Arts - Autumn 2015

When the Angry Lion Roared

Pierre Boulez and the piece that marked his breakthrough as a composer

By Sudip Bose | September 7, 2015
Close-up from a piece of early Boulez. (Jorge Franganillo/Flickr)
Close-up from a piece of early Boulez. (Jorge Franganillo/Flickr)


Pierre Boulez died on January 5, 2016, at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany.

Listen to the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Le Marteau sans maître (1955) here.

This past March, Pierre Boulez turned 90. That fact alone ought to give one pause—could the great iconoclast of 20th-century music, polemicist without peer, irreverent emblem of the postwar avant-garde really be entering his 10th decade? Age has mellowed the man and his rhetoric. Although his compositions can still seem brazen and challenging, Boulez the conductor has long since assumed the role of venerable elder. Back when he was at his subversive best, giving magazine interviews titled “Blow Up the Opera Houses” and suggesting that “all the art of the past must be destroyed,” it might have been unthinkable that Boulez would one day make transcendent recordings of such late-Romantic fare as the symphonies of Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner. But then, time allows for fresh enthusiasms while cooling the hot-tempered idealism of one’s youth.

He came of age in Nazi-occupied France, an irascible, precocious young man angry at the state of the musical world around him. In those days, according to Olivier Messiaen, his teacher at the Paris Conservatory, Boulez had the temperament of “a flayed lion,” an attitude reflected not only in his writings, in which he launched acerbic barbs at anyone straying from the path of high modernism, but also in his music—his first two piano sonatas as well as two works for voice and orchestra, Le Visage nuptial and Le Soleil des eaux. Thorny and jagged, full of brutality and violence, this was music that seethed like nothing else yet written.

For Boulez, the 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, in which a piece of music was generated by a fixed row of 12 notes, was merely a starting point. Now, other elements—including note length, volume, and attack (the way a note is played, crisply or smoothly, with an accent or without)—were also arranged in fixed sets of 12 and manipulated within the course of a piece in a highly mathematical fashion. “I wanted the anonymity of the composer,” Boulez would say many years later of this system of total serialism, which governed his austere works of the early 1950s, Polyphonie X and Structures 1a. “The composer was just a transmitter and nothing else.”

Eventually, he realized the creative limits of so confining an aesthetic. He craved more spontaneity, flexibility, fantasy, and freedom, all while maintaining the framework of serialism. His 1955 cantata for voice and chamber ensemble, Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer Without a Master), was the work in which he loosened the bonds, infusing a rigorous formal structure with more aromatic sounds. The piece premiered in June 1955 at the International Society for Contemporary Music festival in Baden-Baden, West Germany. And though the conductor, Hans Rosbaud, required an astonishing 50 rehearsals to overcome the supreme difficulties of the score, the work was a great success and is now recognized as a masterpiece of the mid-20th century. Even Igor Stravinsky, generally skeptical of the radical music of the time, was impressed. In a 1957 article in The Atlantic, Stravinsky was asked, “What piece of music has most attracted you from a composer of the younger generation?” “Le Marteau sans maître by Pierre Boulez,” he replied.

At the heart of the work are three surrealist poems by René Char, brief, concentrated lyrics filled with seemingly incongruous images and governed by the hazy logic of the subconscious. The poems may be integral to the work, but it would be wrong to think of the singer as a soloist and the other instruments as mere accompaniment. The singer appears in only four of the piece’s nine movements—the flute plays a more prominent role throughout. What Boulez accomplishes by treating his forces so democratically is a sustained exploration of related sonorities: all of the forces—contralto, alto flute, viola, guitar, and percussion—occupy the same middle range. The timbres are warm, often dark, sometimes delicate, dovetailing with each other in disorienting fashion. In the final movement, for example, the contralto sings with her mouth closed, and for a moment, it isn’t clear whether we are hearing the singer or the flute—a beautiful if haunting metamorphosis. This is but one way in which Boulez stretches the expressive potential of the human voice, which is occasionally lyrical but often as percussive as the tam-tam or tambourine.

How did Boulez create this “sensual, feline world,” as the composer György Ligeti described Le Marteau? Largely through the choice of exotic percussion instruments—vibraphone, xylorimba, tambourine, bongos, frame drum, agogô, maracas, tam-tams, gong, and cymbals. “I was very interested at this time by other cultures,” Boulez said a few years ago, “and I heard quite a lot of non-European music, Balinese music, African music, Japanese traditional music, Chinese theater, and so on and so forth.” In Le Marteau, the xylorimba calls to mind the African balafon, the vibraphone suggests the g’ndér of Bali, and the guitar bears some resemblance to the Japanese koto. Le Marteau may owe much to the music of Webern—the wide leaps spanning many intervals, the sudden changes in dynamic, the way in which traditional melody is distilled into a series of gestures, phrases, and suggestions of phrases, every note and silence expressing something vital—but this is a truly global work in which many cultures are invoked and absorbed. For Boulez, sonority is never an afterthought. Rather, the distinct ways in which metal and wood transmit waves of sound—phenomena the composer had become interested in while studying the music of Bali and parts of Africa—become essential components of this music, just as important as rhythm, volume, and pitch.

To make sense of, let alone understand, something as difficult as Le Marteau isn’t easy. Music like this requires careful, concentrated, repeated listening. At first, you may pick up only a phrase here, and another there, but soon certain patterns should begin to emerge. You could simply follow a single instrumental line, perhaps the viola or the flute. Or you could concentrate on the vocal part, listening to how the singer declaims Char’s poems, leaping from low to high, lingering over certain words, plangent and pleading in certain places, declarative and forceful in others. Or focus instead on the various tone colors: the voluptuous warmth of the xylorimba; the vibraphone and the guitar evoking twinkling lights in the vast dark firmament; the shake of the maracas and the flutter-tongued flute intimating something ominous. Or surrender to the piece’s rhythms: hypnotic when the bongos imitate a soft pulse or beating heart, more complex later on. Or you could simply marvel at the free improvisatory quality, especially in the gorgeous third movement, where only the flute and singer are heard, each an independent instrument encircling the other, sinuous as they come together and separate and entwine yet again, rising up like two dancing snakes. By the end of the 40 minutes or so, when the flute and gong float into a realm of preternatural quiet, a kind of musical mosaic will have emerged, and with any luck, you will want to start the piece all over again and discover the work’s many other felicities.

Boulez’s style evolved over time as he continually made use in his music of new sounds and textures. But Le Marteau sans maître was his breakthrough: a work of art that I find more moving than anything he had previously written. It also possesses a new quality to go along with the steely intellectualism of his early period—beauty. It may be an unconventional beauty, but this strange, difficult, otherworldly, and seductive soundscape is beautiful all the same.

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