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Has Boulez's been a pernicious influence?


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Author Topic: Has Boulez's been a pernicious influence?  (Read 1929 times)
Sydney Grew
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« on: February 22, 2012, 09:13:56 am »

Mr. Stocken took an interesting tack in the New Statesman, a good few years ago now:

http://www.newstatesman.com/200003200041

"The determinist view of musical history," he reminds us, "has been intellectually discredited, but is still in the bones of the institutions. Composers who reintroduce tonal materials are expected to use them obscurely, ironically, maniacally, grotesquely or minimalistically with no key changes. By doing this, the creators flatter the still fashionable view that modernism has changed music for ever, but also signal that they would like to think that contemporary classical music is beginning to engage with an audience. . . . Atonality was a failure of the imagination."

Exactly what I have long been saying: they lost the plot did they not.
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ahinton
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« Reply #1 on: February 22, 2012, 11:03:18 am »

Mr. Stocken took an interesting tack in the New Statesman, a good few years ago now:

http://www.newstatesman.com/200003200041

"The determinist view of musical history," he reminds us, "has been intellectually discredited, but is still in the bones of the institutions. Composers who reintroduce tonal materials are expected to use them obscurely, ironically, maniacally, grotesquely or minimalistically with no key changes. By doing this, the creators flatter the still fashionable view that modernism has changed music for ever, but also signal that they would like to think that contemporary classical music is beginning to engage with an audience. . . . Atonality was a failure of the imagination."

Exactly what I have long been saying: they lost the plot did they not.
A straightforward and simple answer to the question is a resounding "no" – but there are so many flaws, prejudices and illogicalities in the article that you cite – which, incidentally, is almost a dozen years old now – that so curt an answer hardly suffices, so let us examine the premises and assertions upon which this piece of schoolboy journalism appears to be based.

In his opening gambit, the author seeks to persuade his readership of something that he arrogantly assumes them already to be well aware, namely that Boulez represents an "archetypal social-security composer de-voted to the manufacture of sonic sewage". Even this alone poses numerous questions without answering them. Firstly, on what grounds does the author assume that this is a general public opinion (at least amongst listeners to "classical" music)? Secondly (if he were nevertheless correct in his assumption), on what grounds would those listeners hold such a view? Thirdly, what is a "social-security composer" and how might one distinguish between an "archetypal" one and another who is not? Why is "de-voted" hyphenated when the author's readership is unlikely to consist solely of Sydney Grew? What is "the manufacture of sonic sewage", how and what grounds is such "sewage" identified, what qualifies it "sewage" and by what means is it disposed of as is the case with all other “sewage” in non-third-world countries? And so far we’ve dealt only with a single sentence! It does not bode well, does it?!

In the next sentence, the author writes about two major Boulez compositions from the 1950s as though he was a pioneer of atonal writing, which is, of course, absurd.

Matters improve a little with the opening of the second paragraph but it soon becomes painfully obvious that the author is here "lapsing momentarily into sense", as Sorabji once wrote of a prominent English music critic, for we are then treated to the notion that, by the 1970s, a climate had established itself in which "those composers who traced their musical ancestry back through Sir Edward Elgar, rather than Arnold Schoenberg, should find other jobs". Leaving aside the fact that few composers outside the movie industry actually had "jobs" composing in those days, who are or were these composers? – and, for that matter, why should they be regarded as so different from one another when the musics that Elgar and Schönberg were writing as the last century began to get going were hardly at complete odds to one another? How in any case did thses unnamed composers "trace their music ancestry" thus - and, indeed, did they do so at all? The author here turns the leaking tap of his venom upon Schönberg, who has been easy prey for that kind of thing since some time before Boulez was even born, disregarding the well-known and now widely accepted fact of Schönberg the "reluctant revolutionary" who revered both Brahms and Wagner, respected Bach and Beethoven and, even late in life, famously contradicted someone who sought to accuse him of being an auto-didact with the words "I am a pupil of Mozart!" – in other words, a composer who, throughout his life, placed immense value upon certain Western musical traditions and who never eschewed or undervalued tonality.

Carefully trying to distinguish between what he calls "political Marxism" and what he purports to regard as a musical equivalent thereof, the author nevertheless lets himself down by writing of "the Marxist view of historical inevitability that culminates, in the case of music, in atonality" in the context of his perception of Boulez as representing such a view. No evidence for this is supplied, of course – and the author is also careful to avoid mention of the fact that "atonality" (such as it exists at all) is not only a natural result of the development of Western musical language over many generations (as exemplified in passages from Bach, Chopin, Alkan, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms and Scriabin in particular) but also a phenomenon that does not and cannot of itself "replace" tonality or otherwise usurp its rôle. The references in the remainder of this paragraph to Schönberg's alleged "evolutionary zeal" are, of course, as completely at odds with Schönberg’s own view as they are with reality and admit of yet further absurdity in their failure to recognise that Schönberg was by no means the first or only composer to write music where tonal centres and relationships explored new vistas only hinted at in certain earlier musics. This nonsense leads into the equally risible assertion that "just as communists called for social equality, so atonalism developed into serialism, with its theory of equality between all 12 notes in an octave"; apart from the patently obvious falsehood of the analogy itself, "atonalism" (whatever that may be) did not develop into "serialism", 12-note serialism does not of itself necessarily eschew tonal reference and Schönberg’s own claim that "his"(!) "new" system of composing with 12 tones would assure the supremacy of German music for the next century has all too often not been recognised as an example of his wacky humour, even Ronald Stevenson falling for it as a literal statement (though it is arguably a good thing that he did, insofar as he followed it up by asserting that this was a strange idea for an Austrian Jew to have).

The writer then goes on to try to ascribe to Boulez all the "ills" associated with the spread of "modernism", determined not to recognise that Boulez was by no means the epitome, let alone the sole purveyor, of all things “modernistic” any more than the short-lived total serialist persuasions of the early years of the Darmstadt/Donaueshingen/Köln axis represented the summit of "modernist" practice (what about Vermeulen and Varèse long before them and what of Xenakis and then Carter at the same time?). The author nevertheless pursues his pointlessly puerile parallel with communism as though it actually meant something in the context of "musical modernism".

The sidelining in Britain of composers such as Lloyd, Panufnik and Goldschmidt, along with Rubbra and others certainly did occur at one time, but this was largely at the BBC rather than across British musical life as a whole and was largely the responsibility of Sir William Glock, not Boulez; unfortunate as this was and disproportionate as was its effect it should be remembered not only that Britain had fallen way behind in European musical history and developments and needed to be brought up to date but also that Malcolm Arnold’s work did not seem to suffer under this "régime" at all. In any case, moves to try to drag post-WWII Britain into the general European musical landscape had already been made by, for example, the members of what we now call the "Manchester School" – Goehr, Birtwistle, Davies, Ogdon and Howarth – some time before the Glock era established itself.

Perhaps the daftest statement of all in this litany of pleonasms is the one which seeks to persuade readers that "a figure such as Boulez is a creation of the Arts Council, Radio 3 and the French taxpayer". Unless I have been labouring under a fundamental misunderstanding for decades, Boulez is French (whereas the "Arts Council" and "Radio 3" to which the author refers are British) and, in any case, the "French taxpayer" has funded Boulez no more than taxpayers elsewhere fund arts organisations (i.e. inadequately). Boulez’s term as chief conductor of BBCSO began only long after he had himself become well established as a composer and conductor in any case.

The ne plus ultra of risibility that this statement so clearly is, a later one runs it pretty close; according to the writer, "thanks largely to the legacy of Boulez, the worst sin a composer can commit in the contemporary music establishment is imaginatively and naturally to speak the vernacular of high art developed over four centuries of classical music"! Again, of course, no evidence is provided with a view to supporting such an assertion – which is understandably, frankly, since there is none – and why "four hundred years" rather than 250, 500 or more?

We are then assured that "the history of music categorically does not point to the inevitability of atonality, which scowls upon the diversity of four hundred years of composition". The problem here is that the writer is again seeking to define this "inevitability" as some kind of supplanting mechanism; the fact that this is clearly not the case does nothing to lend credibility to what passes for his argument, however, since "atonality" is one part of the fabric of musical language rather than some kind of "new deal" and, in any case, it does not and indeed could not "scowl" upon anything, least of all a "diversity" to which it has itself become an addition.

The writer tries to end with a succinct summing-up of his case with the notion that "atonality was a failure of the imagination"; I wonder what retort he might have received to such an idea from the man who composed Bagatelle sans tonalité some 115 years before this article was published.

There’s a "failure of the imagination" (and more) here, for certain; "atonality", however, isn’t it.

Below the article appears – with questionable serendipity – an advertisement that includes the words "get a free copy of Penny Red"; who on earth would need one after trawling through the murky penny-dreadfulness of this article?
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #2 on: February 22, 2012, 11:06:14 am »

To call Petit Pierre a 'pernicious influence' is really overstating the case.

His slender output has already slipped from view, and he exercises no influence whatsoever - pernicious or otherwise.  His music isn't played outside his own country.  Even there, it's only played because no-one dare admit France has slipped into formulaic mediocrity.

I read a very interesting remark - by an American gentleman - on a messageboard this week, which has stuck in my mind. "Calling something bad", he wrote, 'conflates the concept of mere mediocrity with the idea of being actually evil'.  How very true!  Boulez isn't 'pernicious' - he's merely third-rate.

He keeps a few music lecturers in work, I suppose.

Mr. Stocken took an interesting tack in the New Statesman, a good few years ago now:

http://www.newstatesman.com/200003200041

Exactly what I have long been saying: they lost the plot did they not.


Entirely so.  The emperor's never been so denuded.  Creativity and imagination know no borders. The impetus for creative work has gone on outside France & Germany, and the baton's been passed elsewhere.  The visible part of the iceberg of creativity must be supported by a submersed mass of third-rate talents who have nothing but their nationality to cling to...  as though it's their birthright as Frenchman to achieve success?  
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #3 on: February 22, 2012, 01:16:37 pm »

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The sidelining in Britain of composers such as Lloyd, Panufnik and Goldschmidt, along with Rubbra and others certainly did occur at one time, but this was largely at the BBC rather than across British musical life as a whole and was largely the responsibility of Sir William Glock

And in which sides of British musical life was that grossly politically-motivated venom counterbalanced?  Where were these composers promoted?  In the Proms, Britain's main musical festival?  Certainly not, because Glock's Zhdanovian hand was pulling all the strings there too.

Look how well Boulez has been served by the Proms over the years?

Admittedly some of the mentions above are for his autopilot conducting 'performances'.



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ahinton
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« Reply #4 on: February 22, 2012, 07:21:04 pm »

There can be no doubting the autocracy that was characteristic of Boulez from time to time, especially in the earlier part of his career - no less a composer than his elder compatriot Dutilleux has railed against this (although not in the context of criticising Boulez's own music, it has to be said) - and this fact, together with the more overtly polemical of his remarks as a young musician, has remained in many memories even though any significance of that autocracy and those remarks has largely passed into history, so perhaps it is little wonder that Boulez as a controversial figure continues to exercise some people in rather extreme ways - but this, I think, is to miss the point, or rather to get certain factors out of proportion.

Boulez as a conductor has never disproportionately favoured the presentation of his own music above that of other composers, he has conducted the music of quite a few composers younger than himself and he has continued to widen his repertoire, especially in music outside of his own time, albeit not always to best effect (Janácek has already been cited in this context and I might add to it my own disappointment in his more recent Szymanowski recording). Schoenberg may once have been "dead" to him but he has since done that composer considerable service in drawing attention to his music - and many of his Bartók performances are near-legendary, to my ears.

As a composer, he has perhaps done his reputation insufficient favours by the sheer extent to which he has continued to rework pieces over large spans of time (not that I am suggesting that this has to be a bad thing) and, whilst never particularly prolific, his output in recent times has continued to deplete in quantity. I have already stated that I find his three piano sonatas and Structures) for two pianos as gravely dismaying as I find them impenetrable and even Notations seems to me far finer when dressed in orchestral garb - all of which, considering Boulez's evidently considerable talent as a pianist in his younger days seems particularly surprising. Le Marteau sans Maître is a work of significance and Pli selon Pli perhaps his most remarkable, as well as his most ambitious, piece. The aridity (I almost wrote sterility) of the piano writing has since given way to more easily absorbable and readily engaging music without any obvious compromise. Is Boulez the great white light of French music in the latter half of the lasst century and the beginning of this one? No. Is he as untalented and insignificant but over-hyped as certain of his detractors seem bent upon making out? Again, emphatically no. As far as his influence on other composers goes, there is no doubting it but it has too often been grossly over-emphasised.
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #5 on: February 23, 2012, 07:57:38 am »

Boulez as a conductor has never disproportionately favoured the presentation of his own music above that of other composers, he has conducted the music of quite a few composers younger than himself and he has continued to widen his repertoire

Yes, he's always had an eye to the main chance financially  Shocked

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As far as his influence on other composers goes, there is no doubting it but it has too often been grossly over-emphasised.

Surely the overall influence is Messiaen's - relayed somewhat by his pupil Boulez?

What is ultimately frustrating about Boulez is perhaps not his work itself - but the way he has indeed been presented as the 'Great White Light' (and prescribed as Set Works for A-Level exams etc). 
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ahinton
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« Reply #6 on: February 23, 2012, 09:25:54 am »

Boulez as a conductor has never disproportionately favoured the presentation of his own music above that of other composers, he has conducted the music of quite a few composers younger than himself and he has continued to widen his repertoire
Yes, he's always had an eye to the main chance financially  Shocked
I had thought that the article sought to imply a widely held opinion that Maître Boulez was so heavily funded by the French taxpayer that he'd have had no need to concern himself with such trivial considerations...

Quote
As far as his influence on other composers goes, there is no doubting it but it has too often been grossly over-emphasised.

Surely the overall influence is Messiaen's - relayed somewhat by his pupil Boulez?
I wouldn't have thought that either composer's influence could reasonably be regarded as all-pervasive these days, frankly - and let's not forget that, as in the case of the "dead" Schoenberg morphing into a composer whose work's importance to Boulez came to be illustrated by Boulez's considerable promotion of it through performances, so his one-time tasteless brothel crawling teacher Messiaen came to be well served by Boulez in the same manner; sometimes, however - even in such circumstances - it is hard to forgive the indiscretions of firebranded youth...

What is ultimately frustrating about Boulez is perhaps not his work itself - but the way he has indeed been presented as the 'Great White Light' (and prescribed as Set Works for A-Level exams etc).
Yes, I think that this is true; it would be difficult, for example, to dream up a reasonable and credible explanation as to why Boulez has been lauded to the skies to the extent that he has when his even less prolific but immensely important compatriot Dutilleux has merely garnered respect and admiration for his work as a composer without ever desiring to assume the rôle of French Music's de Gaulle; it's interesting, incidentally, that even now relations between the two composers are now said to be most cordial, Boulez the conductor has still done very little for Dutilleux's music. Disproportionality seems sadly to be the order of the day here.
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Sydney Grew
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« Reply #7 on: February 24, 2012, 01:59:12 pm »

. . . In the next sentence, the author writes about two major Boulez compositions from the 1950s as though he was a pioneer of atonal writing, which is, of course, absurd. . . .

Yes that confused me too Mr. H. Originally I wrote "Schönberg lost the plot in July 1908" but after I realized that Mr. Stocken did not actually have Schönberg in mind I changed the aforesaid Schönberg to a much hazier "they." It may well be that Mr. Stocken as Mr. H. suggests had a hazy idea of twentieth-century musical history. A surprising number of persons does these days.

Does any one know anything about him? He has certainly inspired Mr. H. to write at heavenly length.
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ahinton
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« Reply #8 on: February 24, 2012, 04:27:33 pm »

. . . In the next sentence, the author writes about two major Boulez compositions from the 1950s as though he was a pioneer of atonal writing, which is, of course, absurd. . . .

Yes that confused me too Mr. H. Originally I wrote "Schönberg lost the plot in July 1908" but after I realized that Mr. Stocken did not actually have Schönberg in mind I changed the aforesaid Schönberg to a much hazier "they." It may well be that Mr. Stocken as Mr. H. suggests had a hazy idea of twentieth-century musical history. A surprising number of persons does these days.

Does any one know anything about him? He has certainly inspired Mr. H. to write at heavenly length.
I didn't find Mr Stocken's article at all "inspiring" - very much the reverse, in fact - and I'm far from certain that my response was in any real sense "heavenly" in either its length or its content. Stocken, an English composer, organist, pianist, teacher and Bruckner scholar born in 1967 and now living in London, has a website (http://www.frederickstocken.com/), although most of it comprises a bio and sound clips; there's a brief works list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Stocken. That's about all that I know of him.

Incidentally, the notion that anyone - even your amorphous Schönberg substitute "they" - "lost the plot" (whatever plot, if any, that may have been) in 1908 or indeed in any other specific year is one that I find almost more meaningless than inaccurate.

That said, I suspect that, whilst most people reading this thread may well have begun by assuming that the term "influence" here was intended to refer to Boulez's influence as a composer and, indeed, no small proportion of my responses have been based upon such an assumption, that is not presented as a given in the thread title and one might therefore be given to wonder whether you had in mind his influence in more general rather than specifically compositional terms...
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t-p
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« Reply #9 on: February 25, 2012, 10:41:17 am »

Thank you for introducing me  to composer Stocken. I know now a number of composers that write in their own style in our time.

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Sydney Grew
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« Reply #10 on: February 25, 2012, 10:56:18 am »

. . . I suspect that, whilst most people reading this thread may well have begun by assuming that the term "influence" here was intended to refer to Boulez's influence as a composer and, indeed, no small proportion of my responses have been based upon such an assumption, that is not presented as a given in the thread title and one might therefore be given to wonder whether you had in mind his influence in more general rather than specifically compositional terms...

Well no actually there was really nothing much at all in my mind; it was merely a word I picked up from this passage, to which it is intended to refer:

"With such direct influence, Boulez inevitably attracted envy and criticism. Indeed, in the near-hysterical atmosphere that pervaded discussions of new music, he was frequently accused of being Stalinist. There are some similarities between the history of communism and the modernism of Boulez."

But perhaps as you point out Mr. Stocken in 2000 was - if not entirely hairless - still something of a callow youth. He was not making a lot of sense altogether was he. (And in my experience and judgement the writings of Mr. P. Griffiths - the Welshman you know - are very similar and hardly more enlightening.)
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ahinton
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« Reply #11 on: February 25, 2012, 03:56:31 pm »

. . . I suspect that, whilst most people reading this thread may well have begun by assuming that the term "influence" here was intended to refer to Boulez's influence as a composer and, indeed, no small proportion of my responses have been based upon such an assumption, that is not presented as a given in the thread title and one might therefore be given to wonder whether you had in mind his influence in more general rather than specifically compositional terms...

Well no actually there was really nothing much at all in my mind; it was merely a word I picked up from this passage, to which it is intended to refer:

"With such direct influence, Boulez inevitably attracted envy and criticism. Indeed, in the near-hysterical atmosphere that pervaded discussions of new music, he was frequently accused of being Stalinist. There are some similarities between the history of communism and the modernism of Boulez."

But perhaps as you point out Mr. Stocken in 2000 was - if not entirely hairless - still something of a callow youth. He was not making a lot of sense altogether was he. (And in my experience and judgement the writings of Mr. P. Griffiths - the Welshman you know - are very similar and hardly more enlightening.)
Paul Griffiths compared to Frederick Stocken in such matters? Vastly superior and well thought ot in every way! - so I cannot agree with you here. Stocken seems to have gotten his knives out for Boulez before he pens his first word and this agenda-driven motivatgion pervades his entire article, I fear; Griffiths is not only far better informed but far more considered in what he writes, as is, for example, Arnold Whittall.

SInce you clarify that you were broadly deferring to Mr Stocken's contextual use of the word "influence" I think that it can be accepted that his meaning was something perceived to be far wider and more pervasive than mere composer-on-composer influence as provided by Boulez's music.
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Neil McGowan
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« Reply #12 on: February 25, 2012, 04:13:58 pm »

I think that it can be accepted that his meaning was something perceived to be far wider and more pervasive than mere composer-on-composer influence as provided by Boulez's music.

I think that's true, especially in France... where Boulez is touted as the living embodiment of what a composer 'is supposed to be like'.

Unfortunately.
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« Reply #13 on: February 25, 2012, 05:25:32 pm »

I think that it can be accepted that his meaning was something perceived to be far wider and more pervasive than mere composer-on-composer influence as provided by Boulez's music.

I think that's true, especially in France... where Boulez is touted as the living embodiment of what a composer 'is supposed to be like'.

Unfortunately.
I'm not so sure that this is any longer as true as once it seemed to be in that country, though...
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« Reply #14 on: February 25, 2012, 07:09:07 pm »

It is interesting discussion here. I saw listened to Boulez conducting several times and i was impressed. I don't remember what it was, but it wasn't contemporary repertoire. At the same time he made an impression that he is Stalinist in his opinion on contemporary music and the way it should go. Sometimes it is good to see when musicians are a little more humble and respectful of other people opinions. One never knows how history will develop and where music is going.

When we are not around people could be playing different music and not understand what discussion was all about. It would benefit us all to be kinder to each other.
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