Pierre Boulez (March 26, 1925, Montbrison, France - January 5, 2016, Baden-Baden, Germany) was a French composer and conductor, one of the most distinguished in his field. Through his own compositions and his activities as author, teacher, and advocate of contemporary music, he has made a decisive contribution to the development of music in the twentieth century. Boulez's positions with three major symphony orchestras gained him an international reputation as a foremost interpreter of music by Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schoenberg, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Wagner.
After an initial training in mathematics, he studied piano, composition, and choral conducting at the Paris Conservatoire (1943-5), where his teachers included Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz. He became musical director of Barrault's Théâtre Marigny (1948), where he established his reputation as an interpreter of contemporary music. In 1953-54, he founded the Concerts du Petit Marigny, one of the first concert series entirely dedicated to the performance of modern music, which later became the Domaine Musical series.
Throughout the next decade, he was much involved with musical analysis and he taught composition at the Music Academy in Basel (1960-62). Boulez began his conducting career in 1958 with the Südwestfunk Orchestra in Baden-Baden, Germany. From 1962-63, he was visiting professor at Harvard University.
Pierre Boulez first appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on subscription concerts in February 1969 conducting Claude Debussy's "Jeux", Béla Bartók's "First Piano Concerto" with Daniel Barenboim, Anton Webern's "Passacaglia" and "Six Pieces for Orchestra", and Olivier Messiaen's "Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum". His reputation as a leading musician brought him to the attention of George Szell, who invited him to conduct in the United States for the first time with the Cleveland Orchestra. From 1969 until 1972, Boulez was principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. In 1971, he became chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1971-5) and, that same year, he succeeded Leonard Bernstein as music director of the New York Philharmonic, a position he held until 1977.
His difference of opinion about state intervention in the arts as espoused by André Malraux led Boulez into voluntary exile for several years. He returned to France in triumph in 1974 when the French government under President Georges Pompidou decided to build a music research center at the Pompidou Centre and invited Boulez to be its creator and director. In 1976 he became a professor at the Collège de France, and in 1977 he became director of the Institut de Recherche et de Co-ordination Acoustique Musique (IRCAM) at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (he is also co-founder of Cité de la Musique, another music center in Paris). From IRCAM sprang the creation of a major and permanent instrumental group, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, one of the world's finest contemporary music ensembles which Boulez conducted regularly, in France as well as on extended tours abroad.
In 1991 Boulez resigned as conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, while continuing as its president; that same year he was guest artistic director of the Scotia Festival. In 1992 he conducted Peter Stein's new production of Claude Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande" with the Welsh National Opera on a European tour that began in Cardiff. In January 1993, this production (released as a video by Deutsche Grammophon) was named "1992 Opera Production of the Year" at the International Classical Music Awards in London. At the 1992 Salzburg Festival, Boulez appeared with the Ensemble InterContemporain, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1993, he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for the first time in almost 30 years. In 1994 he led the orchestra at a Webern festival during the 1994 Berliner Festwochen.
To celebrate his 70th birthday in 1995, Pierre Boulez undertook a world tour with the London Symphony Orchestra and a host of international stars including Maurizio Pollini, Jessye Norman, Gidon Kremer, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Mstislav Rostropovich. In 1995, Boulez conducted Peter Stein's production of Arnold Schoenberg's opera "Moses and Aaron" at the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam and led the opera's premiere at the 1996 Salzburg Festival.
Pierre Boulez's discography includes prize-winning recordings of "Parsifal" from Bayreuth and Berg's "Lulu" (world premiere recording). In 1989, he signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon to record a broad range of twentieth-century masterworks with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic as well as contemporary repertoire, including his own works, with the Ensemble InterContemporain. Boulez has won 23 Grammy Awards since 1967, five of those were with the Chicago Symphony. His recording of Béla Bartók's "The Wooden Prince" and "Cantata profana" with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus received four 1993 Grammy Awards for "Best Classical Album", "Best Orchestral Performance", "Best Performance of a Choral Work", and "Best Engineered Recording-Classical". He won two 1994 Grammy Awards ("Best Classical Album" and "Best Orchestral Performance") for his recording of Béla Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra and Four Orchestral Pieces, Op. 12" with the CSO. Boulez's 1994 awards were presented to him in a special ceremony at Orchestra Hall in December, 1995. In 1995, Pierre Boulez was awarded the German Record Critics Award for his contribution to 20th-century music, named "Artist of the Year" by the magazine Gramophone, and honored at the Victoires De La Musique in France. In 1996 Boulez received the Berlin Arts Prize, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music awarded him the Polar Music Prize. He won the 1997 Grammy Award for "Best Orchestral Performance" for a recording of Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique" and "Tristia" with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. Boulez most recently received a 1999 Grammy Award for "Best Classical Contemporary Composition" for the recording of his work, "Répons", with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. His many awards and honors include honorary doctorates from Leeds, Cambridge, Basel, and Oxford universities, among others; Commander of the British Empire; and Knight of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
His numerous compositions are widely performed. His early work as a composer rebelled against what he saw as the conservatism of such composers as Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Of his later works, "Le Marteau Sans Maître" (1955) - "The Hammer Without a Master" - gained him a worldwide reputation, confirmed by "Pli selon pli" - "Fold according to Fold" - and his third piano sonata.
Boulez also has published five books about music.
Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Karel Goeyvaerts, Mauricio Kagel, György Ligeti, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen belong to that handful of composers that provoked a landslide in the music of the ‘50s and ‘60s of the past century, that has remained unparalleled up to now.
Boulez passed away on January 5, 2016.
Links with Zappa
Zappa bought his first Boulez album in twelfth grade. He is listed as an influence on the cover of "Freak Out!" (1966) under the heading "These People Have Contributed Materially In Many Ways To Make Our Music What It Is. Please Do Not Hold It Against Them". Soprano soloist, Sylvia Brigham-Dimiziani, who worked with Boulez is also mentioned in this list.
Zappa mentioned Boulez' Le Marteau Sans Maître as one of his personal favorites in the article My Favorite Records, published in Hit Parader in 1967: "Also, Pierre Boulez conducts his own composition: 'Le Marteau Sans Maître'. I don't know what label that's on, but it's the one with Boulez conducting. The one by Robert Craft has too many mistakes." On November 10, 1968 Zappa was DJ during a radio show on KSAN, San Francisco, and played a recording of this same piece on the air.
According to the interview The Beefheart Zappa Talk-in (November 8, 1969) Zappa was already trying to get Boulez in to conduct his work in the Royal Albert Hall in London.
In Zappa, 82/4 (1982) Zappa was asked about this collaboration and explained: "He asked me to write a piece for his ensemble. He has this virtuoso ensemble of about thirty musicians he works with all the time called the Ensemble Intercontemporaine. So he sent me a list of their instrumentation. (...) It's nice – considering that nobody in the United States gives a damn."
Boulez is one of the people receiving thanks for their "very special but no less significant contributions" in The Yellow Shark liner notes.