Unreconstructed Modernist

How does one account for the fall of Pierre Boulez the composer and the rise of Pierre Boulez the conductor?

THIRTY-FIVE years ago I bought a record that changed the way I thought about music: Pierre Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître, conducted by Robert Craft. Scored for the exotic ensemble of contralto voice, alto flute, viola, guitar, and percussion (including vibraphone, but prominently bongos), Le Marteau was remotely jazzy and vaguely oriental, rhythmically frantic yet emotionally cool. It was atonal, but without the angst of most of the atonal music I knew. Heard today, it might seem quintessentially fifties--a vodka martini set to music, with instrumentation not far from what you would hear on a Chet Baker record or, with those bongos, a hi-fi demo. But at the time, I felt that I had been granted a vision of the musical future. I sat down and wrote a piece for flute, vibraphone, and bongos, to be played as fast as possible. My revelation was not unique. Le Marteau affected composers of several generations, who began to turn out flute-and-vibraphone music by the yard. Because the recording was conducted by Craft, it signaled a laying on of hands by Igor Stravinsky, who lavished praise on Le Marteau and predicted (perhaps ironically) that in twenty-five years Boulez, the enfant terrible of the European avant-garde, would be a concert staple.

It did not turn out that way. Today the avant-garde is a thing of the past. Boulez, who turned seventy in March, is far more active as a conductor than as a composer. The most recent recording of Le Marteau sans maître, widely considered the signature piece of the post-Second World War era, has never even been reissued on CD, although a forthcoming DGG disc, following a series of new releases tied to Boulez's birthday, should bring it back into circulation sometime in 1996.

Boulez remains one of the most puzzling figures in the music of our time. Although he composed Le Marteau sans maître when he was around thirty, it turned out to be the beginning of the end of his main creative phase. He has composed little new music over the past twenty years. In the wake of Boulez's turbulent years at the New York Philharmonic, in the mid-1970s, the writer Joan Peyser rolled out the Freudian machinery in her book Boulez (1976) and just sounded crass--with her suggestion, for example, that he suffered from crippling emotional inhibitions as a result of his Catholic upbringing. Today critics are more likely to see Boulez as a victim of his own vision of musical history. When modernism went out of style, they say, Boulez was left stranded. Yet the ecstatic reception Boulez receives these days when he conducts in Chicago or Vienna--neither city a bastion of modern music, from which Boulez never strays--suggests that Boulez is not so easily consigned to the historical dustheap.

I would propose a different model of Boulez's career: the typical trajectory of a mathematical genius. Like many mathematicians, Boulez had his great ideas in his early twenties, when he burst onto the Parisian musical scene as a radical composer and a scathing polemicist who intended to rewrite the history of twentieth-century music to justify his own innovations. You can hear his brash brilliance in his very first published work-- the deceptively titled Sonatine for flute and piano, which Boulez wrote in 1946, a work that was neither small nor neoclassical.

This has to be one of the most original opus No. 1s in the history of music, because it fuses the two warring schools of modern music--those of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Boulez saw that Stravinsky had revitalized rhythm, while Schoenberg--and, more important, his pupil Anton Webern--had reconfigured harmony through the twelve-tone technique. Yet when Boulez composed the sonatina, Stravinsky had apparently ceased his harmonic explorations, and Schoenberg was still using the rhythms of Brahms. Webern, the only composer who might have shown the way forward, was dead, shot by an American soldier in a freak accident that made him into a martyr for the European left. Why not combine the progressive elements of the two schools? Hurling Stravinskian rhythms at Schoenbergian harmonies, the young Boulez smashed the musical atom, releasing in the sonatina an explosion of musical violence, nervousness, and instability.

What could he do for an encore? Boulez expanded the style of the flute sonatina in two visionary cantatas based on poetry by the great surrealist René Char: Le Visage nuptial and Le Soleil des eaux. In his Second Piano Sonata, written in 1948, at the age of just twenty-three, Boulez felt sufficiently confident of his grand synthesis to take on the very heights of musical accomplishment--late Beethoven. The sonata deliberately evokes Beethoven's monumental Hammerklavier Sonata op. 106, and in the recording by Maurizio Pollini the comparison seems almost valid. The sonata was a triumph of what is termed l'audace in French, chutzpah in Yiddish.

The rapid development of Boulez's music soon reached its first crisis, however. Around 1950 Boulez befriended two composers who challenged his leadership of the avant-garde: Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Where Boulez had seen the future of music emerging from a crossbreeding of elements from the past, Stockhausen and Cage called for a break with all previous music. Stockhausen reduced music to "information," while Cage refused to differentiate musical sounds from either noise or silence. Having removed any remaining mystique from music, they could impose arbitrary designs on it, including pure chance. Stockhausen wrote a piano piece whose nineteen episodes could be played in whatever order the performer chose so that no two performances would be the same. Cage introduced chance into the act of composing itself by letting the I Ching choose his notes for him. Any formal logic in these pieces would exist solely in the minds of misguided listeners.

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