"Mr. Boulez belonged to an extraordinary generation of European composers who emerged in the postwar years while still in their 20s. They wanted to change music radically, and they did. Mr. Boulez was at the forefront of their crusade.
As a young composer — and throughout his life as an insistently private man — he matched intelligence with great force of mind: He knew what had to be done, according to his reading of history, and he did it, in defiance of all the norms of French musical culture at the time. His “Marteau Sans Maître” (“Hammer Without a Master”) was one of this pioneering group’s first major achievements, and it remains a landmark of modern music.
But his influence was equally great on the podium. In time he began giving ever more attention to conducting, where his keen ear and rhythmic incisiveness could produce a startling clarity. (There are countless stories of him detecting faulty intonation, say, from the third oboe in a complex piece.)
He reached his peak as a conductor in the 1960s, when he began to appear with some of the world’s great orchestras, including the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. By the early ’70s he had succeeded Leonard Bernstein as music director of the New York Philharmonic, an appointment that startled the music world and led to a fitful tenure.
His conducting style was unique. He never used the baton, preferring to manipulate the orchestra by means of his two hands simultaneously, the left indicating phrasing or, in much contemporary music, counterrhythm.
His characteristic sound — unemotional on the surface but with undercurrents of intemperateness, at once brilliant in color and rhythmically disciplined — depended on his famously acute ear and suited his core repertoire: Stravinsky (several of whose works he introduced to Europe), Debussy, Webern, Bartok and Messiaen. . . .
A defining moment came when he heard a broadcast of Stravinsky’s “Song of the Nightingale” conducted by Ernest Ansermet; it was a work to which he often returned throughout his conducting career. Rejecting the wishes of his father, who wanted him to study engineering, he went to Paris in 1942 and enrolled at the Conservatoire.
In 1944-45, he took a harmony class taught by Olivier Messiaen, whose impact on him was decisive. Messiaen’s teaching went far beyond traditional harmony to embrace new music that was outlawed both by the stagnant Conservatoire of that period and by the German occupying forces: the music of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok and Webern.
Messiaen also introduced his students to medieval music and the music of Asia and Africa. Mr. Boulez felt his course was set; but he also knew he needed to go further into the 12-tone method that Schoenberg had introduced a generation before. . . .
In 1960, he conducted the orchestra in the first performance of his “Pli Selon Pli,” an hourlong setting of poems by Stéphane Mallarmé for soprano, with an orchestra rich in percussion.
That lustrous score allowed the conductor certain flexibilities in assembling its fragments. A musical work should be a labyrinth, with no fixed route, Mr. Boulez often said. It might also never have a fixed ending. From then on, he began starting more works than he ever brought to completion, while at the same time submitting older pieces to rounds of revision.
As a conductor, he showed much less hesitation. Where his first concerts had been devoted entirely to 20th-century works, he began, in the early 1960s, to explore earlier repertoires — Haydn, Bach, Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven — with the Concertgebouw and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra. He made his debut with an American orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, in March 1965. The program, a typical one for him, comprised Rameau, his own music (“Figures-Doubles-Prismes”), Debussy and Stravinsky (“The Song of the Nightingale”). . . .
His appointment to the New York Philharmonic in 1971 presented great challenges. As music director, he had to enlarge his repertoire rapidly. Until then, he had conducted very little Romantic music other than Berlioz’s; now Schubert, Brahms, Dvorak and Borodin joined his programs, not always convincingly. Though he refused to compromise on Tchaikovsky, he was becoming much more like a regular conductor.
Part of his individuality was lost in the colossal task of maintaining important positions on both sides of the Atlantic, his post with the BBC Symphony demanding much of his time as well. . . .
Both his programming and his handling of an older repertoire met with some resistance from audiences, critics and, it was said, even some of his musicians. Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times called Mr. Boulez “a brainy orchestral technician” whose “scientific approach” lacked heart. Reviewing a 1972 concert that included Edgard Varèse’s 1927 composition “Arcana,” Donal Henahan of The Times reported that “perhaps a quarter of the downstairs audience” at Philharmonic Hall “fled as if from the Black Death” before the piece was performed." . . .
“He never ceased to think about subjects in relation to one another; he made painting, poetry, architecture, cinema and music communicate with each other, always in the service of a more humane society,” the office of President François Hollande said in a statement."
Boulez as a composer:
Boulez as a conductor: