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The Modernist Mastery, And Mystery, Of Pierre Boulez

This article is more than 8 years old.

Classical music endured its own set of culture wars for much of the 20th Century. Tonal music vs. atonal, French Impressionism (Debussy and Ravel) vs. Second Viennese School Expressionism (Schoenberg and Webern), music for the masses (Copland) vs. music for the academics (Feldman).

Perhaps the most divisive figure in all these battles was Pierre Boulez who, legend had it, booed Stravinsky for his conservatism and was the mortal enemy of all things tonal.

Fortunately, the 21st century has left much of that debate behind in favor of a more inclusive eclecticism and Boulez, at 88, is now — choose your cliché — elder statesman, lion in winter, revered figure. You still might not find him programmed all that often by the Boston Symphony and other major orchestras, but he is part of the DNA of any classical musician today.

And, increasingly, for listeners. The new 13-CD Deutsche Grammophon set of his complete works — excluding those he deems amateur early works — is a stunning testament to his importance as a composer and to his growing acceptance by audiences. Let’s not pretend that “Pierre Boulez: Complete Works” is now music for the masses, but it is an eye-opening (and not budget-busting) survey that puts to rest some misunderstandings about the man while elevating his music to its place in the firmament. (It also pulls together work from several different labels — Sony, Erato, Classics & Jazz France — in addition to his later definitive recordings on DG.

Pierre Boulez Complete Works. (Courtesy, Deutsche Grammophon)
Pierre Boulez Complete Works. (Courtesy, Deutsche Grammophon)

First of all, it turns out he didn’t boo Stravinsky though, as he amusingly tells Claude Samuel in an interview here, he would have had he been at the concert. But while he was not a big fan of Stravinsky’s more conservative works he had little use for that composer’s more severe attempts at serialism. He rightly championed Stravinsky’s more accessible masterpieces (particularly the ballets) and his two CD sets on Columbia and DG are as good as Stravinsky gets.

The fact, which is underlined time and again in the interview, is that Boulez has always been opposed to the academicism that wore on people’s patience with 20th Century music even though he was often charged with being a chief practioner of that academicism.

Indeed, listening to these 12 CDs (the thirteenth is the interview in French) I’m struck not by the music’s mathematical cerebralism but by its warmth. Not as in warmth to cuddle by, but warmth that envelops you into a heady mix of the 20th century music Boulez has excelled at performing — both the French Impressionists and the Viennese Expressionists, later composers such as Messiaen and Ligeti, and the two pillars of the 20th Century, Stravinsky and Bartok.

You can hear many of those influences come together in this calmly dramatic chamber piece, "Sur Incises":

You have Webern’s economy, Bartok’s sense of drama, etc. — but just where that warmth comes from is harder to pin down. Stravinsky is quoted here as saying, “It will be some time before the value of ‘Le Marteau Sans Maitre’ [‘The Hammer Unmastered’] is recognized. I shall not explain my admiration for this work but paraphrase Gertrude Stein’s response when asked why she liked Picasso’s paintings: ‘I like to look at them.’ Personally, I like to listen to Boulez.”

I do, too, partly because of the invigorating through-line one senses in the music he has conducted with his trademark clarity and precision. His two previous excellent DG CDs of other composers' music are microcosms of late romanticism turning into modernism: Wagner’s “Tristan Und Isolde Prelude to Act I” paired with Schoenberg’s “Pelleas Und Melisande” and, more recently, Mahler’s “Das Klagende Lied” and Berg’s “Lulu Suite.” Similarly, in this set one can hear Schoenberg and Berg, all the influences cited above, and his love of Eastern music turning into Boulez-ism. (Frank Zappa was a Boulez-head and you can still find Boulez’s recording of Zappa’s music.)

Ironically, despite the fact that Boulez’s predecessor at the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, was his polar opposite in composition, performance, and personality, he came closer to explaining Boulez’s core than anything written in the liner notes here. Speaking to a not very receptive Philharmonic subscription audience in 1960 he spoke of a mathematical approach leading to an unsystematic effect; the Asian-inspired instrumentation and vocalization; the rhythms that are so complicated they appear to disappear; the fragmentation and atomization of the music that mirrors Boulez’s own love of poets such as e.e. cummings.

And how:

“Curiously enough, the atmosphere he generates is one of great inner-ness and mystery. Perhaps what it really is is a new kind of mysticism born of new scientific insights.”

Bernstein was onto something. And so was Stravinsky. Personally, I like to listen to Boulez.

More about Boulez on public radio:

Listen to Ed Siegel's 2010 interview with Pierre Boulez on "Here and Now."

Lloyd Schwartz at a 2010 Boulez festival in Berlin.

This program aired on August 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.