Boulez’s Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The premiere of Pierre Boulez’s nine-movement serial work Le Marteau sans maître, with text by René Char, catapulted Boulez to world attention and made him a major name in twentieth century music.

Summary of Event

Sometimes acclaimed as the greatest French composer since Claude Debussy, Pierre Boulez has inspired controversy in his roles as composer, conductor, and champion of musical modernism. As a composer, he sided with the serialism of the German composers Arnold Schoenberg Schoenberg, Arnold and Anton von Webern Webern, Anton von against his native French tradition. As a conductor, he succeeded the extrovert romantic Leonard Bernstein as music director of the New York Philharmonic New York Philharmonic , where his advocacy of modernist works failed to garner audience enthusiasm but where his clear, precise approach earned critical respect. As a polemicist and spokesman for modernism, he has been unsparing in his criticism of composers whose works he sees as unprogressive (such as Johannes Brahms and Giuseppe Verdi) or who have been seen to betray modernism by making use of or reverting to earlier musical styles (such as Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky Stravinsky, Igor ). Modernism;music Marteau sans maître, Le (Boulez and Char) Music;avant-garde[avant garde] [kw]Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître Premiers (June 18, 1955)[Boulezs Le Marteau sans maître Premiers] [kw]Marteau sans maître Premiers, Boulez’s Le (June 18, 1955) Modernism;music Marteau sans maître, Le (Boulez and Char) Music;avant-garde[avant garde] [g]Europe;June 18, 1955: Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître Premiers[04870] [g]Germany;June 18, 1955: Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître Premiers[04870] [g]West Germany;June 18, 1955: Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître Premiers[04870] [c]Music;June 18, 1955: Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître Premiers[04870] Boulez, Pierre Char, René

An enigmatic intellectual, Boulez has been intensely private about his personal life and has been contemptuous of bourgeois French culture, although he has received numerous honors and positions from his country’s government. It is not surprising that he would adopt some of the characteristic attributes of French theorists, such as clarity and rationality; but in Boulez’s case, despite the charm and affability he has shown on social occasions, he has been accused of a general coldness and guardedness. Boulez, both as man and artist, has valued theory and system over imagination and invention.

Although Boulez has been extravagantly admired by a coterie of intellectual musicians, his own compositions have failed to generate much popular enthusiasm or to make concessions to popular taste. Because of its intellectual severity, Boulez’s music could be said to provide more pleasure to the eye than to the ear. As biographer Joan Peyser Peyser, Joan has noted, “as ungratifying as it is to the ear, the Third Sonata is beautiful to the eye.” Boulez is said to be largely indifferent to recordings of serious music, preferring instead to enjoy music by the reading of scores.

Unlike other avant-garde composers since World War II, however, Boulez has been thoroughly engaged with all aspects of modern music, as a composer, pianist, conductor, and polemicist. His biographers have routinely complained about his refusal to discuss details of his personal life, although other celebrities might envy his success in keeping his past a closed book. He garnered early attention for the severity of his rejection of the past. He has always professed a hatred for the music of such pillars of the symphonic and operatic repertory as Brahms, Verdi, and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky—not necessarily because of the natural jealousy of the theorist for the melodic warmth and popular appeal of these old masters, but because of their unprogressive qualities as composers; it is the experimenter’s natural dislike of consolidators.

Despite his youthful passion for twelve-tone music Twelve-tone music[twelve tone music] Music;twelve-tone[twelve tone] , which he first heard in 1945, Boulez later turned against the giants of musical modernism, Schoenberg and Stravinsky—the latter for reverting to neoclassicism in works following the groundbreaking The Rite of Spring (1913) and the former for not extending the implications of the abandonment of tonality into a total theoretical system. The composer who retained Boulez’s admiration was von Webern, who best and most rigorously put the precepts of Schoenberg into practice.

Boulez regarded his discovery of serialism Serialism (music) Music;serialism , or twelve-tone music, as a revelation. Under the guidance of his two teachers, Olivier Messiaen Messiaen, Olivier and René Leibowitz Leibowitz, René , Boulez came to grasp the need for a new theoretical system; as Peyser explains it, he “was obsessed with the formulation of a theoretical system that would serve composers in the future as tonality had served them in the past.” Since both Stravinsky and Schoenberg had capitulated to tradition, it remained for Webern to create a totally serial music, in which pitch, timbre, rhythm, and color were all organized by rigorous discipline and logic. Boulez spoke of wanting to clean up Western music since the Renaissance by doubting the systems of the past and putting music on a more rational basis, as René Descartes had done for philosophy. (If Boulez is modern music’s Descartes, the sensuous Catholic composer Messiaen, Boulez’s teacher, would be its Blaise Pascal.)

The youthful Boulez proclaimed an ultrarational post-Webernian serialism. He asserted his credo in a 1952 article, “Eventuellement”: "Eventuellement" (Boulez)[Eventuellement (Boulez)] “Our first determination will be to give it [his technique] autonomy, and, furthermore, to link rhythmic structures to serial structures by common organizations, which will also include the other characteristics of sound: intensity, mode of attack, timbre.”

Boulez and his former teacher Messiaen collaborated in a performance of his landmark early work for piano, Structures I Structures I (Boulez)[Structures 01 (Boulez)] (1952); although Stravinsky was impressed by the integrity of this hard, clean work, he could not resist complaining of its “arrogance.” Yet within two years, Boulez had moved dramatically beyond the theoretical severity of Structures I to his first undisputed masterpiece, Le Marteau sans maître (1955; the hammer without a master). Set to a 1934 poem by the French modernist poet René Char, four of the work’s nine movements involve the voice. Only the third movement can be considered a “song,” and the vocal settings are actually surrounded by unusual instrumental commentaries.

The work—first performed June 18, 1955, at the Twenty-ninth Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music Twenty-ninth Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (1955)[Twentyninth Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music] at Baden-Baden—goes beyond the rigidly interpreted serialism of Structures I and beyond the dry abstraction of most of the academic serial compositions of the 1950’s. In keeping with his admiration for the early revolutionary works of Schoenberg, Boulez called Le Marteau sans maître “my Pierrot Lunaire,” referring to Schoenberg’s comparably innovative treatment of voice and unusual instrumental combinations. Boulez’s exotic use of the contralto voice, alto flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba, and percussion in various combinations has been widely imitated.

Char’s poems had previously provided Boulez with texts for his vocal music, beginning with Le Visage nuptial Visage nuptial, Le (Char) (1950; the nuptial face). The apparent impersonality of the verse (as typified by a key line from Le Visage nuptial, “Leave me, let me wait unspeaking”) must have appealed to the guarded Boulez, who utilized Char’s verse again in Le Marteau sans maître. Its message is again impersonal and obscure but seems to propose the doom of civilization; the impersonal implication of its title, “the hammer without a master,” fits in with Boulez’s determination to remove personality from musical expression. For his later masterpiece Pli selon pli Pli selon pli (Boulez) (1960; fold according to fold), Boulez turned to the work of the nineteenth century Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, precisely because of the tightness and obscurity of that poet’s verse.


Le Marteau sans maître marked the end of Pierre Boulez’s early period of compositional creativity. Despite his youthful polemics against his erstwhile heroes Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Boulez paid implicit homage to both in his early vocal masterwork. Its organization and inventive use of instrumental combinations is comparable to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912), and its complex notation and frequent changes in tempo owe something to the example of Stravinsky, especially to The Rite of Spring.

Since Boulez was determined to forge a new musical system based on the rigorous application of theory rather than on imagination and subjective invention, it is difficult to assess the extent of influences on Boulez’s compositional strategy or the influence of Boulez on others. His clarity, coldness, and rationality have been frequently noted; he himself sought a hard, clean, impersonal, and nonrhetorical music.

Boulez’s biographers have frequently been tempted into Freudian interpretations of his personality and music. Peyser cites the composer’s sister, who has said that “my brother is completely closed”; Peyser tentatively alludes to the Freudian theory that a child who succeeds a dead sibling will be guarded and impersonal (Boulez is actually the second Pierre in his family, since he followed a deceased sibling by that name). Boulez gained a reputation for living in a succession of spare and tidy apartments with few bourgeois comforts, for being neat and for never shopping, and for generally living with the austerity of the sternly self-disciplined philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who similarly avoided creature comforts.

Although she admires his music and finds him personally affable, Peyser admits the truth of the general perception of Boulez as cold and aloof and concludes her study with a criticism: “Boulez’s inability to engage in a genuine dialogue with whatever is different from himself—whether people or earlier musical periods—seems to be the flaw that pulls him down.” Boulez’s outspoken dislike of many major composers of the past has been explained as the reflexive distaste of the natural innovator for those such as Brahms and Verdi, who consolidate older styles; even more culpable, in his view, are those who, like Stravinsky and Richard Strauss, retreat from experimentation into neoclassicism.

Boulez has been equally unsparing of his compositional contemporaries. He turned against his youthful teachers, Messiaen and René Leibowitz. He overcame his initial attraction to John Cage Cage, John , whose experiments with serialism and chance music (for which Boulez coined the term “aleatory music”) he had found appealing, with a characteristically unkind dismissal: “He was refreshing but not very bright. His freshness came from an absence of knowledge.”

Although Cage’s passion for the music of chance seems totally at odds with Boulez’s belief in systematic rigor, both shared the anti-Romantic determination to remove the individual personality from composition. (Cage’s famous 1952 celebration of total silence, 4′ 33″, was as thorough an attack on the musical past as was Boulez’s determination to “clean up” Western music since the Renaissance.) Boulez spoke contemptuously of those American academic serial composers (except for Milton Babbitt, whose rigor he admired) who were inspired by Boulez’s theoretical integrity. His career has been shadowed by a kind of professional double, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen Stockhausen, Karlheinz , and the two have alternated as the most visible spokesmen for their generation of avant-garde composers. Boulez has also been criticized for his lack of enthusiasm for native French tradition, a disinterest illustrated most obviously by his abandonment of his country for Germany in 1958 and by later moves to England and America.

When his interest in conducting expanded after his first period of compositional creativity had crested in the wake of Le Marteau sans maître, Boulez was rewarded with the music directorships of the British Broadcasting Corporation British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and, later, the New York Philharmonic. The contrast of Boulez’s conducting style with those of his predecessor, Leonard Bernstein Bernstein, Leonard , and successor, Zubin Mehta, is polar. Where Bernstein was romantic, impetuous, gregarious, and vulnerable, Boulez was clear, analytical, and precise; Bernstein was theatrical and warm, but he seemed not to have Boulez’s remarkable sense of pitch and instrumental balance. Bernstein was beloved; Boulez was admired but scarcely regarded with audience passion. The orchestra members admired his precision, but the general audience, in one apt critical phrase, “found him a dry dog,” although he raised the general standard of performance.

What one critic has written of Schoenberg is equally true of Boulez as a composer and conductor: “The artist and his public each conceived the other as a threat.” If Boulez was critical and often contemptuous of the musical past, the concert audience repaid the compliment; concert attendance and subscriptions declined under Boulez’s tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. Nevertheless, Boulez has been credited with having provided high-quality performances, even when performing works of composers he disliked.

As a composer, he has not endeared himself to the popular audience. Yet he can certainly be commended for his theoretical rigor, for stretching his listeners’ perception of musical forms and structures, and for the clarity and integrity of his vision. Whereas his early Structures I pursues the logic of total serialism, Le Marteau sans maître boldly moves beyond it to an intriguing set of experiments with form, timbre, and color. For most listeners, these experiments are more appealing to the eye or the mind than the ear, but the fact that Boulez will probably never win broad popular enthusiasm does not minimize his integrity as a theorist or his astonishing creativity as a visionary figure. Modernism;music Marteau sans maître, Le (Boulez and Char) Music;avant-garde[avant garde]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boulez, Pierre. Boulez on Music Today. Translated by Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. Fascinating, if forbiddingly technical, discussion of the composer’s own musical goals and technique.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caws, Mary Ann. René Char. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Good critical study of the elusive French poet who supplied the texts for several of Boulez’s vocal works. Caws chooses a fine single line to illustrate the teasing and opaque nature of Char’s verse: “The poem is the fulfilled love of desire as it remains desire.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glock, William, ed. Pierre Boulez: A Symposium. London: Eulenberg Books, 1986. Collects a variety of assessments of Boulez as composer, conductor, and ceaseless musical experimenter. Peter Heyworth’s biographical sketch briskly surveys the composer’s first fifty years; Susan Bradshaw analyzes Le Marteau sans maître.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffiths, Paul. Boulez. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Includes a helpful analysis of Le Marteau sans maître and a good assessment of its pivotal nature. In Griffith’s view, the work is genuinely free of “the quasi-narrative forms of tonality” and the severe theoretical calculation of Structures I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Robert Sherlaw. Messiaen. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Good critical study of one of Boulez’s two most important teachers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peyser, Joan. Boulez: Composer, Conductor, Enigma. New York: Schirmer, 1976. Controversial biography of the composer, by a specialist in “debunking” biographies who later revealed intimate secrets about Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. Written toward the end of Boulez’s tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, the book is admiring of Boulez’s integrity as a musical experimenter but more critical of his personal severity and aloofness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. To Boulez and Beyond: Music in Europe Since “The Rite of Spring.” New York: Billboard Books, 1999. A follow-up to the biography described above, this book places Boulez within the history of twentieth century music and compares him to such other composers as Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Edgard Varèse. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Concisely traces Boulez’s movement from a “totally organized, totally serial super-rationalist” to the much more expansive composer of Le Marteau sans maître, who sought to manipulate “fluctuating masses, colors, densities, and intensities of sound.”

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time Is Performed

Zhdanov Denounces “Formalism” in Music

Cage’s 4′ 33″ Premieres

Varèse Premieres Déserts

Death of Villa-Lobos

Riley Completes In C

Categories: History