Styles & Forms | Contemporary | Classical
After the cataclysmic upheaval of World War II subsided, it was clear that a very different musical world would result. The conflict had led to the dislocation, destruction and occupation of major cities in Germany and central Europe, coupled with the dispersal of their leading creative figures around the globe. It was inevitable that fresh centres, directions and personalities would emerge, and they were quick to appear.
In Paris, Messiaen’s composition class at the Conservatoire provided a forum for a radical intelligentsia to develop, determined upon a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of modernism as it had existed pre-war. Boulez emerged early on as a charismatic leader, able to back his compositional skills with a savage polemical gift. Stravinsky’s neo-classicism was scornfully dismissed as retrogressive, whilst Messiaen’s structural techniques were criticized for substituting, as Boulez saw it, juxtaposition for composition. Nor did the senior generation of serialists, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, escape wholly, being variously pulled up for temporizing with pre-serial formal models or for failing to develop a correspondingly radical approach to rhythmic organization, as they had established for pitch.
A New World Order
Nevertheless, it was upon their example that Boulez and his contemporaries set about building a new world order for music. Taking as a starting point the aesthetic of Schoenberg’s early atonal works and the organizational methods of late Webern, Boulez aimed at what he called an ‘organized delirium’, an intensification of the 12-note method that involved a melodic style spread over extremes of register and a use of rhythm, derived from a detailed manipulation of small melodic and rhythmic cells, that disrupted any conventional notion of pulse. This early style found its fullest expression in the Second Piano Sonata (1948), a work consciously conceived as a successor to the great Romantic sonatas of the past, in particular Beethoven’s Hammerklavier (1818).
But soon Boulez, along with his colleagues, was exploring a still-more fundamental interpretation of the 12-note ideal: ‘total serialism’. Aspects of Webern’s work had hinted at the extension of serialism to cover not just the organization of pitched notes, but of other parameters too, including rhythm, mode of attack, dynamics and timbre. These composers found inspiration in a pioneering piano piece by Messiaen, the Mode de valeurs et d’intensités (‘Forms of Value and Intensity’, 1949), which attempted to unify four of these elements by forging numerical links between them and the pitch row. Boulez and Stockhausen elaborated this idea in a series of experimental works composed between 1950 and 1952. In Stockhausen’s case, the music took the form of ‘points’, individualized notes each with their own highly specific duration, dynamic and mode of attack.
Eventually, however, this extraordinary experiment in aesthetic unity could not be sustained. The difficulties experienced in live performance and an instinctive feeling that too rigid a system might stifle a composer’s individual creativity led its chief proponents to seek other paths. For Boulez, this involved the development of a...
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