Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Boulez Remains

As I write this, Pierre Boulez turns 90. The enfante terrible of new music is now the grand old figure. It's startling to realize that, of course, both for ourselves as well as for history itself. Not only has Boulez changed, aged, and matured, but so have we. There are many that will declare him out-dated,a remnant of earlier times. He is, after all, the sole significant survivor of the Darmstadt generation.

For too many of us, we first encounter Boulez as the creator of dense serial works such as the massive Structures, which is often quoted in music theory texts. It is, after all, a total serial work, and the opening of Book 1 is fairly easy to analyze from that perspective. Most students then proceed to "le marteau sans maître, which is notoriously difficult to analyze. And, that's where way too many students stop.

 For me, there are two works (I'll qualify that shortly) that continue to astound me. First, there is Éclat/Multiples, in particular, the Éclat section of the work. I first came across it as an undergraduate, and was immediately transfixed. The opening piano cadenza is a tour-de-force, yet this is not a piano concerto as the pianist eventually settles into the role of another member of the ensemble. But what follows is even more breath-taking: the passages at the center of the work when Boulez seems to stop time. Thus, we get a journey from the volcanic opening to the ever-still center, which eventually builds back up to the more strident Multiples portion of the work.

 In 1972, Boulez was asked by Tempo magazine to contribute to their issue memorializing Stravinsky. His submission was essentially a construction kit given the title explosante-fixe. At the time, it may have been perceived as a toss-off; why couldn't Boulez write a little piece like others had done? Yet, from so many accounts, this little set of instructions has provided the basis for most of Boulez' output from that time forward. From the fragments here, he was able to construct works like Messagesquisse, both Dérvies, Répons, Anthèmes 1 & 2, and, of course, the full version of ...explosante-fixe.... And, this is really what amazes me about Boulez: his ability to extend material, to develop large amounts of music from tiny ideas, and to do so with clarity and cohesiveness. One can also see this in the orchestral Notations, which are expansions of early piano works of the same name written 40 years prior. The piano works are miniatures, fleeting images, many lasting under a minute. Their orchestral counterparts are greatly expanded versions of these pieces, yet the relationships between the two are apparent on a casual listening. It's as if Boulez took his concept of chord multiplication and brought it forth on to the largest scales of a work. For me, that is the Boulez we should be praising.

 This year, Pierre Boulez turns 90. The enfante terrible of new music is now the grand old figure.


  1. His fabulous 'Sur Incises' is probably the greatest work he has ever composed. I was lucky enough to play it with him conducting several times, most recently when he was 87 years of age. He is a genius. We are lucky to have him in our midst.

  2. The most beautiful moment in twentieth century music is for me personally the moment in the opening-movement of Pli selon pli, Don - to be precise halfway that movement - when the voice enters with primordial hints of words. That is no less then pure magic and intensely moving.

  3. Susan - I forgot you had done that! What do you think of his harp writing in that piece?