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The path to total purity

Pierre Boulez’s musical works were a beautifully decorated cul-de-sac, says Ivan Hewett

The death in January of Pierre Boulez at the age of 90 robbed the musical world of a great conductor, a brilliant polemicist and an agitator for musical modernism. He was also a charismatic and intransigent human being—charming and generous to those who shared his vision, but prepared to thwart those who did not.

Charismatic and intransigent: Pierre Boulez in 2004
© LOUIS MONIER/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

That much is certain about Boulez. But there is also his other role, the one he would surely like to be remembered by: as a composer. Here the situation is less certain. His music was a part of his grand project to yoke all of contemporary music to the modernist ethos. He would lead the way, through his activities as conductor of major orchestras, head of a research institute and as a composer—and he fully expected the other Young Turks of postwar modernism like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio to march in step with him. Certainty had dissolved, the old hierarchies had crumbled and everyone had to work out their own salvation. According to Boulez, to adopt the musical grammar and manners of the past was reprehensible escapism.

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In Prospect’s March issue: Peter Pomerantsev describes the situation in Eastern Europe as the governments of Hungary and Poland turn right. Simon Tilford, from the Centre for European Reform, questions the substance of David Cameron’s EU deal and Philip Collins argues that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit for purpose. Also in this issue: Peter Kellner shows us that we are feeling more optimistic than during the last stages of the last Labour government and Jessica Abrahams explores the sexism of Valentine’s Day. Plus Justice Malala on South Africa and the Prospect Duel asks: "Should all immigrants learn English?"
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