Music is a labyrinth, with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal. - Pierre Boulez
French composer, conductor, pianist and writer Pierre Boulez was born on 26 March 1925 at Montbrison in the Loire, and showed early aptitude for both music and mathematics. He studied in Lyon and at the Paris Conservatoire with Messiaen, who introduced him to dodecaphony. Boulez went on to study twelve tone composition privately with René Leibowitz, but was mostly influenced by Messiaen and that composer's research on integral serialism, becoming an emblematic figurehead and philosophical leader of the post-war trend towards abstraction and experimentation.
As a conductor with great respect for composers' notated intentions, Boulez became known for his interpretations of twentieth century classics, and also for having an ear able to pick out mistakes within very complex musical structures, but he wasn't popular as musical director of the New York Philharmonic because of his (arguably) excessive programming of modern repertoire.
He wrote widely on musical technique and aesthetics, and, early on, worked as a pianist and player of other keyboard instruments.
He founded and directed the French music research institute, IRCAM, at the request of the French president, Georges Pompidou.
He was a powerful, controversial figure, who said what he thought, dismissing the music of Brahms, Mozart, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Verdi :
Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time, I find. It's like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler.
Boulez was criticised by many:
Though the Germans had lost the war, their musical imprint was secured through the hands of a young Frenchman ready to leap at the outrageous to secure his own fortune. - Jeff Talman on Boulez in M&V
Early in his career, Boulez said that the opera houses should be blown up, and that all the art of the past should be destroyed: They decry the Taliban for destroying everything, but civilisations are destroyed to be able to move on.
Pierre Boulez died on 5 January 2016, aged ninety, at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany.
A selection of articles about Pierre Boulez
Ensemble. Celebrating Pierre Boulez - Giuseppe Pennisi continues his reports from the Salzburg Summer Festival
Ensemble. An Imperial Festival - Giuseppe Pennisi visits Ravenna to hear Pierre Boulez, Adriano Guarnieri and Nicola Piovani
Ensemble. A Wealthy Maverick - Music by the French composer George Onslow, heard by Giuseppe Pennisi
Ensemble. A Tremendous Success - Rome's 'Controtempo' contemporary music festival, experienced by Giuseppe Pennisi
Ensemble. Deep Expression - Mozart, Mendelssohn and Elgar from the Cleveland Orchestra, heard by Suzanne Torrey
Ensemble. A Fervent Spirit - Malcolm Miller muses on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra's recent Beethoven and Boulez cycle in London
CD Spotlight. Zapped Fugues - Michael Kieran Harvey's tribute to Frank Zappa impresses Gordon Rumson. 'The virtuosity is astounding.'
DVD Spotlight. Doubly Effective - A classic documentary with music by Copland, reviewed by Howard Smith. '... a fascinating picture of America ...'
Ensemble. Dramatic Beauty - Works by Eötvös and Bartók, reviewed by Giuseppe Pennisi
Ensemble. Richly Expressive - The Cleveland Orchestra begins its annual South Florida residency, by Lawrence Budmen
Heroes Step Up in Crisis - The Muti era lays claim to Chicago, by Barbara Sealock
CD Spotlight. Rich Timbres - Music by Robert Baksa, recommended by Ron Bierman. 'The performances express Baksa's gentle optimism beautifully.'
Ensemble. Pushing Back the Boundaries - London Sinfonietta's 'British Experiments', reviewed by Chris Graham
Ensemble. Seldom Performed - 'Lulu' lands at La Scala, by Giuseppe Pennisi
Ensemble. A Double Farewell - Henze and Mahler in Rome, reported by Giuseppe Pennisi
Timings - Universal Edition's preparations for the Mahler Centenary years (2010-2011), by Jennifer Paull
Ensemble. Complexity of Thought - Eugene Feygelson and Malcolm Troup play Beethoven and Bloch, reviewed by Malcolm Miller
Record Box. Superb Performances - Ursula Oppens plays Elliott Carter, celebrated by Patric Standford
The Musician's Guide to Having an MRI - In an occasional series 'The Musician's Guides', Jennifer Paull offers a few tips for survival when confronted with being the square musical peg in a round musical hole
CD Spotlight. Other Trumpets - Fascinating electro-acoustic collaborations, reviewed by Malcolm Tattersall. '... individual works are challenging listening but stunningly achieved.'
Limitless Combinatorics - Eric Pettine postulates 'No Shortage of Melodies Anytime Soon', and offers some real hope for cynical musicians who think they've heard it all
Record box. Very enterprising - Music by Guillaume Connesson, reviewed by Patric Standford
Ensemble. Assured and confident - James Gaffigan conducts the Cleveland Orchestra, reviewed by Kelly Ferjutz
Giants? - Alistair Hinton replies to Patric Standford's latest Provocative Thoughts
Provocations - Alistair Hinton and Chad Wozniak discuss Patric Standford's recent 'Provocative Thoughts'
Useful insights - Daniel Felsenfeld's book 'Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten. Their lives and their music', reviewed by Mike Wheeler
Ensemble. Ravishing Firebird! - Kelly Ferjutz reports on Boulez in Cleveland
Reminiscent retrospectives - Magic moments, with Jennifer Paull
Editorial musings - Finger tapping. Looking ahead, with Basil Ramsey
(Features listed in grey are in our archive, and available to subscribers only.)