Wednesday, 6 January 2016


“To take a stand regarding Schoenberg?”
So Boulez began the famous diatribe against his predecessor, written soon enough after his death to add a calculated sense of disrespect. Now Boulez himself has left us, and, just as in 1951, the event feels like the ending of an era: Whatever the manifold achievements of the two men, their greatest historical legacy is to have defined their times.
But the difference in attitude is revealing. If we write “To take a stand regarding Boulez” no question mark is necessary. He made it his life’s work to define a polemic in which you were either with him or against him. His attitudes may have seemed to soften in later years, particularly with the increasing breadth of his conducting repertoire, but he kept his corner, and nothing in his later work could give rise to the accusations of regression that formed the main point of attack in his essay on Schoenberg.
By then, the Modernists had found a new figurehead, Anton Webern, whose aesthetic trajectory seemed to move in the opposite direction to Schoenberg’s, and who therefore was a better fit for the dialectical/progressive model for musical history that Boulez and his contemporaries attempted to foster. And for all his achievements as a composer, conductor and electronic music pioneer, it is the staggering success of that project that made him the defining figure of his times. Serialism, in its purest form, became not only an ideal but a necessity. As he famously said in 1952, “I … assert that any musician who has not experienced – I do not say understood, but in all exactness, experienced – the necessity for serialism is useless.” And if you were on the wrong side of this debate, you were on the wrong side of history, something else that could only be stated in extremes, as when Boulez’ colleague René Leibowitz in 1955 described Sibelius as “the world’s worst composer.”
How times change. What would either of these statements sound like if uttered today? Petulant, certainly, but also indicative of the marginal status, and even irrelevance, of the speaker. For these are no longer times of aesthetic polarity. The culture that Boulez fostered (along with many other composers of his generation, though most others in action rather than word) of new music as us against them, right vs wrong, and all based on purely aesthetic criteria, already seems like a distant memory. Modernist music of the sort Boulez championed is still with us – its progress continues – but its insularity has evaporated, and with it any sense of authority or higher moral purpose.
Boulez leaves us much: an impressive and unique catalogue of works, an enviable discography – and let’s not forget IRCAM. Yet his musical ideology has predeceased him by several decades. Just as the post-war generation could take the repertoire they had inherited but had to find a new framework in which to affirm its relevance, so Boulez’ successors must argue the case for his music in an environment already broadly hostile to its underlying assumptions.
Therefore, I do not hesitate to write, not out of any desire to provoke a stupid scandal, but equally without bashful hypocrisy and pointless melancholy:

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