90th anniversary interviews: Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez (Gramophone, November 1967)Pierre Boulez (Gramophone, November 1967)

To celebrate Gramophone's 90th anniversary this month we are reprinting a series of classic interviews from the Gramophone archive. We continue with Pierre Boulez, who spoke to Alan Blyth for Gramophone in November 1967...

During the past year or two Boulez has been spending much time on what he calls his 'hobby' of conducting. Now he intends once again to devote 'at least seven months a year' to composition. However, he feels he has benefited enormously from the time he has spent with symphony orchestras. 'As a composer one moves in a small circle and has little contact with musical activity outside. I have now learnt what is possible and practical to do when writing for an orchestra and what ideas to cut out, or rather to make those ideas fit instruments. It has also given me an opportunity to hear many works the way I wanted to hear them.' 

I asked him if he was trying to achieve some kind of perfectly objective approach to the works he conducts. 'No, I think that was a theory and approach that was tried by Stravinsky and Ansermet before the war. Scores don't exist as passive objects. They must be interpreted in the spirit of the time. How Bach was played in 1920 is not how we like to hear it today. The superficial elegance that people appreciated in Mozart is not what we admire in him in 1967. 

'Wagner used to be treated in a quite exaggerated post-Romantic way. When I conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth I didn't see why everything had to be taken at such slow tempi or with overdone dynamic contrasts – the pathos and rhetoric were just too much.' 

There are still several operas he wants to conduct, The Ring, Lulu and Don Giovanni among them, but he is in no hurry. However, he is expected to direct Pelleas at Covent Garden in about two years time, and I wondered how he saw Debussy's score. 

'Well, I don't see it as a Frenchman! I want to avoid the usual French way of approaching it as something small-scale. I want to give it a more universal meaning. What I really wanted was for Wieland Wagner to produce it, but that is not to be. He would have injected himself into French music as I have injected myself into his grandfather's.' 

He does not intend to write an opera himself. 'Lulu was the last great opera in the conventional sense. I would like to write a work sometime that uses stage apparatus but I have no definite ideas at the moment.' 

Debussy was, of course, a great influence on him as a composer as were Stravinsky, his teacher Messiaen, and the composers of the Second Viennese School. 'I couldn't have become what I am as a composer without them. Unfortunately, during the war when I was a student scores were just not available. I remember what a revelation it was to us when we first heard Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste at that time. Messiaen had the scores of Pierrot Lunaire and Berg's Lyric Suite and that was about all. I remember how excited we were when at last we could hear the music, beginning in 1945, and how anxiously we waited for a chance to hear another new piece. All in all, it meant a transformation for me. It seemed to fill an enormous gap. You see, during the war Honegger was the big figure in Paris. He had the impact of a Beethoven on the public. But, his influence, like that of Milhaud, soon faded. Now I really think that between the wars there was only one great French composer: Messiaen. 

'I have wanted to be a composer since I was 17. My first pieces were published in 1949 but they were heard by only a very small circle of people. I broke out of that circle in 1955 with Marteau, I suppose.' 

I asked him to try to explain why so many people found his music difficult to listen to and apparently without form. 'I think the trouble is that up until recently there was a big gap in musical education. How can people whose musical experience stops with Strauss and Debussy be expected to appreciate what we are trying to do today – there's no link. That's why I have made this big effort to conduct Schoenberg, Webern and Berg again and again at my concerts. After all, it was only because I heard these pieces so often that they became a part of my musical make-up. 

'As for emotional content, of course ears that are expecting to hear Wagner all over again will not be satisfied. But the same ears will be just as bewildered by Renaissance music. I would give people the advice of Ives's father: "stretch your ears". Audiences try to re-discover at concerts the first emotions they felt on hearing classical music. I don't want to destroy their world, but I do think that, even if I wasn't a composer, I would have a spirit of adventure in my listening. Why not? People are excited by new mechanical inventions that have changed relationships in life? Why are they not similarly excited by these changes. 

'I cannot really explain what I mean by my music. If I could, there would be no more music. Perhaps it's easier to give an example from painting. Cezanne's Mont St Victoire would not be so attractive if it was just a formal landscape. We could look at it and see exactly how it was made. What we like is its mystery and subtlety. We can also take painting as an example where concerts are concerned. We don't only want museum concerts, we want galerie ones too where controversial pieces are performed. Without that there'll be no life.' 

Although he wrote a work using electronic devices some years ago, he is not contemplating using them again at the moment. 'So far I don't think they have been made to give musical sounds. If they discover such "instruments" I would use them. I certainly think they are part of the future.' 

Nevertheless he has a high respect for Stockhausen. He also appreciates the new school of Polish composers. 'But I do think music in Poland has some similarities with transport in Brazil. There you get off a plane at the airport, see these wonderful new buildings – and then find yourself on a donkey. There's been no intermediary civilisation. So it is with Polish music. They've gone from folk-song to the most up-to-date music with nothing in-between.' 

He does not much care for the older school of British music but is not unnaturally delighted with Goehr, Davies, Birtwistle and Bennett. 'I think they're all important even though they are not as adventurous as composers on the continent – with the exception of Harrison Birtwistle.' 

He admires our instrumentalists too. 'I like working here. All the orchestral players are such good sight-readers. I think there are so many good ones in London that there is a real sense of competition among them. In any case the day of Hausmusik is over. Musicians should be specialists – they always were except in the 18th and 19th centuries. Good players should give you the same impression as good acrobats – they should appear to be independent of the earth. And you should have the same excitement from hearing them as you get from seeing acrobats.' 

He considers records are important as documents. Like most musicians today he likes to record a whole section or movement at a time and only fill in with further takes where there are wrong notes. 'I always bring a metronome along so I can be sure that the additional "takes" are at the right speed.' 

He is willing to record anything that he has conducted at concerts or in the opera house. And he always seizes any chance to widen his repertory without going out of his way to seek opportunities. 'When Klemperer fell ill last season, I didn't immediately get on the phone and say "can I take over the Ninth", but I was delighted to be able to do it. Next year I am conducting a Mahler Symphony – the Fifth – for the first time.' 

I asked him what his authority was for repeating the scherzo and trio of Beethoven's Fifth – as he did at a concert last year. 'I have a pupil who has written a 200-page thesis on this very point and he has really proved conclusively to me that it was just carelessness on Beethoven's part that the repeat marks got left out. I think the balance of the work is improved too in practice.' 

At present he is getting on with the completion of Eclats and beginning a work for string orchestra, although needless to say it will not be, as he put it, 'conventionally written'. 

He is a voracious reader of new fiction and poetry. 'That way I keep my imagination fresh. Although I am supposed to write like a mathematician – and I did study the subject for a year – I have tried recent books on mathematics and find them incomprehensible! The change in 25 years has been quite unbelievable. I go to exhibitions of paintings as much as I can – both because I enjoy it and because it too stimulates ideas. I also like hiking in the Black Forest – when I get the time.'

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