Saturday, 21 July 2012

Sur Boulez

Tonight's BBC Prom is the second of five where Daniel Barenboim conducts a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies. Each concert also features a major score by the 87-year-old Pierre Boulez.

Boulez, for long seen as the fiery face of the post-war Avant Garde, has mellowed over the decades. I've heard so many interviews with the man over the last twenty five years ago where his geniality has shone through, along with his intelligence and enthusiasm. His music has mellowed too, as this post will hopefully prove. He began as an iconoclast, violently rejecting almost everything and seeking to begin music again from Year Zero; however, as time passed he began re-embracing more and more elements from the past and his music also became more approachable.

What follows is a roughly chronological survey of Boulez's output. Any such survey will have to be 'roughly' chronological, as the composer is famed (or notorious) for reworking his pieces over many years, sometimes withdrawing previous versions. He is still reworking one of his first pieces, Notations of 1945, getting on for seventy years after writing it!

Well, here goes!...

12 Notations  
For piano. Inspired by the miniaturism of Webern but full of a youthful passion and heated rhetoric not found in Webern, these are early pieces and echoes of Bartok, Debussy and Stravinsky can still be heard. 

Le visage nuptial
One of those works extensively reworked over the decades, we now only hear the wonderful later incarnations of this cantata setting the poetry of René Char for solo soprano and contralto, women's chorus and orchestra. Thus it should perhaps now be seen as a late work rather than a very early one. I think the influence of his teacher, Messiaen, is audible at times - specifically the Trois petites liturgies - but Boulez's complex, dramatic, perhaps overwrought music is something very different. The score might even strike you as operatic.

For flute and piano. The French and their elegant flute sonatas are being challenged here. Sometimes hectic, often harsh, occasionally playful, the virtuosic Sonatine is not as tough a listen as some of the pieces that followed and is an absorbing creation. The flute writing is far from sweet and gentle, instead taking Debussy's example and carrying its mysterious, heated qualities to extremes. There is a trill-filled slow section and a sprightly scherzo-like section to follow. I have always been fond of this.

Piano Sonata no.1
This is a much tougher listen, a turbulent two-movement piece from a twenty-year-old composer determined to apply irregular rhythms to serialist techniques. The music lurches dizzyingly between contrasting speeds. You won't find any themes; instead, Boulez works on short motifs and rhythmic cells. 

Le soleil des eaux
Another early cantata setting René Char that has gone through several revisions, getting ever more approachable and sensual as the decades pass. With shades of Debussy's Prelude a l'après midi d'un faune and Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, later versions make it one of the composer's most approachable pieces, with a lyrical first movement ('Pliant of the Lizard in Love') and a more operatic second movement ('La Sorgue'). The scoring (now) is for soprano and orchestra.  

A work written as a conscious challenge to Beethoven and the Great Tradition - an attempt to outdo the Hammerklavier Sonata -  this large-scale, expressionistic, rejectionist Sonata caused a scandal when it was premièred in 1950. It remains a fierce, difficult, profoundly original tour-de-force, full of fantasy and violent explosions, Lisztian in its virtuosity, but there are meditative passages too and the closing pages can (if so played) sound highly poetic, echoing (as they do) the B-A-C-H motif. Though it may sound improvisatory, it is an extremely closely-written piece. There are four movements, each a shattered echo of the old movements of a sonata-form piece. It remains a daunting, fascinating listen, with a complex web of lines serially developing a set of short motific cells. often moving at high speed. Like the Sonatine and the First Piano Sonata, it remains as it originally sounded, untampered with. It is the authentic voice of the young Pierre Boulez.  

Livre pour quatuor
This intriguing, rarely-heard work for string quartet will probably a strike a chord with those who appreciate the quartets of Berg and Bartok. Some movements pursue the closely-worked motif-driven writing found in the piano sonatas while others inhabit a more intuitive-sounding place. The quartet as a whole manages to sound closer than anything else in Boulez to the classical Modernist mainstream and deserves a regular place in concerts. Movements from the work have been re-written for string orchestra, namely the beautiful Livre pour cordes

Structures I
This is one of the very small number of works where Boulez put into practise 'Total Serialism' - applying serial techniques, previously attached only to pitch (i.e. the order of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale), to dynamics (how soft or loud each note is played), duration (how long each note is) and mode of attack (how you play the note). Structures 1a is the key movement. Inspired by Messiaen's experimental Mode de valeurs et d'intensités, the work is as thoroughgoing an application as you can get and is the sort of sound many people still think defines Boulez's ('plinky-plonky') music. In fact, it defines only a very small - but highly influential - part of it. Boulez very quickly grew disenchanted with 'Total Serialism' and moved on. The fact that John Cage's experiments in chance produced results that sounded uncannily like those achieved by the rigorously determined methods of 'Total Serialism' didn't help. Why waste all that time planning every piece down to the finest detail when someone else tossing coins could write something that listeners might take for a 'Total Serialist' work?

Polyphonie X
Another of the small number of 'Total Serialist' pieces, where the composer also applied serial ordering to instrumental colour. The piece flopped at its première as a result of some peculiar noises resulting from the putting together of serial ordering of modes of attack with instrumental colours. Audience laughter resulted, apparently, so you can guess what those noises may have sounded like. Boulez withdrew the piece and moved on. As you can hear for yourselves, it begins to meander as it proceeds. 

Le marteau sans maître
He came back with one of his greatest achievements, 'The Hammer without a Master' - another setting of verse by René Char. I say that, but only four out of the nine sections of the piece set his words, the others being purely instrumental, and when the singer enters you will be hard pushed to follow the words (deliberately). The spirit of the piece may owe something to Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire but the overall sound of the piece is strikingly different. The scoring was a highly original one - contralto, flute, guitar, viola, vibraphone, xylorimba (a type of xylophone) and unpitched percussion. The effect of such scoring gives the work an exotic, rather far-Eastern flavour. Another effect is that it makes the piece sound even more beautiful. This famous work is not 'Total Serialist', though serialist techniques are used throughout. (Flexibility is back!) The intricacy of the play of rhythms is a problem for the players (who have to keep count!) but not for the listener who can just sit back and go with the unpredictable flow. Listen out for the ritualistic sounds of tam-tams and gongs at the end of the piece. This suggests that the ritual of 'Rituel' had its home-grown roots here. 

La symphonie mécanique
Yes, 'symphonie'!! Ah, but not really a symphony at all. Boulez began experimenting with electronic music during the short period of 'Total Serialism', writing two studies in that form. He didn't feel they were a success. Electronics have played an important part in many later scores, though they are usually there to add an extra flavour to the action rather than being the focus of the audience's attention. There are some other purely electronic works though, including this one, written for a Jean Mitry film. Nothing quite dates like electronic music. It sounds rather like a lot of other electronic works from that era, but it was a pioneering effort and if it sounds familiar and SCI-FIish to our ears then that's because later composers learned from the its example and the example of other such pieces. It is a fascinating example though, given that it is clearly a Boulez take on the form. 

Piano Sonata No.3
John Cage, a one-time friend of Boulez's, taught the world of classical music about chance. Boulez took some of it on board. Along with Stockhausen, Boulez brought 'open form' works into European music. The Frenchman's stroke of originality was to allow his performers to choose the form of a work, picking from a short menu of options. In the Third Piano Sonata, his first such venture in 'mobile form', the players have to decide which order to play the five movements (though movement 3 - 'Constellation' - always has to be at the centre of any performance) and there are similar choices to be made within movements. That needn't unduly bother the listener of course. I have to say that the piece has never struck me as being on the same level as its confrères. Please judge for yourselves though. 

Pli Selon Pli; (Improvisation I); (Improvisation II)(Improvisation III)(Tombeau)
Pli Selon Pli ('Fold upon Fold') for soprano and orchestra is another work that has gone through the process of revision, losing most of its 'open form' elements in the process. (Good!) It remains an essentially lyrical 'portrait' of the poet Mallarmé, immediately appealing and full of subtle orchestral sounds. The title comes from Mallarmé's Remémoration d'amis belgesListen out for the growing use of grace notes and for the soprano's remarkable ascent into the stratosphere at the end of 'Tombeau'. 

Structures II
An 'open form' work for two pianos. This 'book' is more attractive and engaging than its predecessor though 'the sound' is still 'pulverised' from time to time. The music of the earlier book is re-examined with added poetry and brilliance. 

'Burst out' is the meaning of the title of this glittering piece for orchestra, which sets a group of resonant tuned percussion players against the sustaining winds and strings of the orchestra. The guiding idea is to get the listener to attend to the various kinds of resonances at play, so at times you are meant to be living in the moment, enjoying the dying away of a single note.
There are, not unsurprisingly, several versions of Domaines. It began as a piece for solo clarinet, where the player moves randomly around six music desks and plays whatever music he finds there. (Very 1960s!) Despite its accessibility, the result doesn't seem very inspired to me.
A short piece for five players, with a engaging use of trills. Trills make an ever increasing reappearance in Boulez's later works, and the closing stages of this piece anticipate the later Dialogue de l'ombre double.

cummings ist der Dichter
A work for mixed choir and orchestra.

One of the most thoroughly re-worked of all Boulez's works, this 'Fixed explosion' is unquestionably one of the most masterly pieces of Boulez's late period. I say 'late period' as the piece, originally written in memoriam Igor Stravinsky, has now been recast for solo MIDI-flute with live electronics, two 'shadow' flutes and orchestra - essentially one huge flute concerto. As I mentioned earlier, electronics became an added colour for Boulez, there to enhance natural sounds. Home listeners may not even notice the presence of electronics until the piece nears the quarter of an hour mark. The music may not be without turbulence but this is no longer the 'sound-pulverising' Boulez of old, rather a refined creator of complex but beautiful music. (How very French he has become!)

Rituel - in memoriam Bruno Maderna
I refer you all to my enthusiastic post about this piece for a few months ago. Rituel has become the composer's nearest things to a repertoire piece, due to its relative simplicity, its magical colours and its melodies.

Something of an occasional piece, composed for the birthday of that very helpful man, Paul Sacher. Written for solo cello and six other cellos, it consists of two 'accompanied recitatives'  alternating with whizzing moto perpetuos based on the letters of his name. The moto perpetuos are not what you expect from Boulez at all. Where's the rhythmic irregularity? It's almost neo-Classical! It's charming!!

The return of melody (in the sense we usually mean it!) in Rituel grows ever stronger in the composer's later works. This masterly score for six soloists, chamber orchestra and live electronics is a case in point. The title alludes to the responses made by the electronics to the sounds made by the soloists and orchestra and to old church practises of call and response. As with other later pieces, regular rhythms re-emerge - along with plenty of irregular ones - adding to the immediacy of the work's appeal. The piece grow out of Messagesquisse - and outgrew it by a mile!

Dérive 1
The beauty and magic of late Boulez is something many people remain unaware of, deterred by his reputation and the difficulty of some of the revolutionary works of his younger self. This delicious piece for woodwinds, vibes, piano and strings is one that I'm sure many lovers of loveliness in music will find to their tastes. It is rather relaxed in character and is flooded with trills. It too grew out of Messagesquisse.

Growing out of "...explosante-fixe..." this piece for solo flute and eight instruments is another magical piece, where the mystery of the Debussyan flute found in the youthful Sonatine returns and the instrument flutters as if it were the offspring of Stravinsky's Firebird around a gentle garden of delights, full of trills.

Dialogue de l'ombre double
Another genial late piece, this is a piece for solo clarinet and electronics. The clarinet spins out a flow of trill-filled melody and the electronics 'double' it, though the 'doubling' electronics seem to have staged something of a takeover by the end. You might recognise the material used. It's taken from the lesser piece, Domaines. 

Dérive 2
As you might guess Dérive 2 for 11 instruments is a reworking of Dérive 1. In fact, it's been reworked several times now and has become a 45-minute piece (for the time being). Unlike Dérive 1, Dérive 2 is not a relaxed stroll in the park. It is much more energetic, often nervous-sounding. 

Written for a violin competion, Anthèmes is a violin solo. It is a very fine piece, with material that shall we say?...thematic - another element of the past drifting back into Boulez's mellower late style. Again, the piece is flooded with trills. As you would expect, the composer could not let the piece rest there and expanded it into Anthèmes 2, a piece for solo violin and electronics. 

IncisesIncises (expanded version)
This was Boulez's first work for solo piano since the Third Piano Sonata and began as a miniature. It starts in in a slightly Messiaen-like reverie before erupting into turbulence - a wild section marked by fast repeating notes. Boulez then expanded the piece, and then he expanded it again into... 

Sur Incises
...a substantial score for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists. Sur incises is another masterpiece of Boulez's late period. Echoes of Bartok's glorious Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and Stravinsky's just-as-glorious Les Noces spring to mind, doubtless intentionally. The colours are a constant delight. There are various moods, from slow gloom to spry glamour, and - if it were still beyond doubt - demonstrates that Pierre Boulez (like Elliott Carter) is enjoying an Indian Summer of great composing (and long may it continue!)

Notations (for orchestra)
And so to end where we began. Boulez began orchestrating his early piano Notations several decades ago and is still at it. The orchestral Notations are going down a storm with audiences who are relishing hearing the exquisite ear and refinement of the elder composer brought to bear in transforming his teenage inspirations into pure gold. 

The trajectory of Pierre Boulez's career, therefore, seems to be that he rose swiftly towards originality and peaked at the height of his fiercest phase. His music then went into a decade-or-so-long lull before rising again towards new masterpieces and a glorious Indian Summer. 

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