This is the piece that placed Boulez at the forefront of the mid-century European modernists. Originally destined for the Donaueschingen Festival in 1954, its premiere had to be postponed when the guitarist who was to perform fell ill. Boulez continued to tinker with the piece - most significantly adding the final, ninth movement - and the premiere was rescheduled for the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Baden-Baden in June 1955. Its ferocious difficulties were presumed: 50 rehearsals were scheduled, under the direction of Hans Rosbaud. It was a huge success, and the surrounding scandal - the French section of the ISCM refused to enter it as an official representative of their country - only enhanced its immediate reputation as precisely the sort of thing to upset musical mediocrity.
Performances around the world soon followed. Boulez made his U.S. conducting debut leading the U.S. premiere of the work, here in Los Angeles on a Monday Evening Concerts program in March 1957. (And he returned to Monday Evening Concerts in 1963 with a program that included Stravinsky's Three Japanese Lyrics and Ravel's Three Poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, matched with Debussy's Mallarmé settings, Boulez' own Improvisations sur Mallarmé and Structures, Book II, and Webern's Op. 24 to close.) Boulez has now recorded Le marteau five times.
(Stravinsky heard that 1957 performance of Le marteau sans maître and wrote about it to Nadia Boulanger. "[Boulez'] Marteau sans maître, which he conducted as well here, is an admirable, well-ordered score despite all the aural and written complications (counterpoint, rhythm, length). Without feeling close to Boulez' music, I frankly find it preferable to many things of his generation.")
Boulez has often performed Le marteau on a program with Pierrot lunaire, and he wrote a lengthy comparison/analysis of the two works, noting "deliberate, direct" references to Pierrot in Le marteau. An essential difference, he says, is the treatment of the vocal part. "Whereas Pierrot lunaire is a theater piece with instrumental accompaniment and the voice always preponderating, Le marteau sans maître develops from the cell of a poem which is eventually absorbed in toto."
Schoenberg had set 21 poems by Albert Giraud (adapted by Otto Erich von Hartleben) as three consecutive cycles of seven each. Boulez took three poems by one of his then favorite writers, the Symbolist poet René Char, created asymmetrical cycles for each, and then interwove the cycles (which is reflected in the listing on the program page). "In Le marteau sans maître," Boulez wrote, "I tried to make the cycles overlap in such a way that the course of the work becomes increasingly complicated, using both actual reminiscence and 'virtual' relationships: the last piece alone provides a sort of solution or 'key' to the maze."
Pierrot lunaire was written in a post-tonal language a decade before Schoenberg began codifying his rules for 12-tone music: Le marteau was composed as "strict serialism was being abandoned in the hope of discovering more general and more flexible laws governing sound phenomena" (Boulez). The voice production ranges from pure lyric singing to speaking, surrounded in the main by darker, mid-range instruments, such as alto flute, viola, and guitar. The instrumentation changes from movement to movement (as it does in Pierrot), with the full ensemble playing together only in "Bourreaux de solitude" and the concluding double of "Bel édifice et les pressentiments." The scoring no longer seems as exotic as it once did, but it remains a wonder in the startling precision of its effects, clarified in texture and expressively pointed.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.