Even a surface sweep over Arnold Schönberg‘s output shows him to be a romantic at heart, even through the most prickly musical passages. The same can’t always be said of Pierre Boulez. What to make of this character? Is this music relevant? We have an expansion of the (a)tonal practices of Schönberg, a development of the rhythmic resources of Stravinsky, but with close links in orchestrations to his French forefathers. (And let us not forget that the very concept of hyper-organization in music which Boulez so epitimizes was virtually invented by Franco-flemish composers, his heritage, over 500 years ago!) . What to make of his music? When asked once about the fact that his music did not seem to share his own very charming personality, his wit and humor, he said of the humor in his music, “it’s in there.”
When asked how long it would take for people to appreciate his music, he suggested that it would take “about 80 years.”
Well, Mr. Boulez, it has been almost 60 years since one of your most important landmark works, Le Marteau sans Maître. It’s time to take stock. How well is your music being heard these days? Is the humor emerging upon frequent listening? Are people getting sufficient opportunities to experience your sound worlds? Is your music ready for the mainstream?
The plight of the modernist has certainly diminished in severity since the mid-80’s, but how much so is another question. When is the last time any of us have heard a live performance of a work by Boulez? Indeed, when was the first, if there ever was even one time? Do we not hear it because there is no demand, or is there no demand because we do not hear it?
True, he ‘grew up’ alongside figures like Stockhausen (with whom he helped prepare the premiere of Gruppen, one of the only gems to escape the musical black hole of the euro pean post-war 1950’s). However, Stockhausen’s music probably gets more frequent hearing, perhaps due to its almost fetish-like appeal as the “anti-music.” (Perhaps if we smash his music into Mozart’s at the speed of light, the Higgs Boson will finally appear!)
Although he (Boulez) would have to be seen-in light of Stockhausen-as a slightly more conservative figure, he is still a highly radical composer, and was most especially so in his youth (the only less-than-radical thing about him now is the fact that his methods have become more-or-less institutionalized to varying degrees.) The problem with their earlier “experiments” (as Stockhausen himself often referred to them.) tended to be the cognitive problems associated with their wealth of compositional material and the sheer density or seeming opacity of presentation. (“The listener got in trouble with it… [The music] seemed to be meaningless, musically meaningless…”) A critic might say that their compositional wealth left the listener bankrupt, but it would, by the composers’ own admissions, not be an entirely unfair analysis.
Therefore, the real question is, are we on track to hear Le Marteau in the year 2034 (which will be the 80th anniversary of the premiere) as a work that is just as sensuous as it is serious, just as mournful as it is mercurial? And what to do with this man? On the podium, he is has made a successful career out of, to oversimplify, “taking himself too seriously,” but his nature has often been described as warm, witty, charming, and equipped with a wry sense of humor! Are we simply witnessing an artist like all of the greats before him? Someone whose music will continue to make gains in stature long after he is gone, someone who simply cannot be appreciated in his own time?
This leads to another important direction. Is this ‘ideal’ of the misunderstood artist, of the dark, Byronic hero-genius rejected by the society that created him, is this the fate of Mr. Boulez, or will history snuff him out? Does the cultural image (of Boulez) belong to the same class as that of Franz Liszt and his contemporaries? Is this the same image that Robert Schumann so epitomized in his drive to madness? Or, could Boulez simply be another Hummel, a fantastic composer perpetuating the musical style of a bygone era? I sometimes start to let myself believe the oft-spread lie that this artistic image (“he was misunderstood in his own time” and so on…) all started in and around mid-to-late 19th century Germany, that it is a purely romantic notion. However, this would ignore Beethoven entirely, whose 7th symphony a critic likened to a bag of nails being dropped repeatedly on the floor (unlike modern times, where percussionists do bizarre things such as quite literally dropping a bag of nails on the floor, or smashing a pane of glass!). But it didn’t start there, did it? ‘Too many notes, my dear Mozart!’ Sound familiar? What about Bach? Surely his music was readily appreciated, surely it endured. Let us never forget that, were it not for Felix Mendelssohn, the music of J.S. Bach was well on to going the way of the dodo. Imagine our lives to day without his music! Imagine music today without his inspiration to guide the last 7 generations of composers! It is truly unthinkable. Boulez is certainly revered by an inner circle of white-coats, but it is quite possible that .
So if these questions aren’t enough, let us now return to the original point of departure: what to do about Mr. Boulez. Is it a bitter pill that simply must be swallowed so that we may all be said to have had our musical vitamins? Is his music extremely well-constructedyet ultimately irrelevant, like our favorite Turkish apartment building ofviral video fame? .
I would argue that upon repeated hearing, this music does indeed open itself up to the listener. It slowly, reticently yawns forth its secrets to the hearer in unexpected ways. His output is by no means monolithic either, with very thorny yet electric piano sonatas and sometimes breathless long-distance sprints like Sur Incises (cue the linked clip to 4:15 to hear this ‘long-distance sprint’), contrasted by eerily celestial portions of Pli selon Pli and the richly colorful ‘folds’ of the aforementioned Le Marteau.
So how should we hear Boulez? My end-analysis brings me to the suggestion that we open ourselves to embracing this enigmatic figure, and not to shy away from the potential for deeply communicative performances that can communicate both a profound sense of humanity and a sugary sort of pleasure, in short, a modernist compositional grammar that can communicate to post-modern sensibilities. Given frequent listening, his music becomes at once a rich meal for cultivated pallets and a tasty confection that even children can enjoy. It is truly a ‘Garden of Sound.’