Pierre Boulez’ Notations are not only fascinating works. They are also sonic witnesses to their times. They originated as piano pieces in 1945 when Boulez was just 20 years old. Between thirty and fifty years later Boulez rewrote them as orchestral works. Starting from the existing piano versions, Boulez created entirely new works that are much more than just orchestrations. These works now give us a rare insight into the composer's particularly long developmental process.
Reflections on Notations:
Perhaps the easiest way for a new listener to approach Boulez’ masterpiece is the way I tried to fully appreciate Shakespeares A Midsummer Night’s Dream – first reading it (with a dictionary!) and then seeing it on stage. Boulez’ own recording, with or without headphones, is illuminating but the live concert experience with an enormous symphonic ensemble alternating dynamics, both pulsating and transparent, is absolutely the best way to learn to appreciate this score.
The original piano solo ‘Notations’, with elegant, even poignant references to Schönberg (op. 19) and Stravinsky (Sacre), can be a useful introduction to the more complex and developed orchestral work. The orchestral score offers a third dimension of depths and layers to the vertical and horizontal structures of the original; one listens from within.
Dennis Russell Davies
I first performed the Notations with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in Paris in November 2014. I found the score looks more difficult than it is. If you play everything the way it is written, the piece sounds wonderful, massive. All you need is a good orchestra and a good conductor.
Ideal sequence of movements: 1, 7, 4, 3, 2.
Every time I listen to, study or conduct Boulez’ Notations, I immediately think of the other grand master of French sonic architecture: Maurice Ravel. The aesthetic proximity between Boulez and Ravel is palpable.
A glance at a single detail in one of the scores by Boulez (or Ravel) explains the ‘totality’, the aura and the form of the large-scale work. This, to me, seems essentially ‘French’ – this sharpened awareness of the detail that fits into the whole architecture of the work logically as well as poetically. You could almost say that the formal developments in these works follow an intricately detailed plan, while, at the same time liberating themselves and giving the music a logical flow – the great freedom in the breathing and phrasing in this music along with quite precise indications.
The sound world of the Notations is fascinating and has left its mark on generations of young composers who write for large orchestra. With what great and ingenious inspiration did Boulez ‘implode’ the ‘little’ Notations fragments for piano solo into the huge proliferations on this large orchestral canvas!
For me, it is fascinating to see how Boulez, as he interpreted his own work over the years, extended the contrast in the tempo relationships as he got older. The slower parts increasingly resonate with more time and space while the scherzo-like movements gain pace and pressure.
Pierre Boulez’ Notations are a work of immense significance in the contemporary repertoire for large orchestra. In my opinion, they are just as important to the modern symphony orchestra as The Rite of Spring or La Mer. It gives me great joy that whenever I conduct them, I find numerous new elements in every rehearsal. Four years ago in Baden-Baden I had the privilege of rehearsing the Notations with Pierre Boulez himself. The work’s melodic, rhythmic and expressive diversity puts it among the most important works of new music.
... In 1945-6 there was nothing left, and everything had to be done ...1
... What we discovered ... was relatively simple because it was a first attempt to lay the foundation for a new language based on the existing sources [that we went back to] 2 ...
... After a while we realised that it was not enough and that we had to look for something more, beyond the precise codification of language. [We had to rediscover aesthetic concerns anew]. At first we tried to avoid these concerns ..., because they weren’t that important and [seemed hard to solve] ... we didn’t want to burden ourselves with pseudo-aesthetic questions... 3
Aphoristic brevity, unmistakeable expressionist sonic intensity and rigorous serial procedure in the compositional technique are the defining characteristics of the Douze Notations (1945) for piano. They are the aesthetic manifesto of the young Pierre Boulez, as well as the debut work of an ingenious composer. With intelligence and self-assurance, the composer gives expression to the belief that serialism is the only possible area for the revival of postwar European musical culture, combined with the revolutionary liberation of musical metre as demonstrated by Stravinsky through the overpowering radicalism of his Le Sacre.
The fact that Boulez felt the necessity to return to the Douze Notations for a creative re-examination more than three decades after their composition – decades during which Boulez established himself not only as a performer of 20th century repertoire, but also as a pioneer of New Music, thanks to his tireless and lively polemics – shows how important those first steps were, and how fresh they still are in the compositional concerns of their creator. The orchestration of piano pieces may call to mind a certain French compositional practice with Maurice Ravel as a good example, but this is where the similarity ends. Here we are dealing with something fundamentally different: the fact that a composer at the height of his creative maturity is capable of revisiting his debut work so as to create a completely new, impressively stylistic lecture (intended for an orchestra of Mahlerian proportions).
With their generous beauty and richness of innovative refinements realised with a nonchalance and airy technical virtuosity, the Notations pour orchestre are the best way into the creative universe of the mature Pierre Boulez. A brilliant feat, an exemplary contribution to the above-mentioned challenge to ‘rediscover aesthetic concerns anew’.
For me this masterpiece is one of the indispensable future pillars of a new repertoire for the orchestra of the 21st century. I am convinced that every musician who understands that creativity in contemporary music demands a profound debate, recognises the necessity and urgency of this new repertoire.
1 Boulez, Pierre, A che punto siamo? From: Punti di Riferimento, Ed. Giulio Einaudi, Turin 19842 Boulez, Pierre, A che punto siamo? From: Punti di Riferimento, Ed. Giulio Einaudi, Turin 19843 Boulez, Pierre, A che punto siamo? From: Punti di Riferimento, Ed. Giulio Einaudi, Turin 1984 Go to work