So many memories came to me when I read that Pierre Boulez had died.
At one point, a section of the piece was ending. Boulez led the ending with his right hand. While with his left, he prepared the start of what came next, showing — simultaneously with the right hand — music in a different tempo, with a different time signature.
This was more than conducting technique. This showed a profound bond with music, a bond that was physical as well as in his mind. A kind of extraordinary magic that only a few conductors have (Muti and Maazel come to mind), where the music is so strongly embodied that the performance becomes something inevitable, something that, as naturally as an apple growing, can only be what the conductor wants it to be. Conveyed without words.
One other memory is of something even more superhuman. This wasn’t something I saw, but something I heard about. When Boulez became music director of the NY Phil, reportedly at his first rehearsal he corrected the pitch of the oboe giving the A (for tuning).
And corrected it in very precise terms! Something like, “Your A is 442. I would like it to be 439.” Apparently he could not only recognize A by ear (as opposed to G sharp or B flat), but could identify the precise frequency of any A. Amazing.
And also, of course, more than a musical feat. A way of showing authority.
Which brings me to memories I have of him as a very human person. I mention them in part because we all viewed Boulez as a titan, and because he was so famously reticent about emotions and about his personal life.
But he was human, and fallible. I saw him once conduct a rehearsal of Schoenberg’s first chamber symphony, with student musicians, again at Carnegie Hall. Of course he conducted from memory. At one point he corrected the first violinist, who he said had either played a tremolo when he shouldn’t have, or else failed to play a tremolo that should have been there.
But Boulez was wrong. As the student found the courage to say. The student had played what was in the score, which Boulez had incorrectly remembered.
So very human
On another occasion, early in the last decade (I think), I saw Boulez speak at a press conference that introduced a company (now long defunct) called Andante. It released extraordinary historical recordings, and also had a big online component, whose details I’ve forgotten. But this was early in the days of online music, and the easy online access to classical pieces was something new.
Boulez talked about that. What an opportunity this was for people to hear Brahms. You could tell this was very new to him. He sounded like he’d been briefed on it just moments before.
But he promoted it at the press conference because, apparently, he was friendly with the founder of the company. Which was very sweet of him to do.
Another memory isn’t so pleasant. This is something I saw in a film about STravinsky. Boulez is young and ferocious, Stravinsky old and frail. Boulez is conducting Les noces, and tells Stravinsky that on the final page of the score there’s one measure too many.
The errant measure, he says, must be removed. He tries to smooth over any sense of personal confrontation, by saying that the measure he thinks shouldn’t be there was surely the publisher’s mistake. But clearly he thought Stravinsky had made a blunder composing.
The scene, unfolding live on film, is ugly. Boulez browbeats Stravinsky, who finally accepts Boulez’s virew, and with a trembling hand marks an X through the measure Boulez thinks should be gone.
Why it mattered to Boulez is beyond me. Suppose the measure really was a mistake. Les Noces is still a masterpiece. And how dare he browbeat a great composer, who, if he made mistakes, should be allowed them? And, even more, how dare he browbeat a frail older man?
But then this is from Boulez’s younger days, when he truly was ferocious, when he said that we should burn down the opera houses, that anyone who didn’t feel the necesesity for serial music was irrelevant, that Schoenberg’s 12-tone pieces and Stravinsky’s neoclassical works were junk. I’ll have more to say about this later on.
I met Boulez twice. The first time — well, it makes me smile. This was in the early 1960s. I was in college, at Harvard. Boulez was a distinguished visitor to the music department.
I was a political science major, but spent much of my time singing. I’d made my opera debut as Guglielmo in a student production of Così fan tutte.
One night I and some friends, most likely including some from the cast of Così, were sight-reading through Don Giovanni, very privately, just for fun.
And Boulez showed up! The person who served as his host was someone I knew, and maybe wanted to show him how musical Harvard students were. Not that we must have seemed musical. At the moment Boulez appeared, one of us was struggling through a secco recitative.
What Boulez thought I can only imagine. Did he even like Mozart, back then?
The second time I met him was during my journalist days, when I interviewed him. Why or for what publication I can’t remember. But I remember two things about the interview, apart from Boulez’s great courtesy.
One is that he dismissed rock as music manufactured for commercial purposes. This he of course got from Theodor Adorno, the great culture theorist who said the same thing about all popular music, including jazz (he even said that jazz musicians only pretended to improvise).
He was spectacularly wrong, of course, but that hasn’t stopped high-culture purists from taking his view as gospel truth (and of course as an apparently authoritative vindication of their musical prejudices). I don’t blame Boulez, who of course didn’t know pop music first-hand, for believing Adorno.
The other thing I remember was something he’d often said, and written — that composers who write tonal music are speaking an obsolete language. That we needed a new musical language for our new era.
That of course was a common view just after World War II, when Boulez was one of the leaders of modernist music, a pioneer of serialism, which was said to be a new musical language. And when it was natural to say one was needed, as — especially in the ruins of so many European cities — it seemed clear that the old culture had exhausted itself, even destroyed itself.
But of course the idea could be challenged now, and in fact was at the time, or one aspect of it was, by Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the great French intellectuals of that era, who famously challenged the serialists, denying that serialism could be considered a language (and, as I remember, saying that the serialists were far out of their depth in saying it was).
You could also ask what the new language was, and, above all, what new ideas it conveyed. I didn’t challenge Boulez, but I wish I’d asked him that. I would have loved to hear his answer, whatever it would have been.
What were the new ideas that needed a new language for their expression? Did Boulez ever say what they were? If you look at the texts he set to music, in two of his most famous pieces, Le marteau sans maître and Pli selon pli, you find inscutable modernism, poetry whose meaning won’t be apparent to most people.
That doesn’t mean it has no meaning, or that the meaning couldn’t be important. But Boulez, in this regard, stands miles away from the modernist filmmakers, like Godard, who set the tone for advanced French culture in the decade after serialism. Godard, as is widely agreed, invented a new language for film. But he did it in flims that, in very plain words, address the political and cultural problems of the time.
So we know what new ideas Godard’s new language addressed. We don’t know that about Boulez. And it can’t be denied, I fear, that Godard is the more important artist of the two, the one who really set the agenda and tone for his time, the one whom advanced people looked to, the one who widely inspired intellectuals and other artists.
I was an example. When I was in college, I eagerly saw films by Godard and and Antonioni, and other advanced filmmakers. And I wasn’t alone. The Brattle Theater (where these films showed near Harvard) was packed. But I didn’t know Boulez’s music at all, even though I was a musician. Nor did anyone else at the Brattle know it.
Which isn’t to say it’s not great music. But modernist music — classical music of any sort, I fear — had no great role in the culture of that time.
Fluid and delicate
When eventually I heard Boulez’s music, I loved it immediately. Of course, back in that day, and maybe even still, it was talked about in technical terms, with praise for its complex compositional structure. As all serial music was talked about, blinding us to what it meant musically.
And of course Boulez’s work seemed to be complex aestheticallly, especially if you looked at the texts for his vocal music. What were they saying?
But still his music seemed limpid, radiant. Very fluid. And, in many ways, very delicate. Very French, you might say. I’ve always loved hearing it. How to rank it seems irrelevant now. It exists, as Virgil Thomson wonderfully said about the Berg Violin Concerto when few people knew it: “It exists in perfection, for whatever use we may care to make of it.”
I’d be thrilled if any orchestra near me programmed Pli selon pli, and if at all possible would rush out to hear it. The vocal line in the second movement of that piece (which also stands on its own as Boulez’s Improvisation I sur Mallarmé) is a uniquely lovely melody, lovely and compelling, touching many parts of the singer’s vocal range, as a Bach melody does, but with a shape and beauty very specially its own.
Another great moment, from Boulez, is the emergence, in the last movement of Le marteau, of the deep, quiet sound of the tam-tam, not heard earlier, marking the end of the piece.
I’ll end with some thoughts about Boulez as a modernist. Those early assaults of his, on opera houses (burn them down!), and on compoesrs who didn’t write serial music (or who like Schoenberg didn’t write it as radically as Boulez thought they should have) — I think these are best viewed as the fierce enthusiasms of a young man. (Likewise his assault on Stravinsky.)
Serial music seemed like a revolution, a necessary one. As it turned out, it wasn’t. It hardly swept the world, no matter how much prestige it had, lingering for decades, in the world of contemporary classical music. Even the serialists abandoned it, not too many years after they’d invented it. John Cage visited Europe, and suddenly everyone questioned whether serialism really was so necessary. (That was part of Cage’s power. He could make you rethink what you thought you knew. When he visited Japan, Japanese composers, in his wake, started incorporating traditional Japanese music into their work.)
But Boulez didn’t just embrace the serial revolution (or attempt at one). He was in love with early 20th century modernism. I heard this in a very touching way, once when I was a fly on the wall for a marketing meeting at a major US orchestra. I was writing marketing copy; that’s why I was there. Boulez was guest-conducting some major concerts.
All three Bartok piano concertos were programmed. Boulez, in a very simple, not confrontational, very huamn way, said he didn’t care for the third concerto. It was too smooth, too tonal for him (though these are my words; I don’t remember which ones he used). He liked the sharper sound of the first and the second.
That preference touches me very much, maybe because I, too, have a taste for that explosive early modernism. Among much else, I love how noisy it is.
Which leads me to wonder what that meant to Boulez. Bartok and Varêse wrote noisy music. Glorious noise. Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, in their early modernist years, wrote scores that can also be noisy, but above all are extreme in their emotions.
Boulez’s aesthetic, as has been widely noted, seems to be about other things. His music, as I’ve said, is fluid, clear, delicate, radiant. His conducting, as everyone says, was cool, on the surface unemotional. He valued clarity, a luminous orchestral sound.
So what did the noise and emotional extremes of early modernist music mean to him? I wish I knew. I don’t for a moment question his love for it. But what was that love about? Such a deep and wonderful question to explore.
Along with this one: When Boulez apparently abandoned his once-violent dislike of 12-tone Schoenberg and neoclassic Stravinsky, and conducted those pieces, what was he thinking?
I saw him once (Carnegie Hall again) conduct Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, which you’d think he’d despise. Even Stravinsky called it a kind of movie music, written maybe too pictorially, in the heat of World War II. And he said the final D flat sixth chord was “rather too commercial.”
When Boulez got to that chord, he seemed to mark it with distaste, if I can trust my memory of his body language. He placed it precisely in its rhythmic slot, with as little emphasis as possible, and (again if I can trust my memory) made it as short as its position at the end of the piece would allow.
But what was he thinking? Why did he conduct the piece? What did he think, i later life, of music like that?
And, because of his famous detachment, was he really in tune with music he came to be identified with, music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg?
I wonder about that. His conducting of this music is considered authoritative. He led the first performance of the complete, three-act Lulu. He recorded the complete works of Webern not once, but twice.
But once, again at Carnegie Hall, I heard him conduct Schoenberg’s Suite, Op. 29, for piano and strings. All mezzo-forte, no dynamic changes anywhere. I could hardly believe my ears.
I don’t think I’d ever heard the piece before, though I knew other Schoernberg works from the same period very well. How could this one have no dynamics? One of my scholarly critic colleagues had been following a score, and I asked to look at it. Sure enough — dynamic constrasts everywhere. Fortes, pianos, crescendos, dimeniuendos. None of which I’d heard in the performance.
in Lulu, Boulez is one of the many conductors — just about all whose live performances or recordings I’ve heard — who doesn’t follow Berg’s markings, doesn’t make many of the indicated changes in tempo or dynamics. I’ve written about this elsewhere, and it’s a great mystery.
One conductor who does conduct both the letter and spirit of the score is Christoph von Dohnányi, and his Lulu recording is the one I think is authoritative. It has a flow, a power, and above all powerful feeling, that Boulez’s recording doesn’t have.
In Webern, Boulez is cool and detached. Chaste, you might say. His performances are supple and beautiful, which is terrific to hear, after so many others that are ugly and rough.
But there’s an element of the music I think he doesn’t get. In the Webern biography by Hans and Rosaleen Moldenhaur, you can read reminscences of a pianist, whom Webern coached when he played Webern’s Piano Variations, Op. 27.
Webern, in his coaching, wasn’t restrained or chaste. He aang and danced. He wanted dynamic and tempo changes to be big, and wanted some that aren’t marked in his score.
Quite the opposite of a Boulez Webern performance. And there’s musical documentation of how far Boulez seems to be from what Webern intended.
Webern made orchestral arrangements of some Schubert dances, originally written for piano. And there’s a recording of him conducting them. It’s included on the first Boulez recording of Webern’s commplete works, and it’s a remarkable performance, almost unique in how flexible it is, with so many tiny changes of dynamics and tempo.
On Boulez’s second complete Webern recording, he conducts these dances. And he’s worlds apart from Webern. Heavier, less flexible. He dances much less. I’m not saying that’s wrong or bad. But if you want to know how Webern thought music — surely including his own! — should go, his recording of the Schubert dances will show you.
Boulez isn’t there. Which means his Webern recordings aren’t a definitive account of the music, but only his own view. Which of course is honorble. But we should understand what it is.
What a great, fascinating, profound, and contradictory figure. Boulez. I’m sad that he’s gone, especially since people who knew him have told me what a lovely and generous man he’d become, one deeply touched by all the love he received. I hope that we’ll all explore his depth and his contradictions even more than we have.