Pierre Boulez has been a pivotal figure of modern European art music for half a century. His profound musicality, clear intelligence and unusual farsightedness have enabled him to act in a wider field than the great majority. Thus he has occupied the forefront as composer, interpreter/conductor and eminent theorist, and he has made unique contributions as a debater and source of ideas.
Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) was born in Montbrison, Loire, in the south east of France. As a child he began piano lessons and demonstrated aptitude in both music and mathematics. He studied mathematics in Lyon until 1942, and then moved to pursue musical studies at the Conservatoire de Paris under Olivier Messiaen and Andrée Vaurabourg.
In 1944 he interrupted the studies with Messiaen to study serialism with René Leibowitz, himself a student of Maurice Ravel and the first who coined the expression for this kind of structural composing. Following his student years, Boulez established connections with the Darmstadt School in the early fifties and soon became recognized as one of the leading composers of the younger generation.
The serialist movement
A concept of music composed of a strictly predetermined and invariable succession of sounds called “séries”. It started with the twelve-tone technique as a reaction against the existing and “classic” system of chords, intervals and “attractions” between tones and between harmonies (known as “functional tonality” or tonal music) which in turn develops and eliminates the notion of dissonance, and every note becomes important and independent.
The system established a certain evolution of the musical language already noticeable in Gustav Mahler and other pioneers who pushed tone patterns in order to create a lack of benchmarks, and increase modulation possibilities.
Poetry as inspiration
Le Marteau Sans Maître, one of Boulez major pieces in nine movements, was inspired by surrelist poet René Char.
It was first performed in 1955. Pierre Boulez himself described the process in a quote in La Scena Musicale in 2000: “I have the kind of temperament that tries to make rules for the pleasure of breaking them later.” The rules he referes to are of course the earlier serial theories set during his compositions before Le marteau sans maître.
For his major piece Pli selon pli Pierre Boulez was inspired by French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and poem “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui…” At the prize ceremony in Stockholm it was performed by members of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra with soloist Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui!
Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.
Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.
Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid de mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.
- Stéphane Mallarmé
In 1959 Pierre Boulez was appointed Conductor of the Südwestfunk Orchestra which, through the medium of European Broadcasting Union interchange, became the hub from which contemporary music could be conveyed to a wider audience. This marked the beginning of a remarkable conducting career, brilliantly highlighted by the epoch-making Wagner productions in Bayreuth and the principal conductorships of the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
IRCAM and Cité de la musique
Pierre Boulez has been instrumental in devising new ways of presenting the music of our time and devising institutional structures for the development of its materials and interpretation, ranging from the seminal Domaine Musicale concerts in Paris from 1954 onwards and the IRCAM artistic research undertaken, created and directed by himself, to his inspiration of the greatest French musical undertakings of our time in Paris, such as the Place de la Bastille Opera and, most recently of all, Cité de la Musique, for which he designed the world’s first large concert hall to be tailored specifically to the demands of new electronic and experimentally developed music. La Cité de la Musique (Centre for music) is a center for contemporary music, a concert hall and a research center for musical studies in Paris.