Obituary: Pierre Boulez (1925–2016)


The LSO is deeply saddened to hear of the death of Pierre Boulez, celebrated composer, conductor, musical thinker and modernist icon, on 5 January 2016.

Boulez made his first appearance with the LSO in 1967 conducting a programme of works by Debussy, Schoenberg and Webern. Since then he maintained a special, collaborative relationship with the Orchestra, appearing regularly as both conductor and composer. His music was regularly performed by the Orchestra at its home in the Barbican and on tour internationally.

Boulez with LSO Leader John Georgiadis in 1969Boulez with LSO Leader John Georgiadis in rehearsals for 'The Crossroads of 20th Century Music' in 1969 (Photo: Mary Lawrence)

His programmes with the LSO mostly focused on great works of the 20th century, the music of living composers and occasionally his own music. In later years he began to turn his hand to the established Romantic and 19th century repertoire, bringing masterful new insights and uncovering unprecedented detail in scores by Mahler, Bruckner and Wagner. Through LSO Discovery Boulez gave conducting masterclasses, was the subject of an in-depth study day and led guided concerts exploring pivotal scores by Stravinsky, Webern and Bartók.

Boulez Video Conference 2004Pierre Boulez giving an LSO Discovery video conference and masterclass to students at LSO St Luke's and in universities around the world in 2004 (Photo: LSO)

In 2000 the Orchestra marked the occasion of Boulez’s 75th birthday, and the turn of the millennium, with a major survey of 20th century and contemporary music titled Boulez 2000. This eight month series consisted of 33 concerts in 11 cities worldwide with Boulez as conductor. The series featured performances of many of Boulez’s most significant scores alongside other works of the 20th century, and a string of high-profile new commissions by outstanding international composers. Most recently the Orchestra celebrated Boulez’s 90th birthday with a pair of concerts at the Barbican and the Paris Philharmonie in April 2015.

Boulez-200 leafletBoulez 2000 publicity leaflet

Boulez was a constant and essential innovator, stretching the potentials of musical language, expression and technique with each new score. He was a true craftsman, and although his output is relatively modest in size, the impact it has had on the musical landscape of today could not have been more profound or vital. He played a pivotal role in bringing some of the most radical new techniques and ideas into common practice: including the development of total serialist methods, his ground-breaking work with electronic and computer music, the introduction of chance and aleatoric procedures and the subtle absorption of influence from African and Asian traditional music. He was a true musical pioneer, and it is impossible to imagine the world of contemporary music today without his influence. Boulez’s is a distinctive compositional voice; precise and revolutionary in its academic compositional procedures, yet always evocative, sensuous and expressive – his rigorous compositional means were always at the service of genuine musical expression.

From the late 60s, after establishing himself as the world’s leading modernist composer, Boulez began to focus more of his energies on conducting. His unique technique was characterised by absolute precision, lucid interpretation, meticulous attention to orchestral detail and a phenomenal musical ear. His conducting strove to discover the essence of each score he touched, and he was in absolute control of his instrumental forces. Many of Boulez’s recordings are considered to be definitive; he was widely regarded as the foremost interpreter of Stravinsky’s seminal work The Rite of Spring, and the works of the Second Viennese School whose music he championed tirelessly. He also strove to pass on his immense knowledge of the art of conducting to the next generation, primarily at the Lucerne Festival Academy, but also in masterclasses at some the world’s most prestigious conservatoires.

Boulez’s influence and genius has been recognised internationally by many world-class musical institutions, he has been the recipient of 16 honorary doctorates from institutions including: the Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music, Cambridge University, Oxford University, the University of Basel and Frankfurt University. In addition to this he was awarded many of the world’s most highly regarded international prizes for musical achievement including: the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, Leonie Sonning Music Prize, Praemium Imperiale, Kyoto Prize, Polar Music Prize, Wolf Prize, Grawemeyer Award, the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.

Pierre Boulez was born in Montbrison/Loire, France on 26 March 1925 and died at his home in Baden Baden, Germany on 5 January 2016.

Tribute written by Benjamin Picard.
Lead photo: Harald Hoffmann

> Read a tribute by LSO Chairman Lennox Mackenzie


Performances with the LSO

The LSO's first performance of a work by Pierre Boulez took place at the BBC Proms on 3 August 1962. Le marteau sans maître was conducted by John Carewe.

As a conductor, Boulez's first appearance with the LSO took place at the Royal Festival Hall on 11 June 1967:
Webern Passacaglia
Schoenberg Ewartung
Webern Six Pieces for Orchestra Op 6
Webern Five Pieces for Orchestra
Debussy La Mer

Pierre Boulez conducted the LSO over 120 times between 1967 and 2008. Notable world and UK premieres included:
Webern Three Pieces Op.Post (22 May 1969)
Olga Neuwirth
Clinamen/Nodus (26 January 2000)
George Benjamin Palimpsest (2 February 2000)
Peter Eötvös zeroPoints (27 February 2000)
Salvatore Sciarrino Recitativo Oscuro (2 March 2000)
Matthias Pintscher Osiris (11 May 2008)

The most performed of his works is Livre pour cordes which the Orchestra's string section has performed 20 times, nearly all with Boulez himself conducting. Notations, either all or in parts, has been performed 13 times.

Recordings made with Boulez number around 20 sessions (and many reissues), including a volume of the complete works of Webern for CBS, recorded between 1967 and 1972.