Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

Understanding Boulez

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.

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