PIERRE BOULEZ - STRUCTURES BOOK 1A

CRITIQUE

World War II marks a dividing line in the history of the world, of the human race, and of the arts. This is particularly true of European classical or art music, where it is quite easy to speak of pre- and post-war music. The feeling that a new era had begun and a new aesthetic was needed to accurately reflect the world which was now inhabited can certainly be traced to the years immediately following the conclusion of the Second World War. When humankind entered the nuclear age many basic assumptions were obliterated, the constant impending threat of total annihilation, or as close to it as could be perceived, became a daily reality. The seeds of destruction had apparently been sown, and what fruit was to be reaped remained to be seen.

The notion of destruction became a frequent metaphor in the arts. It seemed after all inevitable, one shaky finger on the wrong button and the world could be blown to oblivion. It seemed that the only hope was to allow destruction, perhaps even to embrace the notion of destruction, then to continue afresh. Only through destruction, it seemed, could anything truly new be created. When we are rid of all that is old and decayed, then we may begin to embrace a future, certainly not a continuation of what came before, but a new beginning from scratch, a new Genesis.

It was quite within this spirit that the notion of total serialism in music took hold. In Structures for Two Pianos, Book Ia, Pierre Boulez set himself the task of "eradicating every trace of derivation from his musical vocabulary" and then to "recapture - step by step ... the various phases of composition"1. He wanted to "make a clean sweep of one's heritage and start all over again from scratch" 2. He was not, however, claiming this to be a sign that we had reached the ultimate end of music (or the world). Quite to the contrary he said "All those predictions of an aborted Apocalypse are a burlesque spectacle", claiming "that few epochs in musical life have been so exalting to live in" 3. Music had not reached its end, it had simply arrived "at the ends of fruitful land"4, the title of a painting by Paul Klee originally intended to be used by Boulez for this piece.

It was as a pupil of Olivier Messian that he had his first exposure to the music of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, and hearing the Schoenberg Wind Quintet in performance proved to be a "revelation"5. He would eventually react against this work, finding it's adherence to classical structural models to be an aberration of the serial method Schoenberg had pioneered in the domain of pitch. Through further studies with Rene Liebowitz, Boulez would master the elements of "classical" twelve-tone composition. His dissatisfaction with Schoenbergs conservative formal methods finally led him to look to the music of Webern as being the most prophetic composer of the Second Vienesse School, following the implications of Schoenbergs serial methods farthest along the lines to their logical conclusions, the application of the serial method to the aspects of composition other than pitch. Boulez' earliest works showed a distinctive approach to and expansion of the serial methods of his predecessors. After what was an impressive early career (his first two piano sonatas, two important cantatas, and the Sonatina for Flute and Piano were all written by the age of twenty-three) he took it upon himself to push the new system to it's furthest possible extremes. The task he set himself was to reduce the form, not to zero, but to a minimum, and to produce a work "without (or almost without) the composers intervention" 6. Then and only then would it be possible to renew musical composition in a meaningful way.

There were prior examples in the literature of attempts at total serialization of all musical parameters. The most important to site, and presumably the most important to Boulez, would be the piano piece Mode de valeurs et d'intensites by Olivier Messian (written in Darmstadt in 1949). In this piece Messian made an initial attempt at controlling those other parameters of a musical composition with the same degree of control that serialism had given the composer over pitch. Rhythm and dynamics in particular were brought into the serial web, while pitch was treated not in the manner of the Viennese serialist, but rather like a twelve-tone "mode" (or more precisely three different twelve-tone modes in this particular piece). Messian would not follow the implications of this piece to their ultimate conclusions though, that would remain for his pupil, Boulez.

The historical notoriety accorded to Structures 1a is well deserved. It is widely perceived as the first thorough going discourse carried out in the language of integral serialism. In addition to its immediate predecessor, Messians Modes de valeurs, there were other composers who, contemporary with Boulez, were after the same goal. Milton Babbits' Three Compositions for Piano even pre-dates Boulez' Structures, but it did not receive international attention until much later. Karlheinz Stockhausens' Kreuzspiel is also from the same time, and took on the same issues though not in as rigorous or thorough-going a fashion. Neither of these compositions, however, had the impact of the Boulez piece. This composition, and Boulez' article "Eventuellement..." proved to inspire a whole generation of composers to follow the path of total serialization in their compositions7.

This level of compositional predetermination proved to be an isolated instance in Boulez' output. His dissatisfaction with the lack of invention afforded him in this piece, as well as in Polyphonie X of the same time, made itself apparent in the increased malleability of his material in Books 1b and 1c of Structures8. He expressed some of this dissatisfaction, for his own works as well as the works of composers who blindly followed his lead without understanding the deeper implications of his work, in the articles "Recherches maintenant" and "...Apres et au loin", ridiculing "timetables of trains that never leave"9. All of this research was, however, essential if he was to be able to continue on his course, and these experiments yeilded great rewards in his next piece, Le Marteau sans maitre.

Structures Book 1a stands as a unique achievement, "a milestone in post-war music" 10, both a beginning and an end for Boulez and for music. It was a necessary step to take, a step which was in full accord with the spirit of its time. It was not until Boulez had reached the "ends of fruitful lands" that the demolition could be considered complete, the plans drawn up, and the rebuilding begin 11.

 

  •    Pierre Boulez. Structures for Two Pianos, Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky, Wergo WER 60011. Liner notes.

        2Pierre Boulez, Conversations with Celestin Deliege (London: Eulenburg Books, 1976), 56.

        3Pierre Boulez, Notes of an Apprenticeship (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 146.

        4Paul Griffiths, Boulez (London, New York, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1978), 24.

        5William Glock, ed., Pierre Boulez, A Symposium (London: Eulenburg Books, 1986), 10.

        6Glock, 94.

        7Reginald Smith Brindle, The New Music, the Avant-Garde since 1945 (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 23.

        8Glock, 158.

        9Glock, 15.

        10Glock, 14.

        11Glock, 159.

  • META-CRITIQUE

    An historical analysis is quite apropos for this work of Boulez. It is largely as an historical document that the piece is considered. Its position in the history of 20th century music wasn't secured by aesthetic value alone, but largely because of historical significance. The works it was influenced by, and in turn the works it influenced help to form a mystique around the work which has become more important than the work itself. The type of analysis it inspired, the way it drew up battle lines for the serialist vs. the non-serialists, the way it pointed to a depersonalized musical grammar divorced both from the past and from John Cages' aleatoric music, all add to the historic relevance of this work. A detailed musical analysis, while fascinating, reads like so much number crunching. Its position in history, on the contrary, makes for a much livelier tale.

     

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