Vic Hoyland

Boulez in Birmingham


Neil Smith, 2008

Pierre Boulez is the dean of living European composers. Neil Smith discusses his recent visit to Birmingham

You may not have heard of him, but Pierre Boulez is probably the most eminent living composer in Europe, so his visit to Birmingham last Month took place with a reverence usually reserved for royalty. After hearing a concert of his music the previous evening the French-born Boulez, also a highly successful conductor, took an open rehearsal of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks. It was a rare chance to see and hear the octogenarian in action as he took charge of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, despite his confession that this was ‘not his favourite piece’.

When about to observe someone who is billed as a ‘living legend’ it is hard to know what to expect, especially considering Boulez’s reputation for strict adherence to modernist principles, established in his early polemical articles. Most famous among these is ‘Schoenberg is Dead’ (written perhaps a little too soon after the death of the inventor of serialism), where Boulez pledges his allegiance not to Schoenberg but his pupil, Anton Webern, because of what he saw as a true modernist attitude. A fellow student articulated these thoughts in his description of Boulez as a ‘modernist archangel come to wreak vengeance on the non believers.’ So, how would someone so uncompromising on paper conduct a rehearsal?

As it happened Boulez’s approach would not be unfamiliar to anyone who has sat through a rehearsal in an amateur or youth orchestra. It seems there are few secrets to good music-making, with typical elements such as tempo and dynamics occupying proceedings. Any sense of unease was immediately dispelled by the unassuming manner of his succinct instructions, which were delivered in very good English. There were even one or two mistakes from the conductor, as he admitted he had not had that much time (or indeed, one supposes, much of an inclination) to look at the score.

Short bursts of discussion between Boulez and Paul Griffiths (a notable analyst and writer on contemporary music) broke up this practical demonstration, with Stravinsky in particular in the spot-light. Boulez’s first hand reminiscences of one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century were compelling and more often than not amusing. The first time they met was after a dinner to which Boulez ‘was not invited’, though he was allowed to enter the post-dinner gathering: a set of circumstances that brings to mind a rather surreal ‘great composer’ tea party.

At this first meeting they talked, unsurprisingly, about music. Boulez was familiar with much of the older man’s work, having written a number of articles and analyses, though these were often far from complementary. In particular he vehemently attacked the works from Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, a fact which explains his indifference to Dumbarton Oaks, a piece very much in this mould. The echoes of classical gesture were unlikely to match the tastes of the purist Boulez, whose admiration for Webern rested on how it was ‘something totally unlike what we had heard before’.

Yet what does one do when one becomes the old guard? He holds the same opinions as fifty years ago but in person admits that they are just that: opinions. Would a young Boulez expound so mildly on musical principles he disagrees with so fundamentally? Either the real Boulez was never as virulent as his prose would suggest or he has softened his stance over the years, as a new generation of composers has had to deal with different concerns. Incidentally, Boulez would not comment on young composers of today, it appears he feels he is not as well placed as his younger self to discuss new music. Obviously he disagrees with certain, more recent developments in music, but his refusal to criticise must be seen not as a sign of disdain but of benevolence: he does not want to discourage young composers. Boulez is too shrewd a character to become an embittered mud-slinger.

The event ended with three short pieces, composed by Richard Causton, Vic Hoyland and Richard Baker, written to welcome Boulez to Birmingham. Long applause followed the final work, during which Boulez picked up the scores dedicated to him and strolled off into the distance (at least this is what it felt like, he strolled, in fact, behind the orchestra to his belongings). It was a rather fitting, if slightly bizarre, end to the day which above all showed the warmth of a personality that propped up this definitive facade of modernism. The young firebrand has morphed seamlessly into the grand old man of European music.