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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 4

Le Marteau sans maître : Serialism Becomes Respectable

by Pierre Grondines / December 1, 2000

Version française...

I have the kind of temperament that tries to make rules for the pleasure of breaking them later,” says Pierre Boulez. He couldn’t have found a more apt description of the process that led to Le Marteau sans maître in 1954.

When Boulez talks about “making rules,” he is of course referring to the period immediately preceding the appearance of this work—a time of intense theoretical exploration during which he forged a new musical grammar known as integral or total serialism. These were years of unremitting commitment, marked by austere works—Polyphony X for 18 instruments (1951) and Structures I for two pianos (1952)—in which the composer’s pen was totally and deliberately subordinated to a strictly predefined framework. Years later, Boulez said he felt that “most works from this period were satisfying mental exercises, nothing more.” Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master), a cantata for voice and six instruments based on René Char’s poetry, marks the point at which Boulez distanced himself from the rigid musical grammar so recently constructed. While he didn’t jettison all compositional constraint (far from it!), Boulez allowed himself, as he says, numerous “breaches of discipline.”

René Char

Boulez was 21 when he discovered the work of René Char (1907-1988). He wrote two cantatas—Visage nuptial (1946) and Le Soleil des eaux (1948)—based on Char’s poems before working on the poet’s Marteau sans maître collection. Char wrote these poems in the early 1930s, a time when he still shared the surrealist views of poets like André Breton and Henri Michaux. What Boulez found pleasing in Char’s poetry was “first, its condensation. It was like discovering a carved flintstone... a kind of contained violence, not a violence of many outward acts, but an interior violence, concentrated and taut in its expression.”

Text and music

Boulez says he didn’t follow the traditional form of musical illustration—that is, try to find sound equivalents for images in the text. (However, if you listen closely to piece no. 5, among others, you’ll find this statement is not entirely accurate.) The noticeable brevity of Char’s poems inspired Boulez to establish a new kind of rapport between text and music. The singing voice states the verses briefly (nos. 5, 6, and 9), the sole exception being no. 3
( “L’artisanat furieux” or “Furious crafting”), where the voice has many long, mellifluous passages. Eager to “proliferate” his musical material, Boulez takes these brief sung passages and uses them in the instrumental sections, developing, commenting, and so on. These instrumental “proliferations” either result in independent pieces (nos. 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8), or are cleverly grafted onto the vocal material in other pieces (nos. 3, 5, 6, and 9). Boulez describes the poems as “the fertilizing source of the music.”

Three interlaced cycles

Each of the three Marteau sans maître poems figures in more than one piece. Thus, “L’artisanat furieux” inspires a “cycle” of three pieces: one for voice and instruments and two that are purely instrumental. Surprisingly, the cycles are not presented in sequence, and the general order of the pieces is quite unexpected. This is Boulez’s attempt to “break with unidirectional form” in music—the usual beginning-middle-end succession of musical discourse. Twentieth-century writers have made similar efforts. The labyrinthine effect of Le Marteau sans maître is resolved by the last piece in the work, which provides a summary of the whole.

A new sound

The instrumental ensemble put together for Le Marteau sans maître was a radical departure from the quartets, quintets and other traditional groups in Western music. Included are alto voice, alto flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba, and percussion ensemble. These apparently heterogeneous elements are in fact unified by a continuity of timbre as shown below:

It is very surprising to see the middle range occupy so prominent a role. This, coupled with the fact that the instruments have a delicate timbre (with the possible exception of the xylorimba), accounts for the unusual sound of Le Marteau sans maître.

Those who first heard the work considered this sound exotic. “I wanted to show the influence of non-European culture, to which I’ve always been sensitive,” explains Boulez. He had listened to the Musée Guimet’s sound collections in Paris through the good offices of his friend, ethnomusicologist André Schaeffner (1895-1980). Around 1948 he became familiar with African and Indochinese music and even planned to join an ethnomusicological expedition to Southeast Asia. He notes, however, that although the xylorimba relates to the African balaphon, the vibraphone to the Balinese g’ndér, and the guitar to the Japanese koto, no exotic tradition is reflected in the music’s actual composition.

Each of the nine pieces uses a different part of the instrumental ensemble. (Boulez had learned well the lesson of economy provided by Shoenberg’s famous Pierrot lunaire of 1912). The principal instrument is the flute, which has a special role with the singer. Apart from the duet in piece no. 3—a fine piece from the anthology—flute and voice provide something of a poetic coup de théâtre in piece no. 9. At one point, the performer sings with mouth closed, using the voice almost as an instrument. The voice then seems to metamorphose into the flute, which has so far been silent in this piece. The percussion ensemble plays an important part, although used sparingly. It is heard in the cycle based on the poem, “Bourreaux de solitude” (“Executioners of solitude”), which evokes some threatening clockwork machine. The percussion effects, subtly dovetailed between the other instruments, suggest indomitable time or, at other moments, the contained violence of the load of granite referred to in “Balancier” (“Pendulum”).

Le Marteau sans maître had its premiere June 18, 1955, at the 29th ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) Festival in Baden-Baden. The ISCM’s French section opposed the work (!) and festival organizer Heinrich Strobel had to defend the choice vigorously—an example of solidarity across frontiers typical of the 1950s trend towards the internationalization of avant-garde music. In the event, Le Marteau sans maître had an enthusiastic reception and was soon being heard in numerous countries. A best-selling Vega recording of this work received the Charles Cros Academy prize in 1957.

In the wake of total serial works like Structures, which were governed by the rigid rules then developed by Boulez, Le Marteau sans maître revealed a distinctly different quality, a truly eloquent musical discourse. The grammar of serial music was no longer the central focus. The music itself became more flexible, more effective in communicating a poetic premise, which is the basis for achieving a genuine work of art. It represents a serendipitous encounter in which the freedom that Char’s poems cry out for so ardently is fully realized, and where the art of Boulez is at last liberated from his years of artisanat furieux.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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