Boulez: Mahler and me

Pierre Boulez. Photo © Monika Rittershaus,
courtesy Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Got to rush off to the University for committees & teaching. The day job. But just read a recent interview with Pierre Boulez, wonderfully active at eighty, & thought that would make a good post for the day. Thanks to signandsight, who are really doing an excellent job — though I just came across some critism, which I find ridiculously benighted, of their activities, according to which it is contradictory that these champions of European culture should strut their stuff in the imperial(istic) language of the day: English.

Jörg Königsdorf interviews composer and conductor Pierre Boulez on his selective affinities for the works of Gustav Mahler.

Pierre Boulez, born in France in 1925, is one of the major composers and conductors of our day. Together with Daniel Barenboim, he is currently touring Europe performing a Mahler cycle with Berlin’s Staatskapelle.

Pierre Boulez. Photo © Monika Rittershaus, courtesy Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Süddeutsche Zeitung: Like Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim, you became known as a Mahler specialist only later in your career. Do you have to be 80 years old to understand Mahler?

Pierre Boulez: I conducted a lot of Mahler 40 years ago as head of the BBC Orchestra in London – but not in Germany. I discovered Mahler’s music in 1958, through his Lieder. Mahler was a great fan of the voice, and he orchestrated the songs with a lighter touch and greater refinement than the symphonies.

Does Mahler bring the 19th century to a close, or usher in the 20th?

It is precisely his position between two different epochs that makes him so fascinating. For me, Mahler’s music is closely associated with that of Alban Berg, the same sensibility is present in both. It’s just that Berg used a new vocabulary, while you can still listen to Mahler through 19th-century ears without being overly disturbed. I believe Mahler attempted to achieve a unity that had ceased to be attainable. Take his third symphony: the bombast of the first movement is followed by theatrical episodes, the Nietzsche movement is then followed by the “Bim Bam” of the boy’s choir and then by the finale, which invokes the spirit of Beethoven by means of virtually literal citations. It’s completely illogical as a totality – but comprehensible in light of Mahler’s own biography.

Do you perceive a sustained impact by Mahler on contemporary composition?

Mahler’s music had no immediate successors…

…apart from Shostakovich.

But now we’re really in a completely different price class. Shostakovich is far less complex than Mahler! But there is an eminently practical reason why Mahler had no immediate followers: the Second Viennese School considered shorter pieces to be modern, and no one was especially interested in Mahler’s protracted narrative breath. That came only later – for me as well. While you would never say that my music resembles Mahler’s stylistically, I have nonetheless been influenced by its fundamental principles: the conception of time and the attempt to wrest continually new standpoints from the same material.

With contemporary orchestral music, you often get the impression that to a great extent, Mahler exhausted the expressive resources of the symphonic apparatus.

When composers deploy the orchestra in three groups as Mahler did, it inevitably recalls classical orchestration. I’ve drawn the logical consequences from this situation, progressively subdividing the orchestra in my pieces. The musicians must be deployed individually – that is the path toward the orchestra of the 21st century.

It seems astonishing that you have conducted so much Mahler, but never Richard Strauss.

I admire Strauss’ virtuosity. But I have the feeling that at times content mattered less to him.

You’re highly selective in deciding which pieces to perform.

That has to do with the fact that I see myself primarily as a composer, not an interpreter. I only conduct music that interests me as a composer. I enjoy listening to Tchaikovsky and Sibelius on the radio or at concerts, but I feel no genuine affinity for their music.


The interview originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on January 16, 2007.

Jörg Königsdorf writes on music for the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Translation: Ian Pepper

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