Review: Boulez on Conducting by Pierre Boulez, trans. Richard Stokes

In Boulez on Conducting, James MacMillan finds that Pierre Boulez's ability to dissect a score, stripping it down to the essentials, transcends his obvious disdain for soaring melodies and expansive spiritual visions

Boulez on Conducting
by Pierre Boulez, translated by Richard Stokes
192pp, Faber, £14.99

As the blurb for this highly readable little book points out, Pierre Boulez is arguably the most influential, and controversial, figure in the world of music today. Boulez is known as the young Turk of post-war avant-garde composition who has steadily transformed himself into one of the most authoritative interpreters of standard 19th and 20th-century music. He has been anxious to reflect on his motivations and practice as a conductor, and he does so here in a collection of conversations with the influential French musicologist Cécile Gilly.

Gilly draws him out on the creation of Ircam (Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique Musique), his personally moulded cultural think-tank for musical research and development: the Ensemble Intercontemporain which he founded in 1976; and the hugely ambitious and visionary Cité de la Musique project.

More interestingly, we discover what it is like to be Boulez, the conductor; his approach to the analysis of both his own work and that of other composers; and the practicalities of communicating music to an audience. The book also gives us an insight into his work as an educator, one always keen to pass on his experience and influence to younger musicians. The conversations are neither academically musicological nor narrowly theoretical and give us a glimpse of how his musical biases operate.

Some commentators over the years have expressed unease at how his work as a composer has been neglected as a result of his increasing devotion to conducting. There may be some cause for concern here. In his 20s his genius was manifest in the breathtakingly precocious Sonatine for Flute and Piano (1946) and the teemingly imaginative and beautiful Le Marteau Sans Maître (1953), which so impressed Stravinsky at its first performance. He was also a radically scathing polemicist, determined to make his mark on the development of musical history. Boulez's early works are outpourings of violence, tension and audacity, musical summations and characterisations of the immediate post-war era. Nothing written since, including the much-hyped Pli selon Pli for soprano and orchestra, and various incomplete, perpetually evolving works, match the explosive chutzpah of the early scores.

Some other commentators have suggested that Boulez's influence on legions of third-rate imitators has been a pernicious one. Mediocre acolytes have been bedazzled by the master's encyclopaedic panoply of colouristic subtleties and rhythmic intricacies. So much so that a lot of modern music is obsessed, fetishist- ically, with surface detail to the detriment of core profundities.

Nevertheless Boulez's influence on musical culture as a composer, and now as a conductor, is powerful and meticulously plotted. His choice of repertoire is large and interesting, covering Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg and Messiaen. Others are constantly and steadily added - Wagner, Mahler, and some major contemporary figures such as Berio and Ligeti. But the omissions from this list are also fascinating and revealing. There is no Brahms and hardly any Schumann. The latter composer is compared unfavourably (justifiably so, perhaps) to Mendelssohn as showing "little invention and even little skill". Explaining his priorities, Boulez says that "there are composers who possess this gift of instrumental invention and others who, more or less, lack it... if you compare the symphonies of Brahms with the operas of Wagner solely from the viewpoint of instrumentation... one is not bowled over by his [Brahms's] instrumental imagination."

"Solely from the viewpoint of instrumentation" is the key here. Brahms's structural genius in reshaping classical models, his gift for soaring melody and expansive spiritual vision are all subordinated to the ear-tickling skill of instrumental choice. This is understandably French, of course, and Boulez comes from a tradition which has emphasised perfumed delicacies and nuanced subtleties, but it may explain not only his blind spots, but also modernism's over-indulgence of surfaces instead of the deep heart. Perhaps this justifies Boulez's disregard of Bruckner, Hindemith and Sibelius and all the Russians from Prokofiev and Shostakovich to Schnittke.

It may also explain the Anglophobic prejudices of many French musicians - there's no Britten or Tippett in Boulez's repertoire and precious little that has been written since. But there are also significant French omissions - no Poulenc or any of the important contemporary figures who follow a different aesthetic and reject the dogmas of L'Eglise Boulezienne. As far as American music is concerned, no Copland, no Adams, but lots of Carter.

All conductors are discriminating, of course, and subjective preferences are widespread. But there is a personal agenda at work here. The music that he says opens up "new terrain", the emphasis on colour in Mahler, or rhythmic and melodic fragmentation in Webern, all point in the same direction. All roads of significant musical history lead to Boulez. Significant developments are therefore reinterpreted as self-justifying and self-aggrandising proto-modernism.

Some say that having burnt himself out as a composer by his mid-30s Boulez has dedicated the rest of his life to controlling how the culture will remember 19th and 20th-century musical history, and how the musical future will be shaped. The latter strategy is monitored from Ircam, which has been described as "Boulez's personal Kremlin" in Paris. It seems not to have made any huge impact on the world of music and, in spite of its many cheerleaders, has failed to produce any significant new composer. Ircam and Boulez's discriminating approach to repertoire are loudly trumpeted in this book.

The most persuasive section of the book is Boulez's discussion of Wagner, and in particular his revolutionary approach to the music of The Ring for the 1976 Bayreuth centenary performances. There was great hostility to Boulez's collaboration with director Patrice Chéreau, from performers and audience alike. But this seems to be a perfect example of how Boulez's narcissistic prejudices allowed him to bring unique insights to the preparation and interpretation of the score.

In Boulez's view, performers until then "lacked nuance and finesse, the text was 'barked' and thus erased the dynamic and rhythmic precision by which Wagner set such store. Routine had gradually distorted things... standards were no longer respected". He says that the real problem at Bayreuth "had to do with questions of balance, transparency of texture and dynamic shading". It could be argued that Boulez's fastidiousness has rescued Wagner's orchestral transparencies for future appreciation. In that sense any composer would welcome the laser-like treatment that Boulez brings to a score - laying bare the crystal-clear aspects of each musical parameter. This is the true genius of Boulez that will transcend all present and future controversies.

· James MacMillan is a composer and conductor. A recent performance with the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam will be broadcast on Radio 3 on January 8.


James MacMillan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Review: Chimes of Freedom by Mike Marqusee

Mike Marqusee's Chimes of Freedom is an admirably sane analysis of Bob Dylan's politics, says Richard Williams

Richard Williams

20, Dec, 2003 @1:39 AM

Review: Turn the Beat Around and This Is Not Abba

Peter Shapiro and Dave Haslam take Gary Lachman back to the 70s with Turn the Beat Around and This Is Not Abba.

Gary Lachman

11, Jun, 2005 @12:04 AM

Review: Stradivarius by Toby Faber

Calina de la Mare enjoys Stradivarius, Toby Faber's history of six violins crafted by the Italian master.

Calina de la Mare

06, Nov, 2004 @12:57 AM

Article image
Review: Margrave of the Marshes John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft

Ajax Scott finds shyness and insecurity to go with John Peel's passion for music in his autobiography, Margrave of the Marshes.

Ajax Scott

24, Dec, 2005 @12:53 AM

Article image
Review: And They All Sang by Studs Turkel

It's the detail that makes the story ... Joe Boyd on Studs Turkels's collection of musical interviews, And They All Sang.

Joe Boyd

15, Jul, 2006 @10:59 PM

Review: Clara by Janice Galloway

Clara is a virtuoso performance of the life of Clara Schumann, piano prodigy and wife of composer Robert

14, Jun, 2002 @11:22 PM

Article image
Review: A Tale of Four Houses by Susan Gilbert and Jay Shir

Michael Berkeley, former board member of Covent Garden, examines Susan Gilbert and Jay Shir's history of Covent Garden, La Scala, Vienna and the Met, A Tale of Four Houses

Michael Berkeley

13, Sep, 2003 @12:40 AM

Review: Wondrous Strange and Beyond the Notes

Edward Greenfield enjoys a contrast of styles in Kevin Bazzana's biography of Glenn Gould, Wondrous Strange, and Susan Tomes's meditation on the art of the piano, Beyond the Notes

Edward Greenfield

12, Jun, 2004 @12:36 AM

Review: Can't Be Satisfied by Robert Gordon

Robert Gordon's Can't Be Satisfied tells the story of Muddy Waters, the Mississippi bluesman whose influence stretches from the Stones to Moby

Alfred Hickling

10, Aug, 2002 @10:38 PM

Article image
Review: White Bicycles by Joe Boyd

Michel Faber tunes into Joe Boyd's White Bicycles, a lucid and clear-eyed memoir of the 60s music trade.

Michel Faber

19, May, 2006 @11:59 PM