Boulez, Pierre (b. 1925)

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BOULEZ, PIERRE (b. 1925)


French composer and influential figure in French avant-garde music.

Much music in France during the first half of the twentieth century suffered from what might be called a "post-Debussy prettiness" (Francis Poulenc, Jean Françaix) or a light, flippant ambience of the cabaret (Darius Milhaud [1892–1974]). That changed when Messiaen and Pierre Boulez brought avant-garde techniques to French music. Boulez enrolled in Messiaen's harmony class in 1944 at the Paris Conservatoire, and with René Leibowitz he studied the twelve-tone (serial) compositional methods of Arnold Schoenberg. Both studies influenced the style of his Piano Sonata No. 1 (1946), a twelve-tone (serial) piece with recurring rhythmic and melodic patterns. Yet the texture, denser than that of Schoenberg or Anton Webern, more closely resembles that of Messiaen. After Messiaen composed Mode de valeurs et d'intensités (1949), Boulez took that composer's series of pitches, durations, attacks, and dynamics and added a strict twelve-tone organization, thus integrating all these elements by serialization.


Boulez's integral serial style is evident in his Structures for Two Pianos (1951–1952). The first section (Ia) is the most strictly serial movement, with only a few decisions made by the composer. (In the twenty-first century, it could probably be done by a computer.) The third section (Ic), which he wrote next, still contains strict integral serialism, but is more inventive and has greater variety of sound. With Ib, Boulez began to loosen his strict serial style. He then reordered the movements to give what he calls an "anti-evolutionary impression to the whole." Boulez later saw an "absurdity" in this strict serial method and so relaxed this approach even more with Le Marteau sans maître (1954), for voice and various instruments. He says that when he began this piece, he was already beginning to go beyond strict serialism, "to try to make the discipline very flexible."

This flexibility then led to his aleatoric works. The word aléa literally means chance, but in this context it comes closer to choice. Boulez was influenced by Stéphane Mallarmé's poem "Un coup de dés," which has different typography for different lines. You can read it straight through or follow the same typeface and ignore others. Boulez applies a similar procedure to his Piano Sonata No. 3 (1957), which takes on different forms at different times. It is somewhat like a mobile by Alexander Calder (1898–1976) that has a fixed number of components, but changes its overall form depending on chance movements (e.g., wind direction) or the position of the observer.

One movement, "Trope," has four sections—"Glose," "Commentaire," "Texte," and "Parenthèse"—but because the score is spiral-bound, a performer may begin with any section. "Commentaire" is printed in two different positions, allowing the performer to play it either the first time or wait until the second. Similar situations occur if one starts with one of the other sections. In addition, "Parenthèse" and "Commentaire"contain passages within parentheses, which may either be played or omitted. The second movement, "Constellation-Miroir," consists of many fragments with a certain freedom of order, somewhat like Karlheinz Stockhausen's Klavierstücke XI. Aleatoric devices also appear in Structures for Two Pianos, Book 2 (1961); Éclat-Multiples (1965); and Domaines II (1969).


Until the 1970s, Boulez showed little interest in electronic music. Etude sur un seul son and Etude sur sept sons (1951–1952) were early electronic experiments, produced at about the time as Stockhausen's two electronic Studien. He incorporated a tape track with Poésie pour pouvoir (1958) but did not continue in this direction due to the limited electronic technology at the time. Then in 1970 President Georges Pompidou asked Boulez to organize a music research center, Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). By the time it opened in 1977, electronic technology had improved, especially through advances in computers, and Boulez composed several new works there incorporating the latest electronic sound possibilities, notably … explosante-fixe … (1972–1974, rev.1991–1993). Répons (1980–1984) employs live manipulation of electronic sounds.


Boulez's compositional output slowed down somewhat when he pursued his interest in conducting. He led concerts of his own music in the 1950s and became principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1967 and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1995. He was the principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1971 and music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 1978. His recordings with various orchestras over the last few decades of the twentieth century received great critical acclaim. He has also written several articles and many of his interviews have been published. In the 1950s and 1960s he taught composition at Darmstadt, Germany, and was visiting professor at Harvard University in 1963. For decades he has been a major force in French music.

See alsoSchoenberg, Arnold.


Primary Sources

Boulez, Pierre. Notes of an Apprenticeship. Translated by Herbert Weinstock. New York, 1968.

——. Boulez on Music Today. Translated by Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett. Cambridge, Mass., 1971.

——. Conversations with Célestin Deliège. London, 1976.

Secondary Sources

Black, Robert. "Boulez's Third Piano Sonata: Surface and Sensibility." Perspectives of New Music 20 (1982): 182–98.

Griffiths, Paul. Boulez. London, 1978.

Jameaux, Dominique. Pierre Boulez. Translated by Susan Bradshaw. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Ligeti, G. "Pierre Boulez: Entscheidung und Automatik in der Structures Ia." Die Riehe 4 (1958): 38–63.

Peyser, Joan. Boulez: Composer, Conductor, Enigma. Rev. ed. White Plains, N.Y., 1993.

Trenkamp, A. "The Concept of 'Aléa' in Boulez's Constellation-Miroir." Music and Letters 57 (1976): 1–10.

Wentzel, Wayne C. "Dynamic and Attack Associations in Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître." Perspectives of New Music 29 (1991): 142–170.

Winick, Steven D. "Symmetry and Pitch-Duration Association in Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître." Perspectives of New Music 24 (1986): 280–321.

Wayne C. Wentzel

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Boulez, Pierre (b. 1925)

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