Friday, April 6, 2007

The Boulez Problem

A few weeks ago a friend of mine in Toronto asked me what my thoughts were on Boulez. Below you'll find my response.

The case of Boulez if very sad. At 23, he arguable wrote a work, his Piano Sonata No.2, which shows a technical mastery that only Brahms had at a similar age. Let me be clear about this, Brahms and Boulez, in their very early 20s, surpassed the technical achievements of their day, and deployed that technique with a sense of poetry that rivaled all other composers. Not Bach, not Mozart, not Beethoven, not Wagner, not even Schoenberg and Stravinsky could do with these men did before the age of 25. Brahms spent the rest of his career slightly modifying and refining his command of the language whereas most music aficionados can't tell the difference between early and late works.

The tragedy of Boulez is that his particular artistic gift only led in one direction, the destruction of everything that came before him. The Boulez Sonata takes Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata as point of departure, and uses it to thwart everything that western music should do. It's not just harmony that is assaulted in this twelve-tone work, but form, meter, and generally-help modes of expression are setup as if they are going to behave in expected ways, only to undergo a merciless and savage destruction.

But just like the punks of the 70s, what do you do next after you ripped to shreds what came before you? What do you do next? There's only so many times the public will tolerate the same act over an over again. How many times can we see Johnny Rotten act cheeky without it becoming expected, even boring? Stravinsky found a way out by working through neo-classicism, where the general public can hear enough of what they expect to feel their having a genuine musical experience, while all of us musical cognoscenti smile with every broken rule or inside joke that Stravinsky throws our way.

Boulez instead took it upon himself to be a phoenix-like character, who would create all the new rules and set things straight after had cleared the air of all of the past's hypocrisies and incongruencies. The problem was, there was nothing in his character to suggest that he would be capable of doing this. His early biographies are filed with his outbursts, his cursing in church, smashing furniture, and skewering his enemies. And his music was filled with this kind of passion. His way forward would be in direct opposition to his true nature, and what's even more tragic, Boulez knew this. And slowly his music grew more lifeless, his wrote less and less, and he avoided writing by conducting. And he did this to himself to ensure a lifelong career. Yes, he did invent some techniques that are interesting to anyone interested in late-20th century music, but the price of that is he's a shell of his former self who betrayed the young, brilliant composer that he was when we was a kid. I often deride Boulez in public, but I've studies many of his scores, and the Sonata No.2 is one of the reasons I devoted my life to music.

Yes, that Schoenberg is Dead article is terrible, and he is right about most concerning Schoenberg's historical position, but now it seems inelegant and distasteful. At this point, he's like a young Muhammad Ali, trash talking and doing what he does best: destroying the enemy. But while Ali went on fighting too long and is even more a hero to us now, Boulez is now an also-ran, appearing on the equivalent of sports talk shows (symposiums, pre-concert lectures, film) on the strengths of those early fights he fought so long ago. Boulez est mort. Vive Boulez!!

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