January 06, 2016

Pierre Boulez has died at the age of 90.

The formidable French composer and conductor was a towering figure in contemporary music and a voice for progress.

With the death of Pierre Boulez on 5 January, 2016 at Baden-Baden, comes the end of an era in contemporary classical music. The French composer, conductor, pedagogue and fierce defender of the arts presided over the postwar musical milieu in Europe, championing the pioneering music of his fellow composers as a redoutable spokesperson for the avant-garde.

Boulez's 90th birthday, on 26 March 2015, was celebrated internationally, but nowhere more reverently than at the freshly-inaugurated Philharmonie de Paris, where his Ensemble Intercontemporain has taken up residency. There, a major exhibition and series of concerts paid tribute to this titan of music in the twentieth century.

Born in 1925 in Montbrison, Boulez was to become one of the most distinguished graduates of Olivier Messiaen's harmony classes in the 1940s. He immediately immersed himself in the musical avant-garde of Stockhausen and Cage. As a conductor, he brought the same vigour and discipline to Wagner's Ring Cycle and Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps as he did to his own compositions and those of his peers.

A pioneer of electroacoustic music, Boulez founded and directed IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) in Paris in the 1970s. He was also an incisive (often scathing) commentator and polemicist, active particularly in French musical life in his support of the construction of the Opéra Bastille, the Cité de la Musique and, most recently, the Philharmie de Paris.

In between the years recording for CBS (now Sony) and Deutsche Grammophon, Boulez's friendship with Michel Garcin, the historic producer of Erato, led him to record for the French label a collection of contemporary works otherwise absent from his discography, and unparelleled as a survey of the 20th-century avant-garde through the eyes of one of its most influential exponents.

Boulez's complete recordings for Erato between 1966 and 1992 were released in a 14-CD anthology last year to mark his 90th birthday. In addition to music by Boulez himself (Pli selon pli, Le visage nuptial, Le soleil des eaux and more), the repertoire ranges from two founding masters of Modernism – Stravinsky and Schoenberg – through Boulez’s teacher Messiaen – and Elliott Carter (born 17 years before Boulez) to composers of Boulez’s own generation – Berio, Ligeti, Xenakis and Kurtág – and composers of the generation that followed him, such as Hugues Dufourt, Brian Ferneyhough, Jonathan Harvey and York Höller.

In the words of Boulez himself: "Music is a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal." Vale.