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Pierre Boulez: ‘Shostakovich? He’s no better than Honegger…’

The old man has mellowed with age and is less inclined to incendiary pronouncements. But some of his prejudices are immovable. Nearly three decades ago, he described Britten and Shostakovich to me as ‘regressive, no worse than that – reactionary.’

This weekend, in a Lucerne interview, he recalls that when he came to Paris as a student in 1943, Honegger was the only modern composer to get played. It was, he says, the kind of music that is written for its own time and vanishes with it.

‘And today? They play Shostakovich. Who is no better than Honegger… When you see that, you become really …’ (Es gibt Musik, die für eine bestimmte Zeit geschrieben ist und mit ihr verschwindet. Arthur Honegger war ein großer Name, als ich nach Paris kam, 1943, der einzige Moderne, der wirklich gespielt wurde. Und heute? Man spielt Schostakowitsch. Der ist nicht besser als Honegger. Wenn man das sieht, wird man wirklich …)


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  1. George Kennaway says:

    I think there’s a grain of truth here. In the late 90s I was working in Tashkent, where a prominent (youngish) composer asked me in some bemusement why Shostakovich was more popular than Prokofiev in the West, when the latter was clearly a superior composer.

  2. Who says Boulez has to like all 20th century composers? We all have our likes and dislikes. It’s all fair.

    If you wanted to torture me to tell you what I knew just put on some Pucccni or Vaughn Williams and I’ll confess everything.

    • John Ed Niles says:

      Aaron Copland once said that listening to Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 5 was like staring at a cow for 45 minutes. Personally the only one of the symphonies I can deal with is the No. 4!

      • “Aaron Copland once said that listening to Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 5 was like staring at a cow for 45 minutes.”

        Says the composer of Billy the Kid.

        • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

          OMG, I must be a total dud. I like Shostakovich, Copland’s Billy the Kid, and the V-W 5th. I even think Boulez is a genius although his conducting often makes me wish I were staring at a cow instead (even in his Mahler 7).

        • Well, that’s true, he composed Billy the Kid, and a fine piece it is. He also composed the 3rd symphony, and a great piece it is.

      • PR Deltoid says:

        Then Copland must have heard a lousy performance, since VW 5 shouldn’t take more than about 35 minutes.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        I don’t know all that much of VW’s music yet, but I think the Sinfonia Antarctica is pretty awesome. I also like the Tallis Fantasia (yes, I know, not a very original and esoteric choice) and I think there is a lot of good stuff in the London symphony (#2), especially the slow movement. Definitely a composer whose works I want to explore more.

        • “the Sinfonia Antarctica is pretty awesome”

          I agree, and I ignored it for years because it originated as a film score. My mistake.

          I think VW’s best symphony is #4 though.

      • HA! Copland was one to talk! An old timer at Boston Symphony told me when Munch started rehearsing a new work by Copland, he started by saying “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Copland has written new title for us to play”.

    • I believe I remember reading in an interview with [not yet Sir] Simon Rattle, when he was still the young genius in Liverpool, that he didn’t like Tchaikovsky’s music and tried to avoid it; and that he didn’t feel particularly bad about this because (a) he didn’t feel he was required to like all music and (b)
      Tchaikovsky seemed to be doing just fine without him.

    • Gustav Anias Horn says:

      SergioM! Do you really mean this?

      “Who says Boulez has to like all 20th century composers? We all have our likes and dislikes. It’s all fair.”

      Surely you cannot be so naive as to believe that this is acceptable for a public figure and exceedingly powerful musical figure, programmer, conductor and mentor!! It is all just his opinion? Likes and dislikes?

      That’s like saying, “its just Putin’s opinion, his likes and dislikes against homosexuals, its all fair.” When someone like Boulez is in an extremely powerful position, it should no longer be about his “likes and dislikes”. The field he is in is no longer his living room!! Censorship and “Rufmord” in art is not a question of opinion and “freedom of speech”!!

      Many decades after his homophonic and sardonic verbal attack on H.W. Henze, he has to this day not deemed it necessary to retract his public statements against his colleague composer. Was this just his “likes and dislikes”?

      His “likes and dislikes” have continued to this day, we can see it in how and whom he chooses to promote. Its all about his legacy, the legacy of what he has allowed to be called successful contemporary music.

      But control and power are signs of insecurities and fear of losing the “front”. If you read his interview in “Die Zeit” correctly, you will discover a vocabulary more closely associated with WAR than with art. The winds of change are here, and because they may not include him or his “likes and dislikes” he can only act in fear.

      But even an Adorno schooled chap like it appears you are must also have the “Weitsicht” to know this.

      • “SergioM! Do you really mean this?”

        Let me think about this for a minute….YUP!

      • Boulez = Putin? A musical figure is comparable to the head of a political dictatorship? What a tired and silly accusations. And this business of terrible “power.” Gosh, given that Shostakovich’s music is *never* played *or* recorded *or* broadcast *anywhere* in the world, Boulez must indeed be all-powerful! And Henze, who loved power and politics, needs defending because someone else did not like him or his music? Please. His music has always been able to stand — or, for many of us, fall — on its own. And “fear”? Truly nonsensical. Yes, just as Gustav Anias Horn, SergioM, Norman Lebrecht, I, or Hans Werner Henze are, Pierre Boulez was and is entitled to his own likes and dislikes. And the rest of us are fully able to agree or disagree with his views. Oy!

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Hey, that’s the first time we ever completely agree on something in this forum!

        • Gustav Anias Horn says:

          You fail to admit that his likes and dislikes are not just opinions. Rather, they are dogmas on which he acts. You have therefore justified and made harmless his actions. His actions have no place in art when they are there not only to promote his own specific ideals in the field but also at the same time to squelched out any others. Of course Shostakovich and Henze and Honneger survived his power play. But how many other composers, including young composers today, have not survived his censorship and are not admitted into the field because he must give his “yea and nay” before the rest of the system, i.e. concert managers, festivals etc. etc. will accept a composer? His “opinion” is nothing more than a power-play. This has fascist tendencies. Where Boulez once said “Schoeberg est mort”, and “sprengt die Opernhäuser in die Luft” should read today “Boulez est mort”, and “sprengt IRCAM and EIC in die Luft” if one were to follow his own violence-based vocabulary and ideology.

          As far as SerioM’s response is concerned, for such simpleton, pre-formed and packaged hipster and naive answers one can only pity his inabilitiy to reflect beyond his own backyard.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Yet whatever Boulez said, Schoenberg’s music is not dead, and no opera houses have actually been blown up. So what does that tell us about how much “power” Boulez and his statements really have, beyond triggering the occasional heated discussion (such as this one)?
            Have he and his followers ever really suppressed and “killed off” a young promising composer, or is that just a convenient excuse for those who failed, for whatever reasons?

          • Mr Horn,

            Your vocabulary, tone, and agressive posture say what needs to be said. And though you do not set the terms of this or any other argument here, I will be more clear — I do not “fail to admit” anything. Rather I do not agree with your assertions — on Boulez, on the music field, on the simplification and misapplication of the word and concepts of fascism, on language and violence.

            As for your comments on SergioM, a good friend and colleague of mine, I’ll refer only to the obvious discrepancy in how you claim Boulez should be judged and the behavior you exhibit yourself towards others whom you do not know.

            Good day, sir.

  3. Just a spot of praise here for Honegger, whose Pastorale d’été makes me think, and feel, summer breezes even if heard in the dead of winter.

  4. Strong language, but he has a point. Too many of Shostakovich’s works (among them the most celebrated symphonies and quartets of his middle period) do not build on the great tradition but merely iterate it.

    • @ Douglas Roberston

      “Too many of Shostakovich’s works (among them the most celebrated symphonies and quartets of his middle period) do not build on the great tradition but merely iterate it”


      Utter nonsense.

      Surely there is more to the appeal of music than its “building on the great tradition”… or being strikingly new and original. What about the experience of being overwhelmed by its beauty or by its truthfulness in the representation of emotion?

      • Building on the great tradition never means being new or original for its own sake, but simply not saying something that has already been said effectively verbatim earlier. Some of Shostakovich’s works (e.g., the 13th quartet, which sounds like nothing else despite its tonal idiom) build in this sense, but others (e.g., the slow movement of the 11th Symphony, which sounds like a pastiche of Bruckner) do not.

        • If a composer only would write pastiches or stilistic copies, or even worse: badly crafted stilistic copies, then one definitely can argue about his or her talent.

          However, what is wrong with writing something original every now and then that incooperates language elements from the past? It sure can be fun.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          The slow movement of the 11th symphony is not “a pastiche of Bruckner”. In places, it is vaguely reminiscent of some of Bruckner’s slow movements, especially the 4th symphony, but the material and the way Shostakovich develops it is quite different from Bruckner. All these pieces really have in common is a few basic musical gestures, like the slow processional or march movement, the idea of some kind of procession or movement through a dark space. That’s it. If you think that makes it “a pastiche” that just means you are a very superficial listener who thinks that every small stylistic connection you hear between two pieces is a major musical insight.

            There are two different levels in (good) music: the level of the material (musical language, tradition, style etc.) and the psychological level (expression, personal signature, the ‘message’). Under the pressures of a totalitarian regime Shos used a fairly traditional, rather neutral musical language to say personal things and it is in his treatment of the language, on the psychological level, where his originality is residing. The same is the case with Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Britten. The myth of ‘progressiveness’ and ‘renewal’ of the last century blurred these distinctions, projecting a line of development upon music history which has nothing to do with artistic quality. A psychopathic criminal can be very original and bringing the ‘art’ of cruelty a big step forwards, but that does not mean… etc. People who can only hear the material level, merely hear pastiche in Bach, Mozart, etc. which says a lot about their musicality. I wholeheartedly dislike Shos’s music, which is too much nihilistic fate-mongering to my taste, but I fully respect and admire his great stature as a composer. Compared to him, Boulez is a little French modernist shit, a sonic artist with musical pretentions, and a mediocre conductor (it is not difficult to be a mediocre conductor, as we can see all around us).

        • The slow movement of the 11th is actually based on the old Revolutionary song You Fell as a Victim, which was commonly sung at Bolsheviks’ funerals, including Lenin’s. DDS also used it in various of his film scores. If it sounds like Bruckner, that’s entirely coincidental, and that it’s a pastiche is probably your opinion; DDS said very little, if anything, pro or contra Bruckner or his music so it’s hard to know whether, or why he would pastiche it.

          • “If it sounds like Bruckner, that’s entirely coincidental, and that it’s a pastiche is probably your opinion; DDS said very little, if anything, pro or contra Bruckner or his music so it’s hard to know whether, or why he would pastiche it.”

            What the music sounds like matters more than what he may or may not have said about its possible source. In general we are not talking about a composer who deviated much from existing sonic models.

    • This leads to a very general question: Does a composer have to add groundbreakingly new ideas in every single work?

      Today, we often expect this, but in my opinion, this is a dangerous deadend.

      Look at Bach’s many cantatas, for example. All of them are really great music, but not all of them bring brand new ideas. However, this is totally valid!

      The expectation that composers constantly have to outperform everyone including themselves is one of the main reasons why there is so much empty contemporary music around that tickles AT MOST the intellect but does not touch the soul.

      • I agree with your general take. Composers and the expectations of audiences can too easily get lost progressivism for its own sake. If we insist on progressivism, then we should throw Sibelius over the cliff.

        • We need to learn again, that there are so many ways to contribute something original and also to introduce something new.

          For example, Bach has so many shades of this: There are quite radical new ideas, there are very unusual and creative works in an already existing language, and there are also “just” masterly crafted works without being terribly progressive (e.g. in the cantatas).

          Noone in his mind would expect from Bach that he would totally outsmart the whole world and himself in his over a thousand works, and it would be a complete nonsense. But today, we demand exactly this from composers, and this kills so much creativity, because instead of creating genuine music, composers have to try to be crazier than everyone in each work, and then we are surprised why this kind of music does not really move people.

          • Dear Mr. Shoenbach,

            I agree with something you infer in passing, which I would say this way: modern composers are expected to AVOID using pre-fabricated materials, while pre-modern composers were EXPECTED to use pre-fabricated materials.

            Much of discussions of the sort we are in are actually about accepting or rejecting convention.

          • Convention or not convention, that’s not the question. Reaching our human brothers and sisters, or not reaching them with our creations, that’s the question.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Tom Foley says:
          September 2, 2013 at 1:25 am

          “I agree with your general take. Composers and the expectations of audiences can too easily get lost progressivism for its own sake. If we insist on progressivism, then we should throw Sibelius over the cliff.”

          Sibelius was actually a very progressive composer. He progressed from the expansive romanticism of the late 19th century towards ever more concentrated, essentialized forms of musical expression. His last major work “Tapiola” is entirely constructed from minor and major seconds. It is one of the most concentrated and most tightly constructed pieces of music I know. It is also highly expressive, but not at all in a romantic sense. That makes it such a marvel. And it makes it easier to understand that after that, Sibelius fell silent for three decades because he had arrived at the point at which he couldn’t concentrate his musical language anymore, and he preferred to be silent rather than go backwards.

      • Russell Platt says:

        Virgil Thomson, who had a Parisian base for decades, told the young Boulez (I’m paraphrasing) that he was unquestionably a genius, but if he tried to be reinvent the wheel in every single piece he wrote he would hit a wall at about 40. Which is pretty much what happened. At some point an artist, as an aged Orson Welles pointed out, even if he reinvents the wheel as a young man, just has to do Good Work and be content with that. Which Shostakovich did, even though there are very original creations like the 4th Symphony and the13th Quartet along the way. He also invented the Percussion Piece in “The Nose.”

        M. Boulez is certainly allowed not to “get” Shostakovich. Neither does Levine, apparently, who can be as Romantic as the day is long. Boulez has given us great treasures.

        • Yes, Boulez has given us treasures… such as REPONS, one of the greatest monuments in the entire history of music, infinitely more important than anything Thomson ever wrote or said, and the date of which belies Thomson’s typically irrelevant remark about Boulez hitting a wall.

  5. Well we can compare Shostakovich and Prokofiev and have our own opinions about who is the more important, influential, talented, etc. In my humble opinion, it is Pierre Boulez the composer who really doesn’t belong in that elite group. Maybe the conductor, although I have my reservations there as well. Boulez wrote dots on paper who communicate only the aridness of his “sensibility”.

  6. I will be extremely interested to see how much of Boulez’s music is played in 20 years…and how much Shostakovich…..

    • Gonout Backson says:

      I’m afraid it’s pretty clear as it is…

      • Mike Schachter says:

        Why afraid?I am sure Boulez knows too, in his view the audience have no right to a preference, or oif they do the true prophets should be able to rely on state largesse even if hardly anyone wants to listen to their music.Very French, of course.

  7. Boulez is a well-known chauvinist: that’s excellent. He loves Elliott Carter–so do I. But I love Puccini, too. And Roger Sessions. What’s the big deal? We can’t all love EVERYONE. And Boulez, at 88, can conduct whomever he damn well wants. He’s changed the way we listen. I love the story of his assistant in New York bringing him–very cheekily– a copy of James Brown’s latest album.
    She: “You’ll love it, Maestro. It’s a smash hit.”
    He: “You mean it’s mass shit.”

    • Thanks … really helpful – not to mention charming – aphorism.

    • I’m not sure Boulez has enough mastery in the English language to make such a pun — but otherwise it really sounds like him.

      I’m afraid I have to confess that I love equally Boulez’s Cummings ist der dichter and James Brown’s I got the feelin. Something must be wrong with me…

  8. John Hames says:

    He made comments about Vaughan Williams that were simply ignorant (in both senses). Always been something of an attention-seeker! Actually, I do admire some of his compositions, but as Vaughan Williams himself said to a student, “If a tune should happen to occur to you, don’t hesitate to write it down”!

    • So evidently Vaughn Williams never wrote down anything

      (Couldn’t resist that. You practically begged me to say that)

      • John Hames says:

        Well, I don’t understand the joke, if it is, but never mind! Are you alleging RVW didn’t write tunes? That would be a somewhat eccentric view of a composer dripping with them.

        • Tell you what, when you find one give a me call. I like Boulez’s own music quite a lot and I swear i can find more hummable tunes in his music than in VW’s

          • You’re kidding right? If you can’t hear the tunes in VW (like him or not) you should give Oliver Sacks a call – that’s another one for his collection of neuro-musical maladies!

          • So you like to be tortured? Hey that’s cool. Whatever floats your boat :)

  9. Actually, this is a comment from a man who belongs to a group of composers who wanted to shape the stylistic development of music in an almost dictatorial way after WWII, under the pretext of overcoming Nazi dictatorship.

    I am not making this up, there are many very fine composers of that time who refused to adopt serialism as the only way to compose and who were practically silenced because of their refusal. The following interview with the German-Jewish Composer Berthold Goldschmidt, who mainly lived in the UK after the war, gives some interesting, and in my opinion also shocking insights on this issue:

    Usually, music history publications are making us beleive that Schönberg’s dodecaphonic principle was quickly adopted and accepted, and all other styles more or less faded away except in the works of hopeless old-fashioned composers like e.g. Richard Strauss.

    The more I look into this topic, the more I realize that actually, this is not true at all. Even after Schönberg started to adopt atonality (interestingly enough, he came back to tonality in his last works), there are all kinds of highly interesting works from very conservative ones over interesting mixtures and modernistic approaches to avantgardistic works.

    However, much of this fantastic music is completely unknown, unfortunately, because of the stylistic censorship after WWII, where the leading composers forced all others to break with musical tradition by any means.

    Therefore, in my opinion, the real turning point in 20th century is NOT Schönberg, who stood firmly on the ground of tradition, despite of his radical ideas. But these ideas were actually misused by the next generation for domination purposes. This is an aspect that is seldom spoken out, but it should not be overlooked,

    • This group of militant atonalist, led by Boulez, took control of government money in the post-war period in France. Their and their international gang maintained discipline and would attack composers, like Henze and Penderecki, who strayed from the orthodoxy by booing at concerts and denouncing their music. Things have changed in Europe. It was a pleasure for me some years ago to see Boulez sitting on the same stage as Messiaen and Dutilleux. He and his acolytes had kept them way in the background for most of their lives but as his star faded in France, the music public began to appreciate the other two’s extraordinary (and much more important) music. Boulez’ music is scarce now in France.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Yet Henze, Penderecki, Messiaen and Dutilleux and others who weren’t necessarily part of that “militant” group all fared rather well, as did other composers who were more conservative, such as Orff or Francaix. So, as vocal as they were, one wonders how much influence the “militants” really had.

        • I think, they had fairly large control on programming, be it concerts or broadcast, and education, and we still did not fully recover from this, and, given the fading interest in classical music, perhaps never will.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Yet Henze, Penderecki, Messiaen and Dutilleux and others who weren’t necessarily part of that “militant” group all fared rather well, as did other composers who were more conservative, such as Orff or Francaix.

          • John Hames says:

            In Britain the effect was pernicious and long-lasting. What is now BBC Radio 3 was controlled by William Glock from 1959 to 1975 I think, and while I saw one Obituary that reported in approving terms that “the ‘new music’ received a hearing at last”, this fails to mention that this was virtually the ONLY music that was allowed to be played! It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that if you were a tonal composer you could forget being broadcast, but that was the climate engendered by this partisan and doctrinaire regime — with of course effects lasting much longer than the reign of the man himself. There was a lot of great music I should have been hearing during my teenage years that I simply didn’t know, and had to work hard to catch up later. In this respect the BBC emboldened the bullies, which is never a good idea. The stupid thing is that I LOVE a lot of music that is atonal, etc., — I merely say everyone should have, and always have had, the choice.

    • You are certainly correct that this is never discussed. It is politically incorrect to mention the many careers that were destroyed. And Boulez and Company were among the leaders of the purge brigade.

      • The fact that there was immense artistic dictatorship under the pretext of overcoming the consequences of Nazi facism, is almost no public topic in historical musicology, it seems.

        • This was not just in Europe but also the case in the United States. If you were a conservatory composition student in the 60′s or 70′s up to around ’84 (interestingly enough) you were banned from writing tonal music for the most part. I remember being astonished that a student I knew in ’74 had his application was rejected from an Ivy League school since his music “did not look complicated enough”. Look being the operative word. There are still too many establishment places where theorists or musicologists have administrative control and demand visual novelty rather than musicality. Someone as beloved as Samuel Barber died feeling bitter about a certain amount of neglect. I would have to say to Michael Schaffer that the so-called “militants” (In the US I would have called them apparatchiks, musicians in grey flannel suits, corporate musicologists with agendas, critics with agendas, and academics who never played a wedding gig, among other things, but not ‘militants’) did have a lot of influence since they held so many positions holding power over grants and other monies.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            This ideological alibi and/or weapon still works, after so many years, as many recent debates on… opera directing have proved even here. For instance, it’s never innocent when someone calls a work of art “reactionary”. It says a lot about the person using such a word. The silhouette of the beloved Chancellor looms behind, and if one listens well, one can hear the screech of the guillotine. It’s not an accident if the – let’s be short – “boulezian” party have always been quite generous in its use of this kind of epithetes against its adversaries. They must show that we’re not dealing with aesthetic categories only, but with moral ones. The music of Shostakovich, Britten or Honegger cannot be just “bad”, it must be “wrong”.

          • Please, tell us more about how that worked: the school that supposedly said the music was not complicated enough told you that was the problem with it, or the student who wanted you to believe that was the indictment against him told you that?

            Our society is more backward-looking than it was 25 years ago. Educators used to be more dedicated to getting their students to embrace the modern style. But now many of them have regressed, and are more “open-minded” than that.

            So open minded, in fact, that their brains have fallen out. Even such clear connections as between Soviet “Non-Conflict” Socialist Realism, which still lives in minimalist music (Arvo Part was even a participant in that Soviet movement), is not recognized as the politicized propaganda music it is.

          • Your mistake is, that you project the Soviets as some Meta cultural driving force, while in fact artists and apparatschiks in the Soviet realm were as well reacting to global developments and trends, also from the US or Western Europe. Talking about minimalism… it was in a way antagonistic to Soviet Realism. Arvo Pärt a typical example of an artist drawing from a multitude of global influences. You simply don’t understand much about that time and how the art world behind the iron curtain ticked.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        That actually comes up very often. But, as I said in my reply to “figarosi” above, I wonder how much influence the “militants” really had. Did they have much influence on “mainstream classical” audiences who maintained a preference for conservative programs and mostly tonal composers? I have a hard time imagining that they did, outside their own circles. So maybe there are other reasons for why some more “conservative” composers didn’t really catch on with audiences after the war. Korngold, Goldschmidt, Schreker, Weill, and others had great starts but their careers in Germany and Austria were destroyed – but why then weren’t they able to continue their success abroad, in places where Nazi persecution played no role?

        • Stephen Arthur Allen says:

          Oh I can testify that the Boulez ‘cult’ and its accessories certainly did untold damage to composers as late as my own generation – I am a witness to it directly through such things as the Dartington compositional courses run by Maxwell Davies and the general cultural elitism of the period. Many of the young composers of that period were most definitely puppets – bless them – and, having lost touch with many of them over the years (although those I haven’t are now trenchantly tonal) I fear for the worst. I have tales to tell, my friends.

        • Darmstadt Doings

          The doings at Darmstadt, and what happened in their wake, are still hardly ever brought up in discussion, but they will be soon. More than twenty years after the cold war ended, music historians are just now sorting it out.

          Tremendous damage was done by Boulez and his followers in the early cold war period. Promising composers were cowed into excepting not only the manufactured second bloom of serialism that came about after WWII, but aleatorism and other anti-audience elitism’s as well. These musical elitisms never found an audience. Mainstream classical audiences never cottoned to them no matter how often the feedings. The young didn’t dig them either. And there’s the rub.

          Oh, the young may have wanted something “new,” but they didn’t want the “new” that was being served. They didn’t want Elliot Carter, they didn’t want Milton Babbit and his “total serialism,” and they didn’t want John Cage either. And by 1965, the young were no longer bonding to classical music as they matured, but were finding the meaning they wanted in the popular idioms. And the greying of classical music had begun–and it continues.

          Yes, tremendous damage was done, and Boulez was the bully who led the charge. He should be remembered for that.

          He’s a good Mahler conductor though. I’ll give him that.

          • I wonder what damage ‘they’ did, apart from having opened minds and ears and highlighting musics relationship to natural and cultural sciences. Boulez and ‘his followers’ were (are) actually a very small group and certainly didn’t make up all of Darmstadt. Early enough, Boulez broke with practically everyone whose work he didn’t WANT to understand but who nevertheless all continued to play a big role in Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, Paris etc.: Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Cage, Xenakis, Ligeti, Posseur….See what he says in that interview about Messiaen – what an arrogant thing to say about this great composer who stood (together with Varese) at the very beginning of European avant garde, someone who encouraged everyone to be open-minded towards anything different, including music of other cultures. Cage and Nono were later deeply influenced by someone unique as Scelsi, Ligeti and others by Nancarrow – names Boulez never would even bother to mention.
            The real tragedy is that people wo know Boulez, Carter, Babbit etc. think they know everything about contemporary music. They usually just ignore how manifold European avant garde really was.
            Apart from that, comparing two different composers with totally different aims and styles has always been and will ever be utter nonsense. Honegger was a fantastic composer, as was Shostakovich. We must not forget that Shostakovich originally didn’t intent to compose in the style Boulez is criticizing. He suffered under enormous pressure from all sides and had to arrange to actual circumstances. Under these constraints he nevertheless went to absolute perfection and wrote some of the most moving music ever.
            Boulez is a great composer but he certainly isn’t the most eloquent one in describing and judging other composers works.

    • I recently heard a performance of Schoenberg’s “Kol Nidre” for the first time. It definitely eschews dodecaphonisism. Interestingly the first words of the chorus in the work are: “We repent!” Gives the text new meaning, no?

  10. Kenneth Berv says:

    Although Boulez as a conductor has a good ear-his performances are in
    tune and precise-he has no music-no sense of phrasing, no song in his heart. In earlier times he said Brahms “is a bore”-it is most of Boulez’s performances which are the real bore.
    Alex Ross blog, April 2010 (The Rest is Noise):
    Conducting the twentieth-century masters, Boulez was in his element, although some of his choices were strange. Bartók’s early ballet “The Wooden Prince” is not Bartók at his best, and in this low-energy performance it became interminable. Schoenberg’s “Pelleas und Melisande” fared better, although it, too, threatened to drown in its own orchestration. Perhaps Boulez wanted to program some late-Romantic tone poetry in order to give his audience a spell of easy listening, but he could not reach outside his circle of canonical modernist figures, and so was limited to works of youthful excess. Boulez’s great virtues as a conductor are transparency and balance; he is not so good at character and contrast. He gave Mahler’s Sixth Symphony an uncommon lucidity but took away its ironies and neuroses. Stravinsky’s “Pétrouchka” was carried off with miraculous finesse, even though, as in the Mahler, the score’s spirit of parody went missing. Only Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra showed the conductor at the top of his game: the orchestra made everything clear and held nothing back.

    Boulez’s programming is tied to a teleological theory of musical history; it spotlights assorted radical gestures in an effort to illustrate the alleged dissolution of tonality. But this narrative has itself become useless. It excludes far too many major twentieth-century composers—Sibelius, Shostakovich, and Britten, among others—to be considered a fair survey of the field. Although Boulez has lately broadened his repertory, in the course of a massive recording project for D.G., certain of his performances sound dutiful. In 1988, he said of Stravinsky’s neoclassical works, “I personally will never find them very exciting, that’s for sure.” A new disk of the “Symphony of Psalms” and the Symphony in Three Movements doesn’t suggest that he is excited by them now.

    Boulez’s appearances at Carnegie Hall this season were well attended, and with good reason. Audiences receive from him a guarantee of quality: there will be nothing vulgar or cheap. But the series had a claustrophobic atmosphere. It said more about the taste of a great but ungenerous artist than about the state of music in the year 2000.

    *Addendum: I spoke too soon. Boulez had this to say in January of 2000: “Well, Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time, I find. It’s like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler.”

    • Daniel Farber says:

      Kenneth Berv’s analysis of Boulez’s strengths and weaknesses constitutes the most perceptive posting that I have ever read on Slipped Disc. Although I agree with its large outlines, I disagree on emphases. When Boulez came to Boston with the BSO in the 1960′s and did the Berg Three Pieces and then, in guest conducting the BBC Orchestra, did Debussy and Ravel, the results were astounding! The repertory he truly excelled at was severely limited, but even in Mahler and Bruckner when the surface going seems tediously sterile, careful attention is always rewarding. The price is sometimes dreadfully high, but I’ve never left a Boulez concert or heard a recording without learning something. And there are not too many performers about whom one can say that.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        I didn’t find his Bruckner 8 with the Wiener Philhrmoniker “sterile” at all. On the contrary, I found it a gripping and quite expressive performance, very well paced and phrased with a great sense for nuance and the very small tempo variations which sometimes have more effect than ostentatious grand gestures. I have to admit I had expected it to be primarily analytically executed, an x-ray look inside the symphony. But it wasn’t. I think it pays off to simply listen to what musicians do rather than obsess about what you think they should do.

  11. Kenneth Berv says:

    Sorry, The Alex Ross quote is from April 10. 2000.

  12. Hmm! Never heard a Boulez work that I would be interested in hearing for a second time. “the kind of music written for it’s own time, and vanishes with it” !!! Self prophecy it would seem! :):)

    Not to mention that Boulez conducting of Mahler is an abomination.

  13. Nicholas L. says:

    The Boulez comment reminds me of something Elliott Carter said… Consider his following chestnut (variations on which I’ve heard AD NAUSEUM by various academics) which should be put out of its misery:

    ELLIOTT CARTER: “I’m not against tonal music — it’s just that I don’t think it’s possible to write music in the traditional style which is as good as the music of the past. Whatever you may do, it will still sound poorer than the original masters. The field is pretty much exhausted”

    Excuse me, but since when is tonality equivalent to “the traditional style”? It never seems to occur to people like Carter that music might, just might, revolve around other axes than tonality/atonality or that there may be other evolutionary paths than Brahms/Wagner–Schoenberg/Webern.

    ELLIOTT CARTER: “The music of the present is much more vivid, much more striking, and even much [more] communicative”

    This is an interesting statement. I wonder if these three things are necessarily signs of superiority; the first and second, I think are neutral remarks, at best. Andy Warhol’s work is ‘more vivid’ and ‘more striking’ than Rembrandt, who is a master of, among other matters, sombre hues and shadow. This doesn ‘ t make Warhol the superior artist. And actually, when music is “stuffed” with “information”, I tend to find it less communicative, and not more. The phone book is not more communicative than a personal letter.

  14. Funny how he criticizes some of the greatest composers, Brahms, Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams and yet I find his music totally unbearable. I have the name Boulez in the same folder as Schoenberg, “never again”.

  15. I’m surprised such a statement would come from an erstwhile composer who should’ve grown out of his child-like envy by now. The fact that he missed the obvious cogency of reactionary music is puzzling, since most art builds off of the experiences of its creator.
    This statement most likely comes from him finally accepting the role he will be most remembered for; that of a conductor who just produced some top notch recordings of Stravinsky and Debussy.

  16. There might be some irony in Boulez dissing someone for composing “the kind of music that is written for its own time and vanishes with it”.

  17. Pierre Boulez famously accused the concert hall of becoming a “museum.” To which one might respond, “What have you got against museums?” The standard repertoire endures because it’s good, it speaks to modern audiences, it kicks ass. To my way of thinking, “classical” music, or “concert” music, or “art” music, or “serious” music, or whatever you want to call it — the stuff symphony orchestras play when they’re not playing pops — is the highest, deepest, most intelligent, and most rewarding expression of humankind’s musical inclination, with the most to offer by way of complexity, beauty, technical brilliance, and emotional and dynamic range.

    That’s not to say that orchestra programmers should eschew contemporary works or unusual works. Certainly not — they should mix it up. But those new or unusual works have to be good! Too much of what we hear is insipid, preoccupied with new “sound worlds” and clunky tone-painting, clumsy efforts to do something fresh and accessible — little that’s beautiful and/or musically interesting, much destined for just a few public performances, and nothing that really holds its own among the greats — meager food for heart and mind.

    Pierre Boulez may be a great teacher and conductor but as a composer he is basically a charlatan; I can’t see his music standing the test of time.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I can not really relate to his music either although I find it kind of interesting to listen to, to a degree, and I don’t agree with a lot of his proclamations either but in his world, he definitely knows what he is doing and he is a master of his kind of technique of composition, whatever one may think about that style of music. So he is definitely not a “charlatan”.

  18. Let there be music. Not judgement.

  19. Boules can have every personal taste as everyone, but the matter is just the way he acts according to what he thinks.. Why he says that when he kissed Shostakovich hand after a concert as Ross explains in The rest is noise…

    Of course everyone can like or dislike everything but imho taking delight on his obnoxious behaviour becomes too much for me…

  20. harold braun says:

    Funny Post!I think we should judge composers by what they put on paper rather than by what they say.I like Boulez very much,but I LOVE Shostakovich(and Britten,for that matter) because he of course he is the much more impressive and all-encompassing composer.Together with Sibelius ,Vaughan Williams and,to some extent,Prokofiev,he IS the greatest symphonist after Mahler.And as a string quartet writer the greatest after Beethoven(may be together with Bartok).
    Boulez always made the mistake to propound trying out new ways and methods as a mark of quality,which it is not(it depends on the artistic results).And he is a relic from those 50s and 60s
    when musical discussions were more about ideologies than about music(sadly much common in Germany even today!).We,with the benefit of having been born after,can enjoy Boulez and Shostakovich,Honegger and Webern,Wagner and Brahms,as I do.
    Shostakovich’s music always was a mirror of his time and the horrors of the world.Boulez remained always in some kind of ivory tower,furnishing brillant l’art pour l’art works.
    I think he has been far less revolutionary then he is inclined to believe.I think much of his music,and especially his later works,which I enjoy most,is perfectly crafted,aesthetically beautiful,and sometimes outstays its welcome.I cannot help but thinking him some Dittesdorf or Stamitz gone serial:Chirpy,entertaining,brillant divertissement withoit real depth.
    What I really find quite sad is the bad influence he had on the music world during the 60s and 70s,silencing many contemporaries who didn;t follow his part,most notably Henri Dutilleux.
    Dutilleux has been one of the true giants of the 20th and,yes indeed,21th century,being a far more interesting,colorful and original composer than Boulez himself.His music will pass the test
    of time.I’m not so sure about Boulez’music,though,much as I like Notations(Orchestral Version) and sur l’incises.

  21. It was hearing Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony that unlocked the door of ‘classical’ music for me. 40 years on, my interest ranges from Guy de Machaut to Paul Ruders but I don’t include any of the works of Boulez in my music library. I am delighting in the music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich performed at this year’s BBC Proms.

  22. Stephen Arthur Allen says:

    Just goes to show what a total tin-ear Boulez has regarding what music is SAYING. Listen to early Britten (eg Quartettino) and early Shostakovitch and it is clear that they could have been as technically advanced as anyone in the game. The fact is that both of those composers CHOSE not too – because they wanted what their music SAID to connect with the widest number of people. But Britten, especially with the Church Parables (as Shostakovitch, who recognized Britten as one of the very greatest composers, acknowledged) demonstrates in a very clever way – a way obviously beyond Our Pete – that it is all there, but only for those with ears that can hear!!!!

  23. He was surprised at the lack of daring musical experiments in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943?

  24. R. James Tobin says:

    [I have been posting at this site for some time but today it is denying me access. Why is that? But let's try this again.]

    Britten did not like Puccini or think much of Vaughan Williams. I love the music of all three.
    As for Britten, the Chief Music Critic of the new York Times, once wrote that when he was a music student at Yale University, a student was contemptuously dismissed for expressing admiration for the music of Britten.
    As for Prokofiev, in his Diaries, he was dismissive of most of his contemporaties. Maybe he was a more inventive composer than Shostakovich, the latter wrote some great music too,his Babi Yar Symphony, for instance,, one of the great works of the last century.
    Enough of this dismissive ranking!

  25. Simon Styles says:

    Shostakovich though, it must be said, is infinitely more listenable than Boulez, and further the work he produced was largely written, so it seems to me, under the most testing of human circumstance……

  26. I disagree with Boulez. I think Honegger is a better composer than Shostakovich.

  27. Shostakovich makes me FEEL. End of discussion.

  28. You chose to translate “Der ist nicht besser als Honegger” as “He’s no better than Honegger”, but I feel Pierre Boulez may have meant “He is not better than Honegger.” In English there is a subtle difference. Saying “he is not better” is contradicting a statement, or here a prevailing belief, i.e. that Shostakovich is the better composer. Saying “he is no better” seems to me rather dismissive, first of Honegger and then, through the use of the comparative, equally dismissive of Shostakovich. GIven M Boulez’ known admiration for Honegger and less than warm feelings towards Shostakovich (“third-pressing Mahler”, for example), I expect he meant the former.

    I would be interested to learn from a German linguistic expert how “he is no better than…” would be translated to distinguish it clearly from “he is not better than…”.

    Of course, “He’s no better than Honegger…” is a more compelling title than “He’s not better than Honegger…” !

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I think your reading of what Boulez actually meant is correct. It makes more sense like that in German, the way he said it.

      “how “he is no better than…” would be translated to distinguish it clearly from “he is not better than…””

      Der ist auch nicht besser als…

    • Alexander Hall says:

      Michael, the correct German rendering would be: “Er ist kaum besser als Henegger”.

    • The phrase “Der ist nicht besser als Honegger” refers clearly to the quality of the composers work. In other words: As a composer, Shostakovich isn’t an ounce better than Honegger. The meaning has an even more dismissive flavour through the use of ‘Der’ instead of ‘Er’. For a German reader it is very obvious that Boulez doesnt have a high opinion of neither Honegger nor Shostakovich. He refers to both composers work as being on the same (low) level. – meaning of no importance whatsoever for music’s ‘progress’.

  29. Gonout Backson says:
  30. Tully Potter says:

    A few notes of Shostakovich can move me, perhaps because I always feel he is taking me somewhere. I’m afraid my attention wanders when I try to listen to Boulez and when I start concentrating again, he doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere. It seems to be music for the moment alone. There is no narrative. No doubt my taste is too German. It seems to me that Britten, Vaughan Williams and Prokofiev all wrote great music. Of the three, it happens to be Vaughan Williams who moves me the most. As it happens, I am making a slight effort to get further into Honegger. He seems to me to be a sincere composer with a slightly elliptical style which does not reveal its secrets straight away. Can it be that Boulez of the famous ears didn’t listen hard enough?

  31. Kees Cornelder says:

    If the Master of peep-squeak-snor speaks, please may God’s grand creation completely hold itself in pious adoration? Thank you!

  32. I find it so funny that this arrogant little french man has the audacity and unmitigated gail to trash talk dead composers.. The next thing he will say is this that most of the music of Bach and Mozart is totally irrelevant..Maybe that why he doesn’t conduct their music..Let’s talk about Stalin breathing on the back of neck of Shostakovich..Every string quartet,opera,symphony analyzed to death..I am still surprise that Joseph didn’t have him disappear like the millions other Russian did…
    Then after he survives Stalin the next regime says his music is an ‘enemy to the state’.. How do you compose and opera or a symphony or a movie soundtrack under those conditions…
    F[redacted] you Boulez!

  33. This Honegger comment is a perfect “tell” that explains much of what motivates Boulez’s prejudices. His view of music is absurdly French-Intellectual. Which isn’t to say pro-French music, but rather hopelessly pretentious and narrow and dismissive of whatever doesn’t fit his historiographic pre-1950 biases about Modernism. Let’s all move on and let this man alone.

  34. Greg Bottini says:

    I think the issue has been settled in the court of concert-going opinion re: the relative impact of the musics of Shostakovich and Boulez on the general music-lover.

    At concerts, Boulez’ music (when it is played at all) recieves a smattering of boos, a bit of polite applause, and a lot of “Hm, I wonder what that was all about”s during the interval. Shostakovich’s music, on the other hand, inspires huge ovations, shouts of jubilation, and many curtain calls.

    One cannot seriously listen to Shostakovich’s Fifth, Tenth, Thirteenth, or Fourteenth Symphonies, or the First Violin Concerto, the Eighth Quartet, “Lady Macbeth”, or the late violin and viola sonatas without being pierced to the heart. One can’t say that about any of Boulez’ works.

    I think what’s behind Boulez’ snarky comments is his tremendous frustration that his conducting career became so successful while his composing career kind of fizzled.

    It’s ironic that Klemperer once admonished him to keep composing, because “anybody can conduct” (or words to that effect).

    [I've never heard Boulez conduct in the concert hall, but his earlier recordings (the ones for Sony) are brilliant. For whatever reason, once he went over to DG and then started to conduct Mahler, his baton work suffered. The clarity is mostly still there, but the sparkle and buoyancy are gone. Just compare his Sony recordings of Ravel or Bartok with the ones he made for DG.]

    Bernstein, BTW, had the same frustrations. He wanted SO MUCH to be the GREAT AMERICAN COMPOSER, that when it dawned on him that it just wasn’t going to happen, he lost HIS sparkle and buoyancy as a conductor.

    • “One cannot seriously listen to Shostakovich’s Fifth, Tenth, Thirteenth, or Fourteenth Symphonies, or the First Violin Concerto, the Eighth Quartet, “Lady Macbeth”, or the late violin and viola sonatas without being pierced to the heart. One can’t say that about any of Boulez’ works.”

      I beg to differ on this statement. One of the joys of music, is that we all respond in different ways to the same piece/composer.
      I love some of Xenakis’s and Stockhausen’s music(not Boulez as it happens)… but that may not be universally felt among listeners!

    • To Greg Bottini,

      Your statement about Shostakovich, a composer of purely political propaganda rubbish music, reveals you are only a dupe of the Socialist Realist agenda. His music is correctly heard as crude, heavily ironic, and at best with a very occasional and usually accidental off-the-shoulder humor, as when the drums come rolling in at the end of the Fifth Symphony, a real “cavalry coming over the hill at the last minute” kind of lowbrow device. Soviet Socialist Realism is what spawned Hollywood Realism. All too cheesy and campy to be taken seriously as art. Soviets knew perfectly well of their society that it was backward looking. For you to admire Shostakovich is to reveal you too are backward looking.

      And certainly there are very many who disagree with your pronouncement about Boulez’s music.

      It never ceases to amaze me that some people think Shostakovich got something over on the Soviet authorities by enciphering his initials. As if the Soviet state weren’t up to Shostakovich. In fact he was their puppet and a very effective one, a musical cowbird in the nest of great music, a substitute for the real thing, a place holder until Hollywood took up the torch they held for other earlier and also intolerant empires.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        A fitting commentary, as it looks to me like you got your Soviet history from Hollywood movies.

        • No, Mr. Schaffer, and like so many others here you need to be reminded that ridicule is the last resort of the loser. I did not get my knowledge from the movies, and with your remark you become a no longer plausible correspondent. I got it from Boris Schwarz, and I had to learn it in as close detail as I could manage, since I had Simon Karlinksy, leading Slavicist who studied composition with Boris Blacher, on my Ph.D. orals committee.

          I am not, in fact, anti-Soviet at every point; they were completely correct to denounce John Cage, for example, and we did no favors for ourselves in pretending he was a composer, when he was actually the character Bridlegoose, from Rabelais.

          • R. James Tobin says:

            This is the Boris Schwarz who published Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia 1917-1970, right?

          • Yes, and the same Boris Schwarz who published Musical and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, Enlarged Edition, 1917-1981.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            Christopher Fulkerson, Ph.D. says:
            September 3, 2013 at 12:30 am

            “No, Mr. Schaffer, and like so many others here you need to be reminded that ridicule is the last resort of the loser.”

            Well said! You mean, like you try to ridicule Shostakovich as being just a pet and tool of “Soviet propaganda”? Or like you try to ridicule those musicians and listeners who find meaning in his music as simpletons who fell for that obvious propaganda?

            Seriously now, your attempts to assign yourself and your views an important place in history based on these vastly simplified theories of historical progress do strike me as the last resort of the loser who has been passed by and ignored by said history.

          • Your reply is an incoherent improvisation not different than the child’s “did to” or “did not,” and “you think you’re so smart,” and therefore does not merit reply, except to say that there may be some persons who don’t know the absurdity of your claim that I am ridiculing someone, so I will only point out that at no time have I ridiculed the victims of the political and cultural developments that are under discussion.

            It never ceases to astonish me that persons such as yourself will praise Soviet music, thinking it perfectly viable, yet allow that Stalinism and its heirs were bad, without allowing that the music and the politics were part and parcel of the same political and cultural entity, and worked together toward a common goal.

          • Mr. Fulkerson, what a nonsense. By the same “logic” American composers who lived during the last 40 years, were all “part and parcel” of the American belligerent agenda that killed millions all over the world. What a childish cartoon like idea you have of a most complex psycho-socioligical interaction of Shostakovich with his immediate environment.

          • American composers have never gotten any noticeable amount of state support, and certainly little compared to the Soviet program, so there is not much of a case that the US government’s actions can be coordinated to the government support of the arts.

            The Soviets, in contrast, never made any secret of using the arts as a propaganda weapon. And their program succeeded.

            The Soviets censored publishing and controlled all aspects of Russians lives, including music. They didn’t tolerate dissent, just as you don’t, and it is little surprise that you want to believe there can’t be an association between their politics and their openly political arts.

            You are flailing, Mr. David H. You are making an accusation about coordination between American politics and arts that doesn’t exist, and you are making an accusation about my sobriety that has no basis in fact, and still less in relevance.

            The Soviets also created a culture of lowbrow criticism, such as you are indulging, and to this day has volunteer Stalinist-style enforcers, such as yourself, who use crude insults and arbitrary notions of credibility, such as a book is too old to have any truth in it.

          • Fulkerson Ph.D. said: “Your statement about Shostakovich, a composer of purely political propaganda rubbish music, reveals you are only a dupe of the Socialist Realist agenda.”

            Look, does it really make sense to have a discussion, if this is your opening statement?

            You are talking from a position of complete lack of knowledge. You know nothing about the conditions of an artist’s life under a totalitarian regime.

            Also you talk, as if the American Imperialistic ideology would have a moral high ground over the Soviet Communist ideology, which it has not. There are huge differences in these two cold war ideologies, when it comes to their effects on personal freedom. But both ideologies have devastating effects on the arts and artistic expression.

            At the end of the day, in hundred years there will be more Ex-Soviet composers be performed than American composers from the same period. And it might have also to do with the compromised artistic climate those American composers were operating in. Despite all their personal freedoms and entertainment and leisure possibilities.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            “Also you talk, as if the American Imperialistic ideology would have a moral high ground over the Soviet Communist ideology, which it has not. There are huge differences in these two cold war ideologies, when it comes to their effects on personal freedom. But both ideologies have devastating effects on the arts and artistic expression.”

            As much as I reject Mr Fulkerson’s extremely… original statements – having had some experience of both systems, I couldn’t agree less with the above, To put it mildly.

          • Maybe I should thank you, around here even a backhanded inferred endorsement is more than I am used to getting. But I do not deserve to be described as having an original opinion on the topic. I am representing ordinary Western Modernist opinion of the sort that someone who loves Modernism and knows that there is more Soviet music in American programming than any American Modernism, and who does not have amnesia of the 1970s and 1980s would have. So far, not one correspondent here besides myself has demonstrated familiarity with the literature about Soviet Socialist Realist music. Some of the denial about things long settled is pretty remarkable.

          • You are not speaking to the issues I am raising. You are talking at your own idea of what I am saying, with the usual kind of catechism of things said when the topic nears these issues. I did not refer to ideology, and ideology cannot rightly be at issue, since Shostakovich’s music is overt propaganda. To deny that Shostakovich’s music is propaganda is bizarre. To excuse it because he was forced to write it is also very bizarre. I do not have to prove a case about his being a tool of the Soviets. But I suppose you can be in all the denial about it that you need to be, to believe what you want to believe.

            You are in fact representing part of the present cultural pattern that I have been talking about: apologizing for ongoing propaganda on ideological grounds, and making excuses for the Soviet’s main hack.

            Wrap your head around this: writing propaganda for a totalitarian government is a bad thing. Even when you are forced to, even when you have no options. And you are not confronting an important aspect of Shostakovich: that he was a natural Soviet, born into and lived his entire life under Sovietism, and did not believe it was in the main a bad thing. Had he believed differently, he would not have survived… as the highest-profile Soviet hack.

            I also did not compare the two governments in question, nor did I mention my own personal opinion about a Socialist state as an ideology, which I am not opposed to ideologically – only to the Soviet attempt at one, and, along with other things, the botched crude way it handled the arts. Like many liberals I wish it had not been the Soviets who have so far had the most robust Socialism.

            Apart from all ideology, it is obvious that as a backward-looking artistic product that uses the materials of a past time and the emotional devices of comfort and convention, Shostakovich’s music is bourgeois. And that is why the Americans like it so much, and why it has become a fully-qualified reified capitalist product.

          • Sorry, but you are still in your logical fallacy trap. You create a conclusion based on your own false premise. “…Shostakovich’s music is overt propaganda…”
            You fail to make that premise a logical and believable premise.
            Show us how Shostakovich’s music is “overt propaganda” in general. Of course you can’t.

            And ironically enough, you use propaganda techniques, to argue your point.
            “To deny that Shostakovich’s music is propaganda is bizarre. To excuse it because he was forced to write it is also very bizarre.”

            This particular technique is called “appeal to prejudice”.

          • Lenin symphonies, May Day pieces… these are not propaganda? Do you now even know the titles of Shostakovich’s pieces? You seem willing to deny absolutely any fact.

          • R. James Tobin says:

            “Lenin symphonies, May Day pieces… these are not propaganda? Do you now even know the titles of Shostakovich’s pieces? You seem willing to deny absolutely any fact.”

            Of course those pieces were propaganda, but that does not prove your unyieldingly sweeping generalization about all of his music.

            As for Shostakovich’s “public statements, do you really doubt that those were written for him and delivered because he had to?

          • To Gonout Backson,

            I’m now a “radical socialist?” [The remainder of this post has been redacted for abuse. No further comments will be accepted on this thread].

      • Harrison Boyle says:

        I am always amazed at this late date that someone can put so much stock in political critique of art. Terms like Socialist Realist ‘agenda’ often seem to imply some kind of cold-warrior ‘agenda’ of their own, and at a certain point one is only listening to the politics and not hearing the music.

        Even actual, current communists can hear what is in the music – case in point a 1986 poem by the Chinese poet Ouyang Jihe. Though the difficulties of translation from English to Chinese are almost insurmountable in terms of an artistic rendering, the meaning of his poem is quite clear – here (condensed) is the gist of it:

        Shostakovich: Waiting to be Shot April 7, 1986

        An entire life he is waiting to be shot :
        however long the years may be, however long the list of death
        he sees his name displayed
        among the innumerable dead

        His music is a grieving for himself:
        it sobs for thousands of dead souls, for human heads that drop like fruit,
        its blood rolls through the emptiness
        of fifty hopeless years

        So this music sounds – how distant, how deep and low,
        as if there is no sky above
        so unsettled and tense, like bones that dance in corpses

        Forever a shooting awaits him:
        beyond us, our surrogate in time,
        he suffers an unending death.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        And, of course, this Soviet propaganda fooled Toscanini, Ancerl, Bernstein, Haitink, Rattle, Maazel, Fricsay, Karajan, Dohnanyi etc, not to mention Mravinsky, Kondrashin, Richter, Oistrakh, Rostropovitch and some of the best string quartets in the world – all apparently too deaf (mercenary? terrorised?) to hear the crap it really is. Fortunately, there’s “coming over the hill at the last minute” – Christopher Fulkerson, Ph. D., to enlighten the musicians and the public, gone astray.

        I have a friend, a personal enemy of God of the Dawkins persuasion, whose only God is JSBach. When confronted with the obvious truth that Bach wrote most of his stuff “ad maiorem Dei Gloriam”, he has a fireproof answer : he was forced to do it, such were the times. In these circles, same answer applies to cathedrals. Why did I think of it just now?

  35. john mclaughlin williams says:

    Boulez could learn a thing or three from James Brown…

  36. I wish we heard more Honegger today. By the way, Boulez studied counterpoint with Honegger’s wife, Andree Vaurabourg. I wonder whether she wrote anything?

  37. Boulez is being a trifle unfair to Honegger, a better composer than Shostakovich, who is just a cypher for “orchestra,” in a cabal the West never figured out, and now the damage is all but done.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      It certainly is because there are a lot of people who haven fallen victim to this “cabal” and who actually think Shostakovich is a substantial and relevant composer.
      But it is never too late. Now you are here to finally open everyone’s eyes. So – explain to us who is behind this “cabal”, how does it work, what is their objective? Have they figured it out already in the East, and if so, why are they continuing to perform his music there? Because they want to keep up appearances? Because they are all in on the conspiracy?

      • To Michael Schaffer,

        From your words I conclude from my experience with this material that a direct reply would be greeted exactly as you have just written.

        Therefore, you will have to do the math yourself.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          I am not good at math. I had no idea that it even was a math problem. But it is beginning to make sense now. According to you, this is some form of conspiracy that simple-minded people like myself and many others have fallen victim to. Most conspiracies operate with complex secret codes. But those codes are too complex for normal people to crack and expose. It takes a PhD to do that.

          That is why we need people like you to show us the light! I kind of like your style though. You half-open the curtain, you give us a glimpse of what is behind, you make ominous references to the “cabal” you are about to expose – but not just yet! That raises the tension, makes us wonder even more what we are about to learn. But please, don’t let us sit on glowing coals for too long.

          • I appreciate your effort to allow for some wistful humor, and therefore try to reply in kind. Let me say that I make no claims about anybody “needing” people with Ph.D.s to unravel the perpetual cabal.

            This is not necessarily humility on my part, it is the actual situation: most of the enforcement of cabals is by their victims, not by their perpetrators. Attitudes resembling “It can’t happen here” or “I don’t believe it” are enough to prevent most victims from co-operating with those who reveal the shepherding they, the victims, have received. (In America, everybody behaves as though they are king, and their opinion is immediate and absolute and correct. If they think something is right or wrong, then it is. It can be very difficult to get the truth past them.) Many attempts to enlighten people are curtailed not by anyone consciously running a cabal, but by victims of cabals who won’t believe such a thing could happen. Acceptance by the victims of the shepherding is crucial to the efficacy of the act; whole religions have been formed about divine shepherds, practiced by people who seem not to get the fact that shepherds eat sheep.

            The cabals to which I refer are completely public, have been for millennia, and active denial by the people themselves has to be practiced to prevent people from getting the point. There are books, for readers of all ages, easily available everywhere, and histories of the subject, some of them quite extensive, some of them previously read by the security agencies of various countries, and do not involve any violations of actual law. Yet it is however an important fact that people online believe that cryptic communication must be kept down, has to be hushed up, will pounce on any appearance of it, and when I myself have tried to speak about it online, more than once entire strings have been deleted, including much material that was in no way about cryptography, and implausible claims were then made to support the erasures, such as that LinkedIn had no memory of a long string to which this “accidentally” happened. You cannot even talk about post-Code Hollywood without someone thinking you are wicked and your efforts have to be shut down. These enforcer-victims will then act autonomously to prevent information from disseminating. Such things are contemporary versions of lynchings by the populace of the very people who are trying to help them.

            The cabal can be complex, but often it is not. Many codes are related to mathematical treatment of existing human languages. (The jokes about “Hebonics” and “Ebonics” are in fact related to manipulations that actually exist, and such manipulation is not limited to languages such as Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic that are easily susceptible to arithmetic manipulation.) I am strictly an amateur at such things, as are all human beings in this age of cryptography run by machines. Though no authority, I notice some things, and somewhat unusually risk talking about them sometimes. In a short presentation like this, simple dramatic and pertinent examples will have to suffice.

            Examples, then. (I predict that most negative responses will be against the examples, not the principles behind them.) The name “Shostakovich” is used because it could act as a word command for the word “orchestra.” It is a one-word redirect of anything non-Russian toward things Russian, in order to equate the word “orchestra” anywhere with primarily its Russian meaning: only that which answered Soviet Socialist Realist policy. This is an example of a cabal linked to words. Since the Soviets were smart enough to reason their way to these things, and build a substitution “code command,” and create an entire repertoire that would present itself, if you push the “orchestra” button, you get don’t get “orchestra,” you get “Shostakovich.” Sometimes the cabals are to numbers directly. A very conspicuous example is well within the public purview but is being ignored. I understood the message on 9/11 to be a direct “negation” in a logical “truth table,” such as is used in computer programming. In other words, through the terrorist acts on that day, denial or dysfunction specifically of the ability to deal with an emergency was jammed into human events, treating human minds as merely computers that can be programmed – to dysfunction. Unprompted by me, I noticed after 9/11 that some people commented that it seemed an amazing coincidence that such an emergency incident took place on 911, the day that seemed associable with emergencies. That is exactly what was being done, and the terrorists got exactly what they wanted: an hysterical response out of all proportion to the deed. For nineteen lives and less than half a million dollars, the terrorists got the United States to remain in a state of emergency and war for many years, throw huge amounts of money and human effort at an only apparent problem, and now even the oil that cynical Americans thought they were getting is selling primarily to China. So America over-reacted to its own expense, and delivered the goods to a competitor.

            Please do not misunderstand my view in this. I do not say that the human mind IS a computer that can be programmed: I reject this idea as a limitation of the human. I only say that that is how some people are TREATING the human mind, and so far, they have gotten some pretty astonishing results. I say this is all inhumane. People should not be treated as merchandise of any kind… whether as sheep, or as computers.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            I get what you are saying about 9/11, and the connection to the emergency number 911, but I don’t know whether that was a coincidence or the terrorists actually picked that date for that association, but I doubt the damage they did and the psychological impact would have been any less if they had struck on 9/12, or 8/15, or whenever.

            I don’t get the “Shostakovich” and the “orchestra” and the “redirect” stuff at all. I don’t understand what you are telling us. Maybe I would need a PhD to grasp that after all…

          • The explanation of the code used is long, easily available from quite a wide variety of sources, and beyond the purview of a blog like this, where I believe strings are relevant if they are about culture etc., but not the details of arithmetic. If you understand what a redirect is you understand the problem. I don’t remember Mr. Lebrecht ever being concerned about relevance here but I think it is only civil to try to keep some verisimilitude between forum and content wherever one is. You are welcome to write me at my website. Also, if you think I’ve gotten hostility here, believe me, there is more when I talk about the arithmetic.

            I’m afraid the path of least resistance of understanding that you allow – which I admit is more than most people allow, so I will engage a little longer – that the terrorists are the only ones who would design society as though it were a computer, is not correct. Our own leaders treat the society as though it were a programmable machine. I will give one more main example, of a cultural sort, that clearly indicates this, with several side examples.

            The popular television show Battlestar Gallactica tells the story of a group of people supposedly fleeing tyrannical machines. A first glance at the structure of this tale would seem to suggest that it is “a mere tale” and that it is about machines vs. people; inhuman code vs. human freedom.

            However, there is no freedom anywhere in the texture of that show, and getting involved with things like that is a risk, since whether you turn left or right, you are being exposed to civic programming. The “humans” led by Adama are consulting the writings of their ancestors, the Lords of Kobol, as to how to run their lives and find Earth. COBOL is of course a real-world programming script. ALL the characters, human and machine, in “Battlestar Gallactica” are being run by machines, and the machines are being run by an actual code, in use. It is not a metaphor with a real-world word in the midst. The real-world word is the best and most honest clue that everything works that way.

            The TV show is thus a soft-sell to society to allow itself be to run as a machine, through the ways of actual machines. People are in a much greater communion with their machines than they suspect. When you talk about Battlestar Gallactica, you are talking about the “program” of programming society. It is far from the only instance of this.

            For a variety of reasons, some good, some bad, code is often introduced in deliberately screwball ways, not least screwy was Shostakovich’s own glancing use of it, but a more noteworthy example is when the English spy and supposed wizard Aleister Crowley wrote about it obliquely in his book called “LLL,” which is actually “777″ upside down, 777 being the cypher number meaning “Codes and Cyphers” itself. At different times in cultural history efforts have been made to alert people to the operations of codes and cypher (the BBC series “Reilly Ace of Spies” has some very on-target things about it) but most people continue to believe this is mere fiction; “The Man from UNCLE” was a good example of some of these things. Crowley puts you through a wild and crazy labyrinth of associations, which are about cypher, not “magic.” The best presentation of the effect on a mind of the encounter with this is the difficult life journey of John Nash, especially as described in the film version of part of his life, A Beautiful Mind. The scene early in the story where he is called in to the government to work on certain strange goings-on is meant to be understood as his encounter with the enormity of what is done with cypher; evidently, or supposedly, he wasn’t ready for this, and his mind – supposedly – snapped. His apparent obsession with deciphering puzzles involves writing them down on slips of paper – this is not crazy, this is a stage in cypher work, especially in the era before computers, when lexicographical skills had to be acquired by persons trying to find and keep track of various code usages. The John Nash workroom look, with little slips of paper hanging on the walls, appears in shows like the X-Files and Stargate Universe. The Philip K. Dick novel Time Out of Joint is all about a slightly off-the-shoulder apparently comic usage of this. PKD is another person who discovered certain truths, but flipped out when he began working with them. At least he made it far enough to know you shouldn’t leave Greek out. It’s all applied mathematics, and you think it’s all OK if you see it on chalkboards and looking mysterious – oddly, enough, that’s when people think they “understand” it. The playwrite Michael Frayn puts words into Heisenberg’s mouth, that Heisenberg “saw into another world of pure mathematics;” whatever Heisenberg’s own experience, Frayn is indicating the situation fairly directly.

            Words are substitutable in all those equations, and you had better believe Carl Rove does things like that. I for one am skeptical enough about “the Lords of Cobol” that I am glad whenever I learn someone is trying to figure out how we are being shepherded.

    • Damn, so all these decades when I’ve been listening in fascination and awe to Shostakovich’s music, and studying his work, life and times, I’ve been duped? It’s all a conspiracy. My life has been for nothing. At least DOCTOR Fulkerson has enlightened me before it’s too late. (Shall we all start putting our letters after our names, by the way? Sort-of add a touch of class and academic respectability to the whole thing?)

      • Yes, Mr. Hames, it was a many-decades-long propaganda campaign conducted very effectively by the Soviets. We now do things according to Soviet preferences, when we are not doing actual Soviet music. You are quite correct to say you were duped!

        Your preferences were brought to you by the inventors of Pavlov’s Dogs. Too bad there is not a “captcha” at this site, I would feel better about who or what you are.

        • How would you know how my preferences were formed? I was, in fact, listening to the stuff before I was able to read about it and before I had heard of Soviet Russia. And no one ever told me how to react to it. I suppose one could argue (well, you probably would!) that the BBC was duped into playing it for me to hear, My other main musical memory of that time in the early 1950s was that there was a hell of a lot of Tchaikovsky (still hate him) and Coppelia seemed to be on every five minutes. Don’t mind that, brainless though it may be, in the sense of “totally devoid of intellectual content”. That being so, no wonder DDS struck me so forcefully. I’m not sure what a captcha is, but for what it’s worth I’m a semi-retired orchestral musician and sometime University lecturer. So I’ll see your alleged Ph.D. and raise you my D. Mus. . .

          • Your comment about your history with Socialist music reminds me of something Richard Pryor once said, “I’ve been using cocaine every day for twenty years, and I’m still not addicted.”

            And about degrees, hello, if you’re going to be like that, it’s I who pulls rank on you, not the other way around. A Ph.D. is above a D.Mus. You’re not seeing me or raising me anything. As you prove by confusing your fondness for a repertoire with what the uses were of the repertoire.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Wow. I hoped we’ve been paid. No, sir : we’ve been drugged. That explains why I’m still waiting for my cut.

          • The site says “Last updated 10/2009,” but there we are:


          • Gonout Backson says:

            Seen it. I think the answer is here : “Christopher Fulkerson has written over fifty works of dramatic, symphonic, chamber, choral and solo music.” We should have guessed as much.

          • Re my Principle Works page, you say “We should have guessed as much.” Is this some kind of revelation? Is there something wrong with writing music? What is wrong with you?

          • Gonout Backson says:

            I’m perfectly all right, thank you. Had a great breakfast, listening to beautiful music, Though it’s cloudy around here, with a strong possibility of showers, everything’s going my way.

          • Thanks for the free advertising… your point being what?

          • That may be the most understanding I think I’ve ever gotten at this site.

          • R. James Tobin says:

            OK Fulkerson, I have a Ph.D and three M.A.s, but they don’t mean a damn thing unless I can show I think clearly and make sense.

          • I really would rather not talk about your or my or anyone’s degrees unless that is a proper topic. Since you have pressed this sort of thing, I can I believe say that the notion that Shostakovich did NOT support the Soviet program is completely at variance with anyone’s proper knowledge of the facts – again, on either side of the preference aisle. There is neither a “left hand” nor a “right-hand” understanding that Shostakovich did not support the Soviet system. There is a pipe about that which some Soviets and their heirs would like you to smoke, but to put forward something as strictly un-factual as you have put forward really is a pipe dream. Deal with it, Shostakovich’s work is covert propaganda. You can love him for it or hate him for it, but to deny it is to participate in the propaganda qua propaganda.

          • To reply to your specific question as to how I would know how your preferences were formed, if you are defending propaganda, you got your preference for it by being its victim. You responded to the propaganda.

          • Fulkerson Ph.D., you are trapped in a circular argument fallacy. Your conclusion is your premise. Unless you find a way out of that trap, you can’t progress intellectually.
            You are not learning from the world. You are to the contrary trying to make the world, as you phenomenologically perceive it, fit in your preconceived mindset. That’s often a symptom for beginning “sclerosis” of the mind. Another case on this blog is Mr. Osborne with his “Vienna” Pawlowian reflexes.

        • What are those “Soviet preferences” we now “do things” by?

  38. I strongly suggest a book called “Dojdatsa Muziki” (Waiting for Music). It is in fact a collection of transcripts of a series of public lectures about music given by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov not very long ago.
    Offering deep insights about contemporary music in relation to music and art in general, Boulez gets more than one mention in what seems to me fair and objective treatment.
    My copy is in russian and unfortunately, I have not yet found any traces of an english translation. I wonder if a translation will be done in the near future. This book is really worth reading.

  39. Alexander Hall says:

    Shall we talk again in a hundred years time? In 2113 people will have forgotten the acoustic drivel Boulez has produced whereas Shostakovich will still be regarded as a leading composer who connects with his audiences. I wouldn’t worry about any of Boulez’ pronouncements either. The man who insisted that all opera houses should be pulled down and then went on to conduct at Bayreuth – pocketing the proceeds nicely, thank you – can’t expect the musical world to take him too seriously.

    • To Alexander Hall,

      Your remarks are not interesting except as further evidence, were it needed, that ignorant people can pontificate on the web as if the overwhelming evidence of the reality of the concert world did not exist. Your pronouncements are interesting anthropologically as communications from the computeroid pajama-hadeen bunker mentality.

      Even if you were correct, you would be incorrect. If Shostakovich were supreme in 2113 and Boulez forgotten, it would only mean that the crude bad guys won. Insofar as Shostakovich is popular, that is all that means. Crude propaganda winning over great art – that would be no surprise.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        If I get it right, there’s no way to prove you’re wrong, even with a DeLorean DMC-12M? Popper would love it.

      • Alexander Hall says:

        There is no accounting for taste, nor have I so far found a remedy for people suffering from verbal diarrhoea.

      • Calling Shostakovich’s 8th String quartet “crude Soviet propaganda” and the opposite of art is so beyond any making of sense, that your “argument” could be simply ignored.

  40. It may be interesting to note that those who prefer DS explain why they do so but those who proclaim that AH is “better” choose not to elaborate.

  41. gerald brennan says:

    Honegger’ music was, Boulez says, “the kind of music that is written for its own time and vanishes with it.”

    Ironically, that may be the fate of Boulez’ music.

    • Quite so. Mr Boulez is a celebrity who understands that any publicity is better than none. Also,
      he said his little piece while in Switzerland, and so prehaps threw in Honegger for cheap effect.
      But do picture trading in Honegger, Vaughn Williams and Shostakovich for Pierre Boulez.
      Stark raving bonkers. No, I musnt begin to laugh lest I never stop.

  42. Will Duffay says:

    I think Shostakovich is over-rated – however much I love some of his work. He can be long-winded and, for me, the profundities of his slow music miss the mark. But that’s my opinion.

    Equally, I find Boulez a pointless dinosaur, whose music represents a now-dead phase in western music which will be the subject of academic theses in future generations, as people struggle to comprehend how our culture made such a massive wrong-turn after WWII and forced cacophony onto the listening public, which, 70 years later, is still turning its back in favour of music which attempts to connect emotionally.

    • Agreed.

      How long now we have been hearing the death knells of the thorniest music written. The names thrill with their shrill mid-century protest against the subjective: Babbitt, Boulez, Carter, the scientist-warrior generation and their progeny. Enthroned by the curious and trusting, or the academy for vigorous reason’s sake, they presided and dictated the standards for following generations. They are still enormously influential — about 14 years ago I met a very talented undergraduate who was studying with Milton Babbitt, who was 83 years oldat the time. Her youthful work, though extremely accomplished, was possessed by an air of mid-century high modernism.

      Their damage is unrelenting!!

      • Daniel Farber says:

        Carter was never really a part of the American academic scene, and so I don’t think he can be blamed for what the others, through their very vocal influence, imposed on promising composers in the first few decades after mid-century. He went virtually unmentioned during my years at Brandeis University, 1966–1970.

        • Hello, the “American Academic Scene” did not end in 1970. For most people Carter became affordably, widely and accurately known only with the Composers Quartet recording of his first two String Quartets, which was not released until 1970. The Concerto for Orchestra was still quite new.

          If you allow that the End of Time was somewhen after 1970, it would be wholly incorrect to say that Carter was not “part of the scene.” It would be more accurate to suggest that since he was not an orthodox twelve-tone composer, his music was less easy to teach in introductory classes on contemporary music, and therefore was not as easy to talk about in classes, when counting from one to twelve was thought to be sufficient for an understanding of contemporary music.

          • Daniel Farber says:

            You are quite right in what you say, sir, but what I was responding to was the game of personal blame in which certain individuals are held responsible, either directly or indirectly, for a tyrannical hold over the predilections of young composers. Carter appears innocent of that charge unless his guilt can be shown convincingly to the contrary.

          • Again, it is absolutely astonishing to me that the small effect of a few academics in the West in briefly affecting a few students’ work is of such concern to you (as if it is wrong for teachers to mold their students work – one of the times that affecting another’s mind is actually correct), yet the thoroughgoing effect of decades of international politics and active and huge anti-Modernist campaigns by some of the most powerful governments of all time goes unremarked, despite the fact it is not a few students, but the entire populace whose minds have been actively “shepherded,” as I have described it.

            You are acting as an enforcer of a program you accept, and talking only about a few deviations from that larger program.

          • Daniel Farber says:

            Fulkerson “Ph.D.”, You seem so full of your own agenda that you are unable to read what I wrote in context–i.e. with even minimal understanding. “The End”

      • The Babbitt example is misleading, as one of his most famous students was Stephen Sondheim.
        Also, he emerges as an exceptionally genial man in the excellent documentary about him, so not unlike his music in that respect.

  43. John Riley says:

    Clearly Boulez has forgotten his recent admiring comments on Shostakovich’s Michelangelo Suite. But at the same time, is perhaps alluding to Shostakovich’s admiration for Honegger, expressed through his pianistration of the Third Symphony. Or perhaps not.

  44. The familiar calumny about Vaughan Williams and “staring at a cow” was applied to the 3rd symphony (Pastoral) never the 5th. I have heard it attributed to many an English composer, but Copland is an unfamiliar attribution. Given the long, placid stretches in Copland’s 3rd, he would have been treading on thin ice to say the least.

    As for the original topic – it really only points out that Honegger is a more significant composer than his current reputation–his third symphony is an excellent work.

  45. Dr Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci says:

    what pointless arguments bordering on stupidities when one is dealing with one of the greatest composers of all times, Shostakovich.

  46. I much prefer H.I.F. Biber and Captain Beefheart to either Shosty or Boulez….

  47. perhaps the image of Pierre Boulez kissing the hand of Shostakovich says more than PB’s words (in the Alex Ross book)
    The former turned into a critic and arguably swamped the creative process whereas the latter had too many people telling him what to think and do. DS was great at saying ‘i don’t know’

  48. Earlier this year I attended a concert Daniel Barenboim conducted at Columbia University, in honor of the late scholar, activist and music enthusiast Edward Said. Barenboim and the East-West Divan orchestra performed a range of works, including two by Boulez. Of the two I enjoyed “Messagésquisse” the most. But I can say without hesitation that while I am a fan of his work, little of it, including that energizing, but profoundly unmelodic piece, will have the staying power of Shostakovich–or Britten, Vaughan Williams, Honegger, Messaien, or any number of other composers toward whom he has been dismissive. I doubt Boulez’s music will even match the ongoing interest of Schoenberg’s music, since at least that composer can boast of a being a paradigm-shifting pioneer in addition to having produced a range of works in nearly every major form that music listeners can recognize. A number of these, from Schoenberg’s early (Verklärte Nacht, Erwartung, etc.) and late (the Piano Concerto, the Kol Nidre) periods possess considerable beauty even as they chart new possibilities (at least for their era) for what is to come.

    Boulez, I often think now, has been not only too smart for his own britches–so sharp his intellectual gifts exceed his expressive ones–but he comes off as an angry man lacking the capacity for generosity, expansiveness, grace. To trash a composer like Shostakovich, who ranks as one of the major symphonists of the 20th century, really says everything. Not only will we be more likely to listen to Shostakovich 100 years hence, but this is the case right now, in 2013. Moreover, while I credit Boulez’s talents for intellection, systematization and abstraction, one can hear in Shostakovich’s music multiply complex responses, as well as an expressive immediacy, toward the events of his day, many of which resonate with ours. Even when he moves toward a zone of abstraction, Shostakovich suffuses his music with feeling. There is little in Boulez’s oeuvre that does this. I don’t fault him for this, but he might at least recognize why Shostakovich’s–or Honegger’s, for that matter–work does resonate for so many people. Even a shoddily constructed Shostakovich work, like the 12th Symphony, can produce instant and ongoing feelings of pleasure and identification in a way that Boulez’s formally innovative but often arid-sounding works cannot. This is not to dismiss innovation; Messiaen, Ligeti, Berg, and of course for their eras Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, etc., were “innovative.” But there is in all of them something more, richer, emotive–something that connects with listeners. The music of Boulez, for all his pronouncements, rarely does this.

    Ultimately Boulez ought not dismiss museums, because it will probably be museums and classrooms that preserve his work more than anything else.

  49. All this trashing of Shostakovich reminds me very much of the 1970s when it was the fashion among those who desired to appear intellectual to trash Rachmaninov.
    At least they have moved on a generation.

  50. “Well, certainly I don’t see any contradictions about loving people who are terribly out of fashion these days. I don’t think there’s any great contradiction in loving Strauss, for instance, and loving Schoenberg, who was, in a sense, his arch-enemy. I can’t see any reason that one love has to cancel out another. I think that’s one of the great mistakes that people make today, and especially the avant-garde people make when they try to decide who’s in, who’s out, who’s with it, and who’s not. Now, that’s a great mistake and I wish they’d stop it. It’s all so silly.” – Glenn Gould, 1968.

  51. Is your Ph.D in dentistry?
    Because you can’t possibly have a degree in music with the ridiculous comments you’ve been spewing.

  52. Russell Platt says:

    As you know, Boulez, from middle age, has spent as much time re-working, revising, and expanding upon earlier pieces as creating new ones from scratch, as most composers spend their careers doing. It was hardly unproductive, but it was a comparatively unconventional way of working. The various versions of “…explosante-fixe…” (another masterpiece) is the classic example. One thinks of Liszt, another outlier and perhaps the first modernist, who kept revising and revising things; it seems to me an almost transcendentalist way of composing, in which the process is as important as the finished product. It has an inherent nobility. Wasn’t it Thomson who said that “music is what musicians do”?

  53. John Longstaff says:

    I like Honegger, and would probably prefer to listen to a Honegger Symphony than one by Shostakovich, partly because Honegger’s symphonies are demonstrably more succinct. I’ve always felt that Shostakovich is better at atmosphere than structure; but this may just be me. Personally I feel that S’s success is due not least to the appalling times he lived in, and because he translated his impressions into very moving music, he gets the sympathy vote. Take away the history from Shostakovich’s music, and what’s left is not wholly convincing.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      That only applies to people who need some kind of “background story” to grasp what music is “about”. Sure, knowing and understanding the background of *any* work of art usually enhances our understanding and appreciation of it, but great art stands on its own. Just the interesting and moving story behind Shostakovich’ music would not be enough to give him he status he has in today’s music world. There are countless musicians and artists from the USSR who have the same background story but whose work isn’t as widely accepted as Shostakovich’.

  54. While I disagree with Pierre Boulez in this case, I believe that, unlike some of the commenters here, he has earned the right to express his preferences. It is true that Dmitry Shostakovich wrote a few works that can be described as “purely political propaganda rubbish”, but I personally am very glad that he did, because writing such pieces allowed him to survive and create some of last century’s most powerful and eloquent musical statements.

  55. Christopher Fulkerson, Ph.D. says: “I did not get my knowledge from the movies, and with your remark you become a no longer plausible correspondent. I got it from Boris Schwarz…”

    That’s one opinion and a somewhat biased source from a very polarized time (cold war) many decades ago.
    Maybe you should widen and modernize your horizon regarding Shostakovich a bit. A lot has happened since Schwarz published his book in 1971.

    • No, I don’t think your suggestion is helpful; there is so much music I already know I want to know better, I no more want to spend time trying to like Shostakovich any more than I want to spend time learning to better like Cage. Shostakovich is too bourgeois, and Cage is too false-philosophical.

      It is most interesting that you seem to press the error that there was no update of Schwartz’s book. I think your handlers ought to pay more attention to your case, before you rely too heavily on lacunae in the time line.

  56. He’s correct about Britten, But Shostakovich was an absolute complete genius. Wagner influenced by Beethoven, Mahler influenced by Wagner and Shostakovich influenced by Mahler. Shostakovich was a true genius, amazing music. Listen to The Nose !!!

  57. That some people in the west can not identify with Shostakovich, mainly because their biography does not contain even 1% of the hardship, war tragedy and suppression by a totalitarian system that Shostakovich had to experience, doesn’t mean much, except that those people with their “pampered” biographies can not identify with him. And McCarthy did the rest.

    • Shostakovich wrote to support the totalitarian system. He was one of its preening peacocks, writing Lenin symphonies and tons of heavily ironic October propaganda.

      McCarthyism didn’t last long, and had little lasting influence, you really are relying on cliches and slogans. There was no American obstruction to Soviet music in America the way there was to Modernism in the Soviet Union, and now there is little Modernism anywhere, but lots of Soviet schlock, and still greater amounts of schlocky unsupportable beliefs.

      Here is the real tragedy: all by itself, suffering doesn’t make anyone great. That’s why the losses in the “Patriotic War” were tragic. But a saccharine symphony doesn’t relieve the tragedy, it only perpetuates it. Even when you talk about people’s suffering, you are relying on hackneyed cliches.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        Since, I suppose, they must have been on the take, could you please, please, tell us how much did the KGB pay Bernstein and Haitink (to name but two) to participate.

        • I’m not sure you are asking that question as though it you mean it, you sound as though you might be speaking rhetorically, and belligerently as well. YOU are being sarcastic and asking presumptive questions – should I think you are “in on a take” somehow?

          I don’t know much about Haitink, one way or another. And I think you underestimate Bernstein’s role as a Soviet agent of influence in the United States. He was an American commissar, enforcing Socialist Realism, promoting, for example, Copland’s ballets for Socialist Martha Graham to the exclusion of other of Copland’s music, denegrating Modernism as insufficient to the “people’s” needs, etc., bad mouthing Milton Babbitt and even shoving David Diamond down – all according to the same “values” as the Soviets put forward. When I had dinner with him at Tanglewood Bernstein even tried to get me to tell people my own father, of whom he had not the tiniest clue, was Russian! I swear to Congress.

          During the part of the Cold War that was declared and open, all manner of free operations were given by people in ideological agreement with the Soviets. Surely you knew that; your pretense about “takes” is strange. Now that we are in the part of the Cold War that people are in denial about, there are even more people freely volunteering their indefatigable “help” keeping the ideology afloat, as witness the lion’s share of comments here, a huge percentage of which could be coordinated to various stages of Soviet propaganda… if they would allow for, say, the reading of books about such things (on that last point, I’m speaking of something someone else said, not yourself, so far as I know).

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Thanks, it’s even better than I expected.

          • harold braun says:

            Mr.Fulkerson,go to seek professional help,before your worst nightmares become reality and the Russians,which of course have already infiltrated the brains of the leaders of western democracies and leading proponents of culture,will kidnap you and cock a snook at you!Thank you for writing these comments,they made my day and I laughed my ass off.They certainly don’t merit serious discussion,but they are really rip roaring!

          • And not only did the Soviets give us “Socialist Realism” and dupe our society. According to no less an authority then General Jack D. Ripper (USAF-SAC, dec’d 1964):
            “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
            Do you realize that in addition to fluoridating water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk, ice cream? Ice cream, Mandrake? Children’s ice cream!…You know when fluoridation began?…1946. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.”

      • R. James Tobin says:

        “Shostakovich wrote to support the totalitarian system. He was one of its preening peacocks, writing Lenin symphonies and tons of heavily ironic October propaganda.”
        He wrote what he had to write to avoid being liquidated, as happened to so many creative people in the USSR. His quartets, trio, quintet, and most of his symphonies were certainly not intended by him to support the Soviet system. You seem to forget what happened to him in 1936 and 1948m when he was condemned for “Western formalism” and performance opportunities taken away.

        • The statement about Shostakovich, “His quartets, trio, quintet, and most of his symphonies were certainly not intended by him to support the Soviet system” is just about as blatant an example of falsely held belief as is possible to make on this topic. Even for those who actually like his music, this is a wholly gratuitous remark, without basis in any kind of reality. It does not even make self-consistent sense: if he wrote to avoid liquidation, he wrote in compliance with the government preferences, and therefore supported that system.

          • “if he wrote to avoid liquidation, he wrote in compliance with the government preferences, and therefore supported that system.”

            Wow. The amount exposed here of ignorance und inability to understand the difference in living conditions a totalitarian system imposes on an artist, is frightening.
            He supported the system by not letting himself be liquidated. Sure…
            Stereotypical ignorant American POV of someone who doesn’t know the world.

          • It seems that mr Ph.D. would have done very well in the Soviet Union, like mr Boulez.

          • Gonout Backson says:

            I missed this particular phrase in Mr Fulkerson’s post, and I was wrong: this is, indeed, some remarkable turn of logic. I fully agree with Mr Borstlap here : it sounds like a good “head of the ideological department”, but rather on a provincial level. On the top, in Moscow, they would have demanded more finesse.

          • The wackiness of some of these remarks is actually funny.

          • No, Shostakovich supported the totalitarian system by writing music for it.

            Your many assertions of my ignorance are lacking in factual support. Go ahead, bring it on, let me hear about why I’m wrong. But simply saying I’m wrong isn’t good enough.

  58. To John Ed Niles re: cow: Other info has this attributed to Peter Warlock who liked Rafe3 (see details on wiki). There are 2 Shosta pieces that I find totally beautiful. Otherwise I try to like it but find myself dissauded by the slip-slide technique (note MTT comment) which is a conceptual error of so many young jazz improvisers. I saw an OSM/Nagano concert with Boulez+Shosta programmed together and I didn’t like any of it! With fine players like that I wish they would have played Rafe3 or 5 with some Gerald Finzi warm-up…

  59. Some bizarre conversations here: There seems to be a lack of realization that music inherently has NO meaning whatsoever other than that attributed to it by the listener. It is after all nothing more than vibrating air molecules. All be in an ordered mathematical framework. The fact that it is “heard” at all is a product of evolutionary biology.!!

    • R. James Tobin says:

      You could say much the same thing about verbal speech. But this is a major philosophical subject that is way off topic.

    • The argument by Derek Gleeson is silly and absurd. According to his logic, no painting can ever have any meaning either, because light is nothing but a certain type of electromagnetic radiation and the fact that is seen “at all is a product of evolutionary biology”. Our understanding of meanings is of course formed in our brains but that does not make it any less real as a fact of human existence.

  60. I wonder how Boulez feels about the fact that DDS was a great admirer of ‘Le marteau sans maitre’ (even giving a copy of the score to Shebalin) and some pieces of Xenakis and listened, at least with interest to ‘Hymnen’, feeling that there were elements that could be usefully employed.

    • What is more to be marveled at is that you put this forward as though it can be meaningful, in the light of Shostakovich’s many public statements against Western Modernism, and the absence of signs of influence of it upon his music.

      If Shostakovich personally said something of “great admiration” directly to Boulez then perhaps Boulez will tell us about it.

      • Gonout Backson says:

        Fascinating. To paraphrase John Borstlap, facts are like musical themes (or, indeed, the vegetables you buy on the market) : it’s not what they are, but what you make of them. For the epigones of the Homeland of Socialism (the “workers’ republic” as it was called recently here), the very existence of a Shostakovich and the state support of High Culture in general, proves that it wasn’t as bad as the imperialist propaganda wants us to believe. For a radical socialist and modernist of Mr. Fulkerson’s kind, it’s just the opposite: Shostakovich, as the USSR itself, betrayed the true cause of socialism. Mr Fulkerson seems even to know (no mean feat) that Shostakovich “did not believe” sovietism “was in the main a bad thing”.
        Both lines of thinking are strictly ideological (i.e. squeezing shreds of reality, spiced with some fantasy and a lot of emotions, into a preconceived mold) and betray a vast ignorance of the complexities of life in a totalitarian tyranny, and indeed of the very complex game an artist – whatever the circumstances – plays with all kinds of powers, including his own biology.
        Following Mr Fulkerson’s reasoning, we should conclude – and maybe he does – that Shakespeare having been a blatant propagandist for the Tudors, and having notoriously used “materials of a past time and the emotional devices of comfort and convention”, his whole stuff is nothing but a “fully-qualified reified capitalist product”.

        • It is true that DS wrote a number of pieces that were intended to please the regime. But I think that he made the right choice after he was attacked and threatened in 1936 and then again in 1948. Refusing to conform would have done virtually no damage to the System but would have certainly immediately sent him to gulag and probably killed him there, or he would have perished in an “automobile accident”. Instead, he wrote a few cheap trifles of Socialist Realism, but was then able to give us (in addition to the first symphony and two operas that were written earlier) such powerful musical statements as his tenth and fourteenth symphonies, second piano trio, eighth string quartet, piano quintet, first violin and cello concerti – to name just a few that come to my mind right now. We would have been culturally poorer without all these.

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