Absolute Modernity

Paul Driver

The near-simultaneous appearance of these volumes prompts thoughts on the development of French music out of the last century and into the next. One’s first thought, though, is bound to be: do Fauré and Boulez have anything in common at all? Could two composers linked by nationality ever have seemed at first sight so antipodean? Fauré the Proustian saloniste (an important model for Vinteuil) and Boulez the blazing theorist, for whom even the music of Messiaen was little better than salon music (‘brothel music’ was what he called it); Fauré the apogee of civility, refinement and classicism, and Boulez, the apostle of mathematical determinism and absolute modernity, Fauré the diffident man and cautious innovator, Boulez the scathing polemicist and compulsive revolutionary: these standard conceptions of the respective composers would seem to exclude them from any common ground except that of genius. Yet as one looks further, the parallels between them and their respective situations begin to emerge. Both men travelled from the provinces to the stars, or at least to the head of illustrious Paris institutions – in Fauré’s case, the Conservatoire, in Boulez’s the Institut de Recherche et de Co-ordination Acoustique-Musique (IRCAM). Boulez the endless reviser of his works shares Fauré’s perfectionism; a revulsion from rhetoric characterises both composers, as does a quintessential Frenchness. Boulez has mellowed with the years, even if he has not exactly become diffident, while Fauré was not without a certain avant-garde doggedness. In the end, one even suspects that it is Fauré who will stand in 20th-century musical history as the truly pioneering figure.

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