Après l’artisanat furieux or Post-Boulez

Grant Chu Covell

[February 2016.]


Boulez’s passing was noted in a big way. He was the last in a line of giants, the lone survivor of a particularly special postwar mid-century club including Maderna (d. 1973), Nono (d. 1990) and Stockhausen (d. 2007). We could also broaden the list to include folks active mid-century who passed away this century, like Ligeti (d. 2006), Kagel (d. 2008) and Henze (d. 2012).

I can safely presume that most of last month’s praise was written by folks younger than Boulez. Most of us can only look back and marvel at the mid-century Darmstadt classes, at Boulez’s overlapping tenures with the Cleveland Orchestra, the BBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, and the creation of IRCAM.

I have begun to suspect that many of the paeans were sparked by nostalgia and envy. Boulez operated in a time when it was easier (though still barely tolerated) to be a polemicist. Post-1945, it was probably beneficial to have absolutes and guiding stars. Clarity of purpose enabled moving forward. It was helpful to say that serialism was a necessity (1952), that Schoenberg had to be surpassed (1952), and later, that the opera houses should be burned down (1967).

We’re supposedly a more diverse and tolerant culture today. Musicians, composers and audiences slither effortlessly between styles. It is wholly unremarkable to mix genres. No single style dominates, nobody lectures from a soapbox with megaphone in hand to denounce Serialism, Neo-Romanticism, Spectralism or Minimalism. Monotheism is not required.

Boulez made clear what he liked, and what he didn’t like. If you disagreed with him, you were wrong, and he was unapologetic. He did appear to mellow later in life (Quatuor Diotima provides a firsthand account). I still find it astonishing that Boulez recorded Mahler, though he was quick to assert that Mahler paved the way for Berg. There was much repertoire he’d never bring to the podium or acknowledge. It was noted in many places how ironic it was that the New York Philharmonic’s “Remembering Pierre Boulez” concerts included Sibelius, a composer he snubbed.

Montbrison’s favorite son worked hard and did his homework. His musings may be abstruse, but they are deeply anchored in the philosophical, artistic and political ideas of his time. Such commanding breadth is in scant evidence today. I would add that flaunting knowledge has become unfashionable too; philistines rule the roost.

Our Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) has no successor. There are no individuals with such a combination of qualities, and our culture simply wouldn’t be as accommodating. There are a few active composer-conductors today, but none are departing one country for another to take the helm of an orchestra or establish a state-funded multi-disciplinary research institute. There are few conductors who can sell recordings regardless of what they conduct (if Boulez had conducted Delius, all of us would be begging for copies). There are no composers making lightning-rod pronouncements. Cultural relevance is measured in “likes” not “dislikes.” Everyone is content to do their work comfortably tolerant of others, confident that their solitary direction is the right one.

Would we even recognize the next Boulez among us? Suppose there were a well-read critic-composer-conductor who attempted to set the pace for a specific style. We would probably ignore him or her as an elitist crank. If he or she wrote complex yet sensual music and could conduct it expertly we’d tolerate them a bit more. Would we take seriously a composer fond of leaving things incomplete, or occasionally offering drastic revisions?

Possibly there’s more to memorializing Boulez than just nostalgia and envy. Perhaps we miss Boulez because we have lost the ability to take instruction and aren’t interested in bettering ourselves or upholding any tradition. We’ve accepted that brilliance and mediocrity are indistinguishable, and bypassing unpleasant art is as simple as clicking on a different Internet link. We mourn Boulez because he really was the end of the line, part of a cultural practice that no longer exists, that no one cares about anymore.


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