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Remembering French Composer, Conductor And Musical Provocateur Pierre Boulez


This is FRESH AIR. The French composer, conductor and musical provocateur Pierre Boulez died Tuesday at the age of 90. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says, "Pierre Boulez was the most complete musician of the past century - a groundbreaking composer and eloquent writer and a great conductor. He was mistakenly regarded as a cool intellectual, but he was also a firebrand and a charmer. And when he conducted, the score came alive. You heard everything - not only the notes but the deep feeling behind them. His death is a major loss," unquote.

Once the avant-garde's most outspoken critic of the establishment, Boulez went on to be one of the world's most admired figures in the classical music world. Boulez was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, where he took over from Leonard Bernstein, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and was the founding director of the Experimental Electronic Music Institute at the Pompidou Center in Paris. I spoke to Boulez in 2005, when in honor of his 80th birthday, he performed a series of concerts around the world.


GROSS: Pierre Boulez, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of the compositions that you are very identified with as a conductor is Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," and this was first performed in 1913. You first performed it, I believe, on the 50th anniversary of that first performance.

PIERRE BOULEZ: Yes, in 1963, yes, and in the same theater.

GROSS: In the same theater?


GROSS: You know, this was a piece that was considered very radical in its time. The audience was not prepared for it. What do you love about conducting it now?

BOULEZ: Well, I think that's very challenging work and, you know, with both quite a lot of novelty and fresh air at this time, but still now, because there is a kind of rhythmical liveliness, which still is very exciting. And I think that so, I mean, it comes from a kind of Russian influence, you know, because Stravinsky was influenced by folks music - not directly folks music, but I mean he had in it himself, of course, this kind of rhythmical life. But, I mean, you can remark that the both composers, which both strong rhythmical life in our Western culture, were people from the East. It was Stravinsky from Russia and Bartok from Hungary, and because they are not exactly the same culture, the same type of culture. They were genuinely Russian or generally Hungarian. And then also they brought to the Western culture, I mean, the German-Austrian tradition and even to the French aspect, there was really a novelty which was very striking. And "The Rite of Spring" - the riot of "The Rite of Spring" came of course from the music, but it came also came from the ballet. So, I mean, you know, you should really think more that it was a theatrical experience. But, I mean, the - suddenly "Rite of Spring" was a kind of very primitive work, very strong. And then - so, I mean, certainly the kind of refined culture of the West was shaken by that - and happily shaken. Of course now that's really one of the warhorses of the orchestras and conductors. But, I mean, in '44, '45, it was not the case certainly.

GROSS: Why don't we hear an excerpt from the final movement, "Sacrificial Dance," of "The Rite of Spring." And this is Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in 1969.


GROSS: You've made some very provocative statements over the years. Let me go back to some statements that you've made. In 1975 you said, the more I grow the more I detach myself from other composers - not only from the distant past but also from the recent past and even from the present. Conducting has forced me to absorb a great deal of history, so much so in fact that history seems more than ever to me a great burden. In my opinion, we must get rid of it once and for all. Then earlier, after Stravinsky's death, there was a quote from you in the New York Times. You said, it's not enough to deface the "Mona Lisa" because that does not kill the "Mona Lisa." All art of the past must be destroyed. Why have you felt so strongly at certain times in your career that the past was this great burden?

BOULEZ: Yes, I think that, so, I mean, you know, we are living in a period of a big memory. And we have a memory of everything in any kind of domain. And therefore so, I mean, this memory is a burden because you cannot really think totally freely. I am still of this opinion. Although, you know, I don't want to destroy physically but destroy mentally that you can really think anew and without always the mothers in front of you or go through this mother and go further. I make a comparisons once, you know, because we are living in a world of a big library with all kinds of information of datas and so on. And I think that, so, I mean, you should everyday burn your library - not physically, of course, but mentally - that we have not really an excessive memory but we are thinking by ourselves and not only with the thoughts of the past.

GROSS: OK, I understand how - what you mean by metaphorically destroying the mother, but this is your 80th year. And you are absolutely a father figure in contemporary music. So on the occasion of your 80th birthday, which is always an occasion for retrospectives in the arts...

BOULEZ: Yes, that's right, yes.

GROSS: ...Do you think at all about the history of your own work and how you would like it to be seen? Do you want that history metaphorically destroyed?

BOULEZ: No, I don't care for that. And so, I mean, that's other people to destroy my own life. That's a different...

GROSS: That's not your job (laughter).

BOULEZ: I cannot destroy my own life. That's certainly not. But, I mean, the view that the people will have - when I am asked sometimes, what do you think you have achieved? I said, the other people will tell that and not me.

GROSS: Conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, recorded in 2005. He died yesterday at the age of 90. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with journalist Robin Wright about the severing of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia - what's behind it and what the consequences may be for the region and the world. Wright has been covering the Middle East for over 40 years and is now a contributing writer for The New Yorker. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.