Women in Pierre Boulez’s formative years 

Guest post written by Caroline Potter, author of Pierre Boulez: Organised Delirium.

Pierre Boulez’s extraordinary formative years are the focus of my new book. Most of the story concentrates on the mid-1940s – a short period of time that had ramifications for the rest of his creative life. Boulez’s sudden emergence onto the French musical scene was something I knew about before starting to write the book, but there were also surprises in store. One of these was the importance of women in his creative development. 

Many books on Boulez mention his composition teachers, principally Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz. But for most students, friendship and exchanging ideas with peers is at least as important as the teacher-pupil relationship, and Boulez was no exception. Alongside Serge Nigg, Yvonne Loriod and especially Yvette Grimaud, Boulez was part of a peer group that studied and performed together. 

Nigg was the first of the group to gain a reputation as a composer and polemical writer, though Boulez would soon outstrip him. (He is also the author of one of the first published critiques of Boulez’s music under the ill-disguised pseudonym ‘Serge Niff.’) In the 1940s Loriod was a composer as well as a superlative pianist, and Grimaud had the strongest impact on Boulez of all the group.  

As a pianist, Grimaud premiered four of Boulez’s earliest works, and her interests in ethnomusicology and the early electronic instrument the ondes Martenot were passed on to Boulez. Grimaud’s fascination for music that goes beyond the standard European chromatic scale shows that the group had unusually broad musical interests, going well beyond the preoccupation with serialism that most people associate with Boulez. Although frustratingly little of Grimaud’s music is available for study, there are tantalising glimpses of her direct influence on Boulez, particularly in a Chant funèbre (Funeral Song; 1943) which is based on a melody from Gabon. Boulez made a hand copy of this work, and its thudding rhythmic bassline links directly to his early piano pieces, including Notations (1945).  

What was almost certainly Boulez’s first public performance in a major concert hall took place on 10 November 1945 at the Salle Chopin-Pleyel in Paris. Together with Grimaud, Loriod and Nigg, Boulez was one of four pianists performing works by the Russian émigré Ivan Wyschnegradsky, a pioneering composer of microtonal music, for two pianos that were conventionally tuned and two that had been tuned a quartertone distant. The programme featured pieces for four pianos and three singers, including the soprano Mady Sauvageot who also had a significant impact on Boulez.  

Like Grimaud, Sauveageot was a multi-talented and broad-minded musician, open to music of different cultures as well as the most adventurous contemporary compositions. She was the co-founder of the recorded music library at the Musée Guimet, the Paris museum of East Asian art; Grimaud introduced Boulez to Sauvageot and he made several transcriptions of East Asian music from the museum’s recorded collection. Boulez might even have had a career as an ethnomusicologist had fate not intervened. Early in 1947, he was to have been part of a Musée Guimet expedition to what was then French Indochina, but the mission was cancelled when war broke out in December 1946. Sauvageot was also the singer in the first public performance of extracts of Boulez’s Le Visage nuptial, in a programme that also featured a new piece by Grimaud.  

My book shows Boulez emerging as a composer alongside his peers in a stimulating artistic context where cutting-edge contemporary music, music from non-Western cultures and avant-garde writers all influenced their work. Today, we are used to thinking of Boulez as a world-renowned conductor and artistic leader. This book, however, shines a light on the young Boulez and traces the origins of his life as a musician. 

CAROLINE POTTER is Visiting Reader in French Music at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. With Boydell she published Erik Satie: A Parisian Composer and his World (2016) which was named Sunday Times classical music book of the year.

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