By Tobias Bleek


Pierre Boulez between René Leibowitz (right) and Olivier Messiaen (photo montage)

Between Messiaen and Leibowitz – Boulez's musical apprenticeship

In September 1943 the 18-year-old Pierre Boulez, after spending a year studying mathematics, moved from Lyons to Paris in order to devote himself entirely to music. In the same month he officially enrolled in Georges Dandelot's preparatory harmony class at the Paris Conservatoire. He also continued to take private piano lessons, and in early 1944 he began to study counterpoint privately with . But the encounter that proved crucial to his compositional career came at the end of his first year in Paris.

Andrée Vaurabourg-Honegger

Andrée Vaurabourg-Honegger (© public domain)

Andrée Vaurabourg-Honegger (1894–1980) had an outstanding reputation as a teacher of counterpoint in Paris during the 1940s. As the statutes of the Paris Conservatoire only allowed students to join the counterpoint class after completing the class in harmony, Boulez turned privately to Vaurabourg-Honegger before finishing his first year of studies in order to satisfy his keen interest in contrapuntal techniques. Between April 1944 and May 1946 he took individual lessons from her on a regular basis. The assignments ranged from simple counterpoint exercises to the elaboration of complex four-voice fugues in contrasting styles. Vaurabourg-Honegger quickly recognised her pupil's great gifts. Later she recalled: 'He always seemed capable of anything. Once the principle of fugal writing had been explained, he had needed virtually no further instruction. His exactitude, his memory, and the quantities of homework he produced were phenomenal.' [a]↓

Vaurabourg-Honegger's husband, the composer Arthur Honegger, was equally impressed by Boulez's talent. It was to his recommendations that the young musician owed his friendship with the French actor and stage director Jean-Louis Barrault and his initial contact with his patron of later years, Paul Sacher.


Studies with Messiaen

Pierre Boulez on Messiaen's harmony class and private analysis courses

On 28 June 1944 the 19-year-old Boulez introduced himself to .[1]↓ By that time Messiaen had already earned a reputation as an organist and composer and, after returning from German war imprisonment in 1941, headed a class in harmony at the Conservatoire National Supérieur. He expressed his willingness to take on a student 17 years his junior.

In October 1944, after a few private preparatory lessons, Boulez entered Messiaen's class, which he completed with a first prize in early summer the following year. The main focus of the lessons, which took place several times a week, was on training the ear and the musical imagination, creating an awareness of harmony, and examining music from an analytical standpoint. The works studied ranged from Monteverdi to Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Messiaen, a passionate teacher, also acquainted his students with non-European music. Boulez recalls first hearing Balinese music in early 1945 on recordings played in Messiaen's class.

Olivier Messiaen

Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen in November 1988, at the rehearsals for the première of Messiaen's Un vitrail et des oiseaux (Photograph: Ralph Fassey)

It is hard to overstate the impact of Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) as an educator and composition teacher. This organist and composer was active at the Paris Conservatoire for almost four decades, during which he left a mark on several generations of musicians. In 1941 he took charge of a class in harmony, and he taught analysis from 1947 on. In 1966 he was finally appointed professor of composition, a position he held until 1978. Among the composers who studied with him were Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, George Benjamin and of course Pierre Boulez, the first of his pupils to make a name for himself. Speaking of Boulez in retrospect, Messiaen said: 'He was so intelligent and so musical that he didn't need a teacher. I'm convinced he would have done extraordinary things without any help at all.' [b]↓


Pierre Boulez on ear training with Messiaen

Messiaen must have quickly recognised Boulez's extraordinary talent, as just a few weeks after accepting him into the harmony class he invited the young man to take additional private classes in composition and musical analysis. These friendly meetings, which took place once or twice a month at the home of the musician and Egyptologist Guy Bernard-Delapierre, were designed to lead especially talented students 'deeper into the heart of music'[2]↓ Boulez attended them from December 1944 to spring 1946. In these surroundings, free from the pressure of academic instruction, he found important inspiration for his own composing.

Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen, November 1988 (Photo: Ralph Fassey)

Playing on 'a magnificent grand piano', [3]↓ Messiaen acquainted the hand-picked students with his analyses of orchestral works by Stravinsky (Le sacre du printemps, Petrushka), Debussy (La mer, Jeux, Nocturnes) and Ravel (Ma mère l'oye). He also discussed pieces which at the time were neither heard in concert nor taught in academic curricula: Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, string quartets and violin sonatas, Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire and Berg's Lyric Suite. Finally he also showed his private pupils one of his own major creations: the piano cycle Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (1944).

Private lessons with Leibowitz

René Leibowitz (Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel)

A second seminal event in Boulez's artistic development took place in February 1945 when the barely 20-year-old musician heard Schoenberg's op. 26 wind quintet and op. 23 piano pieces at the home of the Parisian arts patron Claude Halphen. The organiser of this private recital and the conductor of the wind quintet was . During the German occupation, this composer, writer and teacher had secretly promoted the music of the blacklisted in Paris. Once the city was liberated in late August 1944, he became the leading champion and mediator of the 12-note method and the music of Arnold Schoenberg in France.

René Leibowitz

The composer René Leibowitz (1913–1972) was probably the most important champion and mediator of the music of the Schoenberg circle in post-war France. Jewish by birth, he went underground in southern France and Paris during the German occupation. He tirelessly championed the music of Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, not only as a conductor and a teacher, but also in his writings. During the occupation he wrote the first book in French on the Viennese School: Schoenberg et son école (Paris, 1947). It was immediately followed by Qu'est-ce que la musique de douze sons? (Liège, 1948) and Introduction à la musique de douze sons (Paris, 1949).

The Viennese School

The term 'Viennese School' (also 'Second Viennese School' or 'New Viennese School') refers to a group of composers associated with Arnold Schoenberg. They were active mainly in the first three decades of the century in Vienna, where they fundamentally remodelled the language of music. Its principal members were Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and his two pupils, Anton Webern (1883–1945) and Alban Berg (1885–1935). Among the most far-reaching of the Viennese School's historical achievements were the abandonment of tonality in favour of an 'atonal' style (from 1908) and their cultivation of the 12-note method developed by Schoenberg at the onset of the 1920s.

Egon Schiele: Portrait of the composer Arnold Schoenberg (1917)

Alban Berg and Anton Webern in spring 1912 (Universal Edition, Vienna)

The encounter with Schoenberg's was an eye-opening experience. As Boulez later put it, he instantly realised that 'another musical universe existed outside Messiaen's class'.[4]↓ Together with some fellow students, including and , he asked Leibowitz to accept him as a pupil. The private analysis lessons probably began in early 1945. The Messiaen pupils met at Leibowitz's home on Saturday mornings to learn the basics of 12-note technique and to dissect dodecaphonic compositions under his supervision. By summer 1946 they had studied pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. The order in which they studied the works and the precise point at which Leibowitz began to analyse Webern's music is uncertain. What is certain is that by late 1945 Boulez had gained his first concert experience of the Viennese composer who would have the greatest impact on him. On 5 December Leibowitz conducted Webern's Symphony op. 21 in a concert at the Paris Conservatoire.[5]↓ To the young composer, then already at work on Douze Notations, the encounter with Webern's 12-note masterpiece was a creative epiphany with far-reaching consequences.

Serial or 12-note technique

The term '12-note technique' (also known as '12-tone', 'serial' or 'dodecaphonic technique') refers to a method of composition developed around 1920 in different forms by Arnold Schoenberg and Josef Matthias Hauer. Schoenberg's basic idea was to create a series of pitches in which all 12 notes of the chromatic scale occur exactly once and to make this series the basis of an entire composition. In this sense, the piece will no longer have a tonic key. Highly contrasting forms of 12-note technique emerged in the course of the 20th century, making it difficult to speak of this technique in the singular.

The 12-note row underlying Boulez's Douze Notations

Yvette Grimaud

An early pupil of Olivier Messiaen, Yvette Grimaud (b. 1920) was one of Boulez's most important acquaintances in his student years. By his own admission, it was this pianist and ethnomusicologist who arranged his invitation to Leibowitz's Schoenberg concert in February 1945 and who put him in contact with the record library of Paris's Musée Guimet. Five years his senior, she was also one of the first performers of his music. At a recital on 12 February 1946 she gave the first performances of Douze Notations and the still unpublished Trois Psalmodies pour piano. She was also responsible for the premières of his First Piano Sonata, written in the early part of 1946, and the Second Piano Sonata of the following year.

Serge Nigg

Like Boulez, Serge Nigg (1924–2008) was one of those Messiaen pupils who found the music of the Schoenberg circle eye-opening. Working under Leibowitz's guidance, he began to experiment with 12-note technique and quickly became one of its most ardent advocates in post-war Paris. It is probably no coincidence that Boulez dedicated his first fully 12-note composition, Douze Notations, to this friend from his student years.

Messiaen vs. Leibowitz

Pierre Boulez on Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz

During his brief apprenticeship, Messiaen and Leibowitz had introduced Boulez to conflicting musical universes and mindsets. Not only were the two men important intermediaries, they also inspired the young composer to find his own musical language. In retrospect, however, Boulez viewed their impact on his artistic development and musical thought quite differently. To the end of his life he remained attached to his great teacher Messiaen, despite occasional tensions and disagreements, and often emphasised his signal importance. But being averse to all forms of dogma, the young composer already began to rebel against his mentor Leibowitz as early as summer 1946. From then on he had an extremely critical view of Leibowitz's achievements. .

Boulez's relations with Leibowitz

There were several reasons for Boulez's radical break with René Leibowitz. Undoubtedly, Leibowitz expanded the young composer's musical horizons from 1945 on and gave him important ideas for his own musical thought. Obviously the teacher-pupil relationship was initially one of recognition and trust. In early 1946 Boulez could still write to Leibowitz in the following terms:

'I can't tell you how excited I was by your articles in Temps Modernes. It's the first lucid analysis I've read, and I never doubted how convincingly you describe the evolution of music since the Middle Ages. At last something that's not empirical. [...] I myself am currently writing a Sonatina for flute and piano in which I'm working mainly on architecture and counterpoint. [...] I hope to be able to show it to you soon.' [c]↓

Yet Boulez seems to have been increasingly annoyed by Leibowitz's teaching style and dogmatism. He himself was excited by the music of Webern, while Leibowitz insisted on the primacy of Arnold Schoenberg. Leibowitz's formalist analyses of the music of the Viennese School likewise raised the young composer's hackles.

The final rupture came in summer 1946 with Leibowitz's response to Boulez's First Piano Sonata, which bore a dedication to his teacher. Instead of giving the work proper appreciation, he treated it like a student effort and reached for his red pencil to correct it. Boulez found this behaviour intolerable and reacted angrily. He deleted the dedication.

Recommended reading

Reinhard Kapp, 'Shades of the Double's Original: René Leibowitz's dispute with Boulez', Tempo 135 (June 1988), pp. 2–16.


An homage to the number 12

Pierre Boulez on the genesis and design of Douze Notations

Boulez's Douze Notations for piano were written during the final phase of his private studies with Leibowitz and Messiaen. Having discovered the 12-note method in early 1945, the 20-year-old composer first tried it out unsystematically in several still unpublished piano pieces and a quartet for Then, for the first time, he used it as the basis of an entire piece. The design of Notations can be seen as a musical homage to the number 12: it consists of 12 short pieces, each of which is 12 bars long. Each of these miniatures has its own distinctive character, with sharp contrasts not only between the pieces but sometimes within a single piece. The element they all have in common is a 12-note row that is employed in different ways throughout the pieces, thereby creating coherence on the level of the musical material (see the music example).

Ondes Martenot

The ondes martenot ('Martenot waves') is an electronic instrument patented in 1928 by the French musician and inventor Maurice Martenot (1898–1980). It was very popular in Paris during the 1930s and 1940s, when it was used not only by composers such as Olivier Messiaen, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud but also in a great many film soundtracks and theatre scores. Pierre Boulez composed an unpublished quartet for ondes martenot in summer 1945 and employed the instrument again in his first orchestral arrangement of Notations, likewise unpublished. To make ends meet, he even worked for a while as an ondist at the Folies Bergère, the popular Parisian cabaret and music hall. Finally, the instrument was also responsible for his friendship with the French mime, stage director and impresario Jean-Louis Barrault (1910–1994). In autumn 1946 Barrault hired Boulez to play the ondes martenot in a performance of Arthur Honegger's incidental music for Hamlet. A short while later Boulez took charge of the stage music for the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault at the Théâtre Marigny – a position he held until 1958.

Ondes Martenot (© public domain)

Jean-Louis Barrault and his wife Madeleine Renaud in 1952 (Photograph by Carl van Vechten, from the Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress)

12-note row of Douze Notations

But Notations is not a rigidly 12-note work, for Boulez treats the technique he learned from Leibowitz with great freedom. The row is used not only horizontally and vertically but also in permutation, split and fragmented into segments. There are also many repeated notes, clusters, glissandos and various forms of ostinato.

Influences and traces

Pierre Boulez, Notation 1, mm. 1-4

For the young Boulez, the work on Notations was a sort of compositional stocktaking. The pieces reflect not only his creative adoption of 12-note technique and Messiaen's rhythmic procedures, but also his study of the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, André Jolivet, Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók and Anton Webern as well as non-European music. For example, the horizontal exposition of the 12-note row in the opening bars of Notation 1 (see illustration) recalls the waltz from Schoenberg's op. 23 piano pieces, but the expression mark 'fantasque et modéré' is clearly reminiscent of Debussy. Yet, the piece's asymmetrical rhythms obviously draw on Messiaen's concept of free meter ('musique amesurée'), for the music is based on a short basic unit (the 16th note/semiquavers) and its compounds rather than a regular meter. Almost every measure has a different length (from six to 21 16ths/semiquavers) and the barlines, rather than indicating metrical stresses, merely serve for purposes of guidance. Finally, the concise expression and meticulous shape of each figure point to Boulez's study of the Viennese School, the enthusiasm he then felt for Schoenberg's piano pieces and his discovery of the terse music of Anton Webern.

Despite these many allusions, the young composer of Douze Notations already speaks with his own voice. Rather than adopting his chosen models intact, he transforms and amalgamates them. As a result, defining features of Boulez's compositional style are already evident in this collection of musical miniatures.

Further reading

  • Susanne Gärtner, Werkstatt-Spuren: Die Sonatine von Pierre Boulez: Eine Studie zu Lehrzeit und Frühwerk (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008), chap. 'Pierre Boulez' Lehrzeit', pp. 17–123.
  • Robert Nemcek, Untersuchungen zum frühen Klavierschaffen von Pierre Boulez (Kassel: Gustav Bosse, 1998).


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