Pierre Boulez - integrity and controversy

Martin CullingfordFri 29th January 2016

Gramophone's editor introduces the new issue of the magazine

Many are the great musicians we mourn monthly in our obituary pages: conductors, artists, as well as label executives and critics who have left their mark on recordings and repertoire. Rightly honoured by the musical world, they might however register only the most vague recognition much beyond it. Increasingly few, these days, seem to be figures whose passing is an event of note by society at large. Claudio Abbado turned out to be one two years ago – and it has very much been the case this month with the death of Pierre Boulez.

His death featured in the news bulletin of BBC Radio 2, not normally known for playing anything approaching the music of Beethoven, let alone Boulez. The Daily Mail’s lengthy news story even quoted Gramophone’s interview with Boulez from five years ago. That the avant-garde radical should become mass-market news is something to be pleased about. His avant-garde radicalism is, of course, likely to have been part of how he rose in the public consciousness in the first place. But only a part. Boulez was a figure who believed, passionately, outspokenly and uncompromisingly, in the relevance of art to today’s world. In doing so he was controversial, sometimes confrontational and he divided opinion – but the trade-off was that he, and his work, resonated far beyond that of most composers and conductors. And while recalling the more controversial of his comments, it’s also important to remember that many would first have had their ears opened to classical music through his teaching (itself unorthodox – such as his so-called Rug Concerts in New York), the institutions and ensembles he founded (IRCAM, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique), or the clarity and advocacy brought by his recordings of 20th-century repertoire. This, music-making, was above all his life’s work and his legacy.

There are few classical music figures who do have that wider resonance. A quick mention of some who undoubtedly do – Daniel Barenboim, Sir Simon Rattle – makes it clear that you don’t have to be an avant-garde radical or set on shaking the establishment to be among their number. But what unites them all is that they are all uncompromising in their art: it is integrity, as much as personality, that counts – the belief that music, or all art, is part of how people understand and engage with (and challenge) the world around them and within themselves. 

Kurt Masur – a successor to Boulez at the New York Philharmonic, and whose obituary we also publish in the February issue – was another. No radical avant-gardist he (though he certainly championed new music), it was for unifying diplomacy that he was so respected, something which brought him headlines when, in Leipzig, he played a key role in averting violence in the closing days of the crumbling Soviet empire. 

As music-lovers we should be careful of course that we don’t give too much weight to profile and fame: it’s the music that counts, after all. Though, as Boulez demonstrated, however brilliant a conductor you are, a controversial comment or two clearly doesn’t do your reputation any harm either.

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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