With the loss of Pierre Boulez, Tom Service at The Guardian surveys his works and picks the ten that best
It’s a terrible prospect, imagining a musical world without Pierre Boulez. And yet, thanks to his influence as composer, conductor and cultural leader; as polemicist, teacher and fiery spirit of avant-garde adventure; and later as a charming, but demanding, eminence grise of contemporary musical life, we don’t have to imagine it.
Boulez’s achievements in changing every part of the fabric of classical musical culture all over the world are indelible. In Bayreuth, where he transformed the performance practice of Wagner’s works. In London and New York, where in the 1970s he embarked on a mission to transform orchestral programmes and establish a performance practice for contemporary music. Or at the Lucerne festival, where he established the Lucerne Festival Academy to cement the repertoires of new music in the minds and hearts of some of the world’s most talented young musicians and coached the next generation of composers. Or in Paris, where so much of the city’s musical life is formed in the image of his sonic dreams: IRCAM, that place of electronic and acoustic musical experimentation whose underground bunkers you’ll have walked over if you’ve ever been to the Pompidou Museum – it’s right under the Stravinsky Fountain; or the Ensemble Intercontemporain, his new-music ensemble that bears living, breathing testament to the power of his music in performance, and even the new Philharmonie, the latest result of Boulez’s cultural vision and powers of political persuasion.
But above all, there’s his music and his music-making, which will remain in the permanently inspirational present tense for all of us as listeners, performers and composers. Here’s my introduction to his musical world via 10 key works.
Written in Boulez’s early 20s, in 1948, his second Piano Sonata simultaneously blows apart classical convention – sonata form, fugue – but creates its own monumental structure of irresistible intensity.
The 1955 work that set the seal on Boulez’s reputation as the “lion flayed alive” – his teacher Olivier Messiaen’s description of him as a student – of the avant-garde. Yet this is music, we can now hear, that is as beguilingly, exotically beautiful as it full of explosive imagination.