Wagner @ 200: Boulez @ 88

By Logan K. Young on May 22, 2013 01:57 PM EDT
Wagner @ 200: Boulez @ 88 Classicalite Editor-in-Chief Logan K. Young assesses the many similarities between Richard Wagner and Pierre Boulez--across the universe and the Rhine. (Photo : Logan K. Young)

Upon a cursory glance, Wilhelm Richard Wagner and Pierre Boulez could not be more different: Wagner--the archetypal Romantic prone to various delusions such as Gesamtkunstwerk and, most lamentably, institutionalized anti-Semitism--and Boulez--pragmatism incarnate and l'enfant terrible of the post-War continent--just do not seem to complement one another at all. Furthermore, Wagner's unabashedly Teutonic jingoism and Boulez's surface savoir-faire, in all its fickle grandeur, appear to only deepen the chasm that exists between these two monoliths of Western art music. After all, Wagner's amorous exploits and financial peccadilloes are the stuff of legend, while Boulez's personal life and checkbook (despite a brief, but passionate love affair he once confessed to biographer Joan Peyser) remain a carefully crafted enigma--much to the latter maestro's delight. Nonetheless, upon closer examination, these two men of different stock, from different points in Euclidean space and Cartesian time often prove remarkably similar with regards to dialectic and dogma. Both Richard Wagner and Pierre Boulez can trace their own creative impetus back to a shared desire, nay obsession, to communicate a specific set of values--both the proto- and the extra-musical--through their own respective musics. And thanks to both men's penchant for fiery, often purple prose, the aforesaid values have been delineated, translated and subsequently explicated for the benefit of posterity, albeit not always in the most lucid taxonomy. Aside from the more obvious similarities that exist between Wagner and Boulez (e.g. their dual existence as composer-cum-conductor, their equally caustic polemics, etc.) other, more cryptic correlations (i.e. the steadfastness of their convictions, the ceaselessness of their explorations in new media, et al.) can also be identified.

Indeed, Richard Wagner was the first individual of any real authority to codify the technical motorics and aesthetic concerns of orchestral conducting in print. His "Über das Dirigieren" of 1869 was published simultaneously in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and the Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung, and despite the mostly personal, mostly Germanic opposition it inspired, Wagner's birth city of Leipzig would soon issue the tract in proper book form. According to Wagner himself, his pamphlet's intended enterprise was unmitigated and concrete: "I do not mean to set up a system, but simply to state certain facts, and record a number of practical observations."1

For Wagner, the apparent "shortcomings of the Kapellmeister and Musikdirectoren of German ensembles,"2 combined with the increasing demands of musical virtuosity--due to the progressive scoring of advanced composers, himself primarily--more or less compelled the composer to pen this screed. While such a sentiment could be interpreted as more of the same from Wagner's standard-issue megalomania, his assertion is, in fact, completely valid from an historically-informed perspective. The symphony orchestra, insofar as Wagner understood it, was an entity conceived in the nineteenth century, with nineteenth century resources, all under the auspice of nineteenth century pretense. Moreover, the status of the conductor, a position still fledgling at the time of Wagner's birth, was not nearly as significant and lauded a role as Wagner would eventually transform it into. Thus exists one of the numerous instances of Wagner's musical expression, and likewise his overall disposition, precipitating a change in the Zeitgeist of performance practice.

If Wagner felt compelled to establish a certain modus vivendi for those ascending the podiums of the 1800s, likewise, the venerable career of Pierre Boulez, the conductor, was birthed in the mid-twentieth century. During the pivotal year of 1954, the 29-year-old Boulez--fresh off the success of his extraordinary Char-inspired work, Le marteau sans maître--first curated a series of contemporary Parisian concerts he dubbed the Domaine musical. It was here that some of the French premières of works by Berg, Webern and other, as of then unestablished, Second Viennese occurred. Ever the perfectionist (if not the most gracious host), Boulez would frequently become noticeably disgusted with the quality of the performances rendered.

He later recalled this dissatisfaction in a series of interviews with the late Célestin Deliège in 1972: "When I became involved with the organisation of the Domaine musical I found, in fact, very few conductors who were both really competent and, above all, prepared to undertake such a risky endeavor."3

Thus, by circumstance and compulsion, Pierre Boulez became a conductor. He was not, however, a callow chieftain, devoid of all technique. In the late 1940s, on the suggestive prodding of one Arthur Honegger, the impresario Jean-Louis Barrault had engaged Boulez to lead the various and sundry musical duties at his Le Théâtre Marigny. Barrault was so impressed with Boulez's "combination of rage and tenderness"4 that "although he was only 20 years old [Barrault] made him music director right away."5

Yet, in a rare instance of magnanimity (like Wagner, the Frenchman is also très narcissique), Boulez later deflated the hyperbole of the gig: "The title 'Music Director' sounds much more impressive than the job was. Generally, I arranged between 10 and 12 minutes of music--mostly fanfares and the like--and an occasional half-hour of pantomime."6

Regardless, as eminent Boulez biographer Joan Peyser asserts, "he profited greatly from his experience with Barrault."7 For in the Théâtre Marigny, Pierre Boulez acquired and refined the essential skill and diplomacy necessary to lead an ensemble in the most intricate, dense and esoteric music of its time--much like a young Richard Wagner had done years earlier in the provincial opera houses of Germany. This experience in Barrault's company was crucial in the crystallization of Boulez's identity as a conductor. Like Wagner again, he now possessed both the technical acumen and the personnel management to not only conduct the more involved music of his epoch, but perhaps most significantly--finally in charge of the production means vis-à-vis--henceforth, he could lead his own music without compromise. To wit, the success of contemporary music, to whatever extent it can be assayed in today's climes, is forever indebted to Boulez's efforts--and perhaps even Wagner's example a priori.

No other structure is more indicative of Richard Wagner's maximalist proclivities and unquenchable thirst for a new paradigm of id-expression than the Bayreuther Festspielhaus. Erected in the northern Bavarian town as a permanently lavish shrine to stage Wagner's deliberately encumbered music dramas, the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth is a sublime manifestation of the ideals Wagner (or, as we shall see, perhaps the unconscious specter of Arthur Schopenhauer) details in his "Das Kunstwerk der Zunkunft" of 1849. Wagner pictured the completed Festspielhaus as his attendant riposte to the Hellenistic culture he so adored: "Thus did the Lyrist and Tragedian command the Architect to build the artistic edifice which should answer to their art in worthy manner."8

However, as the ledgers quite clearly illustrate, the true 'Architect' of the Festspielhaus was none other than King Ludwig II of Bavaria (along with the occasional other German and Prussian monarch). A confirmed Wagnerian since back in the Lohengrin days, it was only after copious lobbying and some less than kosher coercion by Wagner and friends ("that edifice whose every part shall answer to a common and artistic aim alone"9 was the ultimate convincing phrase, in translation) that The Swan King agreed to finance this manifestation of the elder composer's epic dream. The finished Bayreuther Festspielhaus--that glorious "space for the spectators"10 where "the need for optic and acoustic understanding of the artwork"11 was realized "by a union of beauty and fitness in the proportions"12--had her foundation stone laid in May of 1872. And despite its stolen blueprints and only two thousand capacity, the Festspielhaus would become Wagner's own personal Parthenon. While this metaphor may be lacking a certain reverence with respect to time-elapsed (what with the vehicle's scaffolding having been erected some five centuries before Christ), Wagner would no doubt delight in the present notion that it is the mystic gulf created by his double proscenium and recessed pit that has remained the more relevant edifice.

In contrast, Boulez was gifted his own Festspielhaus without any solicitation. In 1976, the center-right d'Estaing/Chirac administration appropriated extensive federal funding for the organization of a brand new center for the development of electronic music. Two years later, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) opened its 12-million-dollar doors under the Centre Georges Pompidou in the fourth arrondissement with "native son" Pierre Boulez at the helm. (That is, when the Montbrison-born Boulez was not publicly demonstrating his disdain for French culture by holing up in the black forests of Baden-Baden, of course.) Still, it was duly inevitable that as thee leader of Francophone modernism, Boulez would be appointed head of his country's first electronic music studio since the musique concrète of Pierre Schaffer's dark ages. After all, Karlheinz Stockhausen had been endowed with the same responsibility at the Westdeutscher Rundfunk studio in Köln, and Luciano Berio had opened Italy's first state-subsidized electronic music studio as early as 1955. (Interestingly enough, Berio would became the only member of this modernist triumvirate to work at all three of the aforementioned European studios). Financially independent of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, IRCAM, unlike Stockhausen's studio in Westphalia, had both the monetary means and political approval to realize Boulez's most expensive and recondite ideas. Speaking on exactly how the institute would "cope with the limitations he found in the present musical situation"13 Boulez asserted:

"There are some instruments which should be transformed because we still have instruments that were made for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries...We are still using half-tone scales because there are no instruments suited to other scales. If you want to write music built on one-quarter or one-third tone scales, there is absolutely nothing available now...We must have a period of research to deal with the transformation of such instruments and for composition and electronics as well..."14

In no other Boulez composition from the IRCAM years is this revolutionary attitude more apparent than in his masterpiece of digital sound, 1981's Répons. Taking yet another cross-century cue from Wagner, Boulez's own innovation and vicissitude demanded the outright creation of new and unique agencies in which to attest themselves. With Anthemes 2 for violin and spatialized electronics completed in 1997 (as with Wagner, revision is a whole other entity), Pierre Boulez has certainly not lost any of his fervor for the latest technological advances proffered unto him by IRCAM. Just ask his assistant, Andrew Gerzso.

The originality of Richard Wagner's philosophies will forever remain a continuous source of apprehension and dubiety for both musicologists and epistemological historians alike. Perhaps the most common charge leveled at Wagner's postures concerns the amount of ideological 'borrowing' he may, or may not, have done from the fin de siècle theories of that "sage of Frankfurt"15 himself--Arthur Schopenhauer. According to recent historians of philosophy such at Allan Janik, Wagner not only "borrows liberally from Arthur Schopenhauer"16, but he also "frequently exploits [him] for his own purposes."17 Consequently, Janik consistently refers to "Schopenhauer's central hypotheses as Wagner interpreted them."18 William Ashton Ellis, the scholar responsible for the only English translation of Wagner's entire prose oeuvre, noticed the same peculiar concurrence during his mammoth undertaking of the late 1800s: "Except that Wagner does not employ the term 'Will,' but rather 'Necessity,' the whole scheme is Schopenhauerian from beginning to end..."19

Despite the profound agnates that Ellis identified in Wagner's "Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft", the Victorian Wagnerian (unlike the contemporary revisionist Allan Janik), attributed such similitude to "the remarkable fact that two cognate minds have developed an almost identical system of philosophy."20 Alas, such naïveté of coincidence is most assuredly beyond the realm of possibility. Rhetorically, what are the epistemic odds of that? Nonetheless, the fact that Wagner's Weltanschauung was gleaned in-part and on-installment from other sources (as any theoria worth its empirics is so inclined), does not cheapen its pith or thrust. For according to Wagner, the subject of credential interest, "only in sleep do we have access to pure tone in itself, i.e., to the pulsating of the will."21 Here, Wagner's tone, as so eloquently translated in 'The Art of Tone' from "The Artwork of the Future," is directly compared by Allan Janik to the Wille und Vorstellung of Arthur Schopenhauer. And both Wagner and Schopenhauer, it must be noted, agreed that in the unconscious mind of the artist, "thought emerges from nature while the 'genius' sleeps."22

While no one thus far has dared to question the novelty of Pierre Boulez's ratiocinations, he, too, remains convinced of the power of sleep on the unconscious artistic mind--particularly as espoused by the Wagner/Schopenhauer dichotomy. In a speech delivered to an audience in Munich upon receiving the Siemans Prize, Boulez stated that "a large element of unconsciousness is needed to persevere along a path dictated by circumstances."23 He then thanked those in attendance for actually "rewarding [his] gifts as a Sleepwalker."24 Later, when composer, pianist and most recent Boulez interviewer Rocco Di Pietro confronted the notoriously cerebral monsieur about his seemingly metaphysical assertions, Boulez responded with the following statement: "For me, a methodic approach has to be made lively by intuition. Method and intuition are not at all contrary. These are two facets of the same process."25

No matter their origin, these were still quite astounding words for the serial iconoclast to utter. For the first time, as it were, the reigning roi of European High Modernism finally admitted to being under the spell of his own intuitive procedures--at least for some portion of the creative process. Granted, this was years after Stockhausen had abandoned the text-based hooey of his 'intuitive music,' and decades still after the Boulez/Cage correspondence had soured. Cognizant of the import of their dialogue, Di Pietro christened this specific conversation with the title "The Hunger of the Sleepwalker"26--an appellation that would surely please the aesthetic somnambulism of Richard Wagner, and Arthur Schopenhauer, all the same.

To be sure, no amount of critical exegesis can convince history that Richard Wagner and Pierre Boulez are two separate and discrete individuals, in and of themselves. And in some regards on some issues, they could not be more different--diametrically opposed, even, in certain circumstances. Wagner's preferred idiom, opera (or perhaps more correctly, "music drama"), has yet to be explored with any heft by Boulez (although the histrionics extant in works such as the Improvisations sur Mallarmé and Cummings ist der Dichter must surely count as dramatic). Like Vladimir and Estragon, we, too, are left waiting for his oft-rumoured operatic adaptation of Beckett's En attendant Godot. Furthermore, Boulez's musical language--an extremely potent concoction of integral serialism and perpetually developing cellular proliferation--is completely at odds with the lush, yet asystematic chromaticism and almost maudlin, über-expressionistic palette of Wagner--the leitmotif notwithstanding. Like Mann's von Aschenbach, Wagner died in Venice in February of 1883; Boulez, spryly pushing 90, is still conducting the world's leading ensembles, sans baton, in repertoire both arcane and archaic. In the end, though, perhaps more than anything, these two men are bound mostly by a near heretic zeal for their art. As with Iannis Xenakis, Wagner even bore arms in civil insurrection to defend his aesthetic stance. (And yet, whereas the May uprising in Dresden, 1849 resulted only in a bruised ego and temporary exile for Wagner, the Greek rebel proudly sported a cavernous facial scar until his death in early 2001). Conversely, but maybe more trenchant, Boulez is content to wage his campaign on the western front of tonality from the very society that has come to canonize him. Lest Boulez be made the coward, remember that Wagner would also assume a more mellowed sobriety, doctrinally anyways, in his own old age. A former grand antagonizer of the Christian church, Wagner the supplicant would eventually fall prostrate before the cross while working on his final opera of consecration, Parsifal. At one point in time, though, across the universe's tangent, Richard Wagner and Pierre Boulez could very well have been one and the same--as opposite and adjacent to the hypotenuse of the Rhine.

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1. Richard Wagner, "On Conducting," trans. Edward Dannreuther (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1989), 1.
2. Ibid, 3.
3. Célestin Deliège, Conversations with Pierre Boulez, trans. Robert Wangermee (London: Eulenberg Books, 1976), 72.
4. Jean-Louis Barrault qtd. in Joan Peyser, Boulez (New York: Schirmer Books, 1976), 52.
5. Ibid, 52.
6. Pierre Boulez qtd. in Peyser, Boulez, 52.
7. Peyser, Boulez, 52.
8. Richard Wagner, Richard Wagner's Prose Works - Vol. I, trans. William Ashton Ellis (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1895), 158.
9. Ibid, 184.
10. Ibid, 185.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Peyser, Boulez, 253.
14. Pierre Boulez qtd. in Peyser, Boulez, 253.
15. William Ashton Ellis qtd. in Wagner, Prose Works, 70.
16. Allan Janik, Wittengenstein's Vienna Revisted (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2001) 86.
17. Ibid, 86.
18. Ibid, 87.
19. William Ashton Ellis, qtd. in Wagner, Prose Works, 69.
20. Ellis, qtd. in Wagner, Prose Works, 69-70.
21. Janik, Wittengenstein's, 88.
22. Ibid, 87.
23. Pierre Boulez qtd. in Rocco Di Pietro, Dialogues with Boulez (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001), 5.
24. Ibid, 5.
25. Ibid, 7.
26. Di Pietro, Dialogues, 5.

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