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Boulez is Dead

Boulez is DeadHow long now we have been hearing the death knells of the thorniest music written. The names thrill with their shrill mid-century protest against the subjective: Babbitt, Boulez, Carter, the scientist-warrior generation and their progeny. Enthroned by the curious and trusting, or the academy for vigorous reason's sake, they presided and dictated the standards for following generations. They are still enormously influential -- only weeks ago I met a very talented undergraduate who is currently studying with Milton Babbitt, now 83 years old. Her youthful work, though extremely accomplished, is possessed by an air of mid-century high modernism. Their damage is unrelenting.

Boulez: tomorrow we celebrate the great man's 75th birthday. Along with the festivities, the tours, the performances, the Deutsche Grammophon special sales of the Boulez CD catalogue, we wish him good health and many years while also not failing to appraise much of his situation, his dubious achievement and legacy, with skepticism and disdain.

In 1951 the young Boulez, leading an angry revolt against the new music of the recent past, wrote a polemic entitled Schoenberg is Dead. It complemented Boulez's other attacks, notably on Stravinsky whose Neo-Classic works he and other students of René Leibowitz scathingly booed in public performance. Boulez was making a name for himself as the preeminent enfant terrible of war-torn France. His stance on the dodecaphonic system was fierce: 'It is not deviltry, but only the most ordinary common sense which makes me say that, since the discoveries made by the Viennese, all composition other than twelve-tone is useless (Boulez's emphasis).' At the same time, Boulez attacked Schoenberg, the creator of the system, for not using the system to dictate every aspect of the work. Elsewhere Boulez suggested that the simplest solution to the opera problem was 'to blow up the opera houses.' In making a name for himself he lashed out equally at the avant garde and the establishment. Yet within two years of the 'not deviltry' statement he dropped strict twelve-tone formalism. Later he would go on to conduct Wagner's Ring cycle at Bayreuth and full programs of Schoenberg under the auspices of Carnegie Hall.

Boulez is DeadMeanwhile, in the early 50's Boulez continued to spread the gospel according to Anton Webern. Much as Schoenberg had ordered pitches, Boulez ordered duration, tone-production, intensity, timbre. He attempted to have entire forms evolve from serial principles unlike the classical-derived forms that Schoenberg used. The new wine/old skins argument was the essential thrust of his polemic. Simple and direct it is a withering argument that barely allows for Schoenberg's enormous discovery.

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Copyright © 25 March 2000 Jeff Talman, New York City, USA


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