Pierre Boulez (b. 1925) knew little about 12-tone music and techniques before the end of the Second World War. Following the fall of the Nazis, though, composer/ conductor René Leibowitz introduced the 12-tone music of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School to Paris, with Boulez leading the group of Conservatory students who flocked to Leibowitz' home for Saturday morning analysis sessions. Boulez soon chafed at what he perceived as academic constraints, but the seed was planted, and in 1946 Boulez produced a trilogy of serial works: a Sonatine for flute and piano, his First Piano Sonata, and the earliest version of the song cycle Le visage nuptial.
An esthetic militant much given to doctrinaire pronunciamentos, Boulez wrote a few years later that "any musician who has not felt...the necessity of the 12-tone language is OF NO USE." Boulez believed that he indeed had felt this necessity before he learned the language, but he freely admitted the influence of Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Schoenberg's Three Pieces, Op. 11, had a profound impact on Boulez' early keyboard writing, with the third of the pieces especially prized for "the violence of its expression." Boulez had little sympathy, however, for Schoenberg's tendency to look back to older forms and styles, and it was Webern's works that suggested the clear, open textures and pertinent silences of the sonata.
The Sonata No. 1 consists of two contrasting movements of roughly equal length. The first is basically slow with flurries of sparks, like steel on stone in some improvisatory sculpture; the second movement is a demonic toccata, fast and faster still, brittle but with languidly lyrical interludes. This sort of oppositional duality is also manifested in aspects of the 12-tone series Boulez uses - particularly in its two-note motifs - and in the contrast of strict 12-tone writing with free sections.
Boulez described his method of composition at this time as "organized delirium," another duality. His already idiosyncratic approach to the 12-tone system gave him a foundation which released imagination rather than constraining it. He specifies an extraordinary range of articulation - incisif, très leger, très brutal, très sec, très violent (incisive, very smooth, very brutal, very dry, very violent) - and tempo fluctuation in his quest for expressive point in a work that contrasts extremes in every dimension.
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Director of Publications.