Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Withdrawn Month - Pierre Boulez's 3 Psalmodies


A while ago I did an article on a CD by pianist Patricia Goodson that featured a bunch of great pieces by known-and-unknown American composers, and one of my favorite pieces on the disc was Augusta Read Thomas's Whites, a diffusely compelling sonic exploration of the color white.  My liking for the piece came up against a factoid I discovered in researching that article - Whites, as well as Thomas's deserving-of-performance Sonata for solo trumpet, had been withdrawn by Thomas herself and has been out of print for decades.  Some composers feel the need to discourage performance of, or outright destroy, pieces of theirs that they think aren't up to snuff, and in cases such as Paul Dukas what they deemed snuff-full enough is so little their whole oeuvre can be performed in a marathon without much discomfort.  The thing of it is...sometimes artists are wrong.  Really wrong, and in a way that is needlessly destructive.  Hell, most of Kafka's work would have been lost to the ages if his will's executors had followed his instructions to burn all his unpublished manuscripts after his death.  I've done some searching and found a number of quality works that their authors tried to bury, in some cases successfully, and we'll examine them this January as Withdrawn Month, apt as everybody is trapped indoors cursing and letting their social lives wither for the sake of blankets and fresh coffee.  Originally I was going to wait on these articles to finish the Marco Polo Awards but a staggering coincidence occurred and forced my hand.  We are now living in an age where Pierre Boulez is no more.

Boulez is a figure so ubiquitous in the minds of the classical music community that one cannot throw a conversational stick and not hit several conflicting opinions, especially among composers.  I've met a number of name composers in my day and all of them had something to say about Boulez even if they were never asked about him.  When Daron Hagen visited UPS to do a masterclass he listed Boulez's Éclat among his six favorite works, claiming that Boulez was at his best emulating Debussy and not "playing mind games with himself".  Gunther Schuller, a longtime conducting champion of some crushingly difficult composers, wanted to write Boulez an angry letter for publishing 13 different revisions of his piece ...explosante-fixe... and collecting royalty checks for each one.  I knew about Boulez long before I heard any of his works because I had his Varèse album in high school, holding on to it before discovering how much better Riccardo Chailley's complete Varèse CD set is.  However you personally feel about Boulez is merely one internal voice against the universal truth of his enormous presence in international music, and even a voice as iconoclastic as his feels the pressure to regulate his public image, such as the case with a handful of early pieces of his that were discarded before seeing print.  Luckily for me, one of them is preserved in an archival recording, and considering that, as of this writing, Boulez has been dead for only a day there's no time like the present to reveal a supposed skeleton in his closet.


Boulez's first acknowledged work is the 12 Notations for piano from 1945, one of my two favorite works of his; the other is memoriale (...explosante-fixe...originel) for solo flute, two horns and string sextet from 1985.  The work we're looking at today, 3 Psalmodies for piano, was written earlier in the same year as Notations but never saw the light of printed day.  At this time in his life Boulez was under the wings of Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz, the biggest proponents of serialism in France at the time, and as such the Notations are Webern-brief and overtly experimental, each one highly focused studies in color and technique.  They also exist at a time when he was still open to a bit of natural expression, and that openness is more apparent in the Psalmodies.  The major difference between the Psalmodies and the rest of Boulez's work is immediately apparent - the former has actual drama.  Many of the same compositional tricks are present from the Notations, such as percussive basement rumblings, explosive and disjointed arpeggios, duets that are unsure of who is leading who, etc., but rather than concentrate these techniques into terse blocks Boulez has arranged them into what we believe in our hearts to be full pieces with beginnings, middles and ends.  The writer Peter O'Hagan wrote about the Psalmodies in his essay "Pierre Boulez and the Founding of IRCAM" (collected in the book French Music Since Berlioz) and was able to track down a manuscript of the piece in order to show the first few bars as an example::


O'Hagan saw a great deal of Messiaen's influence in these pieces and I can't help but acknowledge treble figurations reminiscent of birdsong, references to Catholicism, violently irregular rhythms and more Messiaenisms.  Heck, the recording here is made by another Messiaen disciple, the highly obscure Yvette Grimaud, who apparently was an ethnomusicologist and premiered the Psalmodies, Notations and famously impossible-to-play Piano Sonata no. 2 from what little I was able to gather on her.  She also composed some music, including microtonal works, so there's another detective case for me.  The harmonic language certainly isn't Messiaen, though, and fits more with accepted atonal chord structures of the time, and the mood is less "mystical awe" and more "chased by a goblin".  The most interesting thing to me, though, is that this score example is nowhere in the recording, and I say that having listened to it multiple times.  There are chords that sound like the ones in the example and times where the example could have occurred but it just never shows up.  Now, I know that O'Hagan probably had access to the manuscript, as one is housed in the Bibliothèque Musicale Gustav Mahler in Paris, and it's unlikely he would pull an example out of his explosante-derrière to make a point.  The question now arises as to whether this is a different version of the pieces or if this recording is of a different piece altogether.  I'm erring to the former, partially so this article isn't a complete waste of everybody's time, and also because I can't find a listing for a suitable alternative in Boulez's catalog, even among the withdrawn works.  Either way I'd be very interested to see the full score of the Psalmodies, perhaps just so there can be a work by Boulez that I'm able and inclined to play aside from the Notations.  In the meantime if anybody out there has more information on this piece I'd love to hear it, and in the meanertime let's admire how a 20-year-old composer under the influence of a powerful teacher can't help but write an original and cohesive piece and then decide it's not original enough.  Rest in Peace, you magnificent solipsist.

~PNK

1 comment:

  1. I just heard the youtube or Grimaud, it holds up nice, for 1945....quite early...

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