Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez; drawing by David Levine

That the concept represented in popular aesthetics by avant-garde is applicable to music today, or in our century for that matter, would be hard to demonstrate. The idea that art has a continuous history that moves forward in both time and exploration is no less a trouble for dealing with the real artifacts, though a bit of it is required for explaining short-term developments like the classical symphony—Haydn through Schubert is only fifty years—or the growth of nontonal music from its germinal state of 1899 in Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht to the completed formulation of the twelve-tone method around 1923.

The trouble with avant-garde, originally a term in military tactics, is that it assumes the adventures of individual and small-group experimenters to be justifiable only as they may open up a terrain through which some larger army will then be able to pass. But it fails to explain who constitutes this army and what is its objective, since a military advance, however massive, is not a migration. It cannot be the world public of concert subscribers and record buyers, since many important achievements, both unique and influential, arrive at such distribution far too meagerly and too late to serve culture consumption efficiently. The music of Erik Satie and of Schoenberg’s group are cases in point. It is all published now and largely recorded, but still not much played; the armies of musical exploitation, industrial and academic, have not carried it along with them in their world conquest.

The idea that original work of this quality nourishes the younger composer is no less hard to justify. It becomes a part of his education, naturally; but his uses of it are inevitably dilutions, since innovations in art are generally brought to full term by their inventors (and a few close comrades) long before distribution gets hold of them. Actually, distributors tend to adopt only that which seems complete, presenting it as a novelty, which it may be for them, or as “experimental,” which by this time it is not, save as a sales-line. Short-term developments certainly represent a true evolution. But incorporating them through the professional conservatories into the living tradition of music is a hit-or-miss affair, any occupation rights in these centers of power being reserved for successful modernists, themselves mostly diluters, if not polluters, of their sources. American universities have a way of taking up the more successful moderns, subjecting them to institutionally certified examination, and then sinking their remains in a mud puddle ironically called “mainstream.”

EUROPEANS tend less to think of history as a river, and more as a library or museum, where any citizen can seek to be culturally entertained, informed, or inspired by high example. (The designers of women’s fashions are forever adapting to their use models from the libraries of historic costume; working as fast as they do, they are less bound than prouder artists to the fads of yesterday.) Western Europe, in fact, tends to view itself altogether as a museum and the creators of its major artifacts as a special type of workman, the “genius.” This kind of artist cannot be imagined without the background of a long cultural history and a pedagogical tradition based on the achievements of that history. The German composer, the French painter, the English poet—Beethoven, Schubert, Cézanne, Degas, Shakespeare, Keats—can often create remarkably with only minimal preparation, since the tradition of sound workmanship and a full history of it have been as close to his childhood as sports and cars and soda fountains to ours. In the American language genius merely means a high I.Q.; in Europe it means that you can speak for your time in language of precision and freedom.

Now the very idea that artists of genius have existed and still appear and that their works are entitled to preservation tends to destroy confidence in progress and also in history as a stream. Nevertheless, it is not possible today for the artist in any metropolitan center to conceive his talent as functioning otherwise than in some kind of continuous career. And it is equally impossible for him to carry on such a career without a belief in some version of his art’s recent history. It may even become necessary for him to retell polemically that history, in order that it may appear to others a preparation for him. The European composer’s view of himself as not only an heir of music’s past—a member of the family—but also an end-of-the-line genius terminating an important short-term development, has turned him into an inveterate explainer of music. No major composer of our century, I think, possibly excepting Ravel, has failed to write at least one book. The painters have written, too, and brilliantly; but criticism, scholarship, and the price conspiracy have all denied them authority. The writings of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Debussy, Satie, Stravinsky, Bartók, Milhaud, Messiaen, and Pierre Boulez are living witnesses to musical thought in our time; and they constitute, right along with historical studies, a valid part of music’s verbal script.


BOULEZ, now forty-three, is unquestionably a genius figure and typically a French one, though the Germans captured him some fifteen years ago through a publication contract (with Universal of Vienna), later taking physical possession through a well-paid composer-in-residence post in Baden-Baden at the Southwest Radio. Meanwhile he had toured the world constantly as musical director for the theatrical troupe of Madeleine Renaud and Jean-Louis Barrault. From 1954 they offered hospitality in the Théâtre Marigny, later in the Odéon-Théâtre de France, for his Concerts du Domain Musical, the only musical series in the world, to my knowledge, which attracts a broad intellectual public of not only musicians but also painters, poets, scholars, and others professionally distinguished. Along with Boulez’s own works these programs contain whatever is most far-out in Germany, France, Italy and Belgium, and quite regularly hommage-performances of works by the founding fathers of dodecaphony and occasionally of Bartók, Varèse, Stravinsky, Elliot Carter, Earle Brown, Yannis Xenakis.

Boulez himself is responsible for rehearsing these concerts and for most of the conducting. Passionate, painstaking, and aurally exact, as well as long used to exercising musical responsibility, Boulez is today a conductor of such remarkable power that although he still works chiefly in the modern repertory, he has been led (or captured) to undertake lengthy tours in Germany, England, and the United States, as well as gramophone recordings, that have in the last decade placed him among the world’s most-in-demand directors and at the same time diminished radically his output as a composer.

That output, before 1960, was in spite of its textural complexity both large and, in the view of all who follow post-World War II music, of the very first importance. Actually today’s modern movement, though it contains at least a dozen composers of high quality, is dominated by the three over-forty masters who genuinely excite the young—Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage. All three, moreover, have proved effective teachers of their own composing methods. And two of them, the Frenchman and the American, have long been engaged in criticism and musical polemics. As to whether the former’s high-powered conducting career will remove him from critical writing, as it seems already to have done from composition, my guess is that it will, though the Boulez tongue, sharp and fearless, will not be easily kept quiet.

More than a decade back, Boulez’s writing of music already showed a tendency toward tapering off, though without any remarked lowering of quality. On the contrary, his last contribution, of 1960, to a long-labored work in progress for divers instrumental and vocal combinations, entitled Pli selon pli (a “portrait of Mallarmé” in nine movements of which the last, Tombeau, impressed me deeply) was notable for its technical maturity, sonorous vibrancy, and full freedom of expression. Should his composition cease altogether, nobody would be more regretful than I, because I like this music, find it full of energy, fine thought, and beauty to the ear. For orchestral conducting, on the other hand, I lack the ultimate in admiration. There has been so much of it around, all absolutely first-class; our century has been rich that way, richer than in first-class composition. I would trade in a Toscanini any time for a Debussy.

Is Boulez another Debussy? He seems to have all the qualities. Excepting the one that only shows up in retrospect, the power of growth. Without that, or lacking confidence in that, he may be, as I have written elsewhere, another Marcel Duchamp. This case is rare, but not unknown in France. (Rimbaud is another.) The strategy is to create before thirty through talent, brains, determination, and hard labor a handful of unforgettable works, then to retire into private or public life and wait for an immortality which, when all can see production is complete, arrives on schedule. What does not arrive is technical freedom and the expressive maturing that enables a genius-type to speak at forty still boldly but now with ease, with freedom, and with whatever of sheer humane grandeur may be in him.

The heartless mature artist does of course exist, even in the upper levels. Richard Wagner, though financially a crook and sentimentally a cheat, was not one. Just possibly Mallarmé was. Max Jacob said of him, “a great poet, were he not obscure and stilted” (guindé was the word). And Boulez, who loves the deeply calculated, expressed in a very early essay (from Polyphonie, 1948) his private hope for a music that would be “collective hysteria and spells, violently of the present time”; and he admits to “following the lead of Antonin Artaud” in this regard. At twenty-three (he was born in 1925) some can produce hysterical effects at will. But for professional use, dependably, a method is needed; and the methodical stimulation of collective hysterias (in class warfare, in politics, in religion), that too has been plenty frequent in our time. I doubt that Boulez today aspires in music just to be a Beatle. Actually Boulez today is as impressive in his musico-intellectual celebrity as the Beatles are in their more modest operation. How he got that way will no doubt be told us, in some version, by recorded music’s press agents. What they will not tell us is what he thought about on the way up. And that is exactly the subject of his book from 1966 called Relevés d’apprenti, translated as Notes of an Apprenticeship.


THIS is an anthology of reflections on music published between 1948 and 1962, written, as he speaks, with brio and with a vast repertory of allusions. In French it is not easy to make out, because the vocabulary is over-replete with technical terms from mathematics (which Boulez seems fairly familiar with), from philosophy (less confidently used), from musical analysis (where he is both precise and inventive), and from the slang of intellectual Paris (also the source of his syntax when in polemical vein). The translation, though obviously made with care, is in the long run no less labored than the composer’s own prose and often just as hard to follow.

The pieces of high technical interest are among the earliest, from the years of his twenties, when he was building a method and formulating principles. Here we find electronic music and its possibilities (which he does not overestimate) studied from experience and thoughtfully, its Parisian establishment radically debunked. We also find dodecaphonic theory taken apart by an expert. He recognizes that there is nothing about the tempered scale of twelve equal semitones (a tuning adopted by J. S. Bach to facilitate modulation) that renders it indispensable to modern music. True intervals, of which there are fifty-two, could as well be employed. Audible octave-spacings are limited to seven. Loudness-levels, though theoretically infinite in number, are surely not practical to distinguish by ear beyond five or six. The shapes of a tone’s duration—wedge, pear, teardrop, and their mirror images, including the double wedge—are not many more. And the extent of durations—the raw material of rhythm—is not governed, save for ease of performance, by any numerical necessity at all, though lengths of time, unlike music’s other variables, are measurable, hence describable, by numbers. Timbers also are practically infinite; and though they are possible to serialize, few composers have bothered to try.

With all this variability inherent in music’s materials, and the number twelve essential to none of them, it is not surprising that Boulez considers the twelvetone music of Schoenberg to be “a failure,” though the idea of serialism itself a boon to music. His admiration for Anton Webern’s music, however, is not diminished by the dodecaphonic nonsense; rather he considers it saved by the tension of its intervallic layout and by its creation of forms out of musical materials rather than out of pathos from Old Vienna, which Berg and Schoenberg were likely to use. Boulez, like Cage, for all his disillusioned view of dodecaphony, remains convinced that in serialization of some kind lies music’s only hopes. I must say that virtually all the composers who deny a hierarchy among intervals come sooner or later to substitute for this hierarchy an order of tones arbitrarily chosen for each work and called a row, or series.

At one time or another everything that regards today’s music is discussed, always with a furious intensity and generally with penetration. For hazard and its planned use he has only disdain, unless it comes about that his own cerebration (should we read the unconscious?) leads a writer toward unexpected revelation, toward organic form, or toward some vastly valid experiment. In favor of all these he quotes from Mallarmé, “Every thought gives forth a cast of the dice.”

How to choose a row that will lend itself to development, expression, and intrinsic musical interest is treated in another book by Boulez, published in Germany, 1963, and entitled Penser la musique aujourdhui. Here his love of Webern and his own penchant for arithmetic lead him into much eloquence about the hidden symmetries available through subdivisions of the number twelve. Also into a lumpiness of style ever so hard to keep the mind on.

From recent years there are in the present book ten articles written for the Encyclopédie Fasquelle. Here the tone is not polemical at all but informative, and the judgments are fair and generally warm, though without conventional compliments. They are entitled Chord, Chromaticism, Concrete (Music), Counterpoint, Series, Béla Bartók, Alban Berg, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern, with an extra one on Schoenberg’s Piano Works, written for the jacket of a complete recording of these by Paul Jacobs. The article on Debussy is considered by Jean Roy in Musique Française (of the Présences contemporaines series, Debresse 1962) to be “the most penetrating and complete study [of this composer] ever published.” In passing, I should like also to recommend from the same brilliant but erratic musical encyclopedia the understanding article on Richard Wagner by a Boulez student, Gilbert Amy.

HERE, and indeed throughout the book, the Boulez skill in musical analysis and his preoccupation with rhythmic discovery dominate the investigations. He cannot forgive Schoenberg and his group for their rhythmic conventionality, as he cannot forgive Stravinsky, who was rhythmically radical, for not really knowing how to write music. He recognizes that a certain impotence in that regard led toward rhythmic construction of the most original kind. All the same, Stravinsky’s lack of aptitude for writing in the Western conventional way, with Conservatory solutions always at hand to use or to avoid, he finds deplorable and probably responsible for the neoclassic “decline” into which Stravinsky fell after World War I, when he could not carry forward his rhythmic researches because of poor “writing.” By “writing” (écriture) Boulez means harmony and counterpoint and the procedures of development, not orchestration, of course, at which Stravinsky was a master.

Beyond the intercourse with a major musical mind which this book offers as a delight throughout, for all the linguistic jambs, its major contribution to musical understanding is a long and detailed examination of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Every piece of this is given some attention and the two most original ones (hence most resistant to analysis), the Prelude and the Sacrificial Dance, receive depth study such as is rare today and has been since Donald Tovey’s now fifty-year-old writings on Beethoven. The fact that much of this material, especially the rhythmic analysis of the Sacrificial Dance, is the work of Olivier Messiaen, is mentioned. So be it. The full treatment is there, replete with musical quotations; and its availability now in English makes it an item for every college and music library to own.

The Sacrificial Dance, as examined in 1951, turns out to be exactly the sort of calculation toward collective hysteria that Boulez had declared his faith in three years earlier. The piece represents, as we know, a dancing to death by exhaustion on the part of a young girl chosen for sacrifice. And the collective hysteria that sustains her in the ordeal is not at all a product of rhythmic monotony, so commonly the provoker of group excitement. The rhythms that accompany this event are designed rather to stimulate hysteria in the theater, in the hope that this may induce an illusion of meaning shared, of presence at an ancient savage rite. These rhythms induce hysteria, if they do, by simulating it. The simulation consists of insistence on asymmetrical thumps, tonally and percussively huge. Their hugeness is standard orchestration. Their asymmetry, though novel, is also achieved by method, by a rhythmic calculation seemingly so secret that no amount of rehearsing will reveal to the merely spontaneous ear an identifiable pulse. (Robert Craft, who has heard and conducted the work possibly too often, now finds that “in the last section of the Sacrificial Dance,…where the basic meter is three and twos are the exceptions, the effect can sound precariously like a waltz with jumped record grooves.”)

What is revealed by Messiaen and Boulez, as rhythmic analysts, is the fact that the continuity is constructed out of small rhythmic cells arranged with a certain symmetry, as structures always are, but with non-symmetrical interruptions by other cells. All are composed of twos and threes, naturally, since the mind breaks down all number groupings into these, plus fast fives, just occasionally possible to hear as units. The whole is a hidden pattern not altogether different from those found in folklore by linguistic students and anthropologists. Not that the Dance was composed by instinct only, though Stravinsky never confessed that it was not; but its asymmetry is so strongly organized that the exposure of a plan behind it is almost as exciting a discovery as that of the symmetries governing marriage customs among Australian aborigines.

BOULEZ INDEED reminds one of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. His language is confusing, but his mind is not confused; it is merely active. Active and very powerful. So powerful that no music resists for long its ability to dismantle a whole engine and put it together again. It is moreover a loyal mind that puts things back right. Darius Milhaud said of him, “He despises my music, but conducts it better than anyone.” As an analyst, a critic, and an organizer of musical thought I do not know his equal. As a composer I know none other half so interesting. The personality—in the best French way both tough and tender—has been proved in every musical circumstance and every career-like stance irresistible. Its toughness is half the charm, its tenderness the source of critical acumen and, in his music, an emotional dynamo wired for power transmission and shielded by mental rigor.

That a European genius-type of such clear-to-all authority should give up creative work is unbelievable. That he should be tempted by the Klingsor gardens of orchestral celebrity is not strange at all; but if his heart is pure, as it heretofore has seemed to be, he will possibly make his way through to the Grail. That would mean complete artistic fulfillment—which can only be what he aims toward, and what we hope. There is precedent for a major artist’s resting in his forties. Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg, and William Blake are noted examples, seven years the usual period for lying fallow. But Boulez has already been silent, as composer and as critic, for most of eight years; and his orchestral adventure is still on an up-curve. No signs of let-up there. On the contrary, I note a temptation even more dangerous than mere conducting. So far, Boulez has made his career almost entirely out of modern music, a phenomenon not witnessed in big-time since Mary Garden. And that way, for a composer, lies missionary madness.

So I am worried. Strauss, Mahler, and Leonard Bernstein are another case. They had always conducted; they needed money; and they wrote music like windmills, at the turn of a leaf. Wagner and Schoenberg are better parallels. And they finally came through; that’s the best I can say.

MEANWHILE, another pungent book has come from France, this one directly—Sémantique musicale by Alain Daniélou (Paris, Hermann, 1967). Subtitled Essai de psychophysiologie auditive, it examines the musical experience through communications theory, the physical structure of the ear, and the known, or supposed, facts about auditory memory. In 118 pages, including diagrams, it opens a major matter and offers believable information about it.

Ernest Ansermet’s Les Fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (Neufchâtel, Editions de la Baconnière, 1961) purports to do the same (without information theory but with lots of mathematics and phenomenology) in two large volumes. I shall not discuss the latter work since brevity would be unfair. I merely mention it as another example of Europe’s interest in certain musical facts-of-life which before long we shall all be turning our minds to. Musicology is all right, when useful. Analysis and professional judgments are cardinal to the act. But polemical aesthetics, commonly referred to as “criticism,” are for any purpose but salesmanship, so far as I am concerned, pure lotus-eating. As practiced by Boulez in his twenties, however, they seem a mere incrustation to analysis and judgment and, before the authority with which he already exercised those prerogatives, appear not deeply ingrained within the thought, but more like colored lichens on a rock.

P.S. Regarding the difficulties of translation presented by the Boulez super-colloquial style, let me cite a passage from the chapter Alea, first published in 1957 in the Nouvelle Revue française. Comparing a facile use of chance (the “aleatory”) in music-making to the “never very miraculous” dreams described by hashish fanciers, the French text reads: “Paix à l’âme de ces angéliques! on est assuré qu’ils n’iront point dérober quelque fulguration, puisqu’ils n’en ont que faire.”

Weinstock renders this: “Peace to the souls of these angelic beings! One is sure they will never steal any lightning, that not being what they are up to.”

In Perspectives of New Music, fall-winter 1964, this same passage translated by David Noakes and Paul Jacobs reads: “Peace to these angelic creatures; we can be sure they run absolutely no risk of stealing any thunder, since they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

Now using thunder instead of lightning for fulguration is not important. Less exact literally, it is perhaps more apt as image. What arrests me about the sentence is its ending. And here I find the Noakes and Jacobs rendering superior.

I have not counted up or noted down all the suspect items, but here are just a few examples of how tricky this kind of French can be.

[Debussy] est un fameux, un excellent ancêtre. Now the basic meaning here of fameux must be whopping, or something like that, for that is the common slangy use of it and far more emphatic in this connection than the literal, the one-dimensional famous, used on page 34.

The American localism tacky is used on page 331 for pâteuse to characterize the parody music in Berg’s Lulu. Thick or muddy would have been closer to the French and more descriptive.

Again of Berg, his propensity for allusions to other music is several times referred to as citation, though this word in French means less often that than simply quotation.

The year of the Wozzeck premiere is given on page 315 as 1923 (impossible since it was the result of fragments having been heard by Erich Kleiber at a concert conducted by Hermann Scherchen in 1924). The French text gives 1925, which is correct.

For using the word conduct to signify the medieval form conductus I find among my household dictionaries no precedent. The French word is conduit, a past participle like the Latin word, which is surely standard usage among English-language musicologists. If conduct had not been paired on page 294 with motet, and both words italicized, I doubt if I should have been able to identify it.

Of Schoenberg, “la suite de ses créations qui commence avec la Sérénade,” would have been perfectly clear as “the works that followed the Serenade,” or better, “the series of works that began with the Serenade.” Its rendering on page 271 as “the sequences of Schoenberg’s creations that began with the Serenade” is confusing, since sequences, in the plural, are a compositional device and one practically never employed by Schoenberg.

Just flyspecks, one may say, on a great book; and I agree. But there are far too many for easy reading. Time after time one is obliged to consult the original, and that is not easy to read either. But it means what the author wishes it to mean; and with such tightly reasoned trains of thought, his language could not have been advantageously simplified much farther. Again a reminder of Lévi-Strauss and of all that exuberant intellection spouting nowadays in France like springs and geysers.

This Issue

September 26, 1968