Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Hammer and the Moon

I credit myself with great restraint for not titling a post "Boulez est mort!" in riposte to Pierre Boulez' famous essay "Schoenberg est mort" published in 1952, the year after Schoenberg died. However, as you will see from the link, not everyone was so restrained. On the occasion of Boulez' passing last week, I decided to do a couple of posts on his music which, frankly, has never made much of an aesthetic impression on me.

Most of Boulez' music was garnished with austere, remote titles like "Structures" or "Pli selon pli" ("Fold by fold"), but there is one early piece, and one that I had in my LP collection from the mid 70s, that not only has an evocative, if enigmatic, title, but also seems to relate to an earlier composition by Schoenberg. I am referring to "Pierrot Lunaire", a song-cycle by Schoenberg written in 1912 on German translations of 21 poems by Albert Giraud. Then, in 1955, Boulez completed a setting, in nine movements, of three poems by René Char titled "Le Marteau sans maître". Both compositions are for voice and chamber ensemble, both are settings of French poetry and both are innovative classics of modernism. Both also have a duration of about 35 to 40 minutes. The Schoenberg is for voice and five instruments, the Boulez for voice and six instruments. Both pieces even use the same vocal technique of Sprechstimme. The parallels are striking, but while it is likely that they exist, I have not run across any discussion of relations between the two pieces. So let's do it!

First problem, unless I order a copy of the study score from Universal Edition and wait a couple of months, I can't provide musical examples for the Boulez. The Schoenberg is available at IMSLP. There is a brief excerpt from Le marteau sans maître at Wikipedia. Here is the flute part from the beginning of the third movement:

Click to enlarge
Let's just have a brief look at that example. This is ridiculously difficult to play from a rhythmic standpoint: a septuplet in 3/8 with a fermata on the last note, tied to the first note of a four-note group of grace notes in the new time signature of 4/4, and during this you crescendo? Then a long F natural while you decrescendo, another group of two grace notes to a very high G. An eighth rest. Four quarter notes in the new time signature of 2/2 with a couple of grace notes, new time signature of 3/8 but with a hemiola so it sounds as if it were 6/16, quintuplet on the first beat of a new 3/4 measure and the final measure of the excerpt is 5/8. Every single measure is in a different time signature and on top of this, the rhythms themselves are very difficult. Honestly, playing this is an exercise in insanity. And the final insult is that the tempo indication is "moderate without rigor", i.e. don't play the rhythms too strictly!

I don't want to accuse Boulez of writing music that he cannot hear accurately--I'm sure he can. But I question whether anyone else can, apart from the poor musicians who have to learn this. And what is the point? As a number of other composers have shown, you can get pretty much the same results with indeterminate notation and fewer musician suicides. But the real problem I have with this is that it is aesthetically incoherent. If you want to depict chaos and despair, then I suppose this is just the thing, but that and nothing but, is an aesthetically disagreeable cocktail.

Here is the first page of the Schoenberg:

Yes, also very difficult, but not insanely so. The difficulties are surmountable, not just for the performers, but for the listener as well. There is enough rhythmic consistency to make the music, while certainly eerie, at least listenable. What Schoenberg was doing was a kind of extension or stretching of musical forms and techniques. He uses canon, fugue, passacaglia and other forms but with more than usually complex rhythms and with atonality. This piece lies in the transition from when he wrote in the usual extended tonality of the late 19th century to his use of twelve-tone serialism. You might think of this as tonality stretched to the point of no return.

Here is an English translation of that first song from Pierrot Lunaire:
The wine we drink through the eyes
The moon pours down at night in waves,
And a flood tide overflows
The silent horizon.

Longings beyond number, gruesome sweet frissons,
Swim through the flood.
The wine we drink through the eyes
The moon pours down at night in waves.

The poet, slave to devotion,
Drunk on the sacred liquor,
Enraptured, turns his face to Heaven
And staggering sucks and slurps
The wine we drink through the eyes.
Here is an English translation of the text of the first sung movement of the Boulez, "L'artisanat furieux:
The furious craftsmanship
The red caravan on the edge of the nail
And corpse in the basket
And plowhorses in the horseshoe
I dream the head on the point of my knife Peru.
This is even more surrealist than the Giraud.

Now let's listen to the two pieces. First the Schoenberg, conducted by Pierre Boulez with Christine Schäfer and the Ensemble InterContemporain:

And now the Boulez, again with Boulez conducting with Hillary Summers and the Ensemble InterContemporain:

I am not going to do an analysis: for one thing it would take a very long time and there already exist analyses of the Schoenberg and even of the Boulez. For brief analyses of both pieces have a look at the Wikipedia articles I linked above. The Boulez article is particularly useful.

But what I think would be very useful to do is listen to both pieces and notice what you hear and say what you think about what you hear. The comment section awaits!


Ken Fasano said...

One always discusses harmony when talking about Schoenberg. Perhaps some of his rhythmic technique might be interesting to look at. For that matter, the history of rhythmic technique, going back to at least Beethoven (who is very interesting rhythmically).

For example, the Pierrot in your post. This is from 1912. Several instances of 3/4 followed by 2/4 - 5/4, essentially. Now, when did this kind of metrical fluidity first occur? 1890s? Percy Grainger and Horatio Parker (Ives' professor)? Schoenberg would not have been familiar with them. (Brahms has a piece in 7/4... ) It's still quite original in 1912. There is all the triplet/sextuplet polyrhythmic fluidity in the First Chamber Symphony (1906).

And then the Boulez is not that hard compared to, say, Stockhausen's Klavierstück I or Zeitmasze, and Carter seemed to be trying to be the winner of the most complex rhythm contest.

Bryan Townsend said...

I agree completely about looking more closely at the rhythmic aspect! Yes, Beethoven was very interesting from the standpoint of rhythm. I put up one post about rhythm in the Diabelli Variations:

Oh yes, Boulez is far from being the most difficult. What about Brian Ferneyhough? But just think about the amount of work involved in mastering just those few seconds of music in the Boulez excerpt. And to what end?

Marc Puckett said...

Have been listening to Le marteau and am over the initial 'this is just arranged noise' phase, and have finally looked out the Char lyrics, which I couldn't understand just by listening since they are pretty unstraightforward ('surreal' by courtesy, sure). So now will go on to the Schönberg. Will try to keep my ears open (& via the IMSLP) to rhythm, at a few places anyway. Am enjoying spending some time with these, finally being done with the holidays &c.

Nathan Shirley said...

Boulez?? Never heard of him. Oh, didn't he conduct a little?

Nathan Shirley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan Townsend said...

I tend to think that Boulez was a first rate conductor, less important as a composer and problematic as an ideologue.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, there is no substitute for giving a piece of music a fair chance!

Nathan Shirley said...

In my opinion his conducting was okay. Its strong point was his attention to detail, its weak point, musicality (decent enough, but often bland).

On a different topic... I see someone named Mike tried to post but it didn't go through (since I commented here I received a notice of his comment in my email). His tone comes off as quite angry, but he does bring up some points which seem reasonable enough regarding some other post and possible censorship. Not sure what it's all about, but it strikes me as right up your alley -- something in response to a politically charged post and responses to it, I would guess.

Bryan Townsend said...

I remember reading some reviews of performances of his Rite of Spring written by Stravinsky himself. The conductor he deemed the most accurate was Boulez.

If the post had been politically charged and if he hadn't sent dozens of other angry, vicious and personally insulting comments, I might agree. But the whole thing started with a rather innocuous post on different recordings of the Rodrigo guitar concerto. Then he just started lashing out in all direction. But it all seems to have died down now, thankfully.

Nathan Shirley said...

Interesting about Stravinsky, of course his own musical judgement had seriously deteriorated by then!

Bryan Townsend said...

I have written that the creative brilliance of Stravinsky's music seems to have diminished considerably after the Rite. Would you agree?

Nathan Shirley said...

I think I would generally agree with that, but he still had a few real hits left in him -- my favorite being Oedipus Rex. I can see why it's not nearly as famous, but it's fantastic (hard to find a good recording and Boulez's is definetly not my choice). But it's true, his work in the 20's is not as consistent, 30's much less still, and after he came to the US I can't think of a single work that I even really like. And this is coming from a huge Stravinsky fan.

Bryan Townsend said...

I was completely forgetting about one of my favorite later works, the Symphony of Psalms, so I agree.