Wednesday, December 28, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Pierre Boulez

Earlier this year I used this same image in an article about a piece that the pictured composer, Pierre Boulez, had withdrawn from his catalog, the infuriatingly enticing Trois Psalmodies for piano.  It's the most happy, inviting one I could find of him, and while I've been making an effort to get flattering, sunny photos of the people I've talked about for these In Memoriam articles there's an added pressure with Boulez, partially because that for a lot of people, including a part of me, Boulez was the troll under modern music's bridge.  For decades there was no way to experience the cutting edge of Avant-Garde classical music without running across his name or his works, and the latter's reputation was primarily painted with the brush of his Piano Sonata no. 2, an especially brutal work that has gained quite a status since its authorship in the 1950's.  While I personally favor that work over Jean Barraqué's Piano Sonata, as forbidding an "opus one" work as there ever was, I'll probably never see eye to eye with Boulez's oeuvre or ideals.  Sticking to music that doesn't kowtow to popular tastes or Classical music's "relaxing" market niche does make him quite admirable, but it's mostly just not music I can use - and I say that as a man who has spent this entire blog championing works by artists whom the general public found no use for.  For this memorial article, however, I'll talk about a work that is the most appropriate musical eulogy for Boulez, and some of you may have heard a different version of it without even realizing it.

The Memoriale is one of the several versions of ...explosante-fixe..., originally written for flute, clarinet and trumpet in the early 1970's as a eulogy for Igor Stravinsky*.  I may have mentioned in my last Boulez article that he kept revising and recycling this piece for decades, culminating in a work for flute, midi and orchestra, and that I personally heard Gunther Schuller express disdain at the fact that Boulez was allowed to publish all the revisions as separate pieces and collect royalties for all of them.  I'd argue that they're all fairly different from one another (and Stravinsky himself constantly revised and rearranged his own works and nobody complains about that, now do they?!), and my favorite one is the one here, scored for flute, two horns and string sextet.  Another composer I personally met, Daron Hagen, claimed that he preferred Boulez works where he "was trying to be Debussy, and not playing mind games with himself (*motions with hands*)", and I can't think of a more Debussy-esque piece of his than this.  The Memoriale is lush, a bit capricious and enchanting to a "t", several spins of a kaleidoscope with core material diced up in the lens.  The younger Stravinsky would certainly have approved, as the softly jutting flute line and cushioning, sympathetic strings would be right at home in the Firebird, itself heavily indebted to the harmonic doors that Debussy opened for the world.  There's also an indebtedness Memoriale has to Debussy directly, as his Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune, allowing a flute solo to dictate rises and falls and cycle back to the same phrases over and over.  It's a lovely rest-stop for Boulez's career of making works to stand one's skin on end.  And luckily for you guys somebody uploaded a score/recording combo video so you can see Boulez's subtly ingenious orchestrations at work.

Rest in peace, Pierre.


*Fun fact: the premiere of The Rite of Spring is closer to Beethoven's time than ours.

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