Pierre Boulez remembered
A look at the life and legacy of the pioneering composer and conductor.
Pierre Boulez's influence on those around him was immense. A ground-breaking composer of masterpieces such as Le marteau sans maître, he was also a tireless champion of new music in his role as a conductor. Back in the March 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine we looked at the impact Boulez has had on the musical landscape of the 21st century. Five leading figures from the music world spoke to us about their own experiences of Boulez: the man and the music.
Julian Anderson, composer
I was about ten when I first heard Boulez’s music on the radio. The piece I heard was his Le marteau sans maître. At that age, when you hear a piece like that, you are rather stunned. I’d never heard music of that sort before, and I was intrigued. I won’t pretend that, at ten years old, I understood it, but I was attracted by the soundworld – it was an instinctive attraction even then. Over the following years, whenever I had any pocket money, I made a point of getting other records of his music.
When I was 13, he came to the UK to tour and record his Pli selon pli, which I’d got to know. Two people on the music staff at my school were members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and they got me into the rehearsals at Maida Vale studios. I was able to see him at work and, at the dress rehearsal, I asked to meet him as I had a technical question that I wanted to ask him about the score. He was generous and articulate, and gave me a few minutes of his time with the score in front of us.
In any piece of Boulez, you’ll find that the soundworld is extraordinarily distinctive and exceptionally well defined. With some composers, you wonder sometimes if they intended their music to sound that way. You never ever wonder that with Boulez. His is a very precisely imagined world: if the work in question were not so fresh, that would be nothing particularly special, but in his case, it is always both a fresh and personal world of sound, and that makes it unforgettable. What also intrigues many people about his music is his superb harmony – he writes some amazing chords.
François-Xavier Roth, conductor
As a Frenchman, I was exposed to Boulez’s music quite early. I remember when, as a teenager, I heard Répons for the first time, and also Le marteau sans maître. His music opened a new world for me as a young musician. It was not just the shock of it, but I also couldn’t have previously imagined a composer bringing the musicians and audience together in such an amazing world of sound. It really was a discovery.
I started conducting his music very early, and by the end of this year I will have conducted nearly all of his works. What fascinates me about Boulez’s music is the way that he never repeats himself. Every work takes lots of risks – new forms, different ensembles. Throughout the history of music, every composer has been tempted to repeat himself or to try to create his distinctive musical signature, but with Boulez, a new work is a new work.
He is a very difficult composer to conduct. The first difficulty with his music is to convince orchestras and ensembles to assemble the unique set-up for each work – the only symphonic work he’s written is his orchestration of his own Notations, which is for a huge ensemble. His music also involves lots of techniques for a conductor. Répons, for instance, is like a concerto for the conductor. This is not because he wants to make things difficult for the conductor, but because he is interested in how people can play in different tempos from each other and still remain very ordered. He had to invent a new role for the conductor. Le marteau sans maître is also challenging, but it brings a lot of joy because the music is so well thought out. Boulez’s music is never unfeasible or too difficult to perform. It’s possible… but challenging!
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, pianist
When I was young I travelled a lot to hear Pierre Boulez conducting: I went to Geneva when I was nine to hear him and when I was 11 I went to Bayreuth to hear his Parsifal. The first time I met him was in 1976, when he asked me to audition as a pianist for his Ensemble intercontemporain. He was extremely friendly, open, kind and positive. It was a fantastically formative experience playing with the Ensemble. We constantly had new pieces by the best possible composers and it was an incredible place for being informed about what is new in music. It was also an incredible place for artistry as Boulez has this genius for creating intense artistic experiences and events. From the very start I intended not to be bored by life, not to repeat the same gestures. What I found at the Ensemble corresponded to my philosophy.
Everybody that has worked with Boulez will tell you the same thing. It is one of the most extraordinary things that can happen in your life. His intensity, commitment, reliability, inspiration, courage and generosity are outstanding. He brings out the best in the people around him and is always developing himself too. He opens your ears, cleans and empowers your brain, and gives each second importance. And he always does it in a very human way with respect for others. He’s an immense professional and an exceptional human being. Perhaps in France more than in any country it has not been easy for him all the time – he is someone who says what he thinks and doesn’t make compromises. But he is a fighter who has done fabulous things. Nobody else has achieved what he has in recent times: a major role as a composer, interpreter and as an institution builder.
Hilary Summers, contralto
When I first worked with Boulez, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this is the guy that you read about in text books; the guy you read all these amazingly intellectual quotes from.’ Of course, you turn up and meet him and he’s the most charming and intelligent man. When you work on his music he helps you through all the bars and anything you ask him, he’s always happy to explain. During our first rehearsal together for a recording of Le marteau sans maître, there was one point where I kept making a mistake and I became quite frustrated with myself and yelled an obscenity. I was mortified and there was a deathly silence. But when I looked up, Boulez’s shoulders were shaking with laughter and he just said, ‘I don’t understand these English words.’ He’s got a great, dry sense of humour.
I was lucky to work on Le marteau with him and a group of students from the Lucerne Festival after that. Just seeing the way he worked with them – the way he explained things and really clarified things – was even more illuminating than recording the piece the first time round with the Ensemble intercontemporain, because they already knew it. I couldn’t believe that Boulez was so happy to work for up to ten hours going through these fiendishly difficult bars: it gave me a huge insight into the piece. His skills as a conductor are vast – he would have been every bit as intellectual and important if he was just a conductor and had never written a note of music himself. As it is, his music, thoughts, theories and treatises are all a massively important part of 20th- and 21st-century music.
Roger Wright, chief executive of Aldeburgh Music
It’s very hard to tell the story of 20th-century music without talking about Boulez, both as a composer and a conductor. Although his time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as chief conductor was relatively short (1971-75), the impact he had on the orchestra was such that people still talk about the Boulez period as if it had gone on for decades. There are lots of stories of the way he used to balance and tune the orchestra – even in the most complex pieces, he would hear bits of intonation and ensemble that clearly the players thought no human ear could unpick.
But he also kept new music very much at the fore, as a sort of musical painting restorer, shedding light on all sorts of music he considered important, including works that are still not heard much in the concert hall today: the second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, and Bartók.
The Cleveland Orchestra, which has had a 50-year-long association with Boulez,has a natural balance and clarity which matches Boulez’s own artistic vision and strengths. In my time as the orchestra’s artistic administrator we were able to get some extraordinary recordings made – his Debussy recordings are models of jewel-like precision and clarity, but powerful too. A lot of people talk about the coldness of Boulez. People put music-making in two boxes – either cool and clear, or exotic and colourful: the truth is that it’s possible for those two things to coexist. It doesn’t have to be rough and ready in order for it to be exciting. It can be accurate and precise, and that creates its own energy.