Saying Farewell to Pierre Boulez (26 March 1925 – January 5, 2016)
by Michael Haefliger
“I am a French composer, conductor, and writer.” Most likely, this is the answer Pierre Boulez would have given anyone who asked him to describe his work as an artist: an answer that is precise, to the point, without ostentation or any kind of theatrical posing. This is how most of us “youngsters” experienced, felt, and saw Pierre Boulez. And this is how he became a great model for us, indeed, almost a “demigod.” We admired what he did and the goals which he steadfastly pursued, regardless of whether they involved relatively small or large revolutions. Last night, he left us. We mourn the loss of a great human being and artist, one who infinitely enriched and influenced this Festival.
My very first impressions of Pierre Boulez came from the highly innovative programming and concert formats he introduced when he took over leadership of the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 1977 as the successor to Leonard Bernstein. You could find Bach, Schubert, Liszt, Webern, Berg, Stravinsky, and his own compositions alongside one another, sharing the same concert programs as if this were to be taken for granted. The seemingly colorful variety of choices on these programs brought out connections and prompted audiences to try out new listening experiences. One example was the format of his “rug concerts,” which today are still unequaled and looked far into the future in terms of improving the modern concert experience.
True, Pierre Boulez was a revolutionary and a relentless fighter when what was at stake were his ideals and the very future of the institution we call “art and culture.” His aphorism about the founder of the twelvetone system — “Schoenberg is dead” — is as astute as it is mercilessly cutting. He accused the opera industry of being ossified and regarded the way in which opera houses were run as antiquated: he would have preferred to raze them to the ground. And then, in 1976, together with Patrice Chéreau, he presided over what is arguably the most legendary of all “Ring” stagings. When he later worked with Chéreau again, in 1989, he outlined his initial concept for a “Salle Modulable” for the Opéra Bastille in Paris. This entailed an innovative, pioneering space for music theater that would connect the auditorium and stage area via freely configurable forms. However, this idea never materialized because of financial reasons.
One of my lasting memories is the moment in January 2006 at his house in Baden-Baden, when Boulez handed over to me his multipage study for the “Salle Modulable” and inspired in me the goal of redeploying this project in Lucerne. That goal continues to this day!
But France, the land of his birth, and especially Paris will most likely be remembered as the most important areas of his activity. In 1969 Georges Pompidou, the President of the French Republic, personally invited Boulez to found IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), which, together with the Ensemble intercontemporain and the Cité de la Musique became the true hub of Pierre Boulez’s activity. It was in the small, sparsely furnished IRCAM office, in December 2000, that my first conversation concerning the idea of founding the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY took place. His reaction to my request was, as always, clear and simple: “This is something I have always wanted. Come to Baden-Baden in January.” And the planning then developed with lightning speed. Already by the summer of 2003 the so-called “preview” took place; one year later the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY was up and running with 120 students from all over the world.
Just as was the case with his own mentor, Olivier Messiaen, nothing from that point on seemed more important to Pierre Boulez than the desire to pass on his enormous wisdom, his vital experience, and his great ideals to young, aspiring people by means of the Academy idea. And so it was that students made the pilgrimage in droves to Lucerne, fueled by interest and soaking up the Boulez spirit with enthusiasm.
Before that, Lucerne Festival had been essentially focused on presenting first-rate concert experiences, but now it additionally became the place that supported a magnificent institution for orchestral training and for learning conducting and composition.
So many rehearsals and concerts with the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY Orchestra and the Academy chamber ensembles remain unforgettable, as do the lessons in which promising young conductors and composers were mentored. The same holds for the LFA’s unique programs, which ranged from Boulez’s own works, such as Répons, Le marteau sans maître, Éclat/Multiples, and Notations, to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen as well as numerous world premieres. Also unforgettable are the definitive performances he led of such works as Gustav Mahler’s Six Symphony, Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, and Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.
On 2 October 2011 I experienced an especially memorable highlight with Pierre Boulez at the Royal Festival Hall in London with a performance of his legendary Mallarmé cycle Pli selon pli with Barbara Hannigan as the soloist and an ensemble comprising members of the Ensemble intercontemporain from Paris and the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY. The personal fusion of the great composer with the conductor was impressively apparent here.
The sense of friendly fellowship and loyalty that connected Pierre Boulez with so many institutions was remarkable. And even here he was unable to make compromises or engage in self-serving behavior. He stayed true to Wolfgang Wagner in Bayreuth even after the latter had been dropped by the media and political fashions. In the summer of 2004 he devotedly served as a mediator between the parties with regard to the controversial Parsifal production by Christoph Schlingensief, thus making possible one of the most interesting Bayreuth stagings in recent years. When Claudio Abbado was forced to cancel his concerts with the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA at Carnegie Hall in 2007 because of health reasons, Pierre Boulez stepped in for him with just four days’ notice and went on to lead an overwhelming performance of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony. All of this points to the fact that he was one of the greatest artists and humans of our time, a man who always dedicated himself to the service of higher things — to the fact that whatever he did was always a given, something to be taken for granted.
Considered from the point of view of history, Lucerne owes its first acquaintance with Pierre Boulez to his greatest friend and champion, Paul Sacher. As a member of what was then the programming commission, as early as the 1960s the latter recommended Boulez as a conductor. In 1975 Boulez gave his first guest performances here in two concerts with the New York Philharmonic, and in 1983 Sacher introduced him as a composer to Lucerne audiences in a concert that included an interview with Boulez.
LUCERNE FESTIVAL is grateful to Pierre Boulez for his invaluable contribution to the development of a festival at the heart of which a commitment to the musical generation of tomorrow and the music of our time play — and will continue to play — a decisive role.
And if we can turn to the words of the poet and his friend, René Char, whom he so revered, Pierre Boulez has left behind him many dreams and much that remains unsaid about the future. Dreams that it is necessary to continue dreaming and making a reality:
“Un poète doit laisser des traces de son passage, non des preuves. Seules les traces font rêver. ” — René Char