1. The Polar Music Prize Ceremony
2. Musical Education
3. The Serialist Movement
4. Poetry as inspiration
5. The Conductor
6. Initiatives: IRCAM & Ensemble intercontemporain
7. In memoriam
1996 Laureate


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.


Stockholm, May 1996

The 5th Polar Music Prize Ceremony was held at Berwaldhallen in the month of May 1996. The evening continued with a banquet in Vinterträdgården at Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel.

HM King Carl XVI Gustaf presented the Prize to the two Laureates Pierre Boulez and Joni Mitchell, the first female Laureate in the prize’s history.

The citation for Pierre Boulez was read by Bo Holmström, the secretary of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music.

To honour the Laureates, music was performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, soloist Phyllis Bryn-Julson and internationally acclaimed Swedish artist Marie Fredriksson from Roxette.

Joni Mitchell and Pierre Boulez receiving the Polar Music Prize from HM HM King Carl XVI Gustaf.

Pierre Boulez and Helén Adamsson, CEO of the Polar Music Prize at the time.

Citation read by Bo Holmström, the secretary of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music.
Marie Fredriksson performing "Water colours in the rain" at the ceremony.
At the Grand Hôtel banquet with HM Queen Silvia.

Musical Education

Pierre Boulez was born in 1925 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, his teacher in counterpoint.

Montbrison, France, in the Loire department, close to Lyon (Source: Wikimedia commons)

French pianist and teacher Andrée Vaurabourg (1894–1980)

The Serialist Movement

Serial music is a concept of music composed of a strictly predetermined and invariable succession of sounds called "séries". It started with the twelve-tone technique, Schoenberg's atonality, as a reaction against the existing and "classic" system of chords, intervals and "attractions" between tones and harmonies (known as functional tonality or tonal music) which in turn eliminates the notion of dissonance. In serial music 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.

Pierre Boulez would become one of the most prominent serial music composers throughout his career.

Arnold Schoenberg, developer of the twelve-tone technique starting 1923 and onwards. (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Schoenberg's piano music and his 12 fragments, Yoko Hirota, 2019.

Serial composers

Poetry as inspiration

Le Marteau Sans Maître, one of Boulez major pieces in nine movements, was inspired by surrealist 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 refers to are of course the earlier serial theories set during his compositions before Le marteau sans maître.

Pierre Boulez on "Le Marteau Sans Maître."

Véronique Pagnier, Portrait de René Char, 2010 (Source: Wikimedia commons)

"Le Marteau Sans Maître" performed by Callithumpian Consort.

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.


"Pli selon pli Improvisation I", soloist Phyllis Bryn-Julson at the Polar Music Prize ceremony in 1996.

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 (1842-1898) (Source: Wikimedia commons)

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.

Baden-Baden, a television studio Suedwestfunk, 1964. (Source: Bundesarchiv, Gerhard Heisler, via Wikimedia Commons)

The leading soprano, Dame Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde in rehearsal of "Der Ring des Nibelungen" for Bayreuth Festival in Germany 1976. (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Pierre Boulez guest conductor with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 1963. (Source: Nationaal Archief, NL)


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. The seminal Domaine Musicale concerts in Paris from 1954 onwards, the IRCAM artistic research undertaken, created and directed by himself, the Place de la Bastille Opera and Cité de la Musique are all examples of projects he initiated.

La Cité de la Musique

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. Boulez here designed the world’s first large concert hall to be tailored specifically to the demands of new electronic and experimentally developed music.

The IRCAM machine room in 1989 (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Place Igor Stravinsky & l'IRCAM in Paris (close to the Centre Georges Pompidou)

Ensemble intercontemporain

In 1976, Pierre Boulez founded the Ensemble intercontemporain, the world’s first soloist ensemble dedicated to contemporary music. 31 soloists were hired full time to create a unique ensemble with the aim to both preserve and develop contemporary music during the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Ensemble works with commissioning new contemporary composers and is always crossing boundaries between art forms, with music as the connecting centerpiece. Based in Paris it does performances, creations and educational projects for young musicians and the general public.

The Ensemble intercontemporain was awarded the Polar Music Prize in 2022.

Pierre Boulez with Michel Tabachnik, the first Music Director of l'Ensemble intercontemporain.

Ensemble intercontemporain in 1979 (Source: © Ensemble intercontemporain archives, all rights reserved)
Ensemble intercontemporain in 2021, with Music Director Matthias Pintscher (Source: © Ensemble intercontemporain, photo by Luc Hossepied)
Philharmonie de Paris at Cité de la Musique (Source: © William Beaucardet / Philharmonie de Paris)
Grande salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris. (Source: © William Beaucardet / Philharmonie de Paris)

Content of biography is presented here as it was published in 2012, updated in 2022.

In memoriam Pierre Boulez 1925–2016.

All pictures from the ceremony and banquet © Polar Music Prize.

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