precision of sound and rhythmic execution, giving focus to compositional nuances often bypassed by other conductors. His insights as a composer, together with his impressive ear, have allowed him to erect successful performances of many daunting contemporary works – including numerous premieres during his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, which resulted in no shortage of tension with the orchestra’s musicians. Boulez is noted for conducting without a baton, noting that he “feels more comfortable that way” – and that especially for contemporary music, the need for accuracy requires, in his view, the use of both hands. As he notes too, this comes out of his initial experience working with smaller chamber groups, conducting his own and other contemporary works – something he’s continued especially with the Ensemble InterContemporain, which Boulez founded in 1976 in association with IRCAM.

Part III. Pierre Boulez, Musical Thinker

It is no surprise, given his acclaimed intellect and iconoclastic musical aesthetic, that Boulez has been a prolific and outspoken writer on a variety of musical topics – especially in defense of his brand of contemporary music. Among the more famous lines, from his 1952 essay, “Eventuellement” – “Any musician who has not experienced the necessity of dodecaphonic music is useless. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.” – demonstrates the fierce commitment by which he defined himself and his aesthetic. Many of his writings have been collected into larger volumes, several of which have been translated into English. While, of course, this is no forum for a full examination of Boulez’ writings, we are pleased to provide a window into this side of his creativity through a short excerpt from a 2010 interview by Phillip Huscher, the program annotator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – on the nature of “modernism”, as well as a few videos featuring Boulez in conversation and delivering a lecture on Stravinsky ballets.

Nolan Gasser, Artistic Director

Phillip Husher (Program Annotator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; before a live audience): We are sitting in a room that was dedicated more than a hundred years ago with a performance of a piece by [Richard] Wagner, and I’m wondering: do you think that the roots of Modernism, in a sense, can be traced back to Wagner, even though this is the middle of the 19th century we’re talking about?
Pierre Boulez: I think I would say even sooner. I think a “rebellion” toward society, towards the music, began before – the main model was Beethoven. He was the first individual in music, and he was purely individual. He really broke with the society of his time, and the habits of the society of his time, and therefore he was a very strong model for Wagner. And Wagner was, in the series of musical rebels, very interesting to the history of music.
PH: What about a figure like Berlioz, from your own country, for example?
PB: He certainly has the profile of a rebel, but his vocabulary – his invention in music –was not so strong, I am sorry to say – that is, it was not strong enough to have a big influence on the evolution of music. Though, in one sense, yes – for instance, he began the [genre of the] symphonic poem, but otherwise, when you compare – although I know it is stupid to compare things which should not be compared – the vast difference between the vocabulary of Wagner at the beginning and at the end of his career, and then the vocabulary of Berlioz at the beginning and the end of his career, where there is very little difference, then you can see that his “tools” were not strong enough to really change the history of music.
PH: And Berlioz really had few disciples, or real followers. Isn’t that true in a sense?
PB: Not even a few disciples [laughter from the audience]. I mean, I suppose he remained a kind of isolated figure; certainly, in France, he had no real following. The country where he was the most influential at this time was Russia, because of all the symphonic poems which were written by composers like Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky-Korsakov was very impressed by Berlioz’ compositions, certainly, but especially by his book on orchestration – on the “modern” orchestra – and on that Berlioz had an influence, certainly; even an influence on Wagner, since Wagner’s orchestral style changed radically before and after his encounter with Berlioz. Another predecessor for Wagner was Liszt, for when Wagner met him, his harmonic language changed drastically. And so you see, one takes the opportunity to learn from all around, in contrast to someone who remains isolated – and that’s the big difference.
PH: You once said that you dated the awakening of modern music Debussy, The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun – a work that I will not endeavor to pronounce in French in your presence; that was 1894. Why this piece in particular?
PB: Well, I think it creates a new sound – simply that. Although the resemblance is not literal, it’s like the first paintings by Monet. I compare Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune to some Monet paintings of 1869, 70, and 71: very fresh; still in the tradition, but bringing something that was totally new in terms of “feeling”, very fresh, and very innovative; not quite as innovative as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, you know, which was something really very strong and loud. Debussy’s innovation was really more insinuating; and, this was a quiet renovation by him … but a very radical one.
PH: We are already using this word Modernism to talk about Beethoven, and Wagner, and Berlioz, and Liszt, and Debussy. What do we really mean when we talk about Modernism, in music, at least?
PB: Well, you know I have my own point of view, which is very personal, but I will tell it anyway [laughter from the audience].

When I look at composers – especially composers that preceded my generation – I think of the ones who had a very strong influence on what I was doing. I ask myself, “If this composer had not been born, would the life of the music be changed or not?” And when I think of Stravinsky, I think that with all his novelty, from the rhythmical point of view, the face of the music was changed because his influence was profound in the development of music. If I think of Schoenberg, I think exactly the same thing – not for the same reason, but because the new vocabulary created by Schoenberg had really a definite and very profound influence on the evolution of music. If I think of Hindemith: I think of a very noble musician, who knew exactly what he was doing; but was the face of music changed with him? I think not.

There is, for me, a very big difference between the people who are so important that they change the profile of music, and the people who wouldn’t have changed the profile of music. And I think “modernity” is exactly that. A renovation that is so deep, you cannot escape it. And even if you are in rebellion against their renovations, they still become very important to you; even if they give birth to polemics – since polemics are very necessary, I find. And, that’s what is important for me – that degree of invention that a composer brings to music.
PH: But there are certainly figures in the history of music – Bach even – who did not advance the history of music so much, but he was certainly a major figure.
PB: No, no, no… he also changed music: if you compare the music of Bach with the music of Telemann … [laughter from the audience]
PH: Ah, not a good idea…
PB: Without Telemann you can live [laughter from audience]; without Bach, I could not live. For instance, one might say that Mozart is understood by everyone today. Ok, so let’s imagine today’s society transposed back in time: can you imagine Così fan tutte performed in a farm, in front of peasants, without knowing the culture of the music? This music is really very refined, and corresponds to a high level of culture. At this time, the portion of society with this high level of culture was much smaller than today, and they did not have the kind of giant dispersion of culture we have today. Therefore, the culture is diluted, and has to be absorbed, you know? And I find that the importance of composers has always been there; but it was not as immediate as it is today, when you can make a difference very quickly.

When we study history we have this hierarchy, and this hierarchy is part of our culture; but if you don’t know the culture, then you’re at a loss, because you don’t know what is good and what is not good. You know, if you hear, for instance, Balinese music – which is very interesting for me – you’ll have some villages that are especially good, and some not so good. But for us, it’s very difficult to tell the difference in quality, between each village is recorded differently, and so on. When you look at Japanese theater, for instance – the Noh – it’s very difficult for us to have the comprehension and to tell the difference between a Noh that is extraordinary and well performed, and a Noh that is not well performed, because we don’t know all the elements of this culture. And that’s the difficulty we have with our own history: because we accept things, and because it is our culture – and we have this hierarchy which is given to us as a heritage.
This interview event was co-presented by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Art Institute of Chicago in Fullerton Hall, Art Institute of Chicago, on January 26, 2009.

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