Boulez: Listening for the First Time

First impressions matter, and when I first heard the name Boulez, it was soon followed by L’enfant terrible. This was last year, at the time of his death, and in his obituaries I remember rolling my eyes at examples of his unnecessary iconoclasm. He was attacking those composers I was increasingly fond of: Dutilleux, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Mozart(!)… Then, when hearing clips of his music for the first time, I couldn’t find anything musical in them. The only time since that I’ve listened to Boulez at any length was on recordings for which he conducted. And in those two instances — Rite of Spring and Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 3 — I was struck only by their coldness.

So I thought I’d try again today, giving Boulez’s music my full attention for the first time. I decided upon his piece for piano (later expanded for orchestra), Notations. Written in 1955, Boulez was doubtless at his most formidable, a young man with a manifest destiny to push music beyond its established frontiers. The piece consists of twelve movements, each twelve bar longs, with a twelve note row connecting each movement. Is it not slightly odd that he still bothered with bar lines, especially given that each movement is so short? If you’ve already thrown the baby out, why not the bathwater? Anyway, here it is:

On first listen, it’s pretty exciting. Could I make out the tone row? Nope. What I do hear is the basic architecture of the music: changes in mood and dynamics, rhythmic motion, albeit very interrupted, as well as motifs and phrases.

I opened up the score and managed to find the tone row. The first eleven notes were obvious, and the twelfth could easily be found by process of elimination.

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The tone row for Notations

For the sake of this post, I’ll just look at the first three movements, each less than a minute long. The first movement:Notationspage1The tone row is established in the first three bars, then suddenly (literally, subito) the music hits you with some kind of chord. Perhaps the one thing I find most incomprehensible about this piece (and believe me, there’s stiff competition) is the chords. Mostly, I cannot discern how they relate to the tone row. Perhaps they don’t. The chords are noticeably held, left to shimmer as the right-hand decorates the air. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t see any way the chords relate to one another either, except as colourful evocations of something or other. From the third beat of bar ten until the end of the movement, the tone row is again stated, but from C♮ back round to A♮, and vertically as well as horizontally. However, while this is quite clear on the page, it’s useless trying to notice it when listening.

Movement two:

Notationspage2The second movement goes by in a flash. Two crash-wallops sandwich a strongly rhythmic section. The right-hand plays staccato minor second intervals, with the accents changing irregularly. It reminds me of the ‘Dance of the Young Girls’ from Rite of Spring, but significantly faster. The left hand starts out by playing the full tone row, then seems to play fragments from it, but without any logic obvious to me, followed by the tone row again, but in retrograde. The clusters at the end, as with the beginning, are made up of all twelve notes — Boulez’s ‘twelve’ theme strikes again.

And lastly, movement three:


The third movement is much more delicate, suggesting a more Romantic style. I mean, the expression is there, the structure is there, the deliberate organisation of notes is there. But still, it’s only dimly musical. To paraphrase a great entertainer, it sounds like all the right notes — but not necessarily in the right order.

Boulez later arranged and expanded Notations for orchestra. I can’t find a score for it, but already in the first movement it’s been significantly expanded, and is more interesting than the original piano version. The piano has a quite limited timbre, and Boulez seems to excel most with many different timbres under his command. Still, the music is about as comprehensible to the listener as bacteria is to the naked eye. There’s no getting round it: you have to crack open the score to genuinely get anything out of it. No, I’m still not convinced this is good music.