Music to Compose By

Boulez on Music Today

by Pierre Boulez, translated by Susan Bradshaw, translated by Richard Rodney Bennett
Harvard, 144 pp., $6.95

The original French title of this book is a little awkward in English: Penser la musique aujourd’hui means “To think music today.” It implies that music—what it is and, above all, what it might and ought to be—can be conceived by the intelligence and that an act of thought can be a creative act of will. The publishers have decided to ignore these implications: “Boulez on Music Today by Pierre Boulez” has the advantage of getting Boulez’s name twice on the cover and of avoiding the mention of anything so repellent to the prospective customer as rational thought.

The publishers have also elected not to inform the reader that the book is unfinished; it is only volume I, and the expectations aroused by several references to a later chapter on musical form will remain frustrated. The book jacket is, in any case, singularly ill-informed: in the list of Boulez’s works given, not one is later than 1950, and Marteau sans maître and Pli selon pli, his most famous works—among the most famous works of any composer of the last twenty years—go astonishingly unmentioned.

The translators are Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett, a fine pianist and a very distinguished young composer respectively, and they have handsomely turned Boulez’s mandarin French into upper-class British. They have ventured on a small number of helpful notes, but it is amusing to be told that cartes du tendre (seventeenth-century allegorical maps of erotic psychology) are like Victorian moral diagrams. The opening twenty pages of polemic—without names, but it is easy to put them to the anonymous victims of Boulez’s wrath—are well rendered, although the translators naturally miss the repressed word play which growls beneath the surface of Boulez’s prose and gives it its tone.

The polemic is directed against the fashionable avant-garde trends of ten years ago in composition and analysis: the fascination with mathematical formulas divorced from all consideration of musical perception, the dadaist infantile exploitation of total chance, the use of machine noises impossible to integrate into the sound pattern of musical instruments—in short, any of the fetishes which were forcing music outside the control of the composer’s imagination when Boulez wrote this book, and of which many are still with us today.

Boulez starts from the premise that some form of serialism is an inescapable fact of life of contemporary music. What gives this premise some force is the existence of serial works composed over the past forty years that are not only of the highest quality but completely disparate in style. Schoenberg’s String Trio, Berg’s Violin Concerto, Boulez’s Marteau sans maître, Stravinsky’s Requiem, and Webern’s late cantatas all resemble one another in very little except their use of serial procedure. The increasing adoption by composers of some form of serial technique and its varied possibilities called for a theoretical basis wider than a mere explanation of the Second Viennese School.

Serialism is not, as is often supposed, a mechanical and facile procedure for producing unpopular works. It is a…

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