I always think of the ’50s as an innocent and square time (think Happy Days). But classical music in the ’50s challenged the restraints of its romantic past to confront a less romantic modern world. The US was fighting Russia in a Cold War, a conflict that was affecting most other countries still coming to terms with the devastation caused by two back-to-back World Wars. Surely the world was going to end in fire or nuclear radiation. This reactionary movement among artists was happening even before Schoenberg and the atonality movement, but several new composers throughout the world came into their own in the ’50s to challenge the notion of classical music’s place in modern culture.
One such artist was Pierre Boulez, who passed away earlier this year at 90. For his famous piece “Le Marteau Sans Maître,” the French composer took the surrealist poetry of René Char and used its words as the focal point for a chamber ensemble to create an unsettling, random sounding composition. Except everything was in order. The piece took two years to write and incorporated flutes, xylorimbas, and a contralto, a classical female singer with the lowest possible vocal range who provides the only sense of human life. Everything else sounds cold and calculated. It’s long, but random hits of the bongo and crashes of instruments keep you engaged. It’s a piece I’ve come to enjoy in a certain mood (if you encounter me in such a mood, run away from me).
As with any classical music I write about, I encourage you to read the master Alex Ross for more details into the life of Boulez.