Appreciation: Pierre Boulez reveled in challenging music’s status quo

French composer Pierre Boulez has died at age 90.

French composer Pierre Boulez has died at age 90.

(Dieter Nagl / AFP/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Shortly after Arnold Schoenberg died in Brentwood in 1951, Pierre Boulez wrote a polemical essay, “Schoenberg Is Dead,” that instantly became infamous. The young firebrand composer accused the most influential European composer of the first half of the 20th century of being too tied to the past to have realized the importance of his own inventions.

Boulez believed that it was up to him and his generation of postwar avant-gardists to unleash the musical revolution that Schoenberg’s 12-tone system implied. “SCHOENBERG IS DEAD,” he triumphantly repeated at the end.

A few years later — during his first visit to Los Angeles, where he led the American premiere of his recently finished masterpiece, “Le Marteau sans Maitre” (The Hammer Without a Master) — a nervous Boulez was taken to visit Schoenberg’s widow. She opened the door, and the first thing she did was shake her finger accusingly at Boulez. (They then had a cordial tea.) That may have been the only sheepish moment in the life of the French composer and conductor, who would become the most influential European musician of the second half 20th century.


Boulez may have been intimidatingly outspoken and an uncompromising revolutionary, but he was not predictable. He became an establishment musician who never stopped attempting to radicalize from the inside. Just ask the New York Philharmonic, which is still trying to keep up with all that Boulez proposed when he was music director in the 1970s.

Now Boulez is dead. It was not an unexpected death, his health failing ever since he last conducted at Walt Disney Concert Hall five years ago, three days after his 85th birthday. That was his last appearance in America. In March, when Boulez turned 90, the tributes and birthday celebrations were ubiquitous but also bittersweet, given that he was too frail to participate.

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Over the summer Boulez was well feted at our Ojai Festival, where he was music director seven times between 1967 and 2003, and on the European festival circuit, notably at the Proms in the London, the Salzburg Festival in Austria and the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland. The revelation for many was that Boulez’s music was far less formidable and far more universal than it once seemed. The universal significance was made all the more apparent by Boulez performances that Daniel Barenboim led with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of young Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians. This culturally charged training ensemble’s new home and concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry and under construction in Berlin, will be named for Boulez.

Boulez barely performed or composed during his last five years, but that has not been time enough to absorb his astonishingly full measure. On hearing of Boulez’s death, David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony and former music director of Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain (founded by Boulez), sent an email saying that “the number of things in my life connected with this man and his output in some way is impossible to get a grasp on.”

The output is not large. In 2013, Deutsche Grammophon released a set of Boulez’s complete works, which fit on 11 CDs. At least 20 times that much music can be found of him conducting other composers. Boulez constantly rewrote music. Musical kernels that he came up with in his 20s, he was fiddling with 60 years later.


He left much incomplete. He was often accused of being an impossibly slow composer, but he once told me that was untrue. He was, he said, “an interrupted composer.” Conducting, teaching, writing, administering and his huge intellectual appetite for art of all sorts got in the way, to say nothing for his Napoleonic attempts (often successful) to reinvent French musical life from the bottom up, including how concerts should be presented. In New York, for instance, he came up with “rug concerts,” new music performed in informal settings downtown, something that 40 years later is all the rage.

He was hammer, and he was master. As conductor and composer, he valued clarity and lucidity above all else. There is a reason for every note he composed, for the way he conducted every phrase and balanced every sound. He possessed one of music’s most brilliantly analytical minds. His music could seem inaudibly complex until he began to explain it, and then you saw that one thing led surprisingly to another.

He was, in his youth, cold and calculating. He spoke very fast and wrote with a tiny hand. In his later years he exuded warmth and good humor. He was still calculating, he claimed, but he had found more effective ways to communicate. Still, he never suffered fools. He was relentless.

Still, Boulez was absolutely not predictable. For all its intellectual rigor and abstraction, his music has an indomitable combination of great emotion and great elegance. Not only is there a reason for every note, but there is deep devotion to, an intense caring for, every note. Boulez didn’t begin with ideas; he began with sounds. He was open to sounds from all over — the Asian and African influences on his work are often overlooked, but they are what help make his work matter to, say, Arab and Jew in Barenboim’s WEDO.

The elegance was ingrained. That was his defense mechanism, but it was also his way of giving voice to his own passions. There will surely be much memorial music composed for Boulez, and maybe, until then, the best way to remember him is to look at the way he memorialized others. He wrote important pieces in memory of composers — including “... explosante-fixe” for Stravinsky and “Rituel” for the Italian composer Bruno Maderna — that are haunting in sounds (many bell-like), that draw you into mysterious realms. Ever refashioning, Boulez drew upon “…explosante-fixe” for his brief “Memoriale,” in memory of a flute player. It so happens the L.A. Phil had programmed the piece this weekend.

Boulez had his detractors. The course of American music, in particular Minimalism, was a rebellion against the non-repetitive methods of Boulez. But I don’t expect any “Boulez Is Dead” screeds.

In 1974, Boulez wrote that his ideas about Schoenberg hadn’t changed, even though he had become the most persuasive conductor of Schoenberg’s music. What also hadn’t changed, and never changed, was Boulez’s open ears. He obviously loved, or learned to love, the sound of Schoenberg’s music, to make it his own. And that is one small, but telling, part of a legacy that is simply too wondrous to reduce to mere ideology.

Twitter: @markswed