PORTRAIT – French composer Pierre Boulez has died on thuesday (January, 5) at the age of 90. At spring 2015, the Philharmonie of Paris hosted an exhibition on this fascinating personality. I chose to ask Benoit Duteurtre what his view of Boulez is, twenty years after writing “Requiem for an avant-garde” in which he criticized the positions held by this figurehead of France’s musical avant-garde.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Pierre Boulez wanted to revolutionize music: atonality, the use of computers and studies in acoustics. Fascinated by ethnology and Asiatic instruments and music, he was inspired by the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee and Nicolas de Staël, as demonstrated by the Philharmonie’s exposition. Yet his music is little known by the musical public.
“Compared to his contemporaries, for instance Olivier Messiaen, he is seldom played in the world,” notes Benoit Duteurtre. The director of Musique nouvelle en liberté was one of Boulez’s most fervent critics. “His works – Le marteau sans maître, for instance – often require sophisticated technical abilities that many orchestras and ensembles just can’t deliver. He’s composed relatively little and often reworked his pieces, leading sometimes to a sense of non-completion. His writing had a certain influence, but never appealed to public taste. His reputation as a composer has been eclipsed by his popularity as a conductor.”
It was to earn a living that Pierre Boulez took up the baton, notably in Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud’s theatre company, where he was in charge of music. He defended avant-garde music there, the Second Viennese School (Berg, Webern, Schönberg) and Stravinsky. He became an ardent defender of French music on the international scene: “He conducted the works of Debussy and Ravel better than anyone else,” in Benoit Duteurtre’s analysis. “He rid them of their romantic sentimentality and gave them more modern, more objective versions. Generally speaking, we can say that Boulez fights against immediate seduction. His recordings have become reference points.” With a birthday coming up, Deutsche Grammophon and Erato have put out their Boulez box sets, where the French conductor leads the world’s great orchestras.
The Founder of Institutions
The Ensemble Intercontemporain and the IRCAM (the Institute for musical research near the Centre Pompidou): both are his doing. The Cité de la musique? Also him. And the Philharmonie? Still him. “When people asked Jacques Chirac what sort of music he listened to, he’d answer ‘Pierre Boulez’!” Benoit Duteurtre tells us. It’s difficult to verify the anecdote, but it demonstrates this artist’s place in the political wolrd. “He’s a brilliant man, an intellectual, the type France likes. Pierre Boulez had the politicians’ ears because he was internationally renowned as a conductor. The founding of the Philharmonie de Paris, one of his dearest dreams, is proof of his influence.”
The Difficult Heritage
The Boulez school dominated the stage from the 1950s to the 1980s. “It was a very aggressive school that denigrated the music of Shostakovich and Britten, works that have entered the repertoire,” Duteurtre continues. This sure-of-itself young school had to face the competition of a new avant-garde coming from the United States. The minimalist movement – John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass – returned to tonality with a more seductive, ‘repetitive’ music.
“The claim of Boulez’s cohorts,” Duteurtre goes on, “was that the public would get used to their modernity, but this didn’t happen. Their music is based on mathematical and architectural theories that are undetectable to most music fans. That being the case, it became necessary to educate the public during night-class performances. Today composers have extricated themselves from this radical method: pieces by Philippe Hersant or Thierry Eschaich are more easily seductive.”
See, listen, read, click
– Take a look at France Musique’s web documentary, a broad portrait of Boulez including unpublished photographs, scores, videos and interviews, and analysis by musicologist Claude Abromont.
– Actes-Sud has published the exhibit’s catalogue.
– The exhibit continues at the Philharmonie de Paris
Part of this article appeared in Le Parisien on 16 March 2015. Translated by J. A. Macfarlane