Pierre Boulez (1925-2016, French)

English-speaking friends, I know that some of you don’t know this: the final z is pronounced: not “Boolay”, but “Boolez” (phonetically it is typed [bu.lɛːz], same e as in “dress”).

Whatever you think of Boulez and his music, one thing can’t be denied: the man was a brilliant mind, one of the most brilliant and powerful in the cultural field for 65 or 70 years. It can be argued that Boulez carved his position as one of the greatest, if not THE greatest champion of modernism in music and arts as much through the apparently implacable logic of his demonstrations and his cruelly biting tongue as a polemicist, as through his compositions themselves.

As for the latter, I’ve barely dipped into Boulez’ music. I anticipate that it will be such a major intellectual journey, investment and challenge, that one cannot do that casually, one needs time, concentration, implication. To listen with both an open AND critical ear will require lots of research and reflexion. So I’m keeping Boulez for later. So far I’ve only reviewed the recording of his seminal Structures for two pianos by the Kontarsky brothers on Wergo – and, on the occasion, tentatively expressed some doubts, and of Domaines for clarinet and instrumental groups, by Michel Portal and Ensemble Musique Vivante under Diego Masson on Harmonia Mundi, later reissued by DG, which I enjoyed.

That said, whatever my misgivings about Boulez’ music (which will, or will not, be confirmed by more familiarity), I cannot take too seriously all those current neo-romantic or neo-reactionary composers who now whine that they were literally forced (by Academia, or by market pressure, or whatever) to write serial music in the 1970s or early 1980s against their own instincts, their own “inner calling” and their own volition. That’s the whining excuse of whimpish composers without a project and without a personality. It is a lying revisionist myth to claim that serialism dominated academia or “the market” in those years, and anyway nobody was able to force Cage, or Dutilleux, or Crumb, or Lutoslawski, or Messiaen, or Ligeti, to write serial music if they didn’t want to, and no Academia and no market pressure or anything prevented them from writing exactly the kind of music they wanted to write. If Boulez “forced” anything upon anybody, it was only through the irresistibly convincing power of his demonstrative logic.

As an intepreter, curiously, outside maybe of 20th century music (and even there…), Boulez was never a “modernist”. Like his buddy Barenboim, he favored ample, majestic and ponderous tempi, as if he had learned the 19th-Century repertoire taking lessons from Klemperer or Furtwängler. Take his Beethoven’s 5th with the New York Philharmonic, the approach is incredibly old-fashioned, heavy-handed, stolid. Take the first movement of his Mahler 7th on DG: the guy should have gone back to his French-German dictionary to check again the meaning of the word “Allegro”. What he said about Historically-Informed Performance – in substance, that it was pointless, because why not ask the audience to wear whigs while you were at it – both raised a valid point and was entirely silly in its dogged refusal to pick up that point and answer it. What Boulez meant, I think, was that you can NEVER recreate the conditions of a period performance, because the whole world has changed, the audience, its background and expectations, all have changed, and from there he concluded that the whole endeavor of the HIPsters was self-delusion. Well, sure, the world has changed and you will never recreate the conditions of a premiere performance that took place two or three hundred years ago. But what he haughtily and stubbornly failed to acknowledge, is, one, that what HIPsters try and do (independent of what they say and claim they do) is not so much to re-create a period performance as to recreate on today’s audience the effect that a period performance may have had on its audience, and, two, that all the musical parameters set forth by most HIPsters – dynamic tempi, attention to instrumental color and combinations, biting rhythms to the point even of violence – , were exactly those that “contemporary music” was promoting and that Boulez was championing in his own music, that the HIPsters were not naïvely trying to re-enter an illusory paradise lost, but living in exactly the same expressive and emotional world as Boulez and his contemporary music peers. Boulez saw HIPsters as people to scorn and ridicule (Messiaen commented that, even when the young Boulez attended his analysis class at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 1940s, he seemed to be angry at everybody), and probably never realized that they were, in fact, fundamentally in the same camp.


Comments are welcome