Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez

Third Piano Sonata

Pierre Boulez (b. 1925)

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Third Piano Sonata


"It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All the art of the past must be destroyed."
--Pierre Boulez

A brilliant and often controversial interpreter of Schönberg, Debussy and Mahler; a musical revolutionary who conducts Wagner in the opera halls he once wished to see demolished; a thorny intellectual with a notorious temper and a near-mania for privacy; a Frenchman who repudiated his country only to become a national hero -- Pierre Boulez is a man as complex, multi-faceted, and uncompromising as his music; a music that springs from the twentieth century with as much authoritative genius as the work of Einstein, Joyce, and Kandinsky.
It is an apt group of names for comparison, for the music of Boulez has often been criticized for being too academic, over-complicated, inaccessible, and stylistically obsessed. And while there may be some truth to this, it is also filled with great passion and beauty as well. Like a handful of modern European composers such as György Ligeti and Luciano Berio, Boulez's music both challenges the intellect and engages the imagination -- though beneath the surface of each composition lurks a complex system of theoretical gears and process-oriented clocksprings, the music itself seems unencumbered, free, and restlessly alive. Perhaps the best metaphor for Boulez's music may be borrowed from one of his own titles, explosante-fixe. Like an explosion fixed in time and space, his works are quivering webs strung with splinters of sudden violence and blossoms of strange beauty; atomized musical particles following paths laid down by the intricate mechanisms of physics.
Boulez, an avowed Joyce enthusiast who frequently credits the author as a direct inspiration, also shares a similar approach to his art as Joyce. Like a writer who feels his audience should be challenged by a text, Boulez is constantly pushing the envelope of his medium's language, developing new modes of expression and relentlessly expanding his technique. As with Cage, Berio, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Carter, and other composers embracing a Modernist aesthetic, performing one of Boulez's works -- and to a lesser extent, hearing one -- requires active participation in the artistic event. Like a puzzle waiting for a solution, or a mathematical problem seeking resolution, a Boulez composition often requires the performer to actively engage its complexities, whether it be selecting a path through a labyrinth of musical choices (Third Piano Sonata, Structures II), ordering a sequence of interchangeable movements (Livre pour quatuor), navigating physically through the acoustic space (Rituel, Répons), or spiraling through a cyclical web of variational ripples to exit on the "original" central theme (...explosante-fixe...). Although the process underpinning many of his works is rarely detectable to the casual listener, awareness of his technique provides additional level of enjoyment -- at the very least, one may better appreciate what the musicians are going through! In this, Boulez is not unlike the Joyce of "Sirens," "Oxen of the Sun," or Finnegans Wake -- there is a certain "playful seriousness" at work, and the more one is willing to grasp the structural innovation of the work, the more rewarding it becomes.


"I shall be the first composer in history not to have a biography."
--Pierre Boulez

Born in Montbrison on March 26, 1925 to a bourgeois family of staunch Catholics, young Pierre was raised in a somewhat chilly and restrictive environment, presided over by his industrialist father. As a child, Pierre was a curious but serious boy, harboring doubts about religion from an early age, but always remaining respectful to his family. His closest relationship was with his older sister Jeanne, whom he often states as being the "real intellect" of the family. Young Pierre showed aptitude in both music and mathematics; needless to say, his father the engineer encouraged him to follow the scientific path, and in 1941 he took engineering classes at the University of Lyon. And like so many rebellious sons destined for artistic greatness, Pierre carried on in his own direction, developing his skills on the piano and taking music lessons. Gaining the support of his sister, he successfully argued his way to a musical career, finally entering the Paris Conservatoire in 1942.
Of course, the early 1940s were a difficult period in France, and Paris was occupied by the Germans. This seems to have had little negative effect on Boulez, who actually welcomed German art and culture, going so far as to claim that "the Germans virtually brought high culture to France." During these rebellious teenage years, Boulez also rejected Catholicism, flirted with the Communist party, heaped scorn upon the "leadership" of France, and openly mocked traditional musical forms from Brahms to Stravinsky's neoclassicalism. It was obvious that the angry young man was looking for something, some outlet for his iconoclastic creativity, and in 1945 he found it in the 12-tone music of Arnold Schönberg.
Of course, Boulez was ripe for such a discovery, and had kept himself surrounded by numerous radical and creative elements: Paul Klee adorned his walls, James Joyce sat upon his shelf, and he learned advance harmony from Olivier Messiaen, who took an almost fatherly interest in his young pupil. He tried several new forms of composition during those few years, but nothing seemed to offer an adequate language for the musical ideas he was struggling to express. Then he heard a performance of Schönberg's Woodwind Quintet conducted by the Polish composer René Leibowitz. Having studied briefly under Webern and Schönberg, Leibowitz was instrumental in bringing dodecaphony to postwar France, and in some ways was the opposite number to Nadia Boulanger. To Boulez, who was only familiar with Schönberg's music up to Pierre Lunaire, hearing the 12-tone system was "a revelation," and quickly lead to his discovery of Webern, a composer whom Boulez would champion and revere the rest of his career. Working closely with Leibowitz and a few others, Boulez began to establish his own ideas about 12-tone music, counterpoint, and increasing amounts of "serialization" in composition.

"Anyone who has not felt -- I do not say understand -- but felt the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. "
--Pierre Boulez, 1952

It is not unfair to say that in discovering the Second Viennese School, Boulez experienced something akin to a religious conversion. He took up the banner of serialism with a passion -- almost a vengeance. With his sharp tongue, acid wit, and burning desire to see the new sweep away the old, Boulez cemented his reputation as a controversial and somewhat difficult young artist, and he was never afraid to make broad statements consigning traditional composers to the ash-heaps. (I believe it's mandatory at this point, when writing about Boulez, to apply the label enfant terrible.) Several remarkable compositions of his own proved that he had the talent and discipline to back up his words, and many of his early works combined his thorny temperament and intellectual iconoclasm with intriguing approaches to form. Especially notable are Notations, a sequence of crystallized ideas cast as 90-second piano shorts; the First Piano Sonata, Boulez's first serial work; and Le visage nuptial, a surreal song cycle incorporating the violent imagery of poet René Char.
Though his compositional life had taken a creative upturn, Boulez still needed to earn money, and so he played the Ondes Martenot -- an early electronic instrument much favored at the time by Messiaen and other progressive composers. This lead to a gig working with Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, two performers who had established a theater company at the Théâtre Marigny. Appointed Musical Director in 1946, Boulez arranged scores, played the Ondes Martenot, and got his first real taste of conducting. Nothing could have been more fortunate for the young composer. For the next ten years, Barrault and Renaud treated him like a son. His stay with the company gave him practical experience with working musicians, granted him time to compose, and would eventually lead him around the world on several tours. (It would also lead to the formation of the Domaine Musical in 1956.)
Although Boulez is extremely closed about his personal history, it may be useful to note that he had a very turbulent affair around this time, a "love-hate" relationship that terminated in a "double suicide pact." Nothing more is known about the affair -- not even, as Joan Peyser writes, "whether or not the other person went through with the fatal act." Another interesting story related by Peyser involves the dedication to the First Piano Sonata. It was originally dedicated to René Leibowitz; but after the older composer tried to make some editorial suggestions with a red pen, Boulez tore it from his grasp with the cry, "You shit!" It was the end of their relationship. From that point on, Boulez attacked Leibowitz incessantly, accusing him of a dry, pedantic adherence to Schönberg's methodology. Three years later, when Boulez's music publisher asked whether or not the dedication should be retained, a furious Boulez seized a letter-opener and savaged the manuscript. It had to be glued back together.
It was also during this period that Boulez established another creative friendship that would soon turn sour, this one with American composer John Cage, whom he first met in Paris in 1946. (John Cage is another composer influenced by Joyce, and has his own section on Bronze by Gold. Although Boulez had already read Ulysses, it was Cage who gave him his first copy of Finnegans Wake.) Attracted to the older composer's break with the past and his concept of chance operations, Boulez found in Cage a friend and fellow traveler, and the two established a very productive relationship. Cage was instrumental in getting Boulez's works published, and went to great lengths to promote his music in the United States. Boulez in turn introduced Cage to Messiaen and the musical centers of Paris. Their correspondence from this period (1949-1952) shows two creative talents working at the peak of their abilities, open to each other's ideas but each preserving a very clear sense of identity, with Boulez exploring serialism and Cage experimenting with indeterminacy.
It was with the Second Piano Sonata of 1948 that Boulez firmly positioned himself in the forefront of the avant garde. A highly original work that showcased many of his complicated theories on serialism, it was performed to great acclaim in Europe and America, and marked Boulez as an internationally known figure. It also lead to his next experiment, Livre pour quatuor, a piece that juxtaposed Boulez's serialism with limited aleatoric elements, in that the performers are free to select from a menu of movements the ones to actually be performed. This desire to free the music from the "tyranny of the composer" would become more evident in Boulez's later works, and would inform the entire spirit and structure of his Third Piano Sonata. But rather than working towards increased freedom, for the next few years Boulez tightened the reins on his music, pursuing increasing levels of serialization: not only would pitch be regulated to mathematical formulae, but other dimensions such as rhythm, duration, intensity, and so on would also be subject to control. Despite Boulez's claims to the contrary, this was not a completely original idea -- Messiaen had tried and abandoned it, and Milton Babbitt had been independently working on a similar concept in America -- but Boulez's mania for organization, complexity, and large-scale works set him aside from his like-minded contemporaries. In 1951 he completed Polyphonie X. A rather dissonant work for "18 solo instruments," Polyphonie X is the musical tip of a theoretical iceberg, and its premiere created a succès de scandale at the festival of Donaueschingen, which was actually known for new music. (It was also well known that the conductor, Hans Rosbaud, loathed the piece.) Undeterred, Boulez followed this in 1952 with Structures for Two Pianos. Like Bach's Art of the Fugue or Philip Glass' Music in 12 Parts, the piece was intended to take the composer's new language through a complete set of vigorous paces. However, even Boulez realized that he was exhausting the limits of serialism, and the work represented an artistic turning-point, forcing Boulez to reconsider his compositional approach in order to avoid sterility, stagnation, and even musical Totalitarianism. As he remarked in 2000, "I grew tired of counting to twelve."

"I think that music must be hysteria and collective spells, violently of the present."
--Pierre Boulez

The mid-1950s brought Boulez to several other turning points in both his personal and professional life -- the two, at times, appearing to be almost indistinguishable. To begin with, he made a sudden break with John Cage, who had begun to grow more interested in total chance operations. (For instance, his Music of Changes was composed entirely by tossing coins and consulting the I Ching.) Cage was also becoming more fascinated by the actual sounds he could produce, rather than the theoretical ideas behind his compositions. After spending several months in New York City with Cage in 1952, Boulez determined that the American's ideas were incompatible with his own, and he began to distance himself from his erstwhile friend. It was a decision that confused and saddened Cage, who didn't understand how Boulez could place theoretical difference over friendship. It was made worse by Boulez's increasingly strident attacks on Cage and his ideas; like Leibowitz before him, Boulez did more than just turn his back on a friend and mentor, he sought to vilify him. But Cage would not be the last composer to experience this harsh side of Boulez; though he was probably the least deserving. In 1952 Boulez met a man who possessed a comparable amount of genius, arrogance, and ambition -- Karlheinz Stockhausen.
A pioneer in electronic music, Stockhausen also displayed a fascination with serialism, open forms, and aleatory music, and had traveled to Paris to study under Messiaen. There he met Boulez, who sent the younger composer back to Cologne with a fresh respect for Webern and a renewed sense of mission. Almost immediately, Stockhausen filled the void left by Boulez's break with Cage, and the two struck up a very intense friendship. Over the next year, they exchanged many ideas, but soon their relationship began to grow more competitive, with the inevitable difference in theory serving as a wedge between them. This was aggravated by the fact that Stockhausen composed much more rapidly than Boulez, and often beat Boulez to the punch in realizing musical innovations in an actual piece. After a while, this began to grate on Boulez, who was a slow and methodical composer, deeply invested in perfection. (Some might say too deeply invested.) Stockhausen began to find in Boulez an easy target for his complaints against the less radicalized avant-garde; while Boulez began to consider the German's works too hastily constructed and even vulgar. There was also a considerable personality difference between the men. Stockhausen was something of a bohemian, a spiritually driven "New Age" philosopher with an erotically tangled social life. Frequently accused of being egocentric, manipulative and self-serving, Stockhausen felt quite comfortable building up a cult of personality around himself. (At times he reached almost Wagnerian proportions, taking mistresses as he saw fit, and eventually demanding that his works not be programmed with any other composer's. Indeed, there is still a cultish aura that surrounds Stockhausen, as may be quickly gleaned by a visit to his official Web site, Stockhausen.org.) Needless to say, this sort of behavior is anathema to Boulez, who remarked in 1974, "Stockhausen, with his hippie, hormonal cure, pedantically revived what was genuine in Cage." Though Boulez had the grace and integrity to program and conduct Stockhausen's work, there was no love lost between the two, and their brittle, artistic cold war cast its shadow over Darmstadt and other Meccas of new music.
Rejecting Cage's indeterminacy, energized by his tense relationship with Stockhausen, and disgruntled by the limits of pure serialism, Boulez was ripe for a change, and he dedicated himself to "saving" serialism by concerning himself with, to quote Peyser, "the making of music, not system." As a result, Boulez produced what some consider to be his masterpiece. In 1955 he premiered Le marteau sans maître ("The Masterless Hammer"). Scored for a small ensemble, this landmark work set several poems by René Char, and acted as Boulez's self-proclaimed Pierrot Lunaire. In Marteau, Boulez combined his ideas on serialism and rhythm with a more human concern for musicality. With its exotic instrumentation, unique approach to setting the text, and texturally rich passages, Marteau was an unqualified success, and proved that Boulez could mature as an artist as well as a theoretician.
Believing that the future of new music was better pursued outside of conservative France, in 1958 Boulez moved to Germany, a country he was familiar with through seminars at Darmstadt, an important center for serialism and new music. That same year, he completed the Third Piano Sonata, an "open work" of limited indeterminacy which took inspiration from literary figures such as Joyce and Mallarmé. The work also increased the distance between Boulez and Cage; the American was quite upset at Boulez for brazenly incorporating some of his ideas and then disparaging him in a widely-circulated essay on aleatory music. And again, even though Boulez and Stockhausen had discussed the creation of such a piece, Stockhausen published Klavierstück XI first. Stockhausen followed this with Gruppen, a remarkable work for a trio orchestras positioned to surround the audience. Very difficult to play, he asked Boulez to step up as one of the three conductors needed to perform the work. Gruppen went off beautifully, and even today it's considered one of Stockhausen's most important works. Stockhausen was clearly the man of the hour, and the rivalry between the two men intensified. But as Stockhausen followed one premiere with another, he gained more adherents and critical acclaim, and eventually began to eclipse Boulez as a composer.
Almost certainly feeling some pressure to produce a new masterpiece, Boulez set his sights on a new large-scale project, one that would incorporate limited chance elements, Gruppen-like spatial considerations, and the modified serial language of Marteau. A setting of Mallarmé poems, the work was called Pli selon pli ("Fold by Fold"), and was scored for soprano, percussion ensemble, and multiple orchestras. Naturally, Boulez spent several years pulling the complex piece together, and by the time it was finished it surely reflected the mood of the composer. Full of bitterness and despair, haunted by images of death and sterility, Pli selon pli was first performed in its entirety in Cologne in 1960. A disturbing, strange, and occasionally beautiful piece, it nevertheless failed to make the impression he was hoping for, and Boulez grew sullen and withdrawn. Boulez's brand of serialism was fading out, giving way to a more polystylistic approach that included electronics and chance operations. Despite the success of Marteau five years earlier, more than a few wondered if the Frenchman was out of ideas.
While today it seems strange to think of composers being involved in such a competitive and occasionally nasty race, it helps to recall that the 1950s were a very exciting time for music, and something of a hot-house atmosphere prevailed in Europe. Many new ideas were in the air, and men with healthy egos and prodigious talent were struggling to make their mark. A conductor who would introduce a new work one day could just as easily toss off a snide article about it the next. Although "the Darmstadt school" frequently cooperated in order to push forward the frontier of composition, it would be foolish to think that men like Boulez and Stockhausen didn't have an eye on their place in history. In the end, Stockhausen absorbed both Boulez and Cage, and simply overwhelmed them with his own vitality as a composer and aggressive self-promotion. By 1960, Boulez had had enough. As he later remarked, "It was Stockhausen's good period. I felt he could solve all the problems, that it was no longer necessary for me to address myself to them." Leaving Karlheinz to tend the flock, Boulez successfully turned to the interpretation of other's work and slowly slipped into the lifestyle of the upper class.

"I'm not super-happy to conduct a large orchestra. But I feel compelled to bring new creative aspects of music to the whole of musical life everywhere. To go into a crowd without losing my integrity, that is what I want to do."
--Pierre Boulez, 1969

Boulez's beginnings as a conductor were modest, brought on by necessity more than anything else. In 1955 Boulez founded a series of new musical concerts at the Théâtre Marigny, which provided him with a pulpit for espousing new works. It also placed him in the position to conduct more complicated pieces than those generally used in Barrault's productions. The Marigny concerts turned out to be quite a success, and gained the patronage of several members of the aristocratic salon class. Renamed the Domaine Musical, Boulez found himself at the center of a small but vigorous musical explosion. It also established his reputation as an exciting young conductor of contemporary music. (Although he formally left the employ of Barrault after moving to Baden Baden, Boulez continued his relationship with the Domaine until 1964.)
Naturally, as his reputation grew, he was granted more conducting opportunities, and in 1957 he lead a performance of Le visage nuptial at Cologne, followed a few months later by a performance of Le marteau sans maître in Los Angeles. Although his early attempts at conducting outside the Domaine were not universally well received, he rapidly improved as he accepted more engagements, and soon conducting proved to be more lucrative than either composition or teaching. As he later remarked in an interview with Peyser, "The thing began to snowball. There is such a need for conductors today that if you are just a little bit gifted you get sucked into the machinery."
At first Boulez kept to modern composers and the founders of dodecaphony, but his palette soon broadened to include Wagner, Beethoven, and even Haydn. Taking over the Amsterdam Concertgebouw from Hans Rosbaud, over the next few years he found himself conducting some of the great orchestras of the world, from the Paris Opéra to the Berlin Philharmonic. Having toned down some of his more incendiary rhetoric, he was still considered something of an enfant terrible; but he was universally recognized as a top-flight conductor, an important if somewhat difficult composer, and a powerful advocate of twentieth-century music.
But still his relationship with his home country remained problematic. Although he conducted several important works in Paris throughout the Sixties, he was consistently slighted by the French Establishment, which had numerous ties to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. In 1964, the government overlooked Boulez's suggestions to invigorate the French musical scene, and appointed a second-rate neo-Romantic composer to the Ministry office of Musical Director. Boulez was furious, cancelling all his appearances, severing his connection to the Domaine, and even forbidding the Orchestre de Paris to play his works.
France could wait -- the rest of the world was hungry for Boulez. In 1966, he was invited to Bayreuth to conduct Parsifal, a surprising move that brought him into a close relationship with Wieland Wagner. Unfortunately, Wieland died before they could realize additional projects; otherwise Boulez claims that he may have become more established as a Wagnerian interpreter. (He would return in 1976, however, to conduct the controversial centennial Ring cycle, which producer Patrice Chéreau set in surreally industrialized Nineteenth Century. ) Parsifal was followed by a period as guest conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra, which produced several recordings and forged a close association that lasted long after he moved on.
Happily for Boulez, the end of the decade brought a reconciliation with France. In an effort to recall one of France's greatest artists back from virtual self-exile, in 1970 the French President Georges Pompidou invited Boulez to assist in establishing and organizing a cutting-edge center for modern music. To be called IRCAM, or the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, the center was scheduled for completion in 1977.
True to his workaholic nature, Boulez had no problems filling the time before IRCAM's inauguration. In 1971, he assumed two monumental positions: he was appointed the principle conductor of the BBC Orchestra, and was chosen to succeed Leonard Bernstein over the New York Philharmonic! Alas, while the BBC position bore some fruit in a series of landmark Schönberg recordings, New York proved to be too conservative for his tastes (or more to the point, Boulez was too radical for the New York Philharmonic), and his relationship with the City and its musical scene was troubled. On one hand, he energized New York with an influx of modern European music, and his informal "rug concerts" attracted young, enthusiastic audiences. But the commercial demands of programming and conducting so many traditional works weighed heavily on his spirit, particularly during his second period of tenure, after he relinquished the BBC position in 1974. He composed even less, he became more socially detached, and his interpretations of the classics were often criticized as being "cold." He also tended to completely ignore or disregard contemporary American composers. Perhaps anticipating the possibilities of IRCAM, Boulez began to place more of his energy in the possibilities of electronic music, and in 1977 he did not seek a renewal of his contract -- which many traditionalists in New York found more a relief than a disappointment.

"Well, each generation has to solve its problems. I cannot solve the problems of a generation which is forty years younger than me, certainly not. I say always, every period is difficult. There is no easy period. You know, when you think of the fifties, you might think it was very easy, whereas it was not easy at all. There was always the question of whether this new discipline was not completely absurd; there were many questions. Certainly, when I look, for instance, only at Paris, I see that practically all the composers of my generation have disappeared. They made the wrong choices, or they were not courageous enough, or they were not lucid enough; there are many reasons. Or, perhaps they were politically involved, and that political involvement brought them to solutions which were very trivial; this type of thing. So, no, it was not easy! No period is really easy."
--Pierre Boulez, 1993

Boulez returned to Paris, where he accepted a professorship at the Collège de France, and took over the directorship of the newly unveiled IRCAM. He also founded the Ensemble InterContemporain, a group of extremely talented musicians affiliated with IRCAM and solely devoted to the performance of modern music. Meant to be a creative space for composers, artists, scientists and engineers, IRCAM eventually evolved into a sophisticated studio dedicated to the production of technologically enhanced music. Heavily funded by the French government, IRCAM is still recognized as one of the world's premiere centers for the exploration of technology and music, and has attracted numerous innovative artists such as Luciano Berio, Tod Machover, and Kaijia Saariaho. (Though it's not without its share of controversy -- IRCAM has been accused of elitism by French musical conservatives, favoritism by the avant-garde, and simple Gallic snobbishness from visiting composers.)
Although Boulez gave up the directorship of IRCAM in 1992, it stands at the center of many of his later works such as Répons (1981-84), Dialogue de l'ombre double (1985), and a new version of ...explosante-fixe...(1991-93). These works marry Boulez's complicated compositional theories with technological advancements such as synthesizers, the 4X digital sound processor, computers, and MIDI technology. Répons especially is significant; not only was it IRCAM's first real "hit," in some ways it marked the return of Boulez the composer. A complicated and fairly large piece for orchestra, six soloists, computer and six loudspeakers, Répons makes a very convincing use of technology, incorporating digital processing as a real-time element to bring subtle but beautiful effects to the various soloists. Scalable to several versions of various lengths and technological requirements, Répons was awarded the 2000 Grammy Award for best contemporary composition. (Boulez also indicates that Répons bears Joycean resemblances in its spiralling structure.)
Free from the responsibilities of a full-time conducting post, Boulez has spent the last few years working on his own music, supporting musical projects, and conducting/recording new works as well as those by Bruckner, Mahler, and Scriabin. Although some of his interpretations are still not to everybody's taste, it is generally recognized that he has grown much warmer and more expressive as a conductor, embracing some of the very qualities he used to deplore. (His recent Schönberg Piano Concerto for Philips is a revelation of expressionism.) Named Artist of the Year by Gramophone magazine in 1995, his 1998 work Sur Incises was universally hailed, receiving numerous accolades including the prestigious 2001 Gramophone Award for best contemporary composition. In 2000, he embarked on a worldwide 75th birthday tour and celebration with the London Symphony Orchestra. Appointed principle guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2001, he is also Carnegie Hall's composer-in-residence until 2003, and hints that he is working on his first opera.
Boulez currently divides his time between a Baden Baden and Paris, where he is instrumental in directing the Cité de la Musique, a musical center commissioned in 1995 by Mitterand from (of all things) a massive but dysfunctional slaughterhouse. The new home of the Ensemble InterContemporain, the 1200-seat concert hall has been specifically designed for performances of modern, spatially-oriented works by composers such as Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and naturally, Pierre Boulez. Boulez hopes to turn the Cité into "a media center with many recordings, video, connections to the Internet, and connections to museums of music and science."

"History as it is made by great composers is not a history of conservation but of destruction -- even while cherishing what is being destroyed."
--Pierre Boulez, 1976

And so we end where we began, with Boulez's fascinations in music and science. But rather than say a full circle has been turned, it may be better to mark the revolution of an upwards spiral, a spiral that has placed Boulez in charge of the very institutions he once despised, and enshrined the serial cult iconoclast as serious cultural icon. Of course, one could comment on the irony of this, or explore on how Boulez has become the subject of attack from numerous quarters -- tonalist composers and Minimalists, anti-Modernist critics, postmodern polystylists, and even those who see in Boulez the new Establishment. But none of this addresses the simple fact that without Boulez, twentieth century music would be unimaginably diminished. Or, perhaps it's best to part with Boulez's own words when informed that his scores were being hermetically preserved for posterity: "I don't give a crap."

Joycean Works

Third Piano Sonata -- (1958) A complex labyrinth of sound and theory, this infamous piece of Modernist music was partially inspired by Joyce.

Répons -- (1984) Requiring an orchestra, six soloists, a digital processor and six loudspeakers, Boulez considers this inventive work to use Joycean techniques.

Links/CDs/Sound Samples


Andante currently offers the most complete Boulez site on the Web, with essays, concert notes, and a complete discography.

FrenchCulture.org sponsors a concise and handsome Boulez site.

The Grove entry on Boulez may be read on the Classical Music Pages, though it is currently in need of updating.

The Emory Boulez Page contains an interesting photo of a young, smiling Pierre!


Boulez is extensivley discussed in Timothy S. Murphy's article "Music After Joyce: The Post-Serial Avant-Garde," available on Hypermedia Joyce Studies.

Scott W. Klein discusses Joyce and Boulez in his excellent paper, James Joyce and Avant-Garde Music.

Online at the Atlantic Web site is David Schiff's article on Boulez, "Unreconstructed Modernist." Although he has a few insights into Boulez as a conductor, the article itself is a rather patronizing critique of Boulez the composer, and a dismissal of musical Modernism in general.

Rhys Chatham discusses the piano sonatas of Boulez in his essay, Boulez vs. Stockhausen, which also serves as a repudiation of serialism.

Tired of reading critiques of Boulez and Modernism? Try Geoff Hannan's Modernist critique of Boulez, "Modernism and the Art Music Canon."

Related Institutions

The IRCAM Web page is in both French and English, and contains some information about Boulez's later works.

The homepage for the Ensemble InterContemporain is likewise bilingual, and contains numerous features on their works and tour dates.

Cité de la musique also has an attractive bilingual Web site.

CDs and Books

You may listen to sound samples and/or purchase Boulez CDs and books online from Amazon.com below:

CDs with the Third Piano Sonata or Répons

Boulez: Sonatas for piano (IMPORT)
Pierre Boulez (Composer); Claude Helffer (Piano) / Naive Astree CD / Released 1994

Boulez: Piano Sonatas No. 1,2,3
Pierre Boulez (Composer); Idil Biret (Piano)/ Naxos CD / Released 1995

Boulez: Sonata for piano No 3
Pierre Boulez (Composer); Pi-Hsien Chen (Piano) / Telos CD / Released 1998

Piano Music of the Darmstadt School, Vol. 1
Boulez, Messiaen, Stockhausen, et al.; Steffan Schleiermacher (Piano) / DG Scene CD / Released 2000

Répons, Dialogue de l'ombre double
Pierre Boulez (Composer) / Deutsche Grammophon 20/21 / Released 1998


By Pierre Boulez.
His collected writings; contains an essay on the Third Piano Sonata.

The Boulez-Cage Correspondence
By Pierre Boulez & John Cage.
Their collected letters 1949-54, in which they worked out numerous elements of chance operations and aleatory music.

To Boulez and Beyond: Music in Europe Since the Rite of Spring
By Joan Peyser.
This readable and lucid work focuses on Stravinsky, Schönberg, Varese, and Boulez.

I'd like thank Joan Peyser for her authoritative work, To Boulez and Beyond. Although it wasn't my sole source for my Boulez biography, I leaned upon it generously, and it gave me a clear picture of Boulez's development, a basic organizational structure, and numerous juicy details. Also, many of the lesser-known Boulez quotations are lifted from her interviews with him. In many ways, the above biographical sketch is merely an outline of her work, and I heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in Boulez and the development of modern European music. Other important sources were Boulez's own Orientations, Dominique Jameux's Pierre Boulez, selected letters from Boulez to John Cage, numerous liner notes, and the Andante Boulez discography.

--Allen B. Ruch
13 October 2004
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