A Mensch

Olga Neuwirth

Obituary on Pierre Boulez

As a sixteen-year-old living in the Austrian provinces I was completely captivated by Boulez’s musical personality and by his way of seeing music in an entirely different light—and this remains true even now. 

To rethink the music of the past with the composer’s analytical insights in order to give those works a new and revolutionary thrust; to generate a strength to change conditions through the interface that exists between the extremes of anti-Romantic reaction and refusal; to change conditions and at the same time to inspire audiences; and to adopt a critical attitude to the ossified elements in the world of music because there was—and is—so much to criticize: we ourselves now have to deal with all of these problems without this great unifying figure. His uttermost conviction that we are living in the here and now and that we must think and write music accordingly, while countering cynicism and indifference: this appealed to me and inspired me on the very deepest level. 

I was naturally fascinated by his music, especially by Répons, a work that explores a touchingly varied world of space and sound that I studied in his own autograph copy of the score. The ways of inspiration are mysterious, but in the early 1990s I envisaged a new expressive world for complex works, a world that existed between self-imposed rules, technology, and an emotionally charged and sensuous approach to the question of sonority. I was particularly interested in the interaction between traditional ensembles, live electronics, and architecture. And I wanted to know how he, the master, had handled all of this. It was in December 1998 that I finally met Pierre Boulez at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.“I doubt if I’ll get a word out, my awe in the face of this towering composer, this embodiment of the Olympus of contemporary music is so great,” I noted at the time in my Venice Work Journal. In spite of this, we agreed on something—an orchestral piece—for Boulez’s tour in 2000. For our next meeting at his house in Baden-Baden in December 1999, he collected me in person from the station, standing on the platform with his arms folded, waiting. We got into his car and he sped off. Following a serious accident I am afraid of car travel but I did not dare say anything because I noticed that he clearly felt at his ease. Years later it turned my stomach to hear his sister tell of the risky car trips she has taken with him. 

His uttermost conviction

that we are living in the here and now and that we must think and write music accordingly, while countering cynicism and indifference: this appealed to me and inspired me on the very deepest level.

His great inquisitiveness fascinated me, as did the fact that he wasn’t in the least nonplussed if ever he didn’t know something. Once we were in his study, the conversation soon turned to how the two detuned zithers and the Hawaiian guitar that I had selected as “hinge instruments” were to be played by two percussionists. The same program was to include Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, and he had requested that I should not use any brass instruments on account of the excessive demands that Mahler places on his wind players. I explained that although I was not allowed to use brass instruments in my work I still wanted to hear “some other metallic sounds,” hence my choice of these three instruments. He had to laugh and did nothing to dissuade me from using them. I think he appreciated the fact that I had not immediately given in to the demands that he had imposed on me and that I was continuing to pursue my own particular vision of sound. He was no fan of submissive epigonal attitudes. But these three instruments almost caused the cancellation of the first performance in January 2000 since the percussionists refused to play what they regarded as “string instruments.” Not until Boulez had finally found a solution after a good deal of toing and froing were we able to continue with the rehearsals. 

His great inquisitiveness fascinated me,

as did the fact that he wasn’t in the least nonplussed if ever he didn’t know something.

As soon as we had finished looking through my score, we turned to Brevets d’invention tout à fait insolites, a book of which I have always been inordinately fond and which, casting my eyes around me as I invariably do, I had spotted in his library. With this ironic and lightweight conversation on Utopian and even senseless inventions, the spell was finally broken for me.With Pierre Boulez one talked not just about music but also about literature, art, theatre and conditions in society. When talking to him, one entered another world. Our last two conversations, in New York and later in Paris, revolved only briefly around music but were concerned far more with Herman Melville. I was currently working on The Outcast – A Homage to Herman Melville in New York and was immersed in Melville’s world. Boulez was very interested in this. He told me that Melville was one of his favourite writers and that the book he preferred above all others was Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. I was familiar with this special novel that, with its linguistic experiments, had ended disastrously for Melville. I glanced at Boulez and he knew what I was thinking. We smiled. 

With Pierre Boulez

one talked not just about music but also about literature, art, theatre and conditions in society.

I loved his capacity for enthusiasm. I could spend hours listening to his clear and brilliant mind, knowing that he could change his opinions because he saw nothing self-contradictory in rethinking what he had said and done. How many people are there nowadays who can speak with profundity and subtlety about things that affect them deeply or who are capable of conveying their knowledge in such a spirit of generosity without constantly seeking to stress their own self-importance? This should be a lesson to us all. 

By the same token he repeatedly revised his own compositions. I have often heard it said that this was regrettable since there were no really new pieces. I find nothing regrettable about this. It was a part of his way of thinking and of the compositional process, as well as standing in contrast to the prevailing delusive belief that we need to constantly provide new and finished products that must additionally always be masterpieces. Perhaps Zeno’s paradoxes were relevant to his way of writing music. After all, the concept of movement is possible only thanks to the concept of time, because only through the paradoxes of motion are there consequences for the structure of space and time. I wish I could have talked to him more on this subject. 

On 4 February 2000 we were both involved in a brief moment of slapstick theatre invisible to the audience in the hall. Following the performance I took my bow wearing a black ribbon indicative of mourning: it was the day on which the new right-wing coalition government was inaugurated in Austria. The previous day I had given a brief speech outside the Vienna State Opera. I had prepared a brief statement that I wanted to read out at the concerthall, but he said no, I shouldn’t do so, it wasn’t fair on the orchestra. We had to take our bows and I wrestled with my conscience, trying to decide whether to say something or not. We had scarcely left the stage when the same argument between Boulez and me broke out only to be interrupted as we had to take another bow. This kept on repeating itself until I finally gave up. But he immediately protected me when a number of aggressive concertgoers, who knew why I was wearing the black ribbon, came backstage and attacked me. He took me by the hand and drew me into his dressing room. It was calm there. He often encouraged me and, when necessary, gave me his backing. Unconditionally. 

I always find it intensely disagreeable to have to take a bow. But how does one deal with an anxious self-doubter like myself? Boulez held me firmly by the hand so that I couldn’t escape or he then led me to the conductor’s podium, so that I was literally fenced in. Many other conductors and musicians have criticized me for my way of taking a bow and lectured me at length. One even made me stand in the corner and told me that I would harm my career. But not Boulez. He achieved his results unobtrusively, with kindness and good humour. He did not need to lecture me. 

He often encouraged me

and, when necessary, gave me his backing. Unconditionally.

What was so impressive about him was his clarity, his calm, his patience, his warm-heartedness, his obligingness and his sound common sense. But with him it wasn’t just the sort of reason that in most people drains the world dry. The great aim of rationalization is to eliminate the difference between things by means of inductive generalizations. It is clear that scientific discourse follows an inner, algebraic logic in which signs stand unambiguously for concepts. But Boulez knew that the vigilant realist and scientist must also be a dreamer. Although he worked away at draining the swamps of culture, especially of opera houses, he was never concerned with the terra firma of pure rationalization which we can clearly hear in Répons, with its unruly topography and eddying seas and also by examining the score. 

Boulez knew that

the vigilant realist and scientist must also be a dreamer.

Although this was not immediately clear from his deliberate way of thinking, he never eliminated departures from the norm or instances of turbulence. In my view—and in spite of the use of the most accurate and detailed musical material—his music contains a universal flow and a knowledge of the fact that the wellsprings of tradition cannot simply be drained dry. He knew that music and writing cannot be reduced to an instrument of rational communication. He never eliminated the poetic dimension of music and language from his compositions, a dimension that allows them to flow unimpededly from one idea to another. Thanks to the fluidity of his poetry, which was made up from many dangerous and unpredictable micro-passages, he evoked a kind of stability. For him, there was no linear sense of time but, rather, a sense of constant readiness and at the same time “not ready yet,” for over everything there nonetheless lies the cold hand of time which, as if by a miracle, temporarily melts in his music. 

This continuous and conscious tightrope-walk between waking and dreaming is something that I found extraordinary. And I shall always be grateful to him for the fact that in 2006 he responded to my request for his protection as conductor in the concert with the Vienna Philharmonic after I was invited to write an orchestral piece by way of compensation for a work of music theatre that had been unpleasantly cancelled. For me Pierre Boulez remains an exemplary authority, a natural authority without any airs and graces and wholly lacking in arrogance but subtle in his irony. “A Mensch” with a constant notion of potential freedom. I am very grateful to have been able to spend time with him. May his independent spirit continue to live in us all!


Published in DIE ZEIT, January 14, 2016


He never eliminated

the poetic dimension of music and language from his compositions, a dimension that allows them to flow unimpededly from one idea to another.