Chief Commissar of musical modernism: Pierre Boulez once suggested all opera houses should be blown up
Turn to the music, and a completely different side of Boulez appears. It’s not at all benign, but neither is it cold and rational. Sometimes the music has a sultry eroticism, surprising for a man who hides his sexuality so thoroughly many doubt whether it exists at all. More often the music burns with a strange kind of fury. His early works are full of performance directions like “exasperated”, “pulverised”, and “with an extreme violence”.
Where does it come from, this annihilating anger? To find its source one has to go back to Boulez’s childhood in the Thirties, in the little town of Montbrison. Every morning at dawn from the age of six he would trudge to the local Catholic school for a gruelling 13-hour day. It instilled in Boulez an iron discipline which has stood him in good stead. He soon showed a great talent for music, and became a fine pianist, though his feeling for maths was equally strong. Every school-day for ten years he prayed in the chapel, but he couldn’t help noticing that the people around him seemed indifferent to the sacraments. “Their faces said, ‘well that’s that,’ as if they had performed a social duty,” he recalls.
For Boulez, the Catholic God was the God that Failed. He would soon find a new one: modernism. First he had to rebel against his father, who wanted his son to take over the family steel business. The father was as strong-willed as the son, but the young Pierre eventually won. He took himself off to Nazi-occupied Paris to study music, but his anger wasn’t soothed. It was as if the break with the father had to be repeated, over and over. Every time Boulez met an authority figure he had to quarrel with him. He publicly scorned his great teacher Olivier Messiaen, describing one of his pieces as “music of the brothel”. As for the established French composers like Poulenc and Honegger, they were no better than appeasers of the Nazi occupiers in Boulez’s eyes.
It’s not surprising that Boulez’s progress was slow at first, as he’d made some enemies. All through the Fifties he toiled away as director of music for Jean-Louis Barrault’s theatre company. But the ground-breaking music he was composing in his spare time attracted a small circle of fans. His talent for conducting, honed in the theatre pit and his own contemporary music series, was about to be seen on a wider stage. In 1959 he astonished Paris when he took over a concert at short notice. Here was a man who could make difficult modernist music seem sensuous and alive. A whole new career as a big-name international conductor was about to start.
By the Seventies the Boulez we now know had appeared, flying from one glamorous conducting engagement to the next and composing in hotel rooms. But the biggest quarrel of all – the one with France – was unappeased. In 1964 Boulez had had a very public row with France’s culture minister, who rejected his plan to reform Paris’s musical life. Boulez took himself off in a huff to Germany. For President Pompidou, to have Boulez living abroad was an embarrassment. He was the country’s best-known musician, and he exemplified French virtues of clarity and pugnacious rationality. So to tempt Boulez back Pompidou offered to build him a musical research centre in Paris.
Boulez, 90, once wrote performance directions like “exasperated”, “pulverised”, and “with an extreme violence” on his music
This was what Boulez was waiting for. He and his fellow modernists had reformed the language of music, but the means for making it (i.e. the instruments) hadn’t changed much since the 19th century. The new centre, named IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) would change all that, by creating new instruments, particularly electronic and digital ones.
By the Eighties, Boulez’s triumph seemed complete. As composer George Benjamin says, “Not since Gustav Mahler has a musician made such a colossal impact on the cultural scene.” Parisian musical life was dominated by one man, in a way that hadn’t been since the days of Jean-Baptiste Lully three hundred years previously. But the cost was high. Boulez’s ideological intransigence side-lined many talented people. And by a strange irony, the man who wanted to “liquidate” history began to seem stuck in the past. On his conducting tours, the same masterworks of early modernism, by now more than seventy years old, came round again and again. New trends aroused his scorn (minimalism he dismissed as being “of minimal interest”).
Only once did the old revolutionary Boulez reappear, but that turned out to be a misunderstanding. In 2001 he was arrested by Swiss police for being a “threat to national security”. Years previously a Swiss critic who’d written a scathing review of one of Boulez’s performances had received a threat of a bomb attack, and Boulez’s name had absurdly been put on the suspects’ list.
Now, as Boulez reaches 90, his battle for modernism seems like yesterday’s battle – until you turn to the music, when suddenly it makes sense. The clarity of the music, its knotted fury and lovely sensuous glitter, makes much of today’s easy-going, user-friendly music seem shallow. Just for a moment, Boulez’s conviction that modernism is not a passing phase but the inescapable condition of being alive now seems absolutely right.
Pierre Boulez is 90 on March 26. His music is celebrated by the French Ensemble Intercontemporain on April 28 (barbican.org.uk)