Pierre Louis Joseph Boulez CBE (French: ; 26 March 1925 – 5 January 2016) was a French composer, conductor, writer and founder of institutions. He was one of the dominant figures of the post-war classical music world.
Born in Montbrison in the Loire department of France, the son of an engineer, Boulez studied at the Conservatoire de Paris with Olivier Messiaen, and privately with Andrée Vaurabourg and René Leibowitz. He began his professional career in the late 1940s as music director of the Renaud-Barrault theatre company in Paris. As a young composer in the 1950s he quickly became a leading figure in avant-garde music, playing an important role in the development of integral serialism and controlled chance music. From the 1970s onwards he pioneered the electronic transformation of instrumental music in real time. His tendency to revise earlier compositions meant that his body of completed works was relatively small, but it included pieces regarded by many as landmarks of twentieth-century music, such as Le Marteau sans maître, Pli selon pli and Répons. His uncompromising commitment to modernism and the trenchant, polemical tone in which he expressed his views on music led some to criticise him as a dogmatist.
In parallel with his activities as a composer Boulez became one of the most prominent conductors of his generation. In a career lasting more than sixty years he held the positions of chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain and principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra. He made frequent guest appearances with many of the world's other great orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra. He was particularly known for his performances of the music of the first half of the twentieth-century—including Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartók, and the Second Viennese School—as well as that of his contemporaries, such as Ligeti, Berio and Carter. His work in the opera house included the Jahrhundertring—the production of Wagner's Ring cycle for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival—and the world premiere of the three-act version of Alban Berg's Lulu. His recorded legacy is extensive.
He founded a number of musical institutions in Paris, including the Domaine Musical, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), the Ensemble Intercontemporain and the Cité de la Musique, as well as the Lucerne Festival Academy in Switzerland.
Pierre Boulez was born on 26 March 1925, in Montbrison, a small town in the Loire department of east-central France, to Léon and Marcelle (née Calabre) Boulez. He was the third of four children: an older sister, Jeanne (b. 1922) and younger brother, Roger (b. 1936) were preceded by a first child, also called Pierre (b. 1920), who died in infancy. Léon (1891–1969), an engineer and technical director of a steel factory, is described by biographers as an authoritarian figure, but with a strong sense of fairness; Marcelle (1897–1985) as an outgoing, good-humoured woman, who deferred to her husband's strict Catholic beliefs, while not necessarily sharing them. The family prospered, moving in 1929 from the apartment above a pharmacy, where Boulez was born, to a comfortable detached house, where he spent most of his childhood.
From the age of seven he went to school at the Institut Victor de Laprade, a Catholic seminary where the thirteen-hour school day was filled with study and prayer. By the age of eighteen he had repudiated Catholicism although later in life he described himself as an agnostic.
As a child he took piano lessons, played chamber music with local amateurs and sang in the school choir. After completing the first part of his baccalaureate a year early he spent the academic year of 1940–41 at the Pensionnat St. Louis, a boarding school in nearby Saint-Étienne. The following year he took classes in advanced mathematics at the University of Lyon with a view to gaining admission to the École Polytechnique in Paris. His father hoped this would lead to a career in engineering. He was in Lyon when the Vichy government fell, the Germans took over and the city became a centre of the resistance.