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.

Chapter: Musical education

Musical education

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.

Andrée Vaurabourg, French pianist and teacher of Pierre Boulez, Roger Matton and Serge Garant. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

(Photo: Ivo Kruusamägi)
Chapter: The Serialist Movement

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.

Arnold Schoenberg, developer of the twelve-tone technique (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Serial composers
Chapter: Poetry as inspiration

Poetry as inspiration

Le Marteau Sans Maître, one of Boulez major pieces in nine movements, was inspired by surrelist poet René Char.

Véronique Pagnier, Portrait de René Char, 2010 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Pierre Boulez talks about Le Marteau Sans Maître
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

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.

Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898)

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 

Chapter: The Conductor

The Conductor

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.

The leading soprano, Dame Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde in rehearsal of Der Ring des Nibelungen for Bayreuth Festival in Germany 1976, (Photo: Menerbes, via Wikimedia Commons)
Baden-Baden, a television studio Suedwestfunk, 1964 (Photo: Bundesarchiv, Gerhard Heisler, via Wikimedia Commons)
Pierre Boulez at the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2008 with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (Photo: Sonja² (Own work), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Chapter: IRCAM

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.

IRCAM, place Igor-Stravinsky, Paris. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
One minute at the museum - a short introduction to the instrument collection of La Cité de la Musique
Machine room at IRCAM
A studio at IRCAM, 1989 (Photo: Martin Guy, via Wikimedia Commons)
Chapter: Stockholm, May 1996

Stockholm May 1996

Citation read by Bo Holmström, the secretary of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music
On stage with the other Laureate of 1996, Joni Mitchell (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
At the banquet with her Royal Majesty the Queen of Sweden (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
With the CEO of the Polar Music Prize Helén Adamsson (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)