Barenboim on Boulez

It was very important to encounter someone who came to music much less from the harmonic basis, as I had done, and who saw music from the point of view of the structure of the phrases and the form of the pieces.

How Pierre Boulez and I first came to make music together is a rather long story. I had been invited to play with the Berlin Philharmonic by Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1954, when I was eleven years old. My father declined the invitation, telling Furtwängler that he felt that this was the greatest honor that he could bestow upon me, but that we were a Jewish family that had immigrated to Israel only one-and-a-half years earlier, and that he, my father, felt it was too soon-a mere nine years after the end of the war-for our family to go to Germany, which Furtwängler understood and accepted very simply and genuinely. And Furtwängler proceeded to write a letter which opened many doors for me in the 1950s in Europe, and I must say also in America.

Nine years after that, in 1963, I finally decided to go to Germany, and played my first concert in Berlin with the radio orchestra for the American sector, the RIAS Symphony Orchestra, as it was then called. After the concert I had a visit from Wolfgang Stresemann, who was the general manager of the Berlin Philharmonic at the time, and who was the son of Germany’s last foreign minister before Hitler, a great personality. He was very complimentary about my playing of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto and said that he knew that Furtwängler had invited me to play with the Berlin Philharmonic; now that I had decided to come to Germany, would I agree to play with the orchestra? So I said, yes, of course I would be very happy and honoured to do that. This was late in the season-I think it was in April or May of 1963-and he said that all of the programs for the next season were already completed. There was only one where the soloist was not yet announced, and this was in a series of music of the 20th century; a young French composer who had started conducting a few years earlier by the name of Pierre Boulez was to conduct the concert and would like to do the Bartók First Piano Concerto in the second half of the program. If I wanted to play that, it would be wonderful. And I replied, I don’t know the Bartók First Piano Concerto; I have never heard it; I have never seen the music; does it have to be that piece? And he said, if you want to play next season, it has to be this work because it’s the only program left-this will be the first season in the new concert hall, the Philharmonie, which they have just finished building, and all the programs are done. I asked for a few days to get the music and look at it. I got the music and I must say, I fell in love with the piece, although it seemed to me then and seems all the more so now, devilishly difficult. But I thought, yes, yes, and I agreed. I have to admit, I had not heard the name, Pierre Boulez, which is no reflection on him but rather on my ignorance. But I was very, very happy and worked very hard, and learned the piece.

A year later, in the spring of 1964, I played Bartók’s First Concerto for the first time with Pierre Boulez. It was an unforgettable experience on many accounts, first of all because I was absolutely fascinated by his musical personality and his way of looking at music in different ways, but also because it was a very difficult program. It had his Livre pour cordes, Schoenberg’s Music for a film scene, and Debussy’s Jeux, I think-all works which the orchestra did not know-and then the Bartók Concerto, which had not been played there since 1926. And this was 1964! So it was a very difficult program. Our rehearsal time was sparse, and I’m sure that Pierre Boulez used his time very economically, but, if I may venture to say so, I think he might have underestimated the difficulty of the Bartók First Piano Concerto, especially in those days. It was not a repertoire piece. Géza Anda used to play it, but almost nobody else.

In any event, there was not enough rehearsal time. And so the experience was unforgettable, as I said, on many accounts, one of them being that I felt for the twenty-three minutes that it takes to play the Concerto that I was on the most slippery, uncontrollable ground for what seemed to me like twenty-four hours, not a few minutes. Anyway, we got through it, and he must have been pleased with me, because very soon after that I had an invitation to play with him in what I think was the first performance in France of the Berg Kammerkonzert and Schoenberg piano pieces, in a series he directed in Paris at the time called Le Domaine Musical-concerts of chamber music, mostly dedicated to the music of the day.

And that was the beginning of a very close musical collaboration, and the beginning of a very close and to me very important personal and artistic friendship with him for over forty years. When I became music director of the Orchestre de Paris in 1974, he had already left Paris to protest against many things over which he disagreed with the culture ministry at the time. And he then convinced the President of France, Georges Pompidou, to build IRCAM, the center for music/acoustic research and coordination in Paris. And in this way Pompidou persuaded him to come back to Paris, and Boulez lifted, if you want, a ban that he had imposed on the Orchestre de Paris depended on the Ministry of Culture.

Boulez came and conducted in my very first season in Paris. I must say it was one of the most wonderful things one could imagine to have Pierre Boulez on the scene-he conducted not only when he was invited to conduct, but often he very kindly jumped in when there were cancellations. It was a great luxury, and we shared many of our views about music and especially about the role of contemporary music. So it was heartwarming and a source of great artistic support to me. And therefore when I came to Chicago as music director, he was the first person I invited as a guest conductor, and the relation between him and the musicians of the orchestra was so good and so fruitful that I asked him whether he would become principal guest conductor. And the rest is history.

I was born in Argentina and moved to Israel when I was ten; these were my formative years. For me, contemporary music at the time was the music of Bartok, who had died seven years before we moved to Israel, and Stravinsky, who was still alive and whom I later met. And I knew the Soviet composers, especially those who wrote for piano-Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and the lesser composers, Kabalevsky and Khachaturian. But the names of the major composers who were important were Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. On my first concert in New York I played the first Prokofiev concerto and also played the first performance outside the Soviet Union of Prokofiev’s Ninth Sonata, soon after his death in the beginning of 1955. But somehow it didn’t really satisfy me completely. And although I didn’t know Bartók’s First Piano Concerto, I played the Suite op. 14 and other piano pieces. And Stravinsky, of course, the Sonata. I had studied conducting in Salzburg with Igor Markevich, who was perhaps the strongest champion of The Rite of Spring in those days.

But when Boulez came and we prepared and performed Berg’s Kammerkonzert, it was the first time I came in contact with the Second Viennese School, which was a major hole in my education. And it was remarkable to see somebody who understood so well the stretching of the possibilities of harmony in Schönberg’s early years, and then his eventual break from it, and the development of the twelve-tone system. It was very important to encounter someone who came to music much less from the harmonic basis, as I had done, and who saw music from the point of view of the structure of the phrases and the form of the pieces.

In any case, Boulez the conductor not only made the music of the Second Viennese School more accessible, but made it an integral part of the regular repertoire of the orchestras. He had an ability to render this music so much more transparently than the public was used to, thereby making it possible to discover the many layers of musical structure and subtleties-leading the way for many musicians to approach this music with a degree of understanding that would have been totally impossible without the audibility of its details. If one has to point to his central contribution as a conductor, it must be his ability to make every single note audible in even the most complex scores. All the lines are audible and that is the prerequisite for his followers to each attempt to read between the lines in his own individual way.

I came to his music later. The first piece that I studied was Le marteau sans maître. And the first work of his that I conducted was a movement out of Pli selon pli, if I’m not mistaken, which had a singer in it, but he made an orchestral version without the singer so that I could take the piece on tour to the Soviet Union. With the Orchestre de Paris I then conducted Rituel and other pieces, and then later commissioned Notations, which was to be twelve pieces for orchestra. Four of those were delivered in 1979, and we premiered them in 1980. And I had the good fortune to conduct those four Notations with many different orchestras, and very consistently through these twenty-five years. I have seen his pieces become part of my repertoire, and also part of the regular repertoire of orchestras. Which brings me to one of the most important points about contemporary music on which he and I agree wholeheartedly, and that is that the problem with contemporary music very often is that the works are not repeated often enough. And as a result it isn’t possible to get the necessary familiarity-first of all, for the orchestra. By playing a new piece once and preparing it very well and never doing it again, the orchestra can not achieve the familiarity that it requires to play the piece with enough freedom. And of course, for the public as well. I think it was Nietzsche who said that in the end we only like what we already know, or what reminds us of something we already know. And that’s of course very true; in other words, familiarity does not have to breed only contempt.

I’ve seen this happen with Notations, which have become part of the regular repertoire of the Orchestre de Paris. And I have seen these four Notations become a regular part of the Staatskapelle repertoire in Berlin, which had no previous association with this type of music. I’ve done it several times with the Berlin Philharmonic, and in Chicago, of course, it is now a completely natural part of the repertoire.

Boulez’s works always manage to give you the maximum possibilities with the material involved. In others words, if he has a choice between writing something very simply or making it more complex but more colorful and more interesting, then of course he would choose the latter. He is not of the school that believes that the last stroke a composer has to put on his music is the stroke that brings the work to its utmost simplicity. I don’t think he even thinks of that; it’s of no interest to him whatsoever. What is of greater concern to him is how to make these materials as interesting as possible, and if it means making them more complex, then he will do so. He also has, of course, the most imaginative sense of orchestration, so that when you get to the orchestral pieces like Notations, even people who have difficulty relating to the musical idiom are struck by the multitude of orchestral colors. The aspect of color orchestration is an integral part of his musical ideas. I’m sure he imagines the material in an abstract way as a row of notes, but immediately thereafter, I suspect-and this is pure speculation on my part-he immediately attaches some kind of orchestral color to it. It’s not something that is put on as the whipped cream on the cake. It’s part of the cake.

To understand Boulez’s well-known rebellion against his upbringing and against French musical culture, it is important to understand French musical life, which, as far as the repertoire is concerned, is a totally illogical sequence of events. When you think that the Rite of Spring was performed in Paris before the Brahms D minor piano concerto, you realize that something is wrong! The Rite of Spring was premiered in Paris in 1913; the Brahms concerto was first performed in Paris in 1936 by Artur Schnabel. So when one says that Pierre Boulez was critical of French musical life, he was critical of it in so many ways because there was a lot to criticize. There were so many important musical developments missing in France, added to which there was a very limited chauvinistic view of all French music, regardless of its quality. Pierre Boulez was always an internationalist, with the capacity to see individual national contributions as elements leading to further developments of the art and the science of music.

Pierre Boulez’s rebellions throughout his life were so strong and so successful because he had knowledge of all of the above. He knew a lot of the music of the past, and he didn’t see the music of his day as a break from the past, but as an inevitable follow-up. This was also a new way of thinking, because the traditionalists saw the world of tonal music as basically coming to an end with Tristan; after that, there was a complete break and then the beginning of something new-atonality. But instead of that, Boulez made the connection. And this is why his advocacy of Mahler, for example, must be seen in that light, in the sense of evolution. In other words, Boulez was a revolutionary, but a revolutionary for evolution, not simply for the sake of revolution. I think this is the most extraordinary thing about him-he was not just saying that the past was over, and that we have to start something different now.

He was also one of the first musicians who understood the French music of the early part of the 20th century, primarily Debussy and Ravel-and especially Debussy, I must say-as something more than just color. It has depth, articulation. He found the real richness of Debussy’s idiom in so many different ways. Some composers are fortunate in that they have inspired a history of performance from many angles. Debussy, to this day, has had very few advocates, and at the beginning, the greatest advocate of Debussy’s music on the piano was Walter Gieseking, who played it really very beautifully, but in a completely one-dimensional way. Everything is ethereal; everything is a wash of colour. And suddenly came Pierre Boulez with such a sense of structure. And he gave not only wonderful performances of Debussy’s music, but he gave a very clear direction towards understanding the depth of this music.

I remember Boulez coming to a concert of Bruckner’s Eighth which I conducted in Paris, and he said oh, this music is so simplistic. And I said, but the slow movement should provide interest for you with rhythms which go two against three. Oh, he said, that was done much earlier and much better by Wagner in the second act of Tristan. And with that sentence, he finished off Bruckner. But I must say that ten years later or so, he showed his greatness and intelligence by assimilating a lot of things which he might not have seen before. And this is a wonderful lesson for us, because often there are people who have very clear ideas and causes to fight for, and they hold on to them and are immovable. And that is very courageous and very laudable, actually. But there’s one step even higher than that, and this is what Boulez represents to me. He knows that certain decisions or opinions that he arrives at are linked to a certain age and to a certain time. In the 1970s, it was practically necessary for him not to see the beauties in Bruckner, because he was fighting causes which were to him much more important, and rightly so.

And those causes not only demanded his time, but his mind demanded his concentration on those causes, which were musically from a totally different planet than Bruckner. But after he went through that stage, he could then have an open mind for the beauties of this other type of music. Although Pierre Boulez is a man full of seeming contradictions and paradoxes, in fact he is not. There’s nothing contradictory about his opinions or about his actions, but rather he has a sense of the necessary clarity of thought that he needs at a given moment. When that moment is over, he is willing and able to examine those thoughts at another time and in another context, and this is a very rare quality.

Originated as an interview by Andrew Patner for Chicago’s WFMT Radio, January 2005. Reprinted by permission.