I don’t think anyone is under any obligation to like or enjoy the compositions of Pierre Boulez. However, I really love his work and will attempt to provide one possible road map to appreciation. There are other ways to love his work, this just happens to be my way.
Boulez was thoroughly grounded in musical history. His compositions are an attempt to engage and learn from the past. If you like Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern you can probably grow to love Boulez as much if not more. This is the musical foundation that his entire oeuvre is built on.
Boulez began his composing career after the end of the Second World War. His first published composition dates from 1946. Think about the year 1946 for a moment. Stravinsky had changed the way we thought about rhythm, but was using a harmonic system that was clearly rooted in 18th Century practice. Schoenberg had revolutionized harmonic practice but continued to write with the rhythmic and formal structures of Brahms. Webern created a very unique style of orchestration and showed how polyphonic techniques could be used to create more interesting forms from the new atonal harmonics. However he has just died in an unfortunate accident at the end of the war.
Boulez created works that were able to synthesize these three important trends into a new kind of music that showed the way for the next generation of composers. His 1946 Sonatine resolved the two opposing schools of musical modernism, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, into a single composition that used the jagged and dynamic rhythms of Stravinsky with the harmonics of Schoenberg. Le Soleil des eaux and Le Visage nuptial added Webern’s pointillist orchestration and use of unusual timbres to the modernistic synthesis of the Sonatine.
Confident in his developing technique he sought to synthesize further still, this time with the pinnacle of musical culture–Beethoven. Boulez’ Piano Sonata No. 1 works with the form and melodic outline of Beethoven’s Opus 106 “Hammerklavier” Sonata translated into the language of his modernistic synthesis. Listen to these two works side by side and you will start to see what Boulez was working on.
Start your listening with these four works mentioned above. Once you get a handle on these basic ideas you will be able to see him apply them in all his future works.
In the 1950’s he encountered Stockhausen and John Cage, composers who sought to have a more radical break with the past. This lead Boulez to explore a whole new range of radical formal and structural principles in works like Structures and Le Marteau sans maître. But unlike Stockhausen and some of the more radical experiments of Cage, Boulez retained a strong relationship with the musical past, which makes his work more approachable and comprehensible.
Thinking about Boulez in this way has helped me to see through some of the complexity of the textures and forms and start to grasp what is going on. I hope these comments will be helpful to others who are having some trouble approaching this amazing and difficult composer.