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