French composer, conductor, pianist and music theorist Pierre Boulez has died. He had been in poor health for the past couple of years.
Boulez was the last giant of the rebellious, über-abstract serialist movement. A controversial figure, he was one of the greatest creative minds of the 20th century but also one of the most dogmatic, prone to blunt but consistent statements. He could be savagely critical of the composers he disagreed with (Dutilleux, Jolivet) but also very nurturing for those he liked, including many young ones (Manoury, Dalbavie).
As for his music, I think it’ll remain forever a niche in the repertoire. He probably liked it that way or at least accepted it. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll happily do without his harcore serialist stuff from the 40s and 50s (the flute sonatina, Le Marteau sans Maître, the piano sonatas) but his later works are more appealing and less disjointed - though by no means easy listening (Messagesquisse, Dialogue de l’Ombre Double, Sur Incises). He’s never going to be my favourite composer, even among the late 20th century ones (mine would be Ligeti, Dutilleux, Lutoslawski and Jolivet) but I admit that he was an amazing master of orchestral colour. Actually, in the complete absence of melody and regular beats, the gorgeous sounds that he was able to draw from the orchestra is what I focus on to get some enjoyment from his works.
In the words of conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen:
“ Young people are attracted to black-and-white statements. At least I was. And Boulez was like a black-and-white statement machine. He said, “This is wrong, and this is right.” The statements Boulez made were kind of refreshingly categorical. Like the famous one from the ’50s: “If a composer has not experienced the necessity of dodecaphonic technique, he is useless.” That’s a good sentence because it tells you what is what. It takes the guessing out of the equation.”