Damian Thompson

Understanding Boulez

Text settings

What was it Sir Thomas Beecham said about Stockhausen? ‘I’ve never conducted any of his music, but I once trod in some.’ So far as I know, Beecham never commented on the work of Pierre Boulez, but I’m sure his verdict would have been the same. Both composers adopted a modernist language that is politely described as ‘uncompromising’. Until his death in 2007, Stockhausen stoutly maintained this refusal to compromise (except on the question of accepting subsidies, always a flexible principle for the avant-garde). His projected opera cycle Licht would have taken about a decade to perform and swallowed the entire German GDP, and so it remained unfinished — actually quite a useful state of play for modernists, since ‘work in progress’ can always accommodate a bit more sponsorship. Boulez is a great unfinisher, too.

I mustn’t mock, though, because after listening to his music in preparation for Exquisite Labyrinth, a Boulez festival at the Southbank Centre next weekend, I think I take him at his own estimation: i.e., he’s a genius. Alas, it’s hard to explain why in terms that he would find intellectually satisfactory. I have a CD of Boulez’s breakthrough piece, Le marteau sans maître (1955), played by his crack-shot Ensemble Intercontemporain, which comes with ‘helpful’ liner notes. Helpful if you have a degree in applied mathematics and/or linguistics, that is. Integrating the structural elaboration of the text with the serial deployment of bongos, xylophones, flute, viola, guitar, etc. is so far beyond me that I won’t even try. Also, René Char’s poems really are surrealistic gibberish. So where’s the evidence of genius, as opposed to Gallic pseudery?

The penny didn’t drop for me until I decided to stop feeling guilty about not understanding Boulez’s labyrinthine theories. Life’s too short. There are brief summaries of his method in reference books that I can just about get my head around. For example, Mark Morris, in his superb Guide to 20th Century Composers, explains that the young Boulez took the 12-tone system and applied it to all aspects of music — rhythm, dynamics and instrumentation. This ‘total serialism’ may sound inaccessible, but it needn’t be, particularly if you ignore the composer’s intentions and only listen to short bursts at a time. Anyway, here are my layman’s reasons for suspecting that Boulez is a genius.

1. The music tells you that the composer knows exactly what he’s doing, even if you don’t. The tropical instruments in Le marteau sans maître leap, twist and mate in patterns that create perfect balance without a hint of a tune, key or time signature. The secret lies in the care with which Boulez combines the timbres: every tiny overlap is calculated but sounds spontaneous. Everything is so complex and yet so fresh.

2. He can orchestrate like no one else alive. In 1945, aged 20, he wrote a set of exuberant serialist miniatures for piano, entitled 12 Notations. In the 1970s he began reworking them for orchestra. The contrast is amazing. One moment you’re listening to the young French virtuoso David Fray cheekily pecking his way through a 30-second notation; then, with a click of your iTunes library, you’re hearing the same thought fermented by 30 years’ reflection and glowing with vibrato under the baton of Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. ‘Post-Debussian faggotry’ is the verdict of one of young critic, which is nonsense — but then Boulez should be able to take it, having slagged off most of his contemporaries. (On John Adams: ‘I cannot say I will spit on his music, but I do not admire it either. His opera The Death of Klinghoffer sounded like bad film music.’)

3. He is unquestionably one of the world’s great conductors, able to take music you might have thought unsympathetic to him — such as a Bruckner symphony — and turn it into a bitingly dramatic experience. His schmaltz-free Mahler cycle is second to none, in my opinion. The qualities of Boulez the conductor and Boulez the composer complement each other to an almost spooky degree; Bernstein’s chutzpah seems vulgar by comparison.

4. Finally, nothing shows up his mastery more vividly than the pieces that today’s young composers-in-residence are churning out to keep audiences happy in the 15 minutes before the concerto. Boulez has done his fair share of experimenting with electronic music, not always with happy results — but none of it sounds as computer-generated as the inescapable Sibelius-meets-Sondheim tone poem with a sprinkling of late Shostakovich percussion. Call me a snob, but after hearing one of those I really do feel like wiping my shoe.


Exquisite Labyrinth: The music of Pierre Boulez, part of the Shell Classic International series, is at the Southbank from Friday 30 September to Sunday 2 October.