For some six decades, as musician, composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez was a major part of the classical music scene. He conducted most of the major orchestras of the world and was music director of three of America’s top institutions; New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, and Chicago Symphony. At one point in the early ’70s, he was director of both the BBC Symphony and the NY Philharmonic! His recorded performances were eagerly anticipated and argued over. He championed, and often pioneered, the music of 20th-century composers in the concert hall and in recordings. One popular example is his premiere recording of the three-movement version of Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied. His economical movements on the podium, sans baton, somehow achieved great expressiveness and rhythmic precision. He became known for his perceptive, and often definitive, performances of the music of Béla Bartók, Alban Berg, Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, Albert Roussel, Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, Richard Wagner and Anton Webern. Along the way, he received a total of 26 Grammy Awards!
As composer, he transcended the methods and styles of his day, utilizing serial music methods and neo-classical forms, jazz influences, electronic music, and his many experiments with aleatoric and improvisational freedom, sometimes modifying an existing work to include the element of chance: “Why compose works that have to be re-created every time they are performed?” His sense of instrumental color, texture, and technique were already apparent when he was in his 20s, as demonstrated by his first piano sonatas. Two of his early vocal works, Pli Selon Pli (Fold Upon Fold) and Le marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master) are among his most significant and enduring masterpieces.
He was a very private person in his personal life, yet known for humor, charm, and warmth. He declared he would be “the first composer without a biography.”