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.”
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.