Pierre Boulez
(1925- )

For nearly the past sixty years Pierre Boulez has been in the forefront of modern musical life.  Initially a leader in Europe’s post-war compositional revolution, Boulez first made an impact on mainstream classical music through his conducting.  In fact, his term as co-director of the New York Philharmonic marks the one time a member of the avant-garde has led a major orchestra.  He remains active and influential as a composer, conductor, administrator, and writer.


Early Life and Student Years

Born March 2, 1925, in Montbrison, France, Boulez sang in his school choir and played the piano.  In addition, he exhibited a strong aptitude for mathematics.  After a year in Lyons in 1941 studying mathematics, Boulez moved to Paris and entered the Conservatoire.  He studied harmony with the composer Olivier Messiaen and showed particular acuity in music analysis, taking a first prize in that subject in 1945.

Boulez was the leader of a group of young radicals (calling themselves “Les Fleches,” or “The Arrows”) who strongly rejected the conservative precepts of the Conservatoire.  They also disliked what they saw as the insufficiently progressive French music scene, dominated at that time by the Neoclassicism of Stravinsky and a group of French composers known as “Les Sixes.”

In fine French tradition, Boulez and his fellow revolutionaries staged a series of demonstrations at concerts, most notably at a performance of Stravinsky’s music in 1945.  As an alternative to the then-familiar principals of Neoclassicism, the young French composers looked to the twelve-tone method associated with the Second Viennese School.

Boulez was particularly vehement in asserting the importance of twelve-tone music.  In the first of a series of sharp-tongued and uncompromising public statements, Boulez declared that “anyone who has not felt…the necessity of the dodecaphonic [twelve-tone] language is OF NO USE.”  On the other hand, Boulez was impatient with the remaining traditional elements of the music of the Viennese school, giving vent to these feelings several years later in an article entitled “Schoenberg Is Dead.”

This zeal and the absolute self-confidence with which Boulez applied himself to the most vital questions of post-war musical life were to prove exceptionally influential.  The main vehicle for Boulez’s ideas, and the compositions which grew out of them, was the Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (International Summer Courses for New Music), which, starting in the early 1950s, became the principal center for the European musical avant-garde.

Total Serialism and Indeterminacy

The initial focus of these young composers (who also included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, and Luciano Berio, among others) was the maximum possible control of musical elements.  They saw such control as the only way to reinvent and revitalize what they viewed as a moribund and corrupt musical language.  The method of control that Boulez and the others hit upon, called “total” or “integral” serialism, was an expansion of Schoenberg’s serial principle to include durations, dynamics, and articulations.

Boulez explored the integral serialist approach in his works Polyphonie X (1950-1) for 18 instruments and Structures I (1951-2) for 2 pianos.  Not surprisingly, however, this ideology of extreme control provoked a backlash – even among its main proponents – toward the release of control.  The impulse towards removing the composer’s will from the act of composition was championed at this time by the American composer John Cage. 

Cage’s influence affected all of the main European composers.  Boulez himself had for a time a very close relationship to Cage.  Beginning with Le Marteau Sans Maitre (The Hammer Without a Master) (1953-5), Boulez began introducing elements of indeterminacy into his rigorously systematic compositional practice.

Another aspect of this loosening of control was Boulez’s practice of revising, sometimes more than once, many of his older works.  Indeed, some works, such as Livre, exist in as many as fifteen versions.  These “open form” pieces amount to a radical re-thinking of the compositional process, creating a never-ending labyrinth of interrelated versions rather than the simple, “finished” composition of the past.  Indeed, many of these pieces are more truly considered “works in progress” that are occasionally performed.


Along with his meteoric rise to prominence as a composer, theorist, and firebrand spokesman for the most progressive elements of modern music, Boulez also began a career as a conductor.  Beginning with the concert series Domaine Musical in 1954, Boulez became an acknowledged master, leading polished, nuanced performances of the most difficult contemporary music as well as earlier twentieth-century classics. 

Dissatisfied with the state of French musical culture, Boulez relocated to Baden-Baden in Germany in 1957 and took a position as guest conductor of the Cologne Orchestra.  Though little known in the United States, he was appointed principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell in 1964.  Then, in 1968, he and Szell were appointed co-directors of the New York Philharmonic, replacing Leonard Bernstein.  Shortly thereafter, Szell was stricken with cancer, leaving Boulez – a one-time ultra-radical modernist – the leader of the premier establishment orchestra in America.

Boulez’s time in New York was marked by the predictable conservative resistance to his penchant for programming modern works (particularly Debussy, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Stravinsky, and Bartok) at the expense of the more familiar canon of masterworks.  In 1977 Boulez declined to renew his contract with the Philharmonic, deciding to return to what he said was “for me, the more normal life” of composing and occasionally conducting on a guest basis.


In 1977 Boulez was made director of the newly established Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Institute for Research and the Co-ordination of Acoustics and Music), also known as IRCAM.  IRCAM was founded under French Premier Georges Pompidou and established close to the Pompidou Center (on “Rue de Igor Stravinsky”) in the heart of Paris.  The goal of this institution was to unite the best creative musicians with the finest scientific researchers in the area of acoustics and sound-related computer applications.

Over the years since its founding, IRCAM has indeed served as the training ground for generations of composers and engineers in the ever-expanding field of music technology.  It remains one of the principal forces in this realm, focusing especially on the real-time manipulation of acoustic sounds using sophisticated computer applications along with live performers.

In the early 1980s, as something of a demonstration of the possibilities of this new technology, Boulez composed Repons, a work for chamber orchestra, a battery of percussion soloists, and electronic sounds.  The soloists are spread around the perimeter of the hall, and the sounds they make are extensively processed live in conjunction with the on-going performance.  This work, like so many of Boulez’s compositions, has been “recomposed” several times.

Boulez, who celebrated his eightieth birthday in 2005, has continued his multiple exertions with amazing vigor.  He maintains a carefully focused guest-conducting schedule with a select few of the world’s major orchestras.  In addition, he composes or recomposes steadily, in an utterly distinctive style of refined intensity and coloristic nuance.  He is still involved with IRCAM and with the associated Ensemble Intercontemporaine.  Finally, Boulez is represented in a wealth of recordings (principally on Deutsche Grammophon), conducting one of the most varied and prolific repertoires of any living orchestral director.


Boulez, Pierre.  "Schoenberg is Dead."  Composers on Modern Musical Culture: An Anthology of Readings on Twentieth-Century Music.  Ed. Bryan R. Simms.  Trans. Stephen Walsh.  New York: G. Schirmer, 1999.  145-51.

Hopkins, G.W. and Paul Griffiths: ‘Boulez, Pierre’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 18 June 2006), <http:www.grovemusic.com>