Personalities | Pierre Boulez | Contemporary | Classical

(Pe-âr’ Boo-lez’) b. 1925
French composer and conductor

A student of Messiaen and René Leibowitz (1913–72), Boulez is perhaps the arch-modernist of the twentieth century. His early piano works clearly show the influence of Schoenberg (Notations, 1945).

A visit from Cage in 1949 sparked a friendship and correspondence that was to be central to the progress of twentieth-century music. He was ruthless in his development of a new musical language; for him, Schoenberg’s innovations were not courageous enough and were too rooted in classical forms.

Boulez believed that ‘in order to create effectively one has to consider delirium and, yes, organize it’. Serialism was a means for him to take control of all elements of music – pitch, timbre, duration, instrumentation, dynamic – and bind them together. Le marteau sans maître (‘The Masterless Hammer’, 1953–55), as well as being a wonderful example of such techniques, is now regarded as one of the cornerstones of twentieth-century music. Boulez’s approach to composition gradually opened out and Pli selon pli (‘Fold upon Fold’, 1959–62) shows an expressive directness. He began the work-in-progress Éclats/Multiples in 1965, but by this point conducting was taking over, with commitments at Cleveland and Bayreuth. At the start of the next decade, he held concurrent posts as chief conductor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1971–75) and the New York Philharmonic (1971–77). Between 1975 and 1991 he was director at IRCAM, a research institute for electroacoustic music, during which time he produced Répons (1980–84), for solo instrumental group, chamber orchestra and live electronics. While remaining in considerable demand as a conductor, he managed in the 1980s and 90s to produce an extended version of a work begun in the 1970s, … explosante-fixe …, as well as Dérive I (1984) and Dérive II (1988–2006), both derivations from Répons. A short competition piece for piano, Incises (1994, rev. 2001), developed into sur Incises (1995–98), for three pianos, three harps, and three mallet percussion instruments, which won the 2001 Grawemeyer Award for composition.

Le marteau sans maître

Le marteau sans maître was first performed in 1955 and soon recognized as the crucial score of its period. On the printed page it occasionally looks like the music of Webern; in all other respects it is unprecedented. It calls for alto voice and a group of instruments that play mostly in the alto register. Each movement is differently scored, all seven musicians appearing continuously in only one of them. The nine movements unfold in three interlocked ‘cycles’, each associated with a short poem by Char. Bourreaux de solitude (‘Executioners of Solitude’), has a vocal setting and three instrumental ‘commentaries’ upon it; L’artisanat furieux (‘The Furious Handicraft’) has a separate prelude and postlude.

The compositional technique of Le marteau sans maître is of huge complexity. Exhaustive development of the serial technique had led Boulez and others to a point at which it was possible to derive not only every pitch but every other element of...

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