French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who wielded incalculable influence on the modern music scene, died at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany, on Tuesday, January 5. He was 90.
Boulez gained fame as an uncompromising champion of the avant-garde and ranked among the towering figures of European modernism in the 20th century. He remained a powerful force for innovation in the world of classical music until his death.
Boulez burst on the scene in the aftermath of Second World War II as part of a wave of radical European composers determined to break free of traditions they believed were outmoded and impeded musical progress.
Born on March 26, 1925, in Montbrison in the Loire region of France, Boulez embarked on a musical career in defiance of his father, an engineer and industrialist. The young Boulez was also drawn to mathematics, foreshadowing the sense of rigor and precision that characterized his approach to music as a composer and performer.
As a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Boulez was decisively influenced by the teachings of Olivier Messiaen, another leading maverick figure of the second half of the 20th century. But Boulez felt his mission was to extend the innovations of Messiaen and other iconic modernists like Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Igor Stravinsky to their extremes, beyond where his predecessors had ventured.
Pathbreaking compositions such as his Second Piano Sonata, Le Marteau Sans Maître andPli Selon Pli revealed a grippingly original combination of profound intellect and imagination. As the composer and conductor, Boulez commanded a matchless ear for detail and color. While detractors complained his philosophy led to emotionally sterile or cooly scientific music-making, they overlooked the gorgeous sensualism and tireless curiosity that abound in his scores. A perfectionist who found it difficult to reach the “end” of a compositional project, Boulez frequently returned to earlier pieces to revise and expand them in the light of his evolving ideas.
Boulez also used his formidable talents to rally like-minded musicians through influential writings and his parallel careers as a conductor, organizer, and administrator. He gained notoriety during his days as a young firebrand for provocative statements — impatient with the status quo, Boulez once declared the opera houses should be blown up — but he proved to be an immensely gifted artistic collaborator who was able to establish important institutions of his own. The best known of these is IRCAM in Paris (part of the Centre Pompidou), an institute Boulez founded for the scientific study of music, sound and electronic composition, which opened in 1977.
Boulez made his orchestral conducting debut in 1956, initially focusing solely on contemporary music. In 1971 came his unexpected appointment as the New York Philharmonic’s music director, succeeding Leonard Bernstein. During his controversial tenure in New York, Boulez experimented continually with concert formats and programming, anticipating some of the strategies orchestra managers today are trying out in the effort to make their ensembles more flexible and appealing to younger audiences.
His position as conductor of the centennial Ring production at Bayreuth in 1976, collaborating with the visionary director Patrice Chéreau, marked a watershed moment for Wagner performances. Boulez held major positions at several other European and American orchestras and remained an internationally sought-after conductor until the end.
A beloved project of Boulez’s final years was the Lucerne Festival Academy in Switzerland, a unique practice-based conservatory devoted to performing modern music. “Like his mentor Messiaen,” Michael Haefliger, the director of the Lucerne Festival says, Boulez was driven by a strong desire “to pass on his enormous wisdom, vital experience, and great ideals to young people.”