Pierre Boulez, the trailblazing musician who shook up the French musical establishment in the mid 20th century, died yesterday at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany.
‘For all those who met him and were able to appreciate his creative energy, his artistic vigour… will remain alive and strong,’ said his family in a statement issued this morning.
Reflecting on Boulez’s death, French President François Hollande has issued a statement saying: ‘Pierre Boulez made French music shine throughout the world. As a composer and conductor, he always wanted to reflect on the ages.’
The extent of Boulez’s musical influence was extraordinary. As a composer, writer and conductor, he championed the works of generations of new composers, encouraging a need for greater musical experimentation. A pioneer of serialism, he developed his own ‘controlled chance’ technique that allowed performers to have choices about what to perform.
A firebrand from an early age, Boulez studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Messiaen – one of the few teachers he respected – where he discovered the 12-tone system. He rattled the cages of the musical establishment by declaring that any composer who did not acknowledge the necessity of this technique was ‘useless’. His own composition le marteau sans maître (1953-57) was turned down for sponsorship by a French committee but was later championed by Stravinsky. He also caused controversy in his writing, notably in 1952 with an article entitled ‘Schoenberg is dead’.
His musical legacy includes great works that continued to evolve as he revisited them. These include Pli selon pli – a song cycle based on poems by Stéphane Mallarmé – which was initially composed in 1957. In Notations in the late 1970s, he revisited early piano pieces from the 1940s and developed them into five elaborate orchestral canvases.
Boulez founded his 31-piece Ensemble Intercontemporain in 1972 with an aim of promoting contemporary music. His innovations also led to an invitation by President Pompidou to found an institution in Paris dedicated to musical research.
IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) opened in 1977 as part of Paris’s Centre Pompidou and showcased the talents of the finest contemporary composers, including Stockhausen, Cage, Berio and Xenakis. Boulez’s own Répons (1980-84) was composed at IRCAM with the aid of the institute’s computer technology.
Also a prolific conductor, Boulez conducted a landmark centenary production of the Ring at Bayreuth in 1976. In the early 1970s he held top positions at the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1971-75) and the New York Philharmonic (1971-77). He never used a baton, always preferring to conduct with his hands.
Neil McKim is the former Production Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He is now the production editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.