I remember my first encounter with a manuscript score of Pierre Boulez. I was getting a tour of the Northwestern University School of Music's archives, and one of their prized acquisitions-- alongside Paul McCartney's original lyrics to Eleanor Rigby and Yellow Submarine-- was a series of scores showing the development of the French maestro's 2nd Piano Sonata.
From the first tone rows through the finished work, it was clear that this was a mind that operated with acute mathematical precision: each note stem carefully measured and ruled, each note head a calculated tick across the score line. It contained the fine and intricate craftsmanship of a watchmaker, the care and detail of someone who knew exactly what he wanted to convey, using the utmost conservation of energy to craft his art.
A Relevant Tones program we produced on the Notations had a similar impression. First came the piano versions of these works: Modernist, compact pieces rife with spiky and atonal splashes of color. Pierre Laurent Aimard's performance, in particular, burst at the seams with an explosive energy. Boulez later orchestrated these piano versions, using the material to create expanded and expansive pieces that dazzled across the orchestral canvas.
It was in these Notations that one of the singularly intriguing things about Boulez as composer struck me-- that every note was not just a stand-alone event, but contained an interior world just waiting to be unlocked. Like a fractal, zooming in just revealed further detail, further possibilities.
Years later, I found myself as producer of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra broadcast series, sifting through hours of Boulez lectures on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Here a different kind of genius was revealed-- one who had an intimate understanding of art, the craft of composition, and the great possibilities of music. He communicated with audiences on level equal with Leonard Bernstein. His lectures swirled with heady references to art and history, giving context to the great orchestral works and making myriad connections to the world at large.
The CSO, one of the most astoundingly great orchestras with any conductor, always seemed to respond to this extra-musical intelligence, giving over-the-top performances when Boulez was at the podium. For a composer and conductor so often maligned as a Modernist who wanted to tear down the pillars of classical music, he treated the great works with profound reverence, their creators with the respect they were due.
How to reflect on the loss of this great hero? A quotation by André Malraux comes to mind: "One cannot create an art that speaks to me when one has nothing to say."
Today, the musical world mourns the loss of an artist who spoke to and enriched the world through music, and very much had something to say.
Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg/Chicago Symphony Orchestra