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Detail of title page for Boulez's Notations VII

Detail of title page of the score to Boulez’s Notations VII

According to Phillip Huscher, “Pierre Boulez composed the original Notations for piano in 1945, when the twenty-year-old composer was still a student of Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. Boulez wrote twelve pieces, each twelve measures long (the number was central to the manifesto of the time). These Notations are concise, highly polished studies, each a precise and taut exploration of a single musical idea. Although Boulez quickly put them aside and moved on to greater challenges, they are among the works with which he opened a new chapter in the history of music.”

Boulez orchestrated the first four Notations in 1977 and 1978, and these versions were premiered by the Orchestre de Paris in 1980 with Daniel Barenboim conducting. Claudio Abbado led the Chicago Symphony’s first performances in October 1984, and Boulez himself conducted them with the Orchestra in October 1987. Near the end of the centennial season, music director designate Daniel Barenboim first led the Chicago Symphony in the four Notations in April 1991, and shortly thereafter, a second set of four orchestrations was commissioned for the Orchestra by the Edward F. Schmidt Family Commissioning Fund.

Teldec release

Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestra recorded Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Debussy’s La mer, and Boulez’s Notations VII for Teldec in January 2000

Boulez completed the first of these in 1997, and on January 14, 1999, the Orchestra gave the world premiere of Notations VII. Barenboim conducted the eight-minute work, followed by Pierre Boulez giving a brief discussion on his compositional process that included Barenboim performing the original piano version. Barenboim then conducted the work a second time. “What was abrupt in 1945 is now languorous; what was crude is now done with a lifetime’s experience and expertise; what was simple is fantastically embellished, even submerged,” wrote Paul Griffiths in The New York Times. “Boulez suggested the metaphor of long-buried grain sprouting, but one might rather think of an oyster making a pearl. As if irritated by the original piano piece, the composer has given it a sumptuous, dense, and opalescent coating, not only expanding it but also, in a way, withdrawing its shock. . . . The violent new influences of 1945 are, in the recomposition, being wiped away.”

Following the premiere, Barenboim led numerous performances of the five Notations in Chicago as well as on tour in Carnegie Hall, Berlin, Cologne, and Lucerne, and he included them during his farewell concerts as music director in June 2006. No. VII was recorded by Teldec in 2000.

This article also appears here.

To celebrate Pierre Boulez‘s 89th birthday on March 26, below please find today’s assignment, your reading list of books—by and about our Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus—available in the Rosenthal Archives:

Notes of an Apprenticeship - Pierre Boulez

Notes of an Apprenticeship was originally published in French in 1966 and again in English in 1968 by Alfred A. Knopf, as translated by Herbert Weinstock. Boulez commented: “It becomes evident that the parallel between Bach and Schoenberg is devoid of any real significance. Were there place for such a comparison, it could be only with Webern. Considering the respective positions of Bach and Webern—the one in relation to the tonal language, the other with regard to the serial language—one could state that they were situated symmetrically; we could even borrow from geometry the word ‘antiparallel’ to define more exactly the relationships that could be conceived between Bach and Webern. The former displays chiefly an activity of extension . . . the latter is involved essentially in the conquest of a new world.”

Boulez on Music Today - Pierre Boulez

In 1971 Harvard University Press published Boulez on Music Today, translated by Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett (originally published in French in 1963). Boulez writes: “Is the composer then only a pretext? Michel Butor, at the end of his essay on [Charles] Baudelaire, gives a definitive answer to this objection. ‘Some people,’ he writes, ‘may think that, while intending to write about Baudelaire, I have only succeeded in speaking of myself. It would certainly be better to say that it was Baudelaire who spoke of me. He speaks of you.’ If you question the masters of an earlier period with perseverance and conviction you become the medium of their replies: they speak of you through you.”

Boulez - Composer, Conductor, Enigma - Joan Peyser

Joan Peyser‘s Boulez: Composer, Conductor, Enigma was published in 1976 by Schirmer, during Boulez’s tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Boulez studied with Olivier Messiaen in Paris in the 1940s, and the author describes one of their regular encounters: “After class they would often ride the Metro together. Boulez would say, ‘Musical aesthetics are being worn out. Music itself will die. Who is there to give it birth?’ Messiaen replied, ‘You will, Pierre.'”

Boulez - Paul Griffiths

Paul Griffiths, for Oxford University Press in 1978, wrote Boulez for the Oxford Studies of Composers series. On Boulez’s masterpiece Le marteau sans maître, Griffiths commented: “[The work] does indeed owe its effect to the completeness with which the delirium of a violent surrealism is considered and organized, to a rational technique’s straining to encompass the extremes of the irrational. Its importance lies also in Boulez’s discovery, through his proliferating serial method, of the means to create music which neither apes the quasi-narrative forms of tonality nor contents itself with simple symmetries in the manner of Structures. This was the discovery that Boulez celebrated at the close of his dictionary definition of ‘series’: ‘Classical tonal thought,’ he wrote, ‘is based on a universe defined by gravitation and attraction; serial thought is on a universe in perpetual expansion.'”

Orientations - Pierre Boulez

Orientations: Collected Writings by Pierre Boulez is the most fascinating and indeed, the most dense of all of the books available (edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez, translated by Martin Cooper, and published in 1986 by Harvard University Press; the original was published in French in 1981). On Richard Wagner: “If Wagner’s personality has been—still is, indeed—the subject of such passionate controversy, it is because his ambition was great, indeed limitless. So much the better! What we call romanticism was a great adventure, a bold undertaking of the human spirit, and it must be remembered by something more than a few heroic trifles and pathetic nostalgias. People often try to reduce it to nothing more than that—some faintly extravagant mannerisms, some eccentric attitude or cheap and obvious sentimentality. How wrong it is to see romanticism as anything so feeble as a mere consolation—as it were—for living in such hard times as ours. The claims made by Wagner’s great undertaking [the Ring cycle] were something very different from that; and if in some ways that undertaking failed—and failed disastrously—there is no denying that in other ways it succeeded beyond all imagination.”

Pierre Boulez - Dominique Jameux

In 1991 Harvard University Press published Susan Bradshaw’s translation of Dominque Jameux’s Pierre Boulez, an extensive biography on the composer and conductor (originally published in French in 1984). “Boulez’s thinking is digital rather than analogical. Faced with the offer of a new reality, his reactions are immediate and decisive. He is at ease when confronted with opening-up processes as long as they have a practical application, and are approached successively as the need arises. . . . Boulez thinks in terms of options rather than progressive evolution. Like most intellectuals, he is doubtless afflicted by uncertainty, self-questioning and irresolution, even if he hardly ever lets it appear so. He acts as he thinks—positively. Outwardly he gives an impression of resolution, mental alacrity, perseverance, and self-justification—inwardly, one of evaluation, amendment, realism, and self-criticism.”

Pierre Boulez - A Symposium - William Glock

Pierre Boulez: A Symposium is a collection of essays edited by William Glock and published by Eulenburg Books in 1986. In the chapter dedicated to Boulez’s compositions for piano, Charles Rosen begins: “The Sonatas for piano Nos. 1 and 2, along with the Flute Sonatine, are the first items to be admitted to the canon of works acknowledged by Pierre Boulez. Music for keyboard is a traditional outlet for experimentation: it allows an immediate control over the musical idea. If the composer is even a modest pianist, it enables him to escape (momentarily) from the terror of being interpreted; and the limitation of tone-color and range is a positive advantage even for composers for whom timbre is not a compositional element clearly subordinate to pitch—the limited timbre of the piano acts as a focus. Music for piano has therefore become, starting with Beethoven, a convenient form of announcing a revolution in style: Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy, and Schoenberg are the most conspicuous examples of composers who used the piano for this purpose. In spite of later developments, the piano work which initiates a change of direction often indicates at once the nature of the revolution and suggests its limits.”

Conversations with Boulez - Jean Vermeil

Jean Vermeil’s Conversations with Boulez: Thoughts on Conducting—originally published in French in 1989—was published in 1996 by Amadeus Press in Camille Naish’s translation. On conducting without a baton: “So, the baton? The more one is inclined toward contemporary music, the less one needs this particular extension. There’s a certain technique involved: the accuracy of the gesture resides in a perfect coincidence between arm, hand, and intention—and what one can physically execute, as well. And so, especially for phrasing, both hands are needed.”

The Boulez-Cage Correspondence - Jean-Jacques Nattiez

“Between May 1949 and August 1954 the composers Pierre Boulez and John Cage exchanged a series of remarkable letters which reflect on their own music and the music and culture of the time. . . . At the time, Cage and Boulez were great friends and these amicable letters reflect their differing ideas on the course new music should take. While Boulez was thinking about forms of serialism, Cage was moving in the direction of ever greater compositional freedom and chance procedures.” This excerpt is part of the introduction to The Boulez–Cage Correspondence, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and translated and edited by Robert Samuels, and published in English by Cambridge University Press in 1993 (originally published in French and English in 1990).

Rationalizing Culture - Georgina Born

Georgina Born‘s Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde was published by the University of California Press in 1995. Boulez’s words, from the introduction: “The creator’s intuition alone is powerless to provide a comprehensive translation of musical invention. It is thus necessary for him to collaborate with the scientific research worker in order to envision the distant future, to imagine less personal, and thus broader, solutions. . . . The musician must assimilate a certain scientific knowledge, making it an integral part of his creative imagination.”

To Boulez and Beyond - Joan Peyser

Peyser’s second book concerning Boulez—To Boulez and Beyond: Music in Europe Since The Rite of Spring—was published in 1999 by Billboard Books. “What Boulez set out to do was ‘to strip music of its accumulated dirt and give it the structure it had lacked since the Renaissance.’ He went into it, ‘with exaltation and fear. It was like [René] Descartes‘s “Cogito, ergo sum.” I momentarily suppressed inheritance. I started from the fact that I was thinking and went on to construct a musical language from scratch.'”

Dialogues with Boulez - Rocco Di Pietro

Scarecrow Press in 2001 published Dialogues with Boulez by Rocco Di Pietro. In Boulez’s words: “Well, when I think of myself as a composer, there are two things in me: the side of the performer and the side of the composer. That’s the same person, of course. But the approach is not exactly the same because, even when I conduct my own works I have some distance with them, not at all like when you are composing. As a composer, yes, you have to be at the same time adventurous, so you don’t know what you will discover; I mean, you are on the path of a discovery and you know it. And you go about this in various ways. For instance, imitation or absorption is one way. You hear something. Or if you see something—a painting; or if you read a book, especially when you are in an overlapping configuration or discipline which is not musical at all. Like painting, for example: suddenly you see someone’s work who has found a solution to the problem, and it may be that you can say, ‘Oh, for my problem that can also apply.’ Of course, you have to transcend that, to find your own solution. It can provoke a solution. That’s what I call not so much imitation, really, but absorption.”

Boulez on Conducting - Pierre Boulez

Boulez on Conducting: Conversations with Cécile Gilly was first published in French in 2002. Richard Stokes’s translation was published the following year by Faber and Faber. When asked about how conducting had provided the composer a practical side, Boulez replied: “It has caused me to reflect on speculation and performance. They are like two mirrors. You have the mirror of speculation and the mirror of performance, which reflect each other. That is indispensable.”

Any questions?

the vault

Theodore Thomas


The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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