The death of Pierre Boulez at the age 90 robs the classical music world of one of its most talented, and controversial, charactersby Neil Norman / January 6, 2016 / Leave a comment
It is hard to exaggerate the impact of Pierre Boulez on contemporary classical music. A musical polymath, Boulez was a composer, a pianist, a conductor, an essayist, critic and all-purpose iconoclast.
He was a modernist but his classical roots were unimpeachable. He saw music as a living, breathing art form that must challenge what came before, while building on earlier forms. For him, stasis was anathema. Musical museum pieces did not belong in a modern concert hall. And yet, Boulez was one of the greatest conductors and interpreters of classical composers ranging from Mahler to Wagner, Bach to Beethoven.
Boulez was born on 26th March in 1925 in Montbrison, France. From the age of six, he was educated at the local Catholic school, where he spent 13 hours a day. He prayed in the chapel every day for 10 years. The gruelling schedule instilled an iron discipline, though his religious faith suffered—“the Catholic God was the God that failed,” he said many years later. He enjoyed mathematics and took piano lessons, demonstrating aptitude in both. He studied mathematics at Lyon and then music at the Paris Conservatory, where his teachers included Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz. From them, he learnt the principles of 12-tone technique, a compositional method invented by Arnold Schoenberg and the flexible backbone of much contemporary music.
After graduating in 1945 aged 21, he became Musical Director of the theatre company of Madeleine Renaud and Jean-Louis Barrault. In 1954, with the support of Barrault, Boulez founded the Domaine musical in Paris—one of the first concert series dedicated entirely to modern music—and remained their Director until 1967.
Increasingly exasperated by what he considered the suffocating conservatism of the French musical world, Boulez left his native country to make his home in Baden-Baden, Germany, where he moved to in the 1960s with his lifelong partner.
Boulez began his conducting career in 1958 with the Südwestfunk Orchestra in Baden-Baden. He led the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1971-75 and from 1971-77 was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic where, in contrast to the job’s previous incumbent Leonard Bernstein, he championed contemporary works.
Even conducting extravagantly romantic…