Pierre Boulez, born March 26, 1925, in Montbrison, France, is the most significant French composer of his generation, as well as a noted conductor and music theorist who championed the work of 20th-century composers.
Boulez, the son of a steel manufacturer, majored in mathematics at the Collège de Saint-Étienne, where he also took music lessons; he later studied mathematics, engineering, and music in Lyon. In 1944–45 he was taught by the composer and organist Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. Subsequently (1945–46), he was trained in 12-tone technique by René Leibowitz, who had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg, the father of 12-tone music. In 1953 Boulez founded a series of avant-garde concerts, the Concerts of Petit-Marigny, which were later renamed Domaine Musical.
By the 1960s Boulez had gained an international reputation not only as a composer but also as a conductor, particularly of the 20th-century repertoire. He began his first conducting post in 1958 with the Southwest Radio Symphony Orchestra in Baden-Baden, West Germany. He was principal guest conductor and then musical adviser of the Cleveland Orchestra (1969–72) and principal conductor of both the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London (1971–75) and the New York Philharmonic (1971–77). In the 1960s and ’70s he also conducted works of Richard Wagner at Bayreuth, West Germany. Boulez conducted with major orchestras in the United States and Europe, including the Chicago Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestras. He became known especially for performances of Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky. According to the American composer John Adams, “The precision of his performances and his recordings had a huge effect on following generations of conductors and performers.”
In the mid-1970s, with the support of the French government, Boulez created and directed the experimental Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM), which was housed in the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The instrumental group he established there in 1976, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, became one of the world’s most important contemporary music ensembles; Boulez toured with the group as its conductor until 1992 and continued as president thereafter.
Boulez’s complex, serialist music is marked by a sensitivity to the nuances of instrumental texture and colour, a concern also apparent in his conducting. His earlier compositions combine the influence of the 12-tone composers with that of Messiaen and, through him, of certain East Asian musical elements. Boulez was also influenced by the work of the poets Stéphane Mallarmé and René Char. In his Sonatine for flute and piano (1946), the 12-tone imitations and canons progress so quickly as to leave an impression merely of movement and texture. In Structures, Book I for two pianos (1952), the actual 12-tone series is simply taken from a work of Messiaen’s; but Boulez elaborates it to a remarkable degree in strict permutations of pitch, duration, and dynamics. Le Marteau sans maître for voice and six instruments (1953–55; The Hammer Without a Master) has florid decorative textures that flow into one another, with voice and instruments rising and falling with apparent spontaneity.
Boulez’s innovativeness was demonstrated in Pli selon pli (1957–62; Fold According to Fold), in which performers must orient themselves by maintaining a constant awareness of the structure of the work. In his Piano Sonata No. 3 (first performed 1957), as in Pli selon pli, he introduced elements of aleatory music.
Boulez’s other works include Le Visage nuptial for two voices, women’s chorus, and orchestra (1951–52, based on the chamber version of 1947; “The Bridal Countenance”); Poésie pour pouvoir for two orchestras (first performed 1958; “Poetry for Power”); Répons for chamber orchestra, six solo instruments, and computer (first performed 1981); and “…explosante-fixe…” (1972–93, several versions), for which Boulez used live electronics for all but the earliest version. He continued to compose into the 21st century, at times taking a leave from conducting to focus on his own music. He said, “I write in different levels at once—one level is simple, which gives you confidence, others are complex, which invite you to explore.”
Autobiographical works by Boulez include Relevés d’apprenti (1966; Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship), and Par volonté et par hasard (1975; Conversations with Célestin Deliège). More-theoretical writings include Penser la musique aujourd’hui (1964; Boulez on Music Today) and Points de repère (1981; Orientations). His approach to conducting is the focus of Boulez on Conducting: Conversations with Cécile Gilly (2003). Some of his letters, translated and edited by Robert Samuels, are collected in Pierre Boulez and John Cage Correspondence (1993; originally published in French, 1990).
Boulez’s many international honours included the Praemium Imperiale (1989), the Wolf Prize (2000), and the Kyoto Prize (2009). Recordings of performances that Boulez conducted won more than 20 Grammy Awards, and in 2015 he received a special Grammy for lifetime achievement. He also received high honours from the governments of Great Britain (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and Germany (Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany).