Pierre Boulez

(born 26 March 1925, Montbrison)


Pierre Boulez is a French composer, conductor, writer, and pianist. He is considered one of the most significant French composer of his generation. In his early career, Boulez played a key role in the development of integral serialism, controlled chance and electronic music.

As a child, he was educated from the age of 6 at the local Catholic school. Here he spent 13-hour days and prayed in the chapel every school-day for 10 years. Boulez began taking piano lessons from an early age and demonstrated aptitude in both music and mathematics. He studied the latter at Lyon before pursuing music at the Paris Conservatoire under Olivier Messiaen and Andrée Vaurabourg.

He was deeply influenced in his student years, but 2 of them stand out as the most decisive in shaping his musical personality. The first was Messiaen's famous analysis course, through which he discovered the twelve-tone technique, the other was René Leibowitz, who introduced him to serial music, where Boulez found "a harmonic and contrapuntal richness and a capacity for development an extension of a kind I have never found anywhere else."From here he went on to write atonal music in a post-Webernian style.

The first fruits of this were his cantatas Le visage nuptial and Le soleil des eaux for female voices and orchestra, both composed in the late 1940s and revised several times since, as well as the Second Piano Sonata of 1948, a well-received 32-minute work that Boulez composed at the age of 23. From here forward, Boulez was influenced by Messiaen's research to extend twelve-tone technique up to the point of applying this concept to durations, dynamics, mode of attack, and so on. This technique became known as integral serialism.

In 1954 Boulez founded a series of avant-garde concerts, the Concerts Marigny, which were later renamed Domaine Musicale. The piece from the 1950s that sealed his reputation was Le Marteau sans Maître from 1954 (revised in 1955), for singer and chamber ensemble. The instrumentation gives prominence to exotic percussion, extended vocal techniques, and textures that are often brittle but also lyrical. Rigorously organized, Le Marteau nonetheless goes beyond strict serialism to a more personal style. The premiere took place in Germany in 1955 under Hans Rosbaud. The Südwestfunk Radio underwrote an astounding 50 rehearsals in order that the piece be properly performed.

Boulez's totally serialized, punctual works consist of Polyphonie X (1950–51; withdrawn) for 18 instruments, the two musique-concrète Études (1951–52), and Structures, book I for two pianos. The latter, being one of his most visible totally serialized works, attracted a lot of criticism, especially from György Ligeti who published an article that examined its patters of durations, dynamics, pitch, and attack types in great detail, concluding that its ”ascetic attitude” is ”akin to compulsion neurosis”.

These criticisms, combine with what Boulez felt was a lack of expressive flexibility in the language, as he outlined in his essay "At the Limit of Fertile Land..." had already led Boulez to refine his compositional language. He loosened the strictness of his total serialism into a more supple and strongly gestural music, and did not publicly reveal much about these techniques, which limited further discussion. His first work born from this new kind of serialism was a work for 12 solo voices titled Oubli signal lapidé (1952), but it was withdrawn after a single performance. Its material was reused in the 1970 composition Cummings ist der Dichter.

By the 1960s Boulez had gained an international reputation not only as a composer but also as a conductor, particularly of the 20th-century repertoire. He began his first conducting post in 1958 with the Southwest Radio Symphony Orchestra in Baden-Baden, West Germany. From 1967 to 1972 he was principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in Ohio. He became the principal conductor of both the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London (1971–74) and the New York Philharmonic (1971–78). During the 1960s and ’70s he also conducted works of Richard Wagner at Bayreuth, West Germany. Having also  conducted with major orchestras in the United States and Europe, including the Chicago Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestras. He became known especially for performances of Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky.

In the mid 1970s, having support from the French government, Boulez created and directed the Center for Musical and Acoustical Research (IRCAM), an experimental music organization housed in the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Here he established an experimental group called Ensemble InterContemporain, which became one of the world's most important contemporary music ensembles. Boulez’s complex, serialist music is marked by a sensitivity to the nuances of instrumental texture and color, a concern also apparent in his conducting. His earlier compositions combine the influence of the 12-tone composers with that of Messiaen and, through him, of certain East Asian musical elements.

Boulez’s innovativeness was demonstrated in Pli selon pli (1957–62; Fold According to Fold), in which performers must orient themselves by maintaining a constant awareness of the structure of the work. In his Piano Sonata No. 3 (first performed 1957), as in Pli selon pli, he introduced elements of aleatory music. Boulez’s other works include Le Visage nuptial for two voices, women’s chorus, and orchestra (1951–52, based on the chamber version of 1947; “The Bridal Countenance”); Poésie pour pouvoir for two orchestras (first performed 1958; “Poetry for Power”); Répons for chamber orchestra, six solo instruments, and computer (first performed 1981); and “…explosante-fixe…” (1972–93, several versions), for which Boulez used live electronics for all but the earliest version. He continued to compose into the 21st century, at times taking a leave from conducting to focus on his own music.

Today, Boulez remains one of the leading exponents of 20th-century music. His compositions have made a contribution to musical culture, and his advocacy of modern and postmodern music has been decisive for many. Boulez continues to conduct and compose.

Here  you can find a list of compositions by Pierre Boulez.