Pierre Boulez came to the conclusion early in his career that the past was useless and that innovation alone should guide musicians into the era of new music. Boulez thought of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky as the perfect example of what happens when composers conform to the past – despite Stravinsky’s legacy as a great innovator. Whose ideas turned out to be more influential in shaping 20th-century music, the destructive artistry of Boulez or Stravinsky’s cult of neoclassicism?
In the field of music composition, it isn’t easy to tell which composers get the “last laugh.” Perhaps it’s the ones whose works are still played years after their death, with thousands of audience members anxiously waiting for a respectable performance of a cherished masterpiece. Or maybe it’s the rare performance of an experimental piece decades after the premiere, in front of a niche but dedicated base of listeners who hopelessly try to understand the hidden complexities of an underappreciated work. Depending on the observer, either one of these could be considered a victory for the respective composer.
This dichotomy accurately represents the artistic dynamic between the French composer Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) and his predecessor, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Both played a pivotal role in the development of modern music. But, to the chagrin of various musicologists and casual listeners, Boulez developed a deep hatred for Stravinsky’s musical philosophy which lasted a lifetime and continues to intrigue music historians to this day.
It should be noted that Boulez greatly admired many of Stravinsky’s compositions such as The Rite of Spring and often spoke highly of his work, once stating (see video below) that the world of music has “lived rhythmically in a completely different way” since the Russian composer appeared on the scene.
However, this didn’t stop Boulez from criticizing Stravinsky’s musical philosophy. After all, it was Stravinsky who initiated the “neoclassical” era, a style of composition which diligently gathered inspiration from respected composers of the past. A piece that perfectly conveys the concept of neoclassicism is Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite (see video below), which clearly deploys rhythmic and cadential devices extracted from previous eras.
For Pierre Boulez, this “return to the old” was seen as a disaster leading to the disruption of the development and progress of music. Boulez believed that it wasn’t enough to simply disregard the past, but that “all the art of the past must be destroyed”. Not much later, he continued that thought: “In the beginning in the womb you are tied to an umbilical cord. You’re fed through it. Eventually you cut it. You can still love your mother but you have to feed yourself.” (1)
In light of Boulez’s musical philosophy, it makes sense that he would fail to understand why Stravinsky sought to revive the music of the past. One must also consider the fact that Boulez was heavily inspired by sociologist Theodor Adorno, a Frankfurt School theorist who believed that the “culture industry” was responsible for the anti-progression of new music. (1) Boulez’s sympathy toward this worldview meant that he viewed Stravinsky and the neoclassicists as the great betrayers of new music, preventing the linear progression of art from taking its proper course.
Stravinsky’s point of view offers a refreshing rebuttal. First of all, the Russian composer rarely thought of his compositions as being part of some sort of neoclassical canon. This becomes clear when examining the origins behind many of his works. Piano-Rag-Music (1919) (see video below), for example, took inspiration from other modern artistic contributions of the era – not from classical music. As musicologist David Truslove states in his review of Stravinsky’s most important piano works:
“In its deconstruction of ragtime, where fragments of the jazz style are broken up and distorted in a grotesque Cubist image, Piano-Rag-Music also mirrors contemporary trends in art and the work of Picasso.”
Similar things can also be said of works such as Octet for Wind Instruments (1923) which; according to some reviewers and musicologists, was jagged and satirical in its execution. At AllMusic.com, John Palmer has noted that Stravinsky was “striving for an extreme (and unromantic) clarity of timbre and texture.” These qualities share little in common with the tropes of classical music from the periods Boulez accused Stravinsky of stealing. Moreover, musical examples such as Piano-Rag-Music, Octet for Wind Instruments and Pulcinella all differ significantly in terms of style and harmony. This simple fact demonstrates the complex reality behind the motives of neoclassical composers. For Stravinsky, external inspiration was key in developing new, tasteful, and experimental musical works.
In his failure to understand the concept of neoclassicism, Boulez’s works show an apparent lack of depth – despite his clear obsession with innovation. Treating the performing arts as a linear progression free from external influences of the past, Boulez’s compositions often felt monolingual and hyper-technical in their execution. A prime example of this is his suite Le Marteau sans maître (1954) (see video below) for flute, viola, guitar, mallets, and percussion. Undeniably, the piece successfully utilizes tonal, rhythmic, and dynamic serialism in ways that propelled 20th century music to new intellectual heights. However, most listeners may notice a severe lack of emotional relatability. Boulez himself would not disagree with such critical descriptions of his work, as he was emotionally detached from the world and its people to a remarkable degree. His top priority as a composer was to advance the musical language. As musicologist Joan Peyser notes in her biography of the French composer:
“[Boulez] personifies the control of mind over body, just as [Leonard] Bernstein personifies the reverse… Bernstein says ‘I love you’ to those he meets in corridors. There’s no evidence that Boulez has ever said ‘I love you’ in his life…Control is a recurring theme in Boulez’s life… [he perpetuated] the supremacy of intellect over passion, the triumph of mind over physical instinct…” (1)
It stands to reason, therefore, that Boulez would not be offended by having his work characterized as emotionally lacking and generally unrelatable. In fact, he would relish in it – so long as it meant he was successful in his attempts to destroy the music of the past.
Regardless of the composer’s intent, what Boulez lost in the process of casting aside the music of previous eras can be found in the so-called neoclassicism of many of Stravinsky’s works. But Stravinsky understood that the future meant nothing unless the past could be revitalized in a meaningful way. In Stravinsky’s own words: “Good composers borrow. Great composers steal.” Perhaps this is the reason why so many of Stravinsky’s compositions are played around the world every year to this day. Despite Pierre Boulez’s best efforts, the cult of neoclassicism emerged victorious in the end.
J. Edward Britton
- Peyser, J., “Boulez: Composer, Conductor, Enigma”, 1976.