Le marteau sans maître

Marteau score

To follow Comment te dire adieu, a rather different kind of French chanson

Apart from the way that Pierre Boulez made us listen to 20th-century classics, his own works are remarkable. I’ve hardly listened to his Le marteau sans maître (1955) since my teens, but returning to it now, it remains a formative and beguiling aspect of a changing sound world (see e.g. these reflections by S-S-Simon Rattle).

The chamber ensemble comprises contralto with alto flute, viola, guitar (recalling Ravel and Debussy), xylorimba, vibraphone, and other percussion—whose varied combinations create a most exotic timbre.

Marteau sketch

Source here.

The xylorimba recalls the African balafon; the vibraphone, the Balinese gamelan; and the guitar, the Japanese koto. Boulez had long been attracted to non-European cultures. Over the winter of 1945–46 he immersed himself in Balinese and Japanese music and African drumming at the Musée Guimet and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. “I almost chose the career of an ethnomusicologist because I was so fascinated by that music. It gives a different feeling of time.” Still, in Le marteau “neither the style nor the actual use of these instruments has any connection with these different musical civilisations”.

Boulez 1958

Pierre Boulez, 1958.

Indeed, the influence of world music (as it came to be called) is much less obvious in Boulez’s music than in that of his teacher Messiaen. The sound world of Le marteau even recalls jazz, a more unlikely influence.

Here’s Boulez with Hil​ary Sum​mers and the Ense​mble InterContemporain in 2002 (Le marteau avec maître!):

Indeed, Le marteau has generated a vast amount of agonised discussion about cerebral comprehension and sensuous engagement. As ever, notation is a double-edged sword—best not to let it distract us at first. Analysis, while unnecessary, can be instructive—for Mozart, Indian raga, Beatles, Chinese shawm suites, and any music; in this case, again, I find it rewarding to listen without such benefit.

Punctuating the instrumental sections, the challenging, vertiginous vocal movements are settings of poems by René Char:

L’Artisanat furieux
La roulotte rouge au bord du clou
Et cadavre dans le panier
Et chevaux de labours dans le fer à cheval
Je rêve la tête sur la pointe de mon couteau le Pérou.

Bourreaux de solitude
Le pas s’est éloigné le marcheur s’est tu
Sur le cadran de l’Imitation
Le Balancier lance sa charge de granit réflexe.

Bel Édifice et les pressentiments
J’écoute marcher dans mes jambes
La mer morte vagues par dessus tête
Enfant la jetée promenade sauvage
Homme l’illusion imitée
Des yeux purs dans les bois
Cherchent en pleurant la tête habitable

Within the niche of modern WAM, Le marteau was, and still sounds, revolutionary; yet it can hardly compare with The Rite of Spring, which has attained wider popularity even while retaining its power to shock.

* * *

By the 1970s many avant-garde performers were just as keen on exploring the new horizons of Historically Informed Performance (see e.g. here); but for Boulez the ideas of early music were a curious bête noire. Taking issue with Roger Norrington (cf. David Hurwitz!!!), he sought to refute the movement (in the early music sub-category, note Taruskin, Playing with history, and Alternative Bach):

When Le marteau sans maître was created in 1955 the German school of percussion was relatively weak. People were accustomed to playing with two sticks. Today, it is done with four and the playing is very much easier. Ought one, on the grounds of authenticity, to return to playing with two sticks? Certainly not. This example really does show us what absurdity there is in the notion of authenticity.

Much as I love Boulez, it really doesn’t. I’d like to read this debate. Boulez’s point is about technique, not choice of instruments or style; indeed, if the result sounds the same, then it’s an underwhelming argument. But supposing the instruments, mallets, and timbres have changed since the 1950s, surely it would be revealing to play the piece now using those earlier versions. If a time comes when performers are estranged from Boulez’s aesthetic world, then it would be interesting to hear the piece played taking account of his own vision.

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