Boulez: Composer, Conductor, Enigma by Joan Peyser



In these 300 handsomely printed and well-­illustrated pages the background of modern music is brightly sketched in, and the works of Boulez are described and discussed in terms which the layman may well find illuminating, with copious musical examples. The main portrait is drawn from (if not to) the life, with loving care and attention to detail. The subsidiary figures, such as Leibowitz, Cage and Varese, are clearly delineated and artfully placed so as to evoke and sustain interest. Yet in my view the picture is distorted. Its trivially subjective approach not only discolours and disfigures it, but deprives it of indispensable perspective.

     The blurb thoughtlessly blurts out what is amiss. “Joan Peyser is a journalist, musicologist and perceptive observer of the inter­national musical scene.” Even so, her talents are arguably of, and manifestly in, the wrong order. Her musicology brings up the rear, which is not always the right place for it. We learn far too little of her quick ear, astute mind, and - if I read the signs aright - truly warm heart. Instead, the book was conceived by the observer and written (perhaps spoken, the shaky prose suggests) by the journalist. In the result, there's far too much of the glittering eye, the detain­ing hand, the confiding mouth. Within the quite far-reaching and broadly acceptable conspectus, there is a bird's-eye view ob­scured by flightiness and flutter.       

     The text has four damaging flaws: it tends to be self-conscious, gossipy, tasteless and humourless. A comprehensive sample:

Taking the dust-jacket off my book "The New Music: The Sense Behind the Sounds", Boulez put it on the oral-genital tome and said the sub-title would be “The Sound Behind the Scents”. Such intellectual punning might be expected of a brilliant multi-lingual European.


      One hardly knows which is the more daunt­ingly naive: the critical judgment, or the slip of the tongues. That passage breathes the fragrance of the whole, about which Ms Peyser's publishers should surely have told her. But although Cassell recently paid massive damages for defaming a gallant sailor, they are still (on my reckoning) rather close to the wind; Perhaps that will boost the sales. As another earnest investi­gator asked the authoress, “Did you ever find out anything about; his sex-life?" The answer is nothing to speak of, and less still to write of; but that does not inhibit the impertinent speculation. We are not surprised to learn that Boulez has been at pains to conceal a lot of his life from his biographer, with whom he has sensibly refused “to share facts, thoughts and feelings”. The effect is like Albert’s reaction to the lion. To see Boulez looking so peaceful just doesn’t seem right to Ms Peyser.

     Personally I have much sympathy for the view that private lives are indeed relevant to public art-works. But that surely has to be argued, not just assumed, especially in the case of a modem composer much more concerned with sonority and structure than with Romantic self-expression. In any event, only dead lions are fair game; a live one, as Albert discovered, is entitled to peace and privacy. However exciting and stimulat­ing Boulez may be as “composer, conductor and enigma”, he surely has some right to compose his own features and conduct his own affairs, and even to be enigmatic if he wishes, without molestation. The alter­native is the biography and musicology of the gossip-column; and we are never quite far enough away from that, for example in interpreting Le Visage Nuptial from the expression worn by its verbal features. Students will begin to wonder whether each Boulez work also symbolises some personal peccadillo, and start scanning louche mags for such ads as “Marteau sans Maître seeks Pli selon Pli with view to explosante-fixe”.

     Ms Peyser is all too often her own most effective parodist. Nevertheless, she and her subject each deserved a much better book. Later researchers will be in her debt; she has elicited and recorded much that is interesting and valuable about Boulez, his life and work. But the naiveté of judgment and utterance is finally self-defeating.


© the new statesman, 1977