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France's avant-garde composer who 'opened minds'
Culture & Life

France's avant-garde composer who 'opened minds'

2 min. 06.01.2016 From our online archive
One of the most influential voices in modern classical music, Pierre Boulez, has died aged 90.

(AFP) World-renowned French conductor-composer Pierre Boulez, one of the most influential voices in modern classical music, who has died aged 90, did not shy from controversy.

A seminal figure in abstract music, Boulez constantly pushed the envelope by challenging the status quo, once suggesting: "We should burn down the opera houses."

It was not that he disdained opera, but rather Boulez, who died Tuesday, felt that operatic productions had become too amateurish and catered too much to popular demand.

"He helped open minds and hearts to new musical forms," said France's former culture minister Jack Lang. "He really invented a unique musical language."

Intrigued by maths, Boulez composed around 30 often demanding works, notably "Le Marteau Sans Maitre" (The Hammer Without a Master), which drew inspiration from surrealist poetry.

Several works he labelled "works in progress" were to be modified as the performer desired.

"He was a central player in the forward march of the music of our era, the music that... we would be playing tomorrow," said Stephane Lissner, director of the Paris Opera.

Conducting the world's top orchestras

Boulez conducted some of the world's top orchestras, leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, where he was musical director from 1971 to 1977.

His conducting style was legendary. Shunning the baton in favour of his hands, he used sharp, clear movements reminiscent of a traffic director.

Born on March 26, 1925, in the Loire Valley town of Montbrison, Boulez studied at the Paris music conservatory with Olivier Messiaen, a leading composer and organist who influenced his early works.

Boulez's brusque statements added to his public image.

In 1952, he wrote an essay titled "(Arnold) Schoenberg Is Dead", vowing to take music to the next frontier a year after the actual death of his forerunner in atonality -- music that abandons classical scales.

"That means 'stop linking my generation to his discoveries and experimentations, we have gone past that'," said Laurent Bayle, director of the Philharmonie de Paris and a disciple of Boulez.

First musician named to College de France

The conductor was invited by orchestras from Berlin and Vienna to Chicago and Cleveland, and despite his comment on opera, produced in the late 1970s a celebrated version of Richard Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung" with French director Patrice Chereau.

It was his exasperation with the relative conservatism of the French musical world that led him to make his home in the southwestern German city of Baden-Baden -- where he died -- before heading to London and New York.

He returned however in 1974 to create an ensemble dedicated to contemporary music and the Institute for Acoustic/Music Research and Coordination.

He was the first musician named to the College de France, a prestigious research and teaching institute founded in the 16th century.

From there he was associated with several major musical projects such as the Cite de la Musique, inaugurated in 1995, and most recently the Philharmonie de Paris, whose inauguration last year he was too frail to attend.

Musicians worldwide have offered their remembrances of his singular talent in modern conducting and composing.

"He felt with his head and thought with his heart," said Argentinian conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim.