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Culture

French conductor, composer Pierre Boulez dies, aged 90

media Pierre Boulez conducts the Vienna Phylarmonic in 2010 AFP

French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez has died at the age of 90. He succeeded Olivier Messiaen as France's best-known composer of contemporary music in the second half of the 20th century but devoted most of the later years of his life to conducting, notably the works of Mahler and Wagner.

Pierre Boulez was a giant - often controversial, frequently argumentative - of late 20th-century music with an unparalleled influence on the French musical scene and enormous international renown.

When he went to the Paris conservatoire at the age of 18 one of his teachers was Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), the previous generation's leading composer, who agreed to teach him free of charge.

Boulez thanked him by quitting his classes, describing one of Messiaen's pieces as "brothel music".

It was not the last time he would fall out with an influential figure, although he later made it up with Messiaen and consented to learn more from the master.

After a spell playing the ondes Martinot - an early electronic instrument - at Paris's Folies Bergères, Boulez became one of the best-known avant-garde composers in the world, along with figures like Germany's Karlheinz Stockhausen, Italy's Luciano Berio and Hungary's Gyorgy Ligeti.

He moved from an austere serialism, based on the theories of early 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg, to richer works involving sometimes unusual instruments and the human voice, such as Le Marteau sans maître and Pli selon pli.

He also experimented with electronic music.

But, having started conducting because his works were too complicated for anyone else to direct to his satisfaction, Boulez devoted more and more of his time to leading orchestras and was solicited by orchestras all over the world, much admired for his performances of Mahler and Wagner.

Having left France in a temper at the political establishment's attitude to the arts, he took up residence in Germany in the 1960s.

But he was wooed back by President Georges Pompidou, who asked him to set up a contemporary music ensemble and the contemporary music centre Ircam, in the 1970s.

From then on he dominated the French musical scene for several decades, not to everybody's delight.

American composer Ned Rorem called him the Hitler of musical Europe, while electronic music composer and former collaborator Pierre Schaeffer called him "music's Stalinist".

Boulez leaves behind a reputation for demanding excellence and delivering it, both in his compositions and in his performances.

Pierre Boulez, a life in dates
  • 26 March 1925: Born in Montbrison, central France;
  • 1943: Wins entry to the Paris Conservatoire;
  • 1946: Composes first piano sonata;
  • 1948: Composes second piano sonata;
  • 1953-5: Composes Le Marteau sans maître (alto, alto flute, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba, percussion and viola);
  • 1957-89: Composes and updates Pli selon pli (soprano and orchestra);
  • 1966: Moves to Germany;
  • 1967-72: Musical advisor of the Cleveland Orchestra;
  • 1971-75: Directs BBC Symphony Orchstra;
  • 1971-77: Directs New York Phlharmonic;
  • 1974: Returns to live in France, establishes Ircam contemporary music centre;
  • 1976-80: Conducts Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth festival;
  • 1979: Returns to the Paris Opera, conducts first complete performance of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu in Paris;
  • 1988: Peforms Répons at the Avignon theatre festival;
  • 2002: Wins Canada’s Glenn Gould;
  • 2009: Wins Kyoto prize for arts and philosophy;
  • 2012: Wins Germany’s Robert Schumann award:
  • 2014: Becomes honorary German citizen;
  • 5 January 2016: Dies in Baden-Baden, Germany.

  

 

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