2016 has been unusually cruel to music lovers. Not only have we lost David Bowie and Prince — two iconic figures in the world of pop music — but we have also lost Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, Country star Merle Haggard and Billy Paul, whose hit ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ achieved iconic status.
I could go on. There are plenty of other musicians whose sparks have been extinguished in the cruellest start to a year I can remember. When I review this list I realise how much these musicians have influenced my own musical journey, and, in turn, I realise how eclectic my own musical tastes are.
But all the names I mentioned come from the popular side of the fence. However, I would argue that the single greatest loss to music in 2016 comes from another sector altogether, namely from classical music.
In January 2016 a 90-year-old man found he couldn’t sustain his own rage against the dying of the light, and so the world lost Pierre Boulez.
I’m fortunate to know many of today’s leading classical musicians, and there isn’t one of them who doesn’t hold this man in the highest esteem.
Boulez was born in 1925 in the town of Montbrison, near Lyon, and grew up in Nazi-occupied France. He was only 20 when the second world war ended, which could account for his incredible energy.
Oftentimes conductors of ‘new music’ — what some refer to disparagingly as ‘squeaky gate music’ — seem unable to unravel the intricate detail of some contemporary scores that seem to have been written more to please the eye than the ear. But not Boulez — he was totally ‘on it’. An orchestral musician recently told me of a time when he was playing under Boulez’ baton in some complex music for large orchestra by Luciano Berio.
My friend thought he should be playing in octaves with his nearest colleague, but the score seemed a semitone out, making for an interval of a minor 9th in parallel motion. [Don’t worry if this is double Dutch to you, it doesn’t matter].
So, he ‘corrected’ the passage on the fly, only for Boulez to pick him up on it, quietly, in a break. “I heard what you were doing, but you shouldn’t. It is supposed to be a minor ninth throughout.”
My friend was gob-smacked that he had been able to discern this level of detail in so large a musical soundscape.
The British composer George Benjamin said Boulez was “an absolutely exceptional figure in the evolution of western music and his loss will be felt by musicians and music lovers across the planet.”
He added: “A conductor of profound insight, refinement and dynamism, a provocative polemicist and prime mover in musical thinking and action, he was the last of the extraordinary generation who redefined the art form in the aftermath of WWII. But his greatest achievement was his own music which, in its radical originality, introduced a scintillating sense of poetry and luminosity into modern music.
“On a personal level, he was a man of imposing intelligence and exceptional speed of thought. He was also highly gregarious, with an ear as finely tuned to humour in life as to the smallest detail in the most complex orchestral score. He was intensely kind and loyal to me for almost 40 years, and I will deeply miss him.”
As a conductor, Boulez appeared with some of the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw, and the Cleveland Orchestra in the USA. He led the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1971 to 1975 and was simultaneously music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 1977, succeeding Leonard Bernstein. In all his conducting career he never used a baton.
Boulez belonged to a generation of revolutionary composers who emerged in the post-war years. As a young composer he matched restless intelligence with great force of mind. His “Marteau Sans Maître” (“Hammer Without a Master”) earned him great recognition, and it remains a landmark of modern music. He went on to become one of the leading composers of his generation.
So, by all means raise a glass to Prince, but remember too the man who was the king of contemporary music for so many of us.