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Why composers shouldn’t attack each other in public

In the end, everyone comes out looking bad.

So it was when composer Matthew Aucoin, age 30, took on Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) in the Nov. 5 New York Review of Books. The young Boulez trashed his compositional contemporaries left and right; now Aucoin takes up that mantle in his review of Boulez’s Music Lessons: The Collège de France Lectures. Both composers have an avenging angel sensibility — except that Boulez pulled back in middle age, and had a rare moment of regret.

Original issue of Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître

“Maybe I was too much of a Robespierre,” he told me in 1986 upon returning to the New York Philharmonic after a hiatus of many years.

One of the great figures of 20th-century modernism, Boulez cut a wide swath in the early-1950s contemporary music world, making such incendiary pronouncements that when the smoke cleared, he was the only one left in the room (a phrase often applied to young turks). Maybe Elliott Carter was allowed back in.

But few composers have so misrepresented themselves in the long run as did Pierre Boulez.

The man who proclaimed “Schoenberg is Dead” in a famous 1952 essay that called for far greater systemization than what had previously been envisioned later admitted that he had only been a strict serialist for a matter of months. Once he achieved music-industry clout with simultaneous chief conducting appointments to the New York Philharmonic (1971-1977) and the BBC Symphony (1971-75), Boulez was one of Schoenberg’s best interpreters, recording pre-atonal works such as Gurrelieder and doing much to bring the serial opera Moses und Aron to major houses.

The explosively temperamental Boulez of the 1950s was all smiles and patience in 1986 with a New York Philharmonic harpist who was rhythmically at sea in a rehearsal of music from Boulez’s Pli selon pli. The late Johanna Fiedler, who was in the Philharmonic press office during the Boulez tenure, loved working with him.

He actually seemed to enjoy being embarrassed in a press conference when I asked if it was true that Strauss’s super-lush Die Frau ohne Schatten was his “guilty pleasure.” (He neither confirmed nor denied, which meant “yes.”) Later, at a Carnegie Hall reception, we somehow got into a silly conversation about how no great composer of the 20th century was tall in stature. “There was only one,” Boulez said. “Berg.”

This doesn’t mean that Boulez had lost his fierceness. Even at the end, he came out with devastating evaluations of works by younger composers. (“It was nothing. It was less than nothing,” he murmured during a new music concert in Salzburg.) But at that point, he kept such things to himself. Quite tangibly, he had paid for the sins of his youth: once, after 9/11, he was detained at the Swiss border as a possible terrorist threat because, back in 1967, he proclaimed that “we should blow the opera houses up.” (Since then, he had conducted in many.)

Enter Matthew Aucoin, who has earned a certain amount of praise as a composer and conductor, though my ears have told me that some of that comes from people who are afraid to miss the bandwagon of a promising talent that has prompted comparisons to Leonard Bernstein. Reviewing the U.S. publication of Music Lessons seems to have brought out Aucoin’s Oedipal side, starting from the second paragraph when he described Boulez’s “Cheshire cat smirk.” For starters, that’s sloppy writing: the Cheshire cat’s smile was broad; smirks aren’t. (Boulez had a strange habit of never revealing his teeth; I suppose that could be mistaken for a smirk.)

Aucoin’s heated adjectives raise all kinds of red flags, suggesting there’s an agenda at work rather than just severe reasoning. He says Boulez was perceived as having mellowed “by walking into a room without biting anyone’s head off.” Really? “Spittle-spewing invective” is another Aucoin gem. Boulez was French. They don’t do spittle.

Aucoin writes “though he would not admit it, the … twelve-tone system remained his master to the end.” Later, Aucoin talks about Boulez’s tendency toward harmonic stasis — true, and used masterfully to sustain a sense of suspended animation in later works such as Répons and …explosante-fixe… But doesn’t the constant development inherent in the 12-tone system negate any possibility for harmonic stasis? Aucoin even hears malevolent undercurrents in one passage of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître; I hear contrasting instrumentation.

Aucoin talks about how Boulez once trashed art of the past, but later, “he had blithely cashed in and spent much of his time conducting cycles of Wagner operas and Mahler symphonies.” As if anyone blithely conducts the Ring cycle? And in the revisionist Patrice Chéreau production that changed the entire course of opera staging?

In fact, Boulez was conducting nearly from the beginning — probably to pay the rent — often recording low-key, oddball repertoire by CPE Bach and Mozart’s first four piano concertos. As early as 1967, he conducted the Bayreuth production of Tristan und Isolde on tour in Japan. And though he was known as the coolest of customers on the podium, he later admitted that his detached manner was, at that point, all he knew, and only later did his conducting technique accommodate all that he felt.

Many of Boulez’s statements are of their time, the PTSD-ridden years following the destruction of Europe in World War II. He wasn’t the world’s greatest writer to begin with, and he grew out of his views, probably as fast as they were published. That’s allowed. And such views are worth preserving because they capture the zeitgeist of their times. Where composers often fall down in talking about each other is failing to see the work in its original social context. For instance, Thomas Adès ridicules Wagner’s Parsifal as though it were written yesterday, not as one of the last gasps of a Romantic culture with values and philosophies far removed from our own. I wonder how much of the postwar zeitgeist that shaped Boulez Aucoin knows or feels.

All artists have a much more rigorous sense of identity than, well, civilians. Their process of selection and rejection of what they take in from the world is all about building an inner identity from which their personal aesthetic can spring. Once I invited a composer friend to join me for a Vienna Philharmonic all-Mozart concert. His disgusted reply: “I can’t listen to that guy today!” Another time, I mentioned to a certain older composer that a certain younger composer had arrived at a similar artistic point but from an opposite direction. The older composer went into a rage, because for him, compositional process meant everything. (After he calmed down, he said, “You’re a critic. You have to like more music than I do.”)

The problem is that when such statements are public, they can affect the way someone hears the younger composer’s work. (For instance, there’s nothing that says Thomas Adès has to be as great as Wagner was in order to criticize him, but in the wake of Adès’s myopic statements, I’ve found myself less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

I hope to love Aucoin’s new-ish Eurydice opera (scheduled to be at the Metropolitan Opera in 2021), if only because the Sarah Ruhl play on which it’s based is truly a favorite of mine. But his Boulez essay is much more a reflection of the writer himself than of his subject — and it’s not a very savory personality, if only because Aucoin’s views are so willfully shallow.


  1. David – no offence to you or the late Mr. Boulez, but I for one am thrilled by Mr. Aucoin’s takedown analysis. With over 55 years of classical and jazz music study and performance under my belt – and as a former Secretary of the Glenn Gould Foundation – I feel that we in Western music have only recently begun to emerge from his baleful, prescriptive, narrow critical and authoritarian yoke. I adore his conducting, but after repeated “I-must-be-missing-something” listenings over the decades to “Pli selon pli”, “Répons”, the piano sonatas and more, I am convinced that I am *not* missing something. To be sure, there is genius and great intellect in his craft. But for me, and perhaps Mr. Aucoin, those are only necessary but not sufficient conditions for great music. I can only imagine how many deserving composers were sidelined for not toeing a Boulezian line, and how much music we were denied as a result. I for one celebrate the fact that composers today have escaped or at least can escape the strictures that Boulez laid down. Music and musicians are the better for it. By all means, if you enjoy Boulez – enjoy. But, after I listen to his great recordings conducting Cleveland, I’m going to listen to Barber or Moondog and others long before “Le Marteau sans Maitre”.

    • So much is a matter of taste. It’s often thought that if you like Boulez you’ll also like Stockhausen. Not me. I find the two to be diametrically opposed, and other than Stimmung, I wouldn’t care if I ever tangled with Stockhausen again. Then a few weeks ago, I came across the first recording of Marteau – not the best by any means – and wondered why I ever thought the music was difficult. Oddly enough, one of the most insightful comments about Boulez – for me, at least – came from Ned Rorem (of all people). Rorem often demonized Boulez, but he also said that the key to his music is to listen to it as though its Puccini. Huh? It worked for me. And considering what a provocateur Rorem has been, I wonder if Boulez is Rorem’s guilty pleasure….

  2. Andrew Farach-Colton says

    Great piece, David. When I starting reading Aucoin’s diatribe I wondered whether he was being playfully ironic, but I didn’t have to get too far to realize that wasn’t the case at all. I think Aucoin makes some good points about Boulez’s music and creative shortcomings. I dig “Marteau” every now and then, the first few minutes of “Pli Selon Pli” are gripping (it’s a bit of a slog beyond that), and some of the shorter works (“Mémoriale,” for instance) have slender charms. My favorite, though – and the one I find most emotionally powerful – is “Rituel.” Interesting that Aucoin doesn’t mention it at all. I agree with you about Stockhausen, too, by the way, though I’d add “Gesang der Jünglinge” to “Stimmung.” On the other hand, if we’re going that route, Xenakis is far more interesting to my ears. Heck, I’ll also take Xenakis over Rorem! As for Boulez’s conducting, sure he had his limitations – what conductor doesn’t!? I never found him all that chilly, either. In fact, he could be absolutely magical – a complete “Daphnis” I heard in Boston in the 80s (I think) remains one of the most exquisite in my memory. Cheers! – Stay safe and be well.

    • Thanks for your note. I point, I think, is that whatever our personal feelings are about Boulez, Stockhausen, etc., they have “a place at the table,” and a big one. I think Aucoin was denying that to Boulez. By the way, I found in the archives a performance of Boulez conducting an entire Rameau opera – Castor et Pollux, I think – and it’s very highly charged, start to finished. Then again, there’s Boulez’ early recording of the Beethoven 5th…which is…well, if a space alien conducted Beethoven’s 5th it would sound like that. By the way, I’m now listening to a stream of Tyshawn Sorey’s Violin Concerto from Detroit. It’s kind of like late Luigi Nono….

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