Friday 6 January 2017

Richard Wagner and Pierre Boulez's Conception of Opera

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the death of Pierre Boulez. The 'Opera and Musical Performance' forum of the Modern Languages Association hosted a panel on the day. I was delighted to be invited to speak; here are my (all too brief) thoughts.

Musical history – indeed, artistic, and most other forms of history too – is littered with great things that did not, perhaps could not, happen. Those of us who survived 2016 need no reminder of that. Pierre Boulez was not, of course, one of those, and his death, arguably the first of that year’s great litany of deaths, one year ago to the day, seemed to many of us not just another, but one of the most significant, in the many deaths of musical modernism(s).

Three performative great non-occurrences were works he said, on more than one occasion, he wished he had had opportunity to conduct: one by Mozart at his most musically radical, Don Giovanni,  whose harmonies often reach towards Wagner, and whose metrical dislocations reach beyond, even to Stravinsky; one by Mussorgsky, his great Pushkin epic, Boris Godunov, the best of operatic realism and thus perhaps that century’s greatest challenge to the Wagnerian world of myth of which the young Boulez stood highly suspicious; and Boulez’s one missing mature Wagner ‘music drama’, Die Meistersinger (about which he nevertheless would have several interesting things to say).[1]  More important still, one of the most fabled exhibist in the museum of imaginary musical works remains an opera, or any sort of music theatre piece, written by Boulez himself. I shall leave open – like many of his Mallarmé-inspired musical forms – whether that were in itself significant. To any of us steeped in Adornian negative dialectics, it almost certainly will be; but that will not be the principal focus of what I have to say. It is an unanswerable question, yet one that never ceases its demand to be asked: not unlike whether Wagner would, as he claimed, have turned from opera to symphony after Parsifal, or whether Schoenberg’s unfinished operatic masterpiece, Moses und Aron, were by its very nature impossible to complete.

I mention those two predecessors not least since they loomed so large in Boulez’s operatic, and more broadly musical, canon. Few were the operas he conducted which in some sense did not relate to that particular, central (and central, in large part thanks to him) conception of modernism. The quintessential composer of the anti-modernist box-office, Verdi, for instance, received short shrift as ‘stupid, stupid, stupid’. Nineteenth-century Italian operatic composers repelled him for their ‘vulgarity’. Puccini, a more sophisticated composer, remained ‘so easy to understand, and that’s never very interesting, at least not to me.’ Boulez’s first opera as a conductor, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, in a 1964 Paris concert performance, remained an outlier, Boulez admitting to finding its style ‘dated’, but its tragedy, not mythology, ‘together with the choruses and great flexibility of the construction’ the ‘most interesting part’. Commenting that he loved ‘composers who construct their music,’ he met with a reply from Messiaen, also present at the interview: ‘Basically, you have very French tastes,’ a double- or perhaps triple-edged, response, if ever there were one. A still greater rarity, a 1973 abbreviated version of Haydn’s L’incontro impovviso, again in concert, in New York, would also remain an outlier. Haydn was always central to Boulez’s ‘earlier’ repertoire, yet sadly, his operas have never been central to anyone’s, with the exception of Antal Doráti, and possibly the composer himself. It was, though, with Berg (Wozzeck in 1963) and then Wagner that Boulez’s operatic career began in earnest, in the theatre. His 1966 Bayreuth collaboration with Wieland Wagner on Parsifal proved quite a turning point. Boulez’s Wagnerian theatrical career would close with Parsifal too, in 2004 and 2005, with a new staging, by Christoph Schlingensief. The small matter of the ‘Centenary Ring’ with Patrice Chéreau, what Boulez called his ‘most ear-splitting intrusion into the Museum’, would come in between. Boulez would also conduct all four of Schoenberg’s operas, in the theatre and in concert, almost staggeringly – and very much as part of his role as modernist advocate – recording Moses und Aron twice.


There was something in particular, though, about Wagner for Boulez – as indeed there has been something in particular about him to many others, from Liszt and Nietzsche, to lesser figures such as yours truly. ‘The difference between Wagner and the rest of the nineteenth century – as far as opera is concerned,’ he said, was that Wagner’s works ‘have such depth that one can return and be enriched each time.’ What, though, did that mean?

One important aspect, which requires far more study, is musical influence, or perhaps better, inspiration. The idea of the signal, crucial to many of his musical works, and which he discussed in one of his Leçons de musique, given at the Collège de France, found an important earlier predecessor – he also mentioned Bach, Berg, and Bartók – in Wagner’s use of leitmotif, specifically when a motif appeared isolated and unaccompanied. For instance, we might think of Wotan’s ‘great idea’ at the end of Das Rheingold, in which we hear the sword motif for the first time, before it has even been forged, let alone reforged. Wagner’s and Boulez’s musical languages are, of course, entirely different. Nevertheless, Boulez remarked that his work on Wagner – and Mahler – during the 1970s enabled him to write differently thereafter, for insistence on the orchestral version of his Notations – fated, or liberated, like so much of his œuvre, to remain a ‘work-in-progress’.


There is also no doubting the transformation with respect to his conducting. When I last heard him conduct Pli selon pli, in London, in 2011, I reflected:
… alongside the [definitive] revisions, it is equally interesting to note Boulez’s transformation of approach as a conductor. His reading certainly does not lack bite, as the ejaculating éclat of both opening and closing chords made clear, but the sonorities seem to have become still more ravishing. More than once I was put in mind of his recent conducting of Szymanowski, and of course his increasingly Romantic approach to the music of the Second Viennese School. For all Boulez’s talk of having devoted too much of his life to conducting, it has clearly enriched his compositional life so greatly that there really are no grounds for such regret and, once again, we heard a conducted performance that was more new composition in the light of recent experience than mere presentation of a work from the museum. (That, by no means incidentally, holds as much for his Wagner and Mahler, his Berlioz and Debussy, as for his own works.)

Composition and performance were never separate categories for him: something many critics – in the hostile as well as the more elevated sense – persistently failed to understand.

Such matters are not, however, my principal concern here. Just as his work as a conductor – a world into which he had stumbled in order to present earlier-modernist classics in performances of sufficiently high quality so as to vanquish counter-productive if well-intentioned quasi-amateurism – and his compositional work were not readily to be distinguished, nor was his broader significance not only as a polemicist, although he was certainly one of the best, but also as an educator. And in that, I think, he learned from and grew sustenance from, Wagner and his conception of opera, or rather music drama. ‘It was,’ Boulez wrote admiringly, ‘the search for a total solution that was the real passion of Wagner’s whole existence and provided the justification of even its most ambiguous and unacceptable aspects. We can watch him gradually defining his musical objectives and determining his line of conduct with growing precision, see the progressive inclusion of all his intellectual and artistic interests in a world essentially circumscribed by music.’ Wagner offered a new conception of theatre, which his own festival theatre, Bayreuth, somehow, despite its unfortunate – to put it mildly – history, had managed to rekindle under Wieland Wagner, and has, sporadically yet undeniably, continued to rekindle under successor directors. It seemed to Boulez almost a unique example of what opera, a genre, which he, like his avant-garde confreres, had held in suspicion, if not downright derision, might yet achieve, perhaps even an indication of what that never-to-be Boulez opera might have offered.

Like the actually existing society, perhaps especially the actually existing musical society, of the 1960s, 70s, and beyond, Wagner’s own Germany, and beyond it Europe and the world, had failed to heed his necessary message. ‘Although Bayreuth had a brilliant start,’ Boulez wrote,
... with all the aristocracy of the day in attendance, it was silenced from 1877 to 1882, and this left Wagner even more perplexed than bitter. … The society on which he wished to confer a unique identity amused itself for a while with this curiosity and then forgot it, until by a series of misunderstandings, his work was made the narrow, limited symbol of nationalism and racialism. 
Wagner’s work, however, ‘continues to exercise its fascination, for that is what it is: a work – and a theatre.’ What of that theatrical innovation?
This is a field in which Wagner has proved to have almost completely failed. His diatribes, written more than a century ago, are still completely relevant, for nothing has changed – the laziness of the repertory theatre, its failings, its precarious functioning, the blind choice of works, the fortuitous casting of singers and players, the lack of rehearsal, the sauve-qui-peut routine. Architecturally speaking, the Bayreuth model, [that is a simple Greek amphitheatre, with a covered pit] has remained a dead letter and we still have Italian-style theatres, ...
... in which so many cannot even see the stage, although they can doubtless see those in the audience they are intended to see. ‘The proportions,’ he continued,
... of these buildings have been disproportionately enlarged in order to accommodate orchestras that continue to grow in size. From the other side of this giant swimming pool – where it is possible during a performance to watch the family life of the orchestra – singers do their best to get through the wall of sound encountered by their voices: and the vanities involved in this contest give rise daily to very questionable, if not disastrous results. Both visually and acoustically, we continue to witness this permanent defeat of what is truly theatrical, Bayreuth having effected not the slightest improvement.'

With that in mind, we might turn to a notorious, earlier interview (1967), with Der Spiegel. Like so many things ‘everyone knows’, the one thing ‘everyone knows’ about this interview is wrong. Boulez did not call for the opera houses of the world to be blown up, although he might well have been following in the footsteps of Wagner, the socialist revolutionary and friend of fabled pyromanic, Mikhail Bakunin, if he had done. And so, the Swiss police who, in the aftermath of 9/11, arrested him in a dawn raid upon his Basel hotel in December 2001, for alleged terrorist intent a generation later, had perhaps not read the article properly either.[2] What Boulez, rather more playfully than Wagner, yet undoubtedly in his tradition, actually said was:
New German opera houses certainly look very modern – from the outside; on the inside, they have remained extremely old-fashioned. To a theatre in which mostly repertoire pieces are performed one can only with the greatest difficulty bring a modern opera – it is unthinkable. The most expensive solution would be to blow the opera houses into the air. But do you not think that that might also be the most elegant solution?

With a refusal to abide by the repertory system – whose uncaring, inartistic side had recently been frustrating Boulez in a Frankfurt revival of Wieland Wagner’s Wozzeck – Wagner offered the example of refusal to abide by the day-to-day rules of compromise, who may not have been taken up enthusiastically by all and sundry thereafter, but who had succeeded magnificently on his own terms, at least for a while, and who had continued to do so again. For it was Wagner who loomed largest in angry arguments concerning so-called Regietheater. It still is, in many ways, when one thinks of Frank Castorf’s recent Bayreuth Ring. What Boulez might have wanted in projected collaborations with Jean Genet (he died too soon), Heiner Müller (he also died too soon) and Edward Bond (a possibility remaining just at the stage of reading, for ‘I’m a bit superstitious about looking for a third candidate’) will always remain obscure. It might nevertheless offer us a utopian – both in a positive and negative sense – view of what future operatic endeavours might achieve. The possibilities of Japanese theatre, of masks and puppets) not for nothing did he, in 2003, turn to Manuel de Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Theatre (‘El retablo de Maese Pedro’) intrigued him. He also wanted something in which the musicians and indeed the conductor would be part of the theatrical action, very much, one might say, extending and acting upon Wagner’s experimentalism, albeit in ways his neo-Romanticism would never have conceived of – and, if it had, would doubtless have rejected. ‘Musically,’ Boulez said in a 1996 interview, ‘there is much of interest in the operas of Berio and Birtwistle, perhaps Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten too. But I don’t see that any of these are pushing forward the frontiers of theatre, and that’s the possibility in opera that has always interested me.' Like Wagner, Boulez wanted to use music to push, even to destroy, theatrical boundaries; like Wagner, he was, I suspect, just as aware, that such efforts would also push, even destroy, musical boundaries. Wagner’s insistence upon subordinating ‘music’ to ‘drama’ had only intensified the power and radicalism of his music; Boulez might have done, certainly would have wished to do, likewise.


Following the first performances of the Ring in 1876, Wagner told his performers, ‘Kinder, macht Neues!’ Dissatisfied with the inadequacy of his realisation, he told them that they must do it differently next time, an exhortation the composer’s would-be ‘protectors’ have always ignored. Still more dissatisfied with the inadequacy of his attempts, Boulez exhorts us to do the same. We may understand that in as banal or as strenuous a fashion as we like. Perhaps, though, we should be best off understanding it in a fashion akin to his Ring collaborator, Chéreau, when working on the Immolation Scene to Götterdämmerung. Opera, perhaps, might be like Wagner’s orchestra pit, itself: Delphi’s smoking pit, a crevice uttering oracles … The redemption motif is a message delivered to the entire world, but like all pythonesses, the orchestra is unclear, and there are several ways in which one might interpret its message. … Should one not hear it with mistrust and anxiety?
That may or may not have been Wagner’s Wagner, but its modernist indeterminacy was Boulez’s Wagner – and, in an age such as ours rightly still suspicious of totality, it should probably be ours too.

[1] Plans for a Don Giovanni, a Boris, and a Ring, all with Wieland, came to nothing on account of his death in 1966.
[2] Although see NYT, Alan Rider, 7 December 2001: ‘Astride Schirmer, Mr. Boulez's spokeswoman in Paris, said that in 1995, a Swiss music critic who had written a scathing review of a concert by Mr. Boulez received a threatening telephone call that included references to bombs. “The person who called may have said he was Mr. Boulez,'' Ms. Schirmer said. ''It was evidently a joke in extremely bad taste, but the critic reported it to the police, and Mr. Boulez's name was entered into their files.''’