Blasts from the Past: Pierre Boulez – Piano Sonata No. 1

by 5:4

“Vous êtes de la merde!”

i’m going to begin 2016 by looking back 70 years to the earliest acknowledged work by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated composers, Pierre Boulez. For much of his life, but particularly as a young composer, Boulez’s perceived demeanour was, to put it mildly, bellicose, and his approach to composition was rapid—an interesting fact in light of his later concern (some might say obsession) with revising his scores. These two aspects, his demeanour and his approach, came to a violent head in 1946, in the Paris apartment of Boulez’s teacher and mentor René Leibowitz, when Boulez turned up with the completed score of his first Piano Sonata, a work that Leibowitz had presumed would be worked on slowly under his supervision. Leibowitz’s disgruntled reaction involved taking the score—at the time bearing his name as dedicatee—and beginning to write on it in red pen; Boulez’s explosive response, prior to storming out, consisted of the five words above.

It’s worth bearing in mind that although he was 13 years older than Boulez, Leibowitz’s own Opus 1—coincidentally, also a piano sonata—dates from 1939, a mere six years before Boulez wrote his, which may in part account for the unbridled force of Boulez’s reaction to what he may have regarded as Leibowitz’s temerity (the relationship was never mended; on the contrary, Boulez henceforth actively spoke out against Leibowitz). All the same, such ferocity is clearly part and parcel of Boulez’s personality, finding a clear parallel in his Piano Sonata No. 1. Its 10-minute duration is structured in two movements, and while they are to an extent contrasting, the real contrast running through the work arises from the different materials occupying each movement. It opens deceptively, in two senses; those for whom serialism was less a method than a malady may well recoil from the opening bars, but the twelve-tone whiff they give off is quickly lost (with good reason; Boulez’s use of serialism here is already unconventional, breaking the series into 5- and 7-note cells); the greater deception, though, is its tempo, “Lent”: if ever music sounded not remotely slow, it’s here. Boulez begins by laying out motifs: use of major 7ths/minor 9ths, a fall from an acciaccatura, rapid rising/falling runs, much use of staccato and strong accents, plus a fondness for registral extremes, often at the start or end of phrases. These are combined to forge the first movement’s initial material, all declamatory gestures, whereupon Boulez bustles it along into more rhythmically incisive passagework which, continuing to draw on these motifs, sounds akin to a circus tumbler on the keyboard. Having climaxed on a crashing low cluster, there’s a brief glimpse of something softer, almost dream-like, before the rhythms pick up again, more forcefully, culminating in an even bigger climactic thud—and again, things become soft and slow, building to a vast chord ranging across more than six octaves, finishing with a wistful little descent, plummeting out of the stratosphere.

The second movement is similarly torn, and to extremes that seem not simply to do with behaviour but also with the emotional undertone they convey both discretely and in their juxtaposition. In no time, things get “Rapide”, and the Sonata launches into a moto perpetuo of quavers, with machine-like metricity; remarkably, Boulez then seamlessly passes into music of an almost romantic persuasion, no less vigorous, but rich and with repeated fadings to pianissimo—only then to be pressed on once more. This is the Sonata‘s epicentre—indeed, in every sense its heart, a searching music festooned with subtextual hints and clues: “plus vif et plus violent”, “pressez”, “plus animé et plus nerveux”, “animé davantage” (plus, plus, plus!—it can’t fail to bring to mind Scriabin’s desire to tap endlessly into ever more impassioned extremes). Boulez does eventually allow things to relax just a smidge, before catapulting them back into more rapid figurations, and thence back and forth between these two polarised modes of expression. There’s a remarkable moment of consonance shortly before the end, an F followed by a deep C♯, the resultant sounding major third resonating prominently (all the more so due to its accompanying “Très ralenti”, an almost unique instruction within the Sonata!)—but it’s gone in an instant, lost in an outburst of crushing closing clashes and pounding accents.

A seriously conflicted work, Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 1 is characterised as much by sheer exhilaration as it is by startlingly enchecked aggression. Pianist and audience alike come out the other end not merely exhausted, but bruised and battered. One can only imagine René Leibowitz must have felt rather similar following that tempestuous day in 1946; a few years later, Boulez obliterated the dedication to Leibowitz with a letter opener, in the process completely shredding the manuscript (subsequently taped back together again with publisher Hervé Dugardin). The world première took place in 1946 in Paris by Yvette Grimaud; this performance was given by Pierre-Laurent Aimard in October 2011 as part of the Southbank’s ‘Exquisite Labyrinth’ concert series, celebrating Boulez’s music.

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If I may contribute a curious bit of pedantry, I seem to recall from the Joan Peyser biography, which I do not have on hand to consult, that Boulez actually said “Vous êtes de la merde!”, which (I think) would be more grammatical.


Excellent account of the piece – thank you! But, just to confirm the first commenter, “vous etes merde” is not French. “Vous m’emmerdez”, “vous ete un merdeux” are both more likely than “vous etes merde” or even “vous etes de la merde”. “You are shit” – however translated – sounds more like an English-speakers jibe than a Frenchman’s.

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