One of the acts that gave him considerable notoriety in his early career was an essay he wrote titled "Schoenberg est mort" ("Schoenberg is dead") published in 1952, just a year after his death. You can find a summary of its main points here. For Boulez, Schoenberg was just not radical enough, and retained too many features of pre-serial music. Anton Webern instead was to be the model for post-war composers. It is very tempting, of course, to wait for the suitable moment and then write an essay titled "Boulez est mort", but two wrongs don't make a right! Notice that it was as much for his polemics as for his compositions that Boulez became known. Later on he was better-known to the general public in his role as conductor than as composer. Indeed, he expiated his sins regarding Schoenberg (and Bartók, about whom he also was rather unkind, and for the same reasons) by making definitive recordings of much of their music. If you want really outstanding and accurate recordings of Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Debussy and others, those of Pierre Boulez are the ones to look for. Many of these have been reissued in inexpensive boxes (that devoted to Schoenberg has eleven CDs) quite recently.
However, in this even-numbered birthday year, Alex Ross notes that, in America at least, the music of Boulez is oddly neglected:
Mark Swed, in the LA Times, recently noted a shortage of American orchestral tributes to Pierre Boulez in his ninetieth-birthday year. The New York Philharmonic, Boulez's former base, programmed nothing by him this season; likewise the LA Phil. Instead, as Swed observed, on Boulez's birthday both orchestras were playing works by John Adams.Ouch! Mind you, the neglect is not total:
this Sunday in New York, David Robertson and the Juilliard Orchestra will perform Boulez's Rituel and the Originel from “…explosante-fixe…," alongside Debussy’s Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun" and Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Winds.That looks like an interesting program; one I would like to attend. Let's try and recreate it here with the aid of YouTube. First, Rituel, a hommage to Bruno Maderna:
Next, Originel from explosante-fixe:
A good piece to pair with that might be the Debussy, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Here is Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra:
And finally, that very unusual piece by Stravinsky, the Symphonies of Winds. Here is Boulez conducting a 1985 live performance:
I have to admit that I am of two minds here. Obviously the long-term influence of Boulez and evaluation of his music is still very much up in the air. Perhaps a hundred years from now the 20th century can be weighed more judiciously, just as the 19th century is in the process of being weighed today. But it seems clear that, in the short term, the lighter-weight minimalism of John Adams, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass and Steve Reich has a much higher profile in the classical music world--even though the last two of these had to put together their own ensembles to play their music in the early days.
Boulez has accused more traditional composers, like Shostakovich, of "playing with clichés" because of their use of tonality and rhythmic and melodic gestures that resemble those of tonal music. But he does not seem to realize that the rhythmic and melodic gestures that we often find in his music, take for example the flute solo at the beginning of Originel, also can start to sound like clichés--clichés of high modernism. The rapid flurries of arpeggiations ending with a mid-range trill, the jerky rhythms, the leaping from one end of the range to another, all these things are heard over and over again in the music of Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Ferneyhough and others of that generation. Are they not now, along with the continuing dissonance, a cliché? Certainly to my ears, which is one reason why I find it hard to love that music. But maybe we just need another hundred years...