Photo by Larry Morris
When the great French composer, conductor and pianist Pierre Boulez(1925-2016) died at the age of 90 at his home in Baden Baden last month, there was much Internet chatter about his sexual orientation. Obituaries in major newspapers and journals mentioned that Boulez was “tightly guarded” about his personal life, but music critic Norman Lebrecht, who knew him for decades, stated that Mr. Boulez was gay. Boulez was extremely closeted, often introducing Hans Messner, his German lover of more than fifty years, as his “valet.” That Boulez (the “z” is not silent) was homosexual was one of the music world’s worst kept secrets.
Mr. Boulez enjoyed a first tier international career, holding conducting positions in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, England and the United States, and his numerous recordings earned him twenty-six Grammy Awards. Boulez did not use a baton, using only his hands to conduct, in the fashion of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leopold Stokowski and fellow Frenchman Georges Prêtre.
As an opera conductor, Pierre Boulez was most famously associated with Bayreuth, conducting Parsifal and the Ring Cycle. In Paris he founded the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) at the Centre Pompidou and the Ensemble Intercontemporain (EIC). In the United States he was conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic and was composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall (1999-2003).
As a composer, he was a champion of the avant-garde, writing atonal, electronic and serial music, although in later years composition took a back seat to conducting. He championed twentieth century composers, programming major works by Berg, Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Webern and Varèse.
After a 2012 eye operation left him with impaired vision, he cancelled conducting engagements, and a shoulder injury from a fall kept him from attending the many 90th birthday celebrations held throughout the world in 2015. Both Columbia Records and Deutsche Grammophon issued limited edition box sets (67 CDs and 44 CDs, respectively) of his recordings in honor of his 90th birthday. Last month BBC Four broadcast an hour-long documentary, “Pierre Boulez at the BBC: Master and Maverick.”