Boulez in progress

Paul Driver

Boulez has been the omnipresent conscience of post-war music. He has applied to his own music rigid criteria of method and historical validity, and revised many works again and again, often withdrawing them altogether. He has become a martyr figure somewhat after the fashion of Schoenberg, also self-appointed to a role of revolutionary innovator; the special prize Boulez has paid is not increasing isolation but creative sterility – compositions have flowed ever more slowly from his pen. (Répons, 1980, for ensemble and live electronics, is his only substantial piece in a decade, and it remains unfinished and experimental.) Boulez’s phenomenal scrupulosity has been directed outwards as well – in numerous lectures, articles, interviews, tirades (and part of a treatise) which have exerted wide and possibly dangerous influence over younger composers. These writings, though, have not all been readily accessible in English hitherto. While the scintillating volume of Conversations with Célestin Deliège (Eulenburg, 1976) and the refractory theoretical work Boulez on Music Today (Faber, 1971) are – or were – easily obtainable, the English translation of Boulez’s first book of essays, Notes of an Apprenticeship, published in New York by Knopf in 1968, remains exceptionally hard to find in this country. Now the second collection, Points de Repère, issued in France in 1981 (revised 1985), is available, in a rearranged format with a translation by the late Martin Cooper, under the title Orientations.

It is a pity that we do not have both collections freshly to hand, for any consideration of Boulez’s importance as a composer-writer needs to take into account the major items in Notes of an Apprenticeship. There is some overlap between Notes and Orientations. Relatively little in the new book matches the scale or temerity of the earlier pieces: it is more of a compilation of (perspicacious) sleeve-notes and the speeches of a sixty-year old smiling public man than the bewildering utterances of a musical firebrand. Yet there are a few stern challenges, and the essay (1963) on the third piano sonata (‘Sonate, que me veux-tu?’), along with the lecture (1961) on the Deuxième Improvisation sur Mallarmé, is of key theoretical interest.

Boulez follows in a long line of composer-writers: in France alone one thinks of Rameau, Berlioz, Debussy and Messiaen; Schumann, Weber and Wagner are great German examples, and Schoenberg is the great Austrian example of which Boulez is no doubt keenly aware. Among Boulez’s contemporaries, Stockhausen, Elliott Carter and John Cage are notably eloquent and prolific commentators on themselves. Boulez’s writing covers a considerable range: he is not just a theorist like Messiaen in Technique of My Musical Language or Hindemith in The Craft of Musical Composition, but also on occasion a critic like Berlioz, Debussy or Carter (though never a regular reviewer), a historian (everywhere a historian!), the practical, down-to-earth thinker that Schoenberg so often is, and a prose-poet in a rather lamentable post-Mallarmé, post-Surrealist mould of exclamation-without-capitalisation (such pieces as ‘Demythologising the conductor’, ‘Periform’, ‘Beethoven: Tell me’ and the tributes to Adorno, Steinecke and Varèse are fairly pretentious and irritating). His style can be both brilliant and verbose. He is often wordy and repetitious, and equally prone to compress more matter into a space than most readers are comfortable with, while his allusiveness, fondness for impenetrable quotations from Mallarmé and Claudel, his natural agility of mind, and the book’s enormous scope, make for a highly centripetal read. But amid pages of pure bafflement he can be simply coruscating, and he repeatedly evinces the French dandy’s aptitude for rhetorical flourish or caustic phraseology.

His fund of metaphors and analogies for illustrating musical thoughts is large: it is no trouble at all for him to bring in Turner’s painting of Windsor when talking about the dreamlike first presentation of Valhalla in the music of The Rheingold, or Cézanne’s landscapes when considering ‘ideas of mystery, poetry and dream’ in Debussy which ‘take on a profound significance only when they are achieved by precision, in full daylight’. He can compare a catalogue by Berlioz of the effects that might be created with a vast imaginary orchestra to the end of de Sade’s Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, and later in the same article suggest – not without autobiographical reference – that ‘Berlioz’s written compositions make up only the scattered peices of a Great Opus that resembles in this respect that definitive Livre towards which Mallarmé was working.’ He can even compare Messiaen’s personality to ‘some great baroque building’.

The translation of Points de Repère – which can’t have been an easy job – conveys a basically sympathetic tone of voice, no matter whether Boulez is drily analysing, disputatiously lecturing, proselytising on behalf of modern music, or coyly accepting a public award. Faber have reordered the original material under more convenient headings, so that now all the pieces on compositional technique and aesthetic theory are grouped together in Part One, all those on individual composers assembled as ‘Exemplars’ in Part Two, while the third part focuses on practical matters which have drawn a response from Boulez as concert organiser, conductor and director of a research centre, and also includes several quite interesting obituary tributes. This layout is a distinct improvement, and Orientations also has the advantage of containing three pieces absent from either of the French editions: a sleeve-note for The Rite of Spring, a longish TLS article, ‘Technology and the Composer’ (1977), and an interview transcription called ‘Oriental Music: A Lost Paradise?’ (1967).

The chief value of Orientations is in the chance it gives to follow the workings of an exceptionally powerful conscience in various departments of the musical profession. Whether Boulez writes as composer, conductor or organiser, as analyst, critic or historian, it is always with the same reformist zeal and implicit belief in the general perfectibility of things. He is evidently committed in a Sartrean Existentialist sense to the consequences of his every action, private or public, musical or political; the unexamined motive, the intuition unimproved by critical reflection, are abhorrent to him. ‘I pity those poets who are guided by instinct alone,’ he writes, quoting Baudelaire in the ‘Interior Duologue’ which prefaces Boulez on Music Today: ‘I believe them to be incomplete ... Somewhere in every poet there must be a critic.’ And later in the book he speaks of the ‘absolute necessity for a logically organised consciousness, which avoids slipping into the anecdotal’. This is Boulez the cerebrator, familiar from his emotionless appearance on the concert platform and fastidiously cool way with the romantic classics. But where do the impersonal rigours of conscience and consciousness – the French word conscience covers both – actually lead, and what do they achieve? The question can be considered according to the three section-divisions of Orientations: Boulez as composer-theorist, aesthetician and man of action.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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