Wednesday, 25 January 2012


Though both he and his music have mellowed over the nearly seven decades of his fame as a composer/conductor, the works of the one time enfant terrible of modern music, Pierre Boulez, still strike fear into many a listener's heart. An exception seems to be Rituel: in memorium Bruno Maderna, which audiences always seem to take to it. Why? Well, probably for the simple reason that it's his most approachable work. 

Why is Rituel, relatively-speaking, so easy on the ear? 

One reason is the simplicity of its structure. Its sections alternate between a very slow chorale-like 'refrain' marked by gong strokes and two-note calls and their brusque answers and, in contrast, moderately-paced 'verses' marked by melodies and accompanied by ticking percussion. Though the sections lengthen and grow more complex as ever more instruments begin to participate in the rite (though this process goes into reverse towards the end of the piece), this easy-to-follow format persists throughout the piece. Boulez's structures are rarely this simple.

A second reason is that Rituel is a work with melody - a seven-note set governing its distinctive and melodically-attractive shapes. The oboe gives us its tuneful essence at the beginning of the first 'verse', accompanied by the pulse of the tabla (an Indian drum). In later 'verses' melody turns polyphonic but, however rich the weave, it remains melody. Boulez is rarely this openly melodic, in the traditional sense.

A third reason is the piece's appealingly exotic sound, part of its ritualistic character, evoking an East Asian soundworld. Percussion are rife. This is a funeral piece and the ritual resides in this union of Asian sonority and repetition. Boulez was rarely this repetitive and, though pieces like Le marteau sans maitre reflect this interest in East Asian sonorities, rarely interested in conveying a sense of ritual. 

A final reason is that this use of Asian sonorities and repetition owes much to Messiaen - and many people (including me) love the music of Messiaen. Rituel is Boulez's most Messiaen-like piece, clearly drawing on the example of such masterpieces as Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Boulez is rarely so Messiaen-like.

The work contains some improvisatory passages but these are perfectly integrated into the work's ritualistic spirit - so much so that you may be hard pressed to guess which passages are improvised.

The piece was composed in memory of Boulez's friend and fellow traveller of the post-war avant garde, Bruno Maderna, whose Serenade No.2 is well worth a listen, especially its beguiling outer sections.

As for Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, this also reflects its composer's style at its simplest. It was meant for performance in huge open spaces, and is no less ritualistic in manner. Gongs again dominate the landscape, reverberating between birdsong-and-plainsong-inspired invention to awe-inspiring effect. The metallic percussion are out in force and, as with Rituel, help to give the piece a Far Eastern feel (in certain sections). Brass and woodwinds join the percussion, with no space for the soft-edged strings, or even Messiaen's beloved piano.

The opening movement evokes the deep abyss, calling towards Christ in louring brass sonorities. The culminating sequence of gong-battered chords is powerfully exciting. Its daunting melodies are typical of Messiaen and have the feel of plainchant about them.

The second movement evokes Christ's Second Coming and contrasts soft-calling melodic phrases on solo woodwinds with a dancing melody (in an Indian rhythm) scored for concerted woodwinds set against a dazzling drizzle of percussion.

In the third movement evoking the time when the dead will hear Christ's voice uses three main elements - birdsong (namely, the South American Uirapura - see above), a four-note sequence announced by the tubular bells and a massive crescendo on a single chord. The colours change on repetition. Simple yes, but also magnificent.

The joy of the Resurrection is portrayed in the fourth movement, which again uses a trinity of main elements - plainchant-like melodies, the song of the Calandra lark, and three long strokes of the gong. The third element is repeated at contrasted dynamic levels while the first comes in the magical plumage of the metal percussion and woodwinds.

The final movement has a pulse - a single pulse, unusually for Messiaen. I find it mesmeric. It looms like a thunder cloud. The movement's melody is, again, pure Messiaen-style plainchant, sung alternately by woodwinds and brass.

I love both works. Hope you will give them a try.

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