Boulez in the Fifties: method, Marteau, and Mallarmé’s multiple meanings

Boulez’ Structures for two pianos was written in 1951, in the same year as Cage’s Music of Changes. The two composers had been in close written and personal contact, exchanging ideas on the technique and aesthetics of composition. The methods they used where different in major respects. Cage’s method, using the I Ching to choose from the materials that he had decided upon beforehand, has come to be regarded as an ‘experimentalist’ one: the outcome is not known in advance. Boulez has since become known as one of the founders of ‘integral serialism’ which instead offers a system of control where an ordered series (a series of proportions, relations, or numbers, preferably derived from the pitch series) should provide the starting point for moulding all aspects of music– pitch, rhythm, duration, register, harmony and sound/instrumentation (Boulez describes his method to Cage in their correspondence in Pierre Boulez, John Cage – Correspondances et documents, J.-J. Nattiez (ed.) Amadeus 1990).

However, the very idea of a ‘method’ (literally, a road that guides our footsteps to a certain result or endpoint) is central to the thinking of both – a distinctive trait of many ‘avant-gardists’ in the last century. (I should immediately make an exception for Edgard Varèse, who despised every kind of preconceived system, especially Schoenberg’s serialist dodecaphony.)


About ‘method’ I would like to make clear the following. In earlier music, say, Beethoven, we talk about ‘techniques’ such as counterpoint, motivic development, variation, and perhaps even about harmonic ‘technique’. We also talk about ‘forms’ like sonata and fugue. There is a plethora of books that study these techniques and forms, from which we may learn how to apply them. Yet, we do not speak of ‘method’ in the sense that we use the term with Cage or Boulez. Now you might ask, given such a body of ‘rules’, what is the difference between them and avant-gardist ‘methods’ except that the avant-gardists made their own rules? Now, if history shows anything it is that such central practices simply came before ‘theory’. The essentials of harmonic counterpoint, the recognition of the fundamental bass, the concept of the sonata form, even the description of free atonality all came roughly half a century or more after they first occurred in musical practice and these descriptions codified what had actually been going on in practice – only then to serve as ‘recipe books’ for later generations. It is in this last stage that the theory (reading about the rules) comes before the practice (the hearing and playing). Especially in the 19th century this attitude resulted from the idea that the textbooks actually gave to a kind of realistic, naturalistic description (‘theory’) of the very ‘laws’ of music – that could simply be put into practice again.

For Cage and Boulez, ‘method’ was not at all ‘theory’ in the 19th-century way, a ‘naturalistic’ description that might serve as a guideline. They deliberately sought a means to break away from the musical ideas and practices of the ‘Old World’ – meaning, for Cage, the American composer: Europe at large, and for Boulez, the European, having the extra meaning of breaking away from pre-World War II Europe. As Cage says a propos the chance technique used in his Music of Changes:
‘It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free from individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and ‘traditions’ of the art.’ (in: Pierre Boulez, John Cage – Correspondances et documents, J.-J. Nattiez (ed.) Amadeus 1990, p. 172) Boulez is a sense much more traditionally a ‘composer’ when he says that: ‘One could conceive a musical structure in two ways: one by serial combination, where structures arise automatically from relations between numbers; the other, by [ …] combinations in which [the] choice [of the composer] plays a major role. Both ways clearly offer a dialectical means of musical variation that is very effective’ (my translation).’ (ibid., pp. 162-3)

Mystery and multiple meanings

It is this ‘dialectical means of musical variation’ which Boulez was to elaborate in a major work from the mid-fifties: Le Marteau sans Maitre, a nine movement vocal-instrumental cycle based on three poems by the French surrealist poet René Char (from a collection published under that title in 1938). The literary background of the work already betrays what would become a major influence on Boulez during the fifties: the aesthetic of the nineteenth-century French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé.

Creating a sense of ‘mystery’ was an important aim for the Symbolists (related to their idea that music provides a model for all the arts). In Mallarmé, this sense of mystery results from his play with multiple meanings, or ambiguity (to such an extent that the ‘real’ meaning of some poems can only be guessed at). One source of mystery is the use of strange images (that may refer to something outside the poem, like a piece of lace that disappears, or a swan with a wing trapped in the ice). Another is the way the images within a poem interconnect (like the ‘piece of lace’ with a ‘curtain’, a ‘bedcover’, and the ‘sound hole cover’ of a lute). But it may also result not from images, but from the striking combination of words into sentences (that is, not from meaning, or semantics, but from syntax, or word order and sentence construction). In fact, Boulez saw a parallel between Mallarmé’s poetry and his own attempt to re-create the language of music. In this period he set out to re-create musical forms by finding a musical parallel to Mallarmé’s use of ambiguity, of multiple meanings.

A major example of Mallarme’s use of multiple meanings is the famous poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (‘A throw of dice will never abolish chance’). It was in the late forties that he encountered this work of Mallarmé and decided to put his ideas into musical practice, at that time by writing the ‘mobile’ Livre pour quatuor (Boulez, Par volonté et par hasard, entretiens avec Célestin Deliège, p.63: “Cette idée d’un Livre pour quatuor, constitué au départ de movements détachables, m’est venue en 1948 – 1949, probablement en lisant Igitur et le Coup de dés.”) In Un coup de dés, Mallarmé uses three different typographical strands (capital type, normal type and italics) that are interwoven. Each type contains a message in itself, but reading across the sentences in different type, again meaningful messages appear. A single page may thus contain different messages, depending on the typography. More about this poem is here; the text is here.

But not only do the ‘constellations’ of type and text affect meaning – the text itself is about a shipmaster (or so it seems) who tries to keep an eye on the ‘constellations’ of the stars to avoid shipwreck, which is a typical Mallarmean metaphor for one of his major subjects: the very act of writing poetry itself (steering your way with an eye on the words) as an attempt to avoid drowning in the white empty page.

The interlacing of different ‘strands’ of text is simulated in Le Marteau by the interweaving of three musical cycles, each based on one of Char’s poems:

  • 1.avant l’Artisanat furieux
  • 2.Commentaire 1 de Bourreaux de solitude
  • 3.l’Artisanat furieux
  • 4.Commentaire 2 de Bourreaux de solitude
 *   5.Bel édifice et les pressentiments – 1st version   
  • 6.Bourreaux de solitude
  • 7.après l’Artisanat furieux
  • 8.Commentaire 3 de Bourreaux de solitude
  • 9.Bel édifice et les pressentiments – 2nd version

We thus have three cycles, of two (5, 9), three (1, 3, 7) and four (2, 4, 6, 8) movements (number geeks will look for meanings here). The use of quasi-literary terms (‘Commentaire’) is typical of Boulez in this and the next decade (as typical as Mallarmé’s own reference to ‘numbers’ in the poem – the coordinates that you derive from the stars/words, so to speak).

This interweaving is also present in the instrumentation, that you may look upon as a single ‘thread’ that gradually looses text-breath- sustained notes – pitch altogether (almost a ‘continuum’ from pitch to rhythm in the sense of Stockhausen’s Kontakte):

alto voice – alto flute – viola – guitar – vibraphone – xylorimba – triangle/bongos – tam-tams/cymbals – maracas

The introduction to the score nicely spells out the systematically differing combinations of these instruments that the score uses.

As to the core of Boulez’ technical concern, serial method, it is important to realize that in this piece the single direction of the series (from note 1 to 12, so to speak, and its inversion and retrograde) is replaced by a variation method that is mainly ‘harmonical’ in nature: taking segments of a series, Boulez piles up their notes into blocks of sound (or ‘chords’) (so you do not recognize their original order), and these sounds (or chords) may be ‘multiplied’ by transposing each of them to the notes of any other chord (for example, each the three notes of a trichord a-b-c may be transposed three times to a single note d, thus ‘multiplying’ the two sounds). What results is a combination of the two sounds. But the (‘horizontal’, or melodic) order of the notes that form this combination is lost for two reasons: first, simply, because the sound block is ‘vertical’ and, secondly, because the three soundblocks resulting from transposing a-b-c to d do not have an order necessarily related to the original order of the notes in the series.
What results is an enormous chordal array– a labyrinth of sounds derived from one another, where no single path of cause and effect can be seen: even though the sounds have originally been composed from the notes of the series, this has lost its powers to create ‘order’; the multiplications result in sets of sonic (interval) families having some properties in common but not others. Boulez likes to compare this sonic array to an ‘expanding universe’ – a ‘dialectical means of musical variation’ indeed.

Multiple meanings and mobile form

This brings us close to Mallarmé’s own last project, Le Livre, a book of prose-poetry in which each page should be able to connect with any other – the nec plus ultra of multiple meaning. It was never finished, but in the mid-fifties his sketches where published. Similarly, Boulez in subsequent pieces extended the labyrinthine property of the material to the form of the music itself. This is the case in his Third Piano Sonata (1957) and in Structures II (1961). The Third Piano Sonata was to have five movements, and as far as I now know only two have been finished: the middle section (Boulez likes to speak of ‘Formants’) and the second movement/formant. The middle section, significantly called Constellation – Miroir, consists of a great number of small segments that the performer may chain up within certain limits: a restricted choice. The ‘formant 2’ has four movements that may be cyclically altered (like the beads on a chain), with ‘typographic’ titles like ‘Texte’ and ‘Parenthese’. The second book of Structures has a similarly ‘mobile form’ with literary-typographic titles, such as ‘Chapitre’ and ‘Texte’.

Finally, Boulez turned to Mallarmé himself: his second major work of this period is Pli selon pli (1960), an orchestral work that contains settings of three Mallarmé sonnets. In these ‘Improvisations sur Mallarmé one might see unfold, ‘fold by fold’, a portrait of the poet. Here, too, the performer has ‘pockets of freedom’ to chose especially the order of the notes (see e.g. Celestin Deliège, ‘The convergence of two poetic systems’ in William Glock (ed.): Pierre Boulez – A Symposium, pp. 99 ssqq.) In a later work, Domaines (1968) for clarinet and five instrumental groups, the soloist (playing from several ‘cahiers’) is required to choose the order of the group sections.

The broad concept of mobile form is often referred to as ‘aleatory music’ (from the Latin alea, dice, a term Boulez himself helped to mint through his article Alea from 1957 (in: Pierre Boulez, Relevés d’apprenti, Editions du Seuil, Parijs, 1966, pp. 41 ssqq).

It may be obvious that for Boulez chance was not ‘just chance’, but a way to make the idea of ‘multiple choices’ a genuine aspect of the composition and of musical form. To close, however, I would like to point out two major differences with the model that he took from Mallarmé’s poetry. First, the concept of multiple meanings in this poetry depends on our basic understanding of the language it is written in. In music, the very destruction of basic musical conventions that Boulez wishes to achieve is in contradiction to this condition – without this basic musical ‘meaning’ there can be no multiplicity of such meaning either. Second, ‘mobile form’ supposes an awareness of alternatives. In the case of poetry the reader may ponder these alternatives on the written page before him. In music the hearer simply cannot be aware of them, since the one music heard during a performance is the single, unique result of the choices made by the performer. Only across several different performances (rare for this music) might the concept of ‘mobile form’ become a real experien