Pierre Boulez 1925-2016

January 06, 2016
By George Grella


Pierre Boulez, one of the most important figures in 20th century classical music, is dead. His death Tuesday evening was announced on the website of the Philharmonie de Paris, part of the Cité de la Musique complex in Paris.

The Cité is a concrete manifestation of Boulez’ significance to both French and international musical culture. Boulez was a composer and conductor of stature: among other positions, he was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 1977, and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was a regular conductor from 1991, before being appointed principal guest conductor in 1995. He passes as the CSO’s Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus and an Honorary Member of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society.

In New York, he attempted innovations that in many ways have become commonplace to the way orchestras approach their audiences: new music series, chamber concerts, and informal events both in what is now David Geffen Hall and away from the Philharmonic’s Lincoln Center home. While his influence on subsequent music-making can be hard to discern—his style as a composer was unique to himself, and he was not a pedagogue as a conductor—he leaves behind an essential legacy of building institutions, like the Cité and most prominently the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Ircam). In this role, he had no peer in the history of classical music.

Boulez (born March 26, 1925, in Montbrison, France), began his career as a serious musician during World War II, in German-occupied France, where he studied with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. The elder composer introduced him to both both contemporary and non-Western music.

Boulez’s compositional output is both fascinating and uneven. He was a leader of the school of serial, atonal composition that, through the academies, dominated classical music in the mid–20th century. His Sonata pour piano no. 2 is a muscular exemplar of that style, but his Le Marteau sans maître drove the musical concept into an objective, lifeless dead end.

Boulez had a brilliant intellect and could be an intimidating didact. In an ideological era, he battled with ideas as much as music. A budding friendship with John Cage was demolished by differences in aesthetic values: while Cage’s Music of Changes can sound like a companion to Boulez’ Sonata No. 2, Boulez could not reconcile Cage’s different compositional process with his own.

But Boulez was ultimately too agile to be caught in a stylistic trap. While never completely abandoning atonality, he expanded his harmonic palette and became increasingly interested in exploring instrumental color, at times with electronic enhancement. Pieces like Pli selon pli, a setting of Mallarmé poems; Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna; and “…explosive-fixe…”, are not only involving and satisfying works in their own right, but establish a vital reconciliation of serial music with Debussy’s legacy of organic, tonal forms. They are high points in a compositional output that Boulez frequently revisited and revised. He left the impression that he was always looking for something better to say, or a better way to say what he thought, and the 2013 collection of his complete works has on the back the indication: “work in progress.”

Boulez was a controversial conductor whose performances and recordings with the Philharmonic, the CSO, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, and many more ensembles, divided his own fans and those of the composers he explored. Focusing on the structure and orchestral detail of the scores, his views on Stravinsky and Debussy are, if not every listener’s first choice, essential to understanding the work of those composers. And his recordings of Bartók, Ravel, Ligeti, Berg, Webern, Schoenberg, and Messiaen are among the finest available.

In the traditional repertoire, Boulez’s detailed approach yielded inconsistent results. He found his way to Mahler through Berg and Schoenberg, and his interpretations of the vocal symphonies are fresh and fulfilling. With the others, revelatory passages and movements run up against a lack of vision of the overall form. Boulez was an unexpected choice to conduct the performances of Patrice Chereau’s Ring at Beyreuth, but the results turned out to be historic and enduring.

In New York, the Philharmonic concerts of Wagner, Strauss and Sibelius that will be heard January 7–9, and January 12, will be dedicated to Boulez. In a statement from the orchestra, music director Alan Gilbert said: “Pierre Boulez was a towering and influential musical figure whose Philharmonic leadership implicitly laid down a challenge of innovation and invention that continues to inspire us to this day. To me, personally, he also was an unfailingly gracious mentor and friend. I will miss his musicianship, kindness, and wisdom.”

Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti said, “With the loss of Pierre Boulez, the world of music today is infinitely poorer. As both an admirer and friend of the Maestro, I am deeply grateful for his contributions, as composer, conductor and educator, to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with which he had a collaboration of nearly 50 years, and served so brilliantly as its principal guest conductor and conductor emeritus. His great musical artistry and exceptional intelligence will be missed.”

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