Pierre Boulez was a groundbreaking composer, acclaimed conductor, outspoken campaigner and tireless champion of new music and young musicians.

Boulez was born on 26 March 1925 in Montbrison, a town 35km north west of Saint-Etienne. His father was an engineer, and young Pierre’s high marks in chemistry and physics at the local seminary led Papa to hope his son might follow in his footsteps – a hope not impeded by the fact that in Montbrison there was no musical activity whatever outside piano lessons. But these were enough for Pierre to sense that music was to be his métier and, via Saint-Etienne and Lyon, in 1943 he decamped to Paris and the Conservatoire.

In the autumn of 1944 he entered the class of composer Olivier Messiaen, ‘without whom I would never have become what I have’. Even so, he embarrassed his teacher by being at the forefront of those booing Stravinsky’s Norwegian Moods in a festival of that composer’s music, which had been declared ‘degenerate’ during the Occupation, along with much else.

As Boulez later said, you learn quickly when you’re primed to do so, and his short piano pieces Notations from 1945 show him following the 12-note path of Webern, who was to remain one of his favourite composers. Like the ‘Les Six’ group of French composers after the First World War, though in very different terms, he was set on striking out along new paths, and it was no accident that his key Stravinsky pieces were The Rite of Spring and Les noces. A combination of their violence with his own impatience can be heard in his first two Piano Sonatas of 1946 and 1948: in the Second Sonata, lasting some 30 minutes, there are no fewer than 69 indications of ‘subito’ and ‘subitement’.

But also from 1948 dates the sensuous work for soprano, chorus and orchestra Le soleil des eaux, in which we hear not only his attraction to the female voice, but his delicate, exact orchestral writing, proving that the calculating mathematician also has a warm heart. The piece is also one of many that he later reworked (in this case, four times over the next 17 years). He never felt the need to apologise for these ‘works in progress’, claiming that it was merely professional to try and improve one’s technique and that hearing performances of one’s music was ‘the best way of learning what you have done wrong!’

His run-ins with the French musical Establishment did not get under way immediately, perhaps because between 1946 and ’56 he found congenial employment with the Jean-Louis Barrault theatre company as musical director, which involved some writing of incidental music but also conducting of other composers’ scores. They never had anything but praise for his professionalism even though, as with Milhaud’s music for Claudel’s Christophe Colomb, they could not help but realise the gulf fixed between their musical idiom and his. But he was far from happy with the general standard of Paris music-making, and looking back in later years would castigate all his Conservatoire teachers except Messiaen as incompetent, as he did the performances of music by the Second Viennese School, which in his view did nothing but damage to the composers’ reputations. The repertoire in Paris too was restricted, and it was not until 1958 that Boulez heard Mahler for the first time, in Germany.

With Barrault’s company, Boulez had no more than ten to 15 players at his disposal, but he reckoned it helped his conducting to start with such small forces. Encouraged by Barrault, in 1953 he inaugurated the concerts of the Domaine musical, dedicated both to contemporary works and to pieces by Stravinsky, Varèse and the Second Viennese School – not least to show how the latter should be conducted. At the same time, he was attending the modern music summer schools in Darmstadt, allied with concert series in Donaueschingen and Baden-Baden.

The first piece of his really to hit the headlines, Le marteau sans maître for alto and six instruments, was first performed in 1955 at the ISCM Festival in Baden-Baden. The French committee, which had refused to sponsor the work, walked out, but Stravinsky later found it the most impressive piece he knew from the younger generation. The generous percussion section owes much to the one in Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine. Boulez, who turned the pages for the vibraphone player at the 1945 premiere, admitted he hadn’t much liked the substance of this work (all that A major…) and was ‘more interested by what Americans call the “side-order” ’, that is the celesta, vibraphone, maracas etc. This sparkling, pseudo-Asiatic sound world would be Boulez’s preferred one from now on.

His activities in the early ’50s also included writing a number of articles, some sharply polemical, or at least taken as such. In 1951, his article ‘Schoenberg is dead’ was not in fact a celebration of the master’s passing, but did observe that music now had to move on, especially on the rhythmic front; Boulez’s wish to see all the opera houses in the world blown up was clearly a deliberate exaggeration, aimed not at the buildings per se but at the cult of socialising and diva worship that opera encouraged, not to mention the accommodation the music had to make with the exigencies of staging; and his claim that any composer who had not felt the imperative need of the 12-note technique was inadequate to his times was again a deliberate overstatement. As he said decades later, ‘then I was the dog barking to come inside the tent; now I’m inside, I don’t need to bark any more.’

By 1959 he had progressed to conducting full-scale orchestras, but without making any kind of splash. Then, at the Donaueschingen Festival that year, conductor Hans Rosbaud was taken ill and hospitalised just days before the opening concert, and in desperation director Heinrich Strobel asked Boulez to take over. The first half of the progamme contained premieres of works by Boulez’s contemporaries, therefore unknown to the general public. But the second half consisted of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin; Boulez had never heard it nor even seen a score…The performance was a triumph. Among those applauding were committee members of the Concertgebouw who came round afterwards and asked Boulez, would he come and conduct their orchestra in Amsterdam? And would he please include The Miraculous Mandarin? This was where Boulez’s international conducting career began.

The bristly, antagonistic side of Boulez’s character needs to be set against the fact that throughout his career he was outstandingly successful in his relationships with performers. Stravinsky, after meeting Boulez in Hollywood, wrote to the composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger that he ‘made an excellent impression on us all: an absolutely top-class musician, highly intelligent, he has fine manners and is probably a generous man.’ Boulez’s biographer Dominique Jameux noted two main points at rehearsals with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, of which he was musical director from 1971 to ’75: firstly, the total dedication to the work in hand; and secondly, Boulez’s jokes. He seemed to have an unerring ability to judge when the tension needed relaxing. The combined result was often an early end to the rehearsal, always a winning ploy with orchestras.

If some critics have lamented the time Boulez’s conducting took from his composing, he himself had no such doubts. Although he never listened to his own recordings (again, no nostalgia), the rest of us cannot but be grateful for his versions of his favourite composers: the Second Viennese School, Debussy, Ravel, some Stravinsky and some Bartók. His detestation of the opera cult did not in the least affect his love for particular operas, notably Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and Wagner’s Ring and Parsifal. In 1963 and ’79 he conducted Wozzeck and Lulu at the Paris Opéra, demanding 35 and 40 rehearsals respectively (cries of ‘Mon Dieu!’) and that they be performed in German (more ‘Mon Dieu!’s). Both were outstanding successes. For Pelléas at Covent Garden he vowed to ‘burn the mist’ off the work and duly did so – not everyone was happy, but the opera took on new significance, its close links with Parsifal intensified, while the blaze of brass at the end of Act IV, accompanying Pelléas’s murder, marked the opera as belonging unmistakably to ‘the theatre of cruelty’.

As for the Ring, the choice of Boulez to conduct the centenary performances at Bayreuth in 1976 was highly contentious (the first non-German except Toscanini), but again justified by results, even if some traditional patrons wanted their leitmotifs more prominently displayed – instead, he chose to integrate them into the texture, emphasising Wagner’s unparalleled control of long stretches of music. He also held out against what he called the ‘barking’ style of some of the singers, believing with Nietzsche that Wagner was ‘a master of the miniature’, and that forcing the tone turned the whole into an undifferentiated mush. It was a bruising encounter, to the extent that he was left wondering whether he could in fact conduct. Happily, it was a short convalescence.

It should be clear by now that Boulez can only be termed a phenomenon. My own view is that it took him, being modest by nature, some time to realise what an exceptional musician he was. But his impatience with mediocrity and with ‘the sort of people who sit on committees’ was duly tempered by time and experience, and even some tonal composers were allowed to have their good points (not so long ago he pronounced Vaughan Williams ‘interesting’). In parallel with this, his own music began to soften its edges and even perhaps adapt its forms in some degree to the understanding of the average listener.

If Pli selon pli (1957, finally revised 1989) is still bewildering for some, there was a wider acceptance of Domaines (1968) for clarinet and six instrumental groups, partly because of its clear structure and partly because of the extreme, exciting virtuosity demanded of the clarinettist, exceeded only by that in Dialogues de l’ombre double (1985) for clarinet and electronics, where even lighting plays a crucial role. In Rituel – in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1974), the regular ticking of the percussion acts as a focus round which the other sounds proliferate, while Messagesquisse (1976), written for solo cello and six secondary ones, abandons the ‘side-order’ for music of often mysterious, atmospheric elegance, incorporating the motif derived from the surname of the Swiss conductor and philanthropist Paul Sacher (e flat-a-c-b-e natural-d), to whose foundation Boulez has willed all his manuscripts.

Boulez moved permanently to Baden-Baden in 1959 and his abandonment of France prompted disobliging references in the press to ‘Herr Boulez’. Then one day in 1970, at his country pad, the phone rang: ‘We have the Elysée Palace on the line: will you take the call?’ Boulez, thinking it was a prank, replied that he was rather busy and could they call back in a couple of hours.

Two hours later the phone rang again and a voice said, ‘Ici Georges Pompidou’. Would Boulez come back to Paris? Yes, he told the president, but not to conduct: ‘What I want is a centre for musical research’. And so was founded the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (see left), which found a home in the bowels of the Centre Pompidou.

With the founding of IRCAM, whose 4X computer made possible Répons (1980-84), one of Boulez’s uncontested masterpieces, and of the élite performing group the Ensemble intercontemporain, his entrepreneurial activities might have seemed at an end. But no. The building of the new Conservatoire at La Villette in Paris has now been followed by that of the concert hall the city has long needed, for which Boulez fought over many years, and which at last hosted its inaugural concert on 14 January 2015. The Philharmonie de Paris, visually stunning and apparently with superb acoustics (as perhaps it should be for 390m euros), allows for modular layouts, in line with Boulez’s democratic desire to break the us/them structure of concert seating: a fitting tribute to an extraordinary creative imagination.

Pierre Boulez died on 6 January 2016 after a long illness.

Roger Nichols