Pierre Boulez, iconoclastic composer, conductor, writer and pianist, died last week after a long illness at the age of 90. Michael Chanan pays tribute.
It was the mid-1960s, I was in my late teens, I was already becoming familiar with post-war avant-garde music, yet the first time I heard Pli selon Pli by Pierre Boulez, who has died at the age of 90, I couldn't make head or tail of it. Something in the back of my head, however, insisted that the problem was mine, not the music's, driving me back to hear it a second time when he conducted it in London again a few months later. This time I was rewarded by a musical experience as scintillating, diaphanous and transcendent as I've ever had. When I talked to him about his music a year or two later, I immediately connected the experience with his description of music as 'controlled hysteria', an effect which is highly calculated but produces in the listener a peculiar kind of euphoria, a free-floating intensity that can also be found in certain old time composers like Perotin or Tallis, even Beethoven, at least in the readings of certain symphonies by certain conductors–try listening to Boulez's recording of Beethoven’s Fifth.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 summons up a happiness that is almost boundless and which, for that very reason, neither he nor we can possess. The Concerto was nicknamed the Emperor. It carries us to an horizon of happiness we cannot cross.
- Daniel Barenboim, Klavier-Festival Ruhr
I send it today to the Palestinian students demonstrating at the Beth El checkpoint at the entrance to Ramallah. They too are inspired by a vision of happiness they cannot know in their lives. I send the Concerto as an arm to be used in their struggle against the Israelis who occupy and colonize their homeland. Beethoven approves. He cares deeply about politics. His Symphony No. 3, the Eroica, was inspired by Napoleon when he was still a freedom-fighter and before he became a tyrant. Let’s rename the Emperor for a day: Piano Concerto no. 5, the Intifada.