Music

Boulez

The New York Times sells him short in the early version headline of his obituary, “Pierre Boulez, French Composer.” Maybe they were taking the New York-centric view where his time with the Philharmonic is all that matters, or maybe they never expected him to die. I don’t know. It’s updated now to “Pierre Boulez, Composer and Conductor Who Pushed Modernism’s Boundaries.”

They ultimately flesh it out, and it’s a piece worth reading because few if any musicians have had the full package of skills the way Boulez did.

Mahler was an eminent performer, an outstanding symphonist and song-writer, and somewhat of a manager — though his time at the helm of the Vienna music establishment did not end well.

Robert Schumann was a brilliant pianist, a fine composer of all manner of music, and a great writer and critic.

But only Boulez, to the best of my knowledge, handled all four roles at the highest level. His compositions are wonderful; he was very successful as a conductor; setting up and managing IRCAM was an administrative and technical tour-de-force; and his writings on music theory are dense and well worth studying (if you’re into that kind of thing, like I am).

A few years ago I was talking to a trumpet-player bud of mine, about the late principal of the NY Philharmonic. He noted that he’d been sort of forced out by Boulez, who wasn’t happy about his intonation. I started with, “well you can’t argue with Boulez, he is after all…”

My friend finished the sentence, “the greatest musician living.”

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As the Times reports,

Even so, the achievements embodied in his published works and recordings are formidable, and his influence was incalculable. The tasks he took on were heroic: to continue the great adventure of musical modernism, and to carry with him the great musical institutions and the widest possible audience.

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