A Master With Class
Equally at home standing in front of an orchestra or penning his own work, Pierre Boulez is one of the most important musical figures of our time.
There are few musical figures in the 20th century who have been as influential as the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. As a composer he helped forge a new chapter in the history of music in the 1950s, a process that was not unproblematic.
"There is no easy period, you know," says Boulez. "When you think of the '50s, you might think it was very easy, whereas it was not at all. There was always the question of whether this new discipline were not completely absurd; there were many questions. Certainly, when I look only at Paris, for instance, I see that practically all the composers of my generation have disappeared. They made the wrong choices, or they were not courageous enough, or they were not lucid enough; there are many reasons. Or, perhaps they were politically involved, and that political involvement brought them to solutions that were very trivial, this type of thing. No period is really easy,” he adds wistfully.
A mind for math, a feel for music
Pierre Boulez was born in Montbrison, France, in 1925 and started his musical education as a child, taking piano lessons from a local teacher. During his school years it became evident that, in addition to his musical talents, he was also gifted in mathematics. This led to his spending his first year out of school attending a course in higher mathematics, with a view to further study at university. But he decided against this and in 1942 moved to Paris to dedicate himself entirely to music.
In 1944 he was admitted to the composition class of yet another great musical figure of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen. The great composer quickly recognized Boulez’ outstanding ability in musical analysis. This ability, says Boulez, stems from his mathematical background, which gives him the basis for understanding form and structure easily.
Despite the encouragement and respect he received from Messiaen, the young Boulez was not the reverent student you might expect. He found much of the music of that time lacking in originality and was irritated by works that did not live up to his expectations. Along with many of his fellow students, Boulez lost patience with much of the music being composed and performed at that time -- so much so that he often joined in vocal demonstrations at concerts of works he considered not progressive or inventive enough for the time.
“When you are young you want renovate the world. But I think to protest constantly, to contest the establishment is sterile and I don’t like sterility,” says Boulez. “What I did was to enter the institutions and try to bring about innovation and more direct communication between the music and the audience of our time”.
This need to communicate with his audience has remained an important part of Boulez’s work throughout his career. He has frequently presented special concerts involving orchestras and soloists all over the world, where, from the conductor’s podium, he explains and demonstrates various aspects of the music he considers important.
“I think it is very necessary for people who want to know more about music that they be given the opportunity to do so. That is why I have always given these so-called 'discovery concerts' in order to allow those who want to find out more about the music the chance to do so,” he says. “It should always be a special concert and more or less aimed at a specific audience,” he adds.
Boulez’ compositions encompass a broad range of musical genres, from major orchestral works to sonatas and chamber music. The first pieces that brought Boulez before the public as a composer were his second "Piano Sonata" in 1948 and “Le soliel des eaux”. However it was his work “Le Marteau sans Maître,” that threw the world spotlight on Boulez as a composer. The poems of Char provided the inspiration for this work, which is scored for small ensemble and contralto, and this is just one of many occasions where Boulez has drawn his inspiration from poetry and literature.
“Inspiration comes from everything from the most abstract to the most down-to-earth,” says Boulez. “There are some works I conceived with a structure of time. Then I had to find the tools and the material to create what I wanted. They were a good example of going from an abstract moment to the very realistic moment.”
“For other works,” he says, “it was the sound of the instrument, its resonance, the length of sound the instrument can create, how long, how short, etc., so I had to conceive a form suitable to this instrument and its acoustic properties.”