“Gentlemen, this is four-four time,” says Pierre Boulez, and the context in which he says it takes a hundred men’s breath away. It’s the first rehearsal, Boulez’s first meeting with the Vienna Philharmonic in August 1992 in Salzburg when this terse and potentially explosive sentence is spoken, with which Boulez hopes to dispense with an elegantly polished transition in the violins in favor of typically “Boulezian” precision. It was a very brief moment that captures so much of what makes Pierre Boulez both famous and notorious, loved and appreciated: an extraordinary clarity and objectivity coupled with a passion for every (sound) detail. Nothing is ever overemphasized for the sake of effect; the focus of attention is always the pure music, as it is written.
When, in 1992, Boulez is introduced as a composer and conductor in Salzburg, he has already long since composed the majority of his own works. From the crystal-clear early piano works, brimming with energy, to the settings of texts by Stephane Mallarmé and E. E. Cummings and his final large-scale work Répons, Boulez’s compositional career underwent several metamorphoses. As director of the electronic music studio IRCAM in Paris, Boulez became a key aesthetic figure for future generations of composers.
1940s: composition studies with teachers including Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz
1945: composes the Douze Notations for piano
1951: composes Polyphonie X
1950s and 60s: first as a student, then as a lecturer, close relationship with the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt
Early 1950s: composes Le Marteau sans Maitre and Structures for two pianos
Founds the Paris concert series Domaine Musical, and guest conductor of the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Baden-Baden
Composes Pli selon pli - Portrait de Mallarmé for large orchestra and soprano
Starting 1966 conductor at the Bayreuth Festival, 1976 to 1980 leads the so-called Centenary Ring with Patrice Chereau
Starting in the 1970s: principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, later of the New York Philharmonic as successor to Leonard Bernstein
1975: composes Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna
1981: composes Répons for chamber ensemble and live electronics
1990s: begins regular collaboration with the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics
Did you know?
Before Pierre Boulez began studying music, he wanted to study mathematics or the natural sciences.
From the very beginning, Boulez also emerged as the author of essays and other writings. One of these, a 1967 interview in Der Spiegel, became famous with its sensational title, “Blow up the opera houses.”
Over the course of his career as a conductor and composer, Boulez won an incredible 26 Grammys. (By the way, with 31 Grammys, Sir Georg Solti is the top Grammy-winning artist to date; Michael Jackson won a total of 8).
Boulez lived in Baden-Baden in the 1980s. He was extremely private about his personal life, once joking that he would be the first composer without a biography. Though it is known that his partner Hans Messmer was at his side for decades, beginning in the early 70s.