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Forever waiting for Godot: Pierre Boulez died

He would have turned 91 on 26 March, but died Tuesday night, 5 January, in his hometown of Baden-Baden. Pierre Boulez was the last surviving composer of the group that changed the direction of music after WWII. His fellow maestros preceded him: Karlheinz Stockhausen died in 2007, Luciano Berio in 2003, Karel Goeyvaerts in 1993 and Luigi Nono in 1990.

Although it was an announced death - Boulez was already too frail to celebrate his 90th birthday last year - it still comes as a shock. His demise marks the definitive end of the era of atonal music, sometimes derogatorily referred to as 'squeak-grunt'.

French President François Hollande tweeted:

"Pierre Boulez made French music shine in the world. As a composer and conductor, he always wanted to think from his era."

Not a word of that is a lie. Boulez was a charismatic personality who, despite bold statements in his youth - 'Schoenberg is dead'; 'Set the opera houses on fire' - turned out to be a gifted and dedicated conductor, who excelled in performing not only French music, but also Schoenberg's work and Wagner's operas.

As sensual as Debussy, as lucid as Webern

He honed his own compositions endlessly. His oeuvre therefore remained small, but works such as Le marteau sans maître; Répons; ...explosante fixe... and Pli selon Pli count as milestones of twentieth-century music. Boulez understood the art of pairing his mathematical principles with the sensuality of Claude Debussy and the lucidity of Anton Webern.

I have heard him conduct many times and, frankly, I was not always convinced. For instance, I remember a performance of Schoenberg's string sextet Verklärte Nacht in the version for string orchestra. This otherwise languorously romantic, Klimt-like piece disintegrated into chunks of cold rock without any cohesion. On the other hand, I was glued to my seat from start to finish during a performance of his own Domaines with the self-founded Ensemble Intercontemporain and clarinettist Alain Damiens.

Amiable

Several times I had the honour of interviewing him. The first time was in 1995, when I was still studying musicology. I spoke to him for the book Sssst! new ensembles for new music about the Ensemble Intercontemporain he founded. It was a special feeling to suddenly be seated fish to fish with this 'man out of a book', but he was extremely affable and immediately put me at ease.

After I graduated, I interviewed him several times for Radio 4. Unlike some celebrities, Boulez appeared promptly on time for his appointments and refrained from having a press agent watching us. Always there was that sphinx-like friendliness and he took all the time. Once, he even complimented me on my simultaneous translations - having lived much of his life in Germany, he could follow my Dutch quite well.

Even when I called on him in connection with my biography on Reinbert de Leeuw, he was extremely helpful. His personal assistant searched and found the dates and titles I requested and put me in touch with other possible informants.

Two days after his eighty-fourth birthday in 2009, Boulez even made special time for me to talk about his experiences with his fellow Dutch composer and conductor. Despite his busy schedule, he again answered all my questions extensively and patiently. Unfortunately, I could not incorporate his statements in my book, but I will cherish the recording of our conversation.

It was rumoured that Pierre Boulez was working on an opera based on the renowned play Waiting for Godot By Samuel Becket. On this, then, we will forever wait in vain

In March 2015, I spoke about Boulez with German musicologist Werner Klüppelholz during the Boulez Symposium at the Royal Conservatoire. The conversation is here listen back.

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: https://www.boekenbestellen.nl/boek/een-os-op-het-dak/9789012345675 In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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