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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 8

The Final Note - Playing with Propaganda

by Norman Lebrecht / May 1, 2000

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IT would be easy to imagine, amid the hoo-ha and the hype, that the man born in Montbrison (Loire) 75 years ago this weekend was some kind of musical saviour.

The birthday of Pierre Boulez is being serenaded on a scale that even Richard Wagner might have found embarrassing. The London Symphony Orchestra have been trailing his vapour since January, from the Barbican Centre to Carnegie Hall. Through the spring, Boulez is accepting bouquets at the South Bank (this weekend), the Parisian Cité de la Musique, Brussels, Cologne and beyond. He will summer in Aix, Salzburg, Edinburgh and Lucerne, no major festival left unturned.

Rewriting his own history: Boulez the composer seems to be engaged in modifying past severities

His face grins wryly from the covers of a dozen magazines. No musician in memory has been so sumptuously celebrated. By comparison, Igor Stravinsky, in June 1957, spent his 75th birthday in Los Angeles, where he lived, for the premiere of Agon, the ballet that announced his third creative transformation. He went on to conduct the new score in Paris - for the Domaine Musicale company, led by Boulez - and then summered quietly at Dartington School, in rural Devon.

The parallels are telling. Stravinsky, all his life, opened doors and minds. Boulez has made it his mission to narrow musical choices. His first public act was to lead an anti-Stravinsky demo in post-war Paris. He next declared, "Schoenberg is dead". He has contended that European music evolved through a funnel of Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Webern and himself, with tributaries in Debussy, Bartók and Stravinsky. Non-mainstream composers he dismissed, in a cruel and totalitarian verdict, as "unnecessary".

His handwriting is a graphologist's delight, the smallest I have ever seen, repressed and repressive. His views are dogmatic. He prefers Stravinsky to Prokofiev, as anyone might. But Stravinsky is an "important" composer and Prokofiev "inferior". Any musician who deviates from the approved line is a "reactionary". Shostakovich and Britten he derides as "conservatives". He applies to music the value judgments of a commissar or ayatollah. He once described himself to me as "300 per cent Stalinist".

He is an outstanding propagandist, the greatest apart from Leonard Bernstein, whose music he deplored. Boulez broke concert-hall rules by gathering youngsters round him on the floor. For many, he was a musical awakener. Yet, for each footpath he opened, an avenue was choked off. In Paris, his overarching influence pushed the music of Milhaud, Honegger, Dutilleux and Ohana to a provincial periphery.

He persuaded presidents to build him an IRCAM studio, where composers and computers would retune the future, and a Cité where it would resound. IRCAM in 23 years has yielded a pair of British electronic scores and some defence technology; the Cité is a temple of vanity. Orchestral standards in Paris are among the lowest in civilisation and the next wave of French composers has been stunted at source.

Boulez himself has composed, since the seductive Répons of 1981, little more than revisions and extensions to extant works. He is engaged in rewriting his own history, modifying past severities. The polymath Beckett scholar Andrew Renton likens him to the Irish dramatist who drew and redrew on his own materials, in a similarly tiny hand, resisting the siren's call for something new for the sake of novelty.

With Boulez, however, the creative blockage is an acutely personal form of ideological constipation. He cannot move, because the musical future has run off without him. The music of today has broken down artificial barriers. String quartets now perform with sarod obbligato and lions of the avant-garde lie down with lambs of folk-rock. The cells of serialism have been smashed open and Boulez the composer has been stranded on his high place, starved of the nutrients of certainty.

He keeps promising to devote himself to composition, and perhaps he will. But the conducting role is a heady distraction, satisfying his communicative urge.

Boulez was always a fine conductor, blessed with a hyper-sensitive ear and expressive fingers; he never bothered with batons. Clarity and structure were his watchwords, the expression of emotion alien to his austere soul. His approach has softened. Players tell me that he still implores them to hold back in Mahler's more extrovert moments, but he allows them expressive freedom in concert and, like many conductors of advancing years, occasionally drops his arms and lets them get on with it. A forthcoming release of Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte produces, from the Cleveland Orchestra, the most delicate breezes you are ever likely to hear. His recordings sell exceptionally well in Japan. The 75th-birthday parade is a consequence of his commercial success.

Conducting, for Boulez, was a route to power. "In politics you call this 'entryism'," he once told me. He has enlarged his spartan menu to include the arch-reactionaries Strauss and Bruckner, whose Eighth Symphony he has recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic in the composer's home church in Linz. There is a vicious rumour going round that Boulez is about to record Strauss's Le bourgeois Gentilhomme, the type he has turned into.

But even in regression, or disguise, the propagandist in Boulez has a point to make. He approaches old masterpieces differently from other conductors, he suggests, because he experiences them retrospectively through the prism of modernism. When he records Mahler, it is marketed as "Mahler for the 21st century". In person, Boulez is the mildest and most charming of men. On paper, the arrogance is breathtaking.

It occurred to me to test his current views, but the flunkeys are under orders to protect the maître from known dissenters. Shame, because Boulez in his pomp used to relish a principled argument. In France, where he is deemed infallible, a book that criticised the Boulez hegemony was denounced as heresy. He continues to patronise new composers of an elevated disposition. Yet, as Boulez turns on the podium to receive an ovation, one sees a little grimace at the corner of his mouth. He craves acclaim and mistrusts it, in one anguished reflex.

Has he mellowed with age? I doubt it. Rather, like Ken Livingstone (front-running socialist candidate for Mayor of London).and other renascent troglodytes of the Old Left, he has learned to temper his dogmas.

As for the legacy, for all the glories of Le Marteau sans maître and Pli selon pli, Boulez can hardly expect to be remembered as a great composer. Unlike Stravinsky, he has not written enough, or changed enough. His function has been more executive than inventive. He was not a saviour, but a salesman. In the annals of 20th-century music, now closed, Pierre Boulez will appear as a powerful curator, not as a creator.


28 January 2000: Taken apart, put together [a review of Boulez 2000]
24 January 2000: What is driving Boulez?
7 September 1996: Boulez and the blight of the opera


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