Music

Spare us this unanimous chorus of praise for Pierre Boulez

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

Pierre Boulez, who died last week at the age of 90, would have been the last person, one hopes, to want a unanimous chorus of praise to surge from the media, to an extent that has not been seen at the death of any other classical musician — certainly not at Stravinsky’s, to mention one far greater figure. His fellow musicians have been among the most fulsome: ‘He taught us how to listen, he gave us new ears,’ said Sir Simon Rattle, and on the many specially devised programmes others have made similar claims, if less succinctly.

They really ought to know better. That kind of remark shows the same ignorance of and contempt for history as Boulez himself delighted in. They fail, too, to distinguish the enfant terrible from the grand old man, a progress that Boulez managed with remarkable speed, thanks to his transcendent gifts as networker and sloganiser, and his appealingly dictatorial qualities. Famously witty, urbane, charming, when he wasn’t demolishing monuments of one kind and another, or even when he was, and developing into a teacher of remarkable patience and insight, he became the guru of successive generations, as composer, conductor, educator, organiser of grand projects, of which IRCAM is the most celebrated. Probably there has been no such spectacular career since that of Wagner, with whom Boulez shared many features — and his relationship to Wagner can serve as an indication of his character.


In an interview with Daniel Barenboim in Cologne in 2000 (available on DVD), Boulez points out that his teacher Olivier Messiaen was a passionate Wagner-lover ‘but like all Frenchmen, of Tristan and Meistersinger. And I am the same.’ Actually, Boulez never conducted Meistersinger — the sheer thought is bizarre — and Tristan only once, which is strange considering its nature and status. That was in Osaka in 1967 on tour with Bayreuth forces (but a local orchestra). It is available on tape and CD, and can only be accounted wretched. In her remarkably unbitchy memoirs Birgit Nilsson, the Isolde of the occasion, writes, ‘We had a piano rehearsal with Boulez, and it was fortunate that Windgassen [the Tristan] and I were there to give him the tempi, the transitions, and so on. It seemed almost as though this French conductor had never opened the orchestral score.’ And that is just how it sounds. It is also how his first Parsifal and his first Ring sound. In the Cologne interview he says that as he got to know Wagner’s works he was ‘’ypnotised’ by their sheer idealism and the complete realisation of his ideals that Wagner achieved — and one welcomes such candour.

Something else that his Wagner performances/recordings show is that while Boulez had an extraordinary ear for orchestral textures and for achieving clarity in even the densest passages, he was indifferent to the quality of the singing: all his Wagner is not only mediocrely cast, but often the singers are either indifferent to or ignorant of the meaning of what they’re singing, and of the pitch at which they are singing it, the final scene of Götterdämmerung being an egregious example. How that ear can have borne such imprecision is hard to understand.

Boulez was in the first place a missionary: for his own music, which was and remains for the most part hard to appreciate; for the context, musical and cultural, in which it was written, which led him to his exemplary accounts of Webern; and then to a large body of music that he hoped to illuminate thanks to the techniques he had developed earlier. That, presumably, is where ‘He taught us to listen’ comes in. But even in the French repertoire in which he excelled our ears had already been opened by such masters as Desormière, Ansermet, above all Monteux. And when it came to the central German–Austrian repertoire, his gifts were irrelevant or even harmful. No satisfactory recording of any of that repertoire under him comes to mind, with the exception of a wonderful Bruckner Eighth Symphony from St Florian, and an equally fine Bruckner Fifth Symphony with the Chicago Symphony, unfortunately not officially released (yet). Early in his career he made a recording accompanying two concertos by C.P.E. Bach, but that is merely a curiosity.

There can be no question that he was, as Klemperer said of him, ‘a man of his time in the best sense of the word’. But in other senses too. As a composer, it’s not possible for anyone to say what his standing will be, but the oeuvre is small, and not for the same reasons that Webern’s is. As a teacher, there are many people who rightly owe him an enormous amount. I am inclined to think that he will be remembered above all as a propagandist, a breed for whom long life is not predicted.

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Show comments
  • Herman_U_Tick

    I have been listening studiously to music written by composers like Stravinsky,Schoenberg,Hindemith, Elliott Carter, Britten and Boulez since about 1965.
    I have got very little back in terms of works which I can add to my list of favourites.
    And music has gone in a different direction since the 70s.
    Several pieces by Bartok are on my personal playlist and Stravinsky’s early music.
    Schoenberg’s piano concerto is OK (but no more than OK); the main pleasure of his violin
    concerto lies in watching Hilary Hahn play it.
    Now that I don’t have long left I listen for music which has immediate appeal.

    Check out Georgs Pelecis (try Jaungada Muzika).

    PS I always considered John Cage to be a charlatan. We have a deal: he doesn’t
    really compose his music and I don’t really listen to it.

    • Jambo25

      About the only things by Schoenberg I can stand are Verklaerte Nacht, some bits of Gurre-Lieder and a couple of surprisingly charming bits of Christmas music he wrote for his family. I prefer late Strauss, Britten, Prokofiev, Shostakovich to any of the ‘modernist’ composers I’m supposed to admire and listen to.

      • Sue Smith

        Arnold Schoenberg wrote some stunning music. Try his earlier string quartets. I can do without the pretentious vocalizing waffle like “Erwartung”, “Pierrot Lunaire” etc. But he was a significant composer. No less a person that George Gershwin thought so too.

        • Jambo25

          Thanks for the advice. I’ll try listening to his earlier material at some point. However, anyone who wrote Moses and Aron should have been publicly executed. It was and is an aural war crime. Some Sprechgesang can be quite pleasant to listen to but in Moses and Aron its criminal.

        • Frank Marker

          Very nice Sue.
          Have you heard this peice composed by Anton Webern just before he joined the atonal school?
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LnE0s2UbkA

          • Sue Smith

            Very beautiful, thank you very much. I’ve only listened to the first section but will see if I can buy the work through Amazon (yes, I still use CDs!!).

            I read a book called “Alban Berg and His World” when I was living in Vienna and needed some good English reading!! The whole Serial movement and Schoenberg is discussed at length. Some of Berg’s early work was quite ‘conventional’, just like the Webern just discussed.

            I think I slightly prefer Berg to Webern, overall, though both composers could be quite lushly romantic at times – despite the new dodecaphonic sound world they were both to inhabit. I’m not sure about “Lulu”, though. It’s a ‘work in progress’ for me.

            I lecture in music to retirees through our local Conservatorium and have an upcoming 100 minute program on Prokofiev on 10 March. I wanted to present one on Berg but was warned off; I think Sergei will be radical enough for this group!!

        • Frank Marker

          i always loved that story of the comedienne Fanny Brice meeting Arnold Schoenberg at a Hollywood party. On being introduced to him as a Mr Schoenberg, the ‘atonal composer from Vienna’ she immediately pointed at a piano standing in the corner room and said in her best Noo Yawk accent: “Hey professor! Give us a tune on the piano will ya?”

    • Sue Smith

      On this final point we are agreed!! I suspect that in 100 years people will be mildly interested in the philosophy of music for some esoteric university course and the name of John Cage will arise. Woop de do!!

    • Miss Floribunda Rose

      Listen to ‘L’harpe de melodie’ by Jacob de Senleches. This has immediate appeal.

    • nowthen_owdluv

      But the fact that you are aware Mr. Cage exists makes him just as important, as at some stage, you have had to experience at least one of his tunes.

    • Michael Treiger

      Many of the “damned” Darmstadt school of composers considered Cage to be a charlatan, this is not a rebellious position.

  • Boulez, together with his collegues Stockhausen, Xenakis, and a lot of others following in their footsteps, created an entirely new art form: sound art, or sonic art, what in Germany has itself established as ‘Klangkunst’, as different from music. Characteristic of sonic art is, that the entire dimension of ‘communication’ and ‘expression’, i.e. the psychological layer of music as an art form, has been deleted from the sound. All that remains, is pure sound and its patterns and colours. To listen to it as music, is boring and – at times – very offensive; to listen to it as sound, can be entertaining and interesting, and aesthetically pleasing, as patters in nature can be. The problem arises when sonic art is presented as music and placed on a historic line of ‘progress’ from the past via the present into the future, which is a falsification of musical reality (all good music is timeless and contemporary forever). The intrusion of sonic art into a musical concert practice has contributed to ideas that art music is eitist and inaccessible, that new music is ugly and incomprehensible, that music audiences are conservative, and that the existing repertoire is a museum culture and inadequate for ‘consumption’ in our present, modern times. Hence the condemnations from the modenist camp of composers like Shostakovich, Sibelius, and Britten, which all now form part of the canonic repertoire of music life. Sonic art ideologies considered all other ‘music’ as irrelevant and not ‘of our time’, a totalitarian idea of exclusion, streamlining, and inquisitional cultural warfare, in which PB wholeheartedly participated (as recently as in the ‘affaire Ducros’ when a brilliant pianist criticized modernism).

    The hagiographic outpouring we now see in the media is a projection of the wish to see ‘grand old men’ in the cultural sphere, while oblivious were they may be in reality. (The British composer Davind Matthews? who wrote a stunningly beautiful and ‘modern’ cello concerto: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPs-D8X2zUA

    • Sue Smith

      Fabulous comments and I feel exactly the same way. Rather than ‘sonic art’ (a good term) I’ve always regarded it as “sound design” – a term deriving from the cinema. Whatever one calls it, you have nailed the issue 100 percent; it is devoid of that vital psychological ingredient we find in great music. I, somewhat simplistically – I suppose – regard it as noise for people who don’t have a warm heart. And it’s an ideal accompaniment to joints and other recreational drugs.

      I would add one caveat, though; the notation of this kind of ‘music’ is where the real artistry lies. That’s never easy when you have disjointed sounds. Not to mention the degree of difficulty in execution from musicians when conventional instruments are used. That always draws my admiration.

      • Odysseus

        I also thought JB’s comments were excellent. While there is a place for ‘sound art’ – whether it be post-Krautrock or Varese – it should be not confused with music. Again I refer you to excellent article by Piers Hellawell on Standpoint website.

        • Sue Smith

          I shall read it, thank you.

    • Michael Treiger

      So answer me than one question. What makes the difference between “music” and “sound art”? Is it recognizable patterns we hear in other things we call “music”? But those patterns, where did they come from? surely they were not invented by Bach or Mozart? There has existed music outside of what we call “classical” for much longer. Is anything aping that can be then called “music”? Does “music” have to have a melody? what is a melody? a repeated pattern? When many a late string quartets by Beethoven have very little repetition if at all. Does that make Beethoven’s later string quartets fit the “sound art” category?
      If melody is not repetition than it is a recognizable scale, meaning a variation on the order of several predetermined notes with fixed intervals. Well then doesn’t that mean that non-western scales cannot construct melody? Or is melody geographically relative thing, like the propagation of time in curved space?
      What is “ugly” music? The appearance of dissonant chords? Well then we get back to the cultural/geographic relativism of “ugly” and the relativism of time.
      With time tastes change with the changing of the environment. Try to find some music from the middle ages in Russia and compare it with Shostakovich string quartets. It’s utterly incompatible.
      I’m afraid your argument for categorization between “music” and “sound art” leaves too much open questions.

  • Michael Pereira

    Very good point in the overall thesis, especially because it’s so challenging to my fanboy sensibilities. I’m reminded of that Shakespeare sonnet which denotes that there are several lives that any given person lives through. Let’s not remember just the towering senior Boulez, but the arrogant firebrand who declared ‘Schoenberg est mort’ or who proposed to blow up opera houses. In this age he probably would have (and perhaps deservedly so) attracted a great amount of scorn. I don’t think he would have lasted as long as an esteemed figure in this hypersensitive social media age.

  • Odysseus

    Great article. PB’s Wagner was superfluous and his own music felt like a study in death. Hearing him smugly conducting it at the Barbican was the one time I have ever felt the urge to heckle a classical performer. I demurred, of course. Come the interval, I bolted from my seat and threw open the hall doors myself to escape the suffocation. The attendant outside was so taken aback that she burst out laughing. That said, I seem to remember the second half was an absolutely stunning Alpine Symphony.

    • Sue Smith

      Do you think that could have had something to do with Richard Strauss?

      • No doubt.

        • Sue Smith

          I notice that you comment on “Slipped Disc” – as do I (Holly Golightly).

      • Odysseus

        You cannot honestly be suggesting the Alpine Symphony was by Strauss?? It didn’t sound anything like the Blue Danube! 😉

  • Sue Smith

    Absolutely agree with this article!! I couldn’t stand Boulez and his self-promoting grandstanding and culturally relativist ideologies. His so-called music I can do without, as I suspect most of us can.

    He was an ‘interesting’ conductor, as far as it goes. But he appealed mostly to the sandal-wearing, bicycle-riding meusli chompers who like polo-neck sweaters and beards. So 1950s!!!

  • Sand Swath Leave Me Here

    So, someone that a lot of people liked dies, and your first instinct is to publish an article celebrating his death?

    I am studying to be a composer, but it’s things like this that make me hesitate. Classical music audiences are the least appreciative in the world.

    • Sue Smith

      It was always thus, and ever thus will be.

    • grimm

      Perhaps you would prefer a pop or rock audience. They go to concerts to worship their idols rather than listen to music with an appreciative ear.

      • Michael Treiger

        Well this kind of thinking is what drives audiences from classical music, this frozen traditionalism is why your concert halls are filled with snoring grannies. You are not needed, we are doing just fine with your traditions going up in dust.

    • tolpuddle1

      If you’re studying to be a composer, please obey the traditional rules of harmony – they’re based on mathematics and the science of the human ear.

      You might even (at risk of being burnt for heresy) write tunes.

      All this will bring you the hatred of the Musical Establishment – for whom the Modern Movement in music is as compulsory as the writings of Marx were for Stalin’s central committee.

      But it will bring you listeners other than the usual rabble of pseuds and culture vultures.

      • Sand Swath Leave Me Here

        This is what people imagine of the academy today. That view might be more accurate of the academy in the ’70s and ’80s, because I’ve found the actual New Music community – of composers and performers – to be more than accepting of many different styles, traditionally tonal, non-traditionally tonal or otherwise. I’ve found the same composers raving about the genius of Lachenmann and Morricone equally.

        Make no mistake. I am not talking about the Academy, or a non-existent Musical Establishment. I am talking about you.

        • tolpuddle1

          Then why does new music – of the kind played on Radio 3 – still turn out to be non-traditional, atonal etc ? The “New Music community” are not writing traditional music

          You say there’s no Music Establishment – thus proving yourself either a dolt living in la-la land, or a liar ensconced within that Establishment (or hoping to be)..

          • Sand Swath Leave Me Here

            Excellent logic. People write non-traditional music, so they must be forced to by a Musical Establishment, because nobody would ever willingly diverge from traditional tonality.

            Please provide proof that there is a Musical Establishment.

          • tolpuddle1

            When people have lost an argument, they demand “proof.”

            Other factors that have inspired composers to diverge from traditional tonality have been fashion, herd-thinking, political correctness and money (waved by the Music Establishment or rich culture vultures).

            A pity, because such music won’t survive. (How much 20th century avant garde music has ?). Why ? Because no one will go hungry in order to hear it; which in today’s collapsing West is the approaching kybosh.

          • Sand Swath Leave Me Here

            People who have been called a “dolt” (nice insult, by the way!) often ask for proof as well. Since that was your only assertion in your previous comment that I could see, I asked for proof so that I could actually understand and refute your argument.

            Writing non-traditional music is still distinctly unfashionable. If “such music won’t survive,” as you’re saying, you’ve already defeated that argument.

            Herd-thinking can account for some of it, but many a composer discovers “non-traditional” music on their own and enjoys it.

            I fail to see how “political correctness” could factor into it at all, since the classical avant-garde is, if anything, less accessible to people that aren’t highly educated than anything else.

            And to suggest that any composer would write non-traditional music for money is completely off-the-rails, since it’s still much, much easier to make money writing tonal music than non-tonal.

            As for you, I’m still having a hard time understanding why you’re so bitter towards your perceived Music Establishment – which is really just a group of people working toward finding new ways of expressing emotion than any sinister coalition dedicated to “ruining classical music” or something – when there are still many concerts featuring tonal music that you can attend, and when the New Music scene is mostly comprised of dedicated enthusiasts anyway and fairly easy to ignore for the modern concert-goer. Besides, would you rather have all modern composers just turn to imitating Beethoven and Brahms?

          • Michael Treiger

            you’re proving yourself quite warming people to the idea that music that you don’t like is “unscientific” spare me the comedy.

        • David Austin

          When everyone is doing it, it really isn’t “new” anymore is it? And when the traditional isn’t so traditional anymore then what is? You admitted yourself what the 70’s and 80’s were … that’s 40-50 years ago … and never really went away … i.e. it’s now the tradition. In short, everyone’s a little bit right and a little bit wrong … everyone chill out and let people love and hate what people will love and hate.

    • Mimo

      Apologies for being a touch skeptical but were the polls and the stats test you implemented (or consulted) to establish that conclusion really so solidly based? BTW do you have a country breakdown on your interesting finding?

  • nowthen_owdluv

    Steady on, Mr. Tanner…what about the tiresome wail over David Bowie – with everyone acting weird, Lady Di-stylee, with their tear-fest, desiding to bypass his ‘belief in fascism…You’ve got to have an extreme right-wing front come up and sweep everything off it’s feet and tidy everything up’.
    Trust Britain to show it’s insularity; suspect Wagner was a gas in Mr. Tanner’s book.

  • Innit Bruv

    One of the most interesting post-war composers and an outstanding conductor. Not for every Tom,D1ck and Harry.

    • Sue Smith

      Not like Beethoven, aye!!

      • Innit Bruv

        Neither is most Beethoven, thankfully.

  • Alison Houston

    One of my earliest childhood memories is hearing Boulez blasted from those huge wooden cased 1960’s type speakers from the solar up through the ceiling which was also the floor of our Elizabethan house, to my bedroom. I remember being so appalled and alarmed by the noise that I came downstairs, where my mother explained it was nothing to be frightened of, only my father’s lecture to the polytechnc students the following morning was on Pierre Boulez. I have never given him another chance I’m afraid.

  • tolpuddle1

    Boulez – an idol of Radio 3 and the Modern Movement in music.

    Or rather, what WAS the modern movement. It’s now all hopelessly last millennium.

  • Cornelius Bonkers

    Am I the only one who is driven to uncontrollable laughter when a piece written by PB begins? I always thought he was modern music’s great ironist! God bless him and poseurs like him, the world is a much richer place for them; Vive La France!!!!!

  • Rick

    His time at the BBC was the high point of music making in post-war Britain. A man of total genius.

  • right1_left1

    This piece sounds worse than Jimmy Durante searching for the lost chord.
    It’s a catastastroke

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFOfOhJU7YA

  • David Austin

    At times I’ve let my infant children go crazy on the piano (when each was that age), and it sounds like pure genius. Just like PB.

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