The master with the hammer and the fine blade

Pierre Boulez on his 100th birthday Birthday

The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna is honouring its honorary member Pierre Boulez with a special event to mark his 100th birthday. Birthday on March 26, 2025. Guests include long-time companions such as pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

© Peter Schramek I Music Society

Probably his most famous quote was not even from him: “Blow up the opera houses!” was the title of an interview with Pierre Boulez in the magazine “Spiegel” in 1967. The composer and conductor had only lamented the difficulties of performing contemporary operas in repertory theatres. They formulated an irreverent daydream: “The most expensive solution would be to blow up the opera houses. But don’t you think that would also be the most elegant?” Nota bene: Boulez formulated his surreal vision in the subjunctive and emphasised in the interview that he was not a political revolutionary. However, his fundamental scepticism towards the blind cultivation of tradition – and the possibility of modern opera – was to be taken seriously, not since Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” had a successful work created here. He considered contributing to the genre much later – but it was not to be. And so his dealings with operas were limited to his extensive activities as a conductor, especially in dealing with works from the repertoire – for example, with the legendary “Ring of the Century” at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 together with director Patrice Chéreau.

“If you don’t question yourself every day, I don’t think life makes sense.”

Pierre Boulez

At the same time, as a composer, he became one of the defining personalities of the 20th century. Initially, he pioneered serial music, composing based on a strict pre-ordering of the material according to pitches and durations, degrees of volume, articulation, and so on. However, he soon succeeded in opening up his work in several ways: towards non-fixed forms and towards the co-composition of spatial aspects. “I have often compared making music with open forms to a city map. You know a city and want to go from A to B. Apart from the straight route, you can choose from various combinations of streets. This freedom of choice does not have to be used pedantically and demonstratively in music. The only thing that is important to me is having the freedom.” However, the compositional freedom that Boulez understood also led him to revise and transform his works constantly. Much was work in progress: “The path is created by walking. The path is created by walking.” (Antonio Machado)

While his works could be heard regularly at the Musikverein since the founding of the Wien Modern festival in 1988, and later also as part of the “classical” subscription cycles, Boulez – an honorary member of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna since 2005 – was also a regular guest conductor here, for example at the podium of the Vienna Philharmonic or the Staatskapelle Berlin, with whom he inscribed himself in the collective memory of the music city of Vienna in 2008/09 with a Mahler cycle, which he conducted alternately with Daniel Barenboim.

However, his presence as a conductor at the Musikverein began as the director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, which he founded in 1976 and whose pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, one of Boulez’s most essential companions, also became one of his most important interpreters. Amiable, warm-hearted and charming in his dealings, he is remembered in Vienna for his forthcoming 100th birthday. Birthday in the 2024/25 season to a personality of the century. One of his most important works is “Le Marteau sans maître” (1955). Boulez was a master who sometimes used a wooden hammer rhetorically but was also a master of the fine blade in every respect. He remained rigorous in his artistic demands, not least towards himself: “If you don’t question yourself every day, I think life has no meaning.”

Daniel Ender

Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

Colossal sounds

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Conducting on the royal road

Archive, Library and Collections of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna

Fine and fragrant

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Simply conduct

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With charisma and temperament

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Suction effect

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