Title"Livre pour Quatuor" révisé
BookletBooklet in French, English and German
Megadisc Classics: How did you approach Livre pour quatuor before meeting with Pierre Boulez?
Franck Chevalier: With no certainty! The score as such poses considerable interpretative difficulties, in particular as concerns tempo. Working on Livre pour quatuor was an old dream for us: working on this piece was in our 3rd-cycle project in...1996, in other words, our first year as a quartet. Then we gave up the idea, precisely because a certain number of questions found no solution. When we took up the piece again in 2011, seeing Pierre Boulez immediately seemed indispensable to us.
Guillaume Latour: At the beginning, I found this score fairly arid, difficult to sight read and understand. After a few long rehearsals and the first concerts, I discovered an incredible refinement in this music. From this extreme complexity comes a delightful perfume, and the music turns out to be incredibly poetic.
Pierre Morlet: The encounter with this piece occurred in several steps. It was a project initially brought up in 1996 at the founding of our group. We'd hoped to study this work, but our professor, Jean Sulem, suggested we wait a bit before tackling such a monument. By waiting too long, others pipped us at the post and therefore we waited for the right occasion (our Beethoven-Schoenberg-Boulez series at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris) before jumping in. We stuck to our customary principles, placing its language historically and in relation to his other works and seeing what this piece's specificities were (its length, violent contrasts, post-Webernian phrasing, etc.)
Yun Ping Zhao: Like many contemporary works, we first try to put it in its context and know the subject before starting on the score. This knowledge determines the way we approach the score, including for historical music.
MDC: Had you met Pierre Boulez before the rehearsals and work sessions?
FC: Yes, I'd met him as a conductor. I'd played the Adagio of Mahler's 10th Symphony under his direction on the occasion of the inauguration of the Cité de la Musique with the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire. A really fascinating experience. An astounding sense of balance, a rhythm both quite rigorous but also quite flexible, an obviousness in the phrasing. One of my finest experiences as a student. I also knew the composer through his works and reading his books; Relevés d'apprenti especially had fascinated me.
GL: I had met him during my studies at the Paris Conservatoire, but as a conductor, not as a composer.
PM: We met with him in his office at IRCAM where we explained our project around Beethoven and Schoenberg and our interest in adding his Livre pour quatuor. He was charmed and even touched by the idea of being compared to two founding pillars of music and therefore agreed to the project and to begin working with us.
YPZ: Of course, we'd met before, in particular when we presented the project to him. It was at IRCAM. We were delighted and surprised that the project immediately appealed to him, despite his schedule and his age. He expressed a keen desire to make the piece live again.
MDC: How did the revision work progress?
FC: In several stages. The work with Pierre Boulez first began with a meeting without instruments. We knew he had reservations about the piece and knew it was difficult to play. We presented our Beethoven/Schoenberg project to him and explained how we intended to split up the Livre in these four concerts. The idea appealed to him, and he immediately called his secretary to set dates, and we blocked off joint work periods on the spot! The first session, in Baden-Baden, was above all a job of re-appropriation for him. He came with all the scores at his disposal, sketches, etc. Then, movement by movement, we changed practically all the tempi of the piece. To tell the truth, this was fascinating. What struck us at the time was his great openness to our suggestions. We were, of course, extremely intimidated upon arriving and expected to listen religiously to the Master! But quite quickly, he asked us our opinion about the feasibility of such and such a passage, so it was a real moment of sharing and exchange. The other sessions enabled us to change a few gestures that were truly unplayable, primarily by adding passing notes, working on the style and nature of each movement. The big question of the revision made us reflect a lot: you have to keep in mind that he was only 23 when he wrote it. At the time, he was a young man, passionate and somewhat provocative! His key word was 'we have to organize the chaos' in the wake of Antonin Artaud. So our questioning was as follows: can the revision of a piece more than fifty years after its composition lead to betraying the juvenile rage, the necessary utopia, by smoothing off the rough edges too much? The viewpoint of an 80-year-old man is inevitably so different and more peaceful.
GL: We were in the exchange. The score was practically unplayable as it stood. The tempi could be realized only with great difficulty. Pierre Boulez listened carefully to our comments and technical suggestions. Above all, we discovered a man who was very simple and friendly!
PM: On several occasions. We first worked on and even played the piece without seeing him. Then we began this work that consisted of playing movement by movement, asking him all the questions we had. It took him a while to get back into a piece written in 1948, and it was really a major difficulty for him. He threw himself back into his past and could thereby - he readily admits it - see errors or awkward writing from a young man with a strong personality. A long career as a conductor and composer changes you and your perspectives.
YPZ: The work unfolded in a thoroughly fluid way. Of course, he needed some time to get back into this piece seeing as sixty years had gone by between the first performance and our sessions!
MDC: Where did you work, primarily at IRCAM?
FC: Our first meeting was in Baden-Baden, where we worked at the Festspielhaus, put at our disposal. Then we in fact got together at IRCAM.
MDC: How many rehearsals?
PM: In all, we had four work sessions with him, all lasting two days.
GL: And innumerable quartet rehearsals…
MDC: Long sessions?
GL: Sessions of around four hours…
YPZ: Intellectually, he was on top form, and we were able to work for long moments. It was often us who asked for a break!
MDC: In the photos we see you working round him and the score. Was it collegial work?
FC: Doubtless the most amazing thing about this extraordinary man is his accessibility and simplicity. He could have looked down on us, our situations being so different and unequal! But he always treated us nearly like colleagues, which was a tremendous honour. But depending on the type of work we were doing, sometimes we could detect the composer, sometimes the conductor, and occasionally even the polemicist! All that is inseparable in him.
GL: Completely. We told him what was too extreme technically, or for overall listening, and he found solutions, sometimes several. We also proposed solutions to purely instrumental problems.
PM: The work was organized more than collegial. We had basic problems of inaccuracies or mistakes due to an old edition that was never really reread. So he answered us directly about such and such a choice. He'd also asked us to be attentive to problems of feasibility of the score. These are neither mistakes or inaccuracies but indeed problems that only instrumentalists having played the score can bring up with the composer. In this case, it was a matter of showing him the sound result of such and such a tempo or a given articulation. Based on those sound examples, he suggested a modification, a lead for improving the playing of his score. In this specific case, there was an exchange, for our suggestions as instrumentalists, as a quartet, interested him.
YPZ: This work was more than enjoyable and collegial. For example, he was aware of the complexity of his writing at that time and even asked us to suggest simpler writing from the point of view of musicians playing it! It's especially a lesson for us, musicians of the young generation. Modesty, accessibility and benevolence.
MDC: Pure pedagogy has never appealed to him, but how did he work with you?
GL: He was very friendly and very funny, too. I think he was happy we were bringing back to life this work that he himself had abandoned. So the work was a real moment of exchange.
PM: As he has always done: simply! He never wanted to teach in a school but has always been close to the young (composers, conductors, instrumentalists), ready to help them, enable them to advance in the path they've chosen. He did the same with us, seeking to help us and working for the success of this project.
YPZ: First of all, we found a conscientious composer concerned with the feasibility of his music. The conductor and a Master, with a few well-chosen words and gestures, provides you with great enlightenment.
MDC: We see you very thoughtful… delicate… Was this tremendous respect or benevolence on your side?
FC: How could you not have tremendous respect for such a career? That necessarily commands our admiration. Pierre Boulez is a legend! It truly was a matter of respect.
GL: It was definitely tremendous respect! I was also touched by the sympathy and simplicity he had towards us.
PM: Above all, you see us assessing our luck… Meeting a composer is always useful because, in addition to his words about his music, there's his personality that is exposed without the medium of a score or the discrepancy of a related remark. It's a more direct relationship that sheds a lot of light on a score.
YPZ: Facing such a personality, we could only show our tremendous respect! It was rather him who was benevolent towards us…
MDC: A ceremonial before beginning work?
PM: Never! A simple handshake and off we went.
YPZ: No, Pierre Boulez is a man of rare simplicity; he's not very attached to that kind of thing.
MDC: Were there any moments of intimacy or discussions about anything other than music?
FC: The second evening we were in Baden-Baden, he invited us to the best restaurant in town. The evening lasted four hours and was a very special moment. What I perhaps found most moving was the unfeigned interest with which he listened to our comments on living composers and the contemporary music world in general. Obviously, we asked him a thousand questions, and he took the time to answer each of them without giving a lesson, no nostalgia of the 'it-was-better-before' type, and without idées fixes, all of which could be the sign of someone entering old age! An unforgettable moment!
GL: We readily spoke about everything when we weren't at the work table!
PM: During that evening, he was able to get a better idea of our quartet and our background, which enabled him to evoke his career as a musician, his earliest years as a composer, his struggles as a conductor to impose other repertoires on orchestras, or his eternal thirst for discovering new scores. In the end, the idea of his shedding light on the life of a musician, of showing us what had marked him or oriented him to take a path.
YPZ: We always remember that evening in Baden-Baden. After our day of work, we discovered a very elegant, intimate French restaurant and spent four hours talking about everything: music, of course, politics, culture and cultural education.
MDC: Did he talk about any passions or hobbies?
FC: Not really. Pierre Boulez is above all an independent man who hates showing off. The private man is quite simply inaccessible. It's a way of protecting oneself that I understand perfectly. Of course, we talked about the Bauhaus and Viennese painters, but it always stayed in the area of ideas, in a very warm atmosphere.
PM: We sensed a certain modesty, and what made him touching was his wanting to discover us, to know us better, seeking to know what a quartet like ours might have to say.
YPZ: As I was saying, he grants little importance to [hobbies and such]. I didn't have the opportunity to notice any passions. That said, he's also very discreet about himself and his life in general.
MDC: We see him laughing with you… Is he funny, affable, nice?
FC: I wouldn't say 'nice' in the sense that he is never familiar, and it would be completely out of touch to be so with him. Good fun? Yes, sometimes. Ironic and cynical? Often! He does not hesitate to be frank, to call a spade a spade and give his opinion in a raw way, straight out and undiplomatically. Furthermore, he has a very special gift for the scathing remark: he can say something terrible in two particularly well-chosen words.
GL: He is full of deadpan humour, lively, always in a good mood and sympathique.
PM: Simple and accessible… A great figure of music but approachable.
YPZ: He's one of those people who perfectly master that balance between a kind, sincere closeness without being familiar.
MDC: An anecdote?
FC: After a concert in Lucerne, he informed us of bone pain in the back, explaining that, with age, his bones were becoming quite brittle. And he told us that, in fact, he felt the same thing as women during menopause! The situation was very funny, given the discrepancy between the setting [backstage] and his anecdote, and especially that we were not at all expecting this comparison from this man who is so discreet.
PM: His gaze, which changed when, in the course of the dinner in Baden-Baden, he evoked his battles against those who didn't want his music or experimentation in music. In the tone of his voice, like in his attitudes, we sensed tremendous strength, something he didn't want to abandon or leave to one side. And also great pride in having been able to fight and to tell us that this was essential in a musician's life.
MDC: During my meeting with Pierre Boulez, holding my forearms, he had told me that this, his music was for the young... In 2015, is the revised Livre pour quatuor music for the young?
FC: Of course! It is above all for them! As I was saying earlier, this music reflects the rage of youth. The young can identify totally with it. Youth is the age of utopias!
GL: It's the music of a young man, music full of piss and vinegar. Perhaps you have to be young to grasp this music. One thing is certain: Pierre Boulez has never stopped being young!
PM: Music is a means for passing on an era, like every work of art. There's nothing surprising about wanting to speak to young musicians and music lovers. The work is original enough and thus has a strong potential of interest.
YPZ: This music will surely be for young musicians of the future. In any case, it's become much more accessible after the revision.
MDC: What stays in your mind after this fantastic experience?
FC: The honour of having been able to meet one of the last 'monstres sacrés' of the music world. The impression, too, of having made our small contribution to the history of music.
GL: The simplicity and humanity of this encounter first of all. A certain satisfaction of having been immersed in the heart of the work and having had the chance to appropriate it with the composer's benevolence…
PM: The privilege of having carried out this work, the idea of having gained important information for making the work live and thus give it a simpler future.
YPZ: Already a work revised and much more appreciable by the public! That's a lot!
MDC: Have you changed?
FC: Yes, certainly! The great lesson of this joint revision work is the idea of illusion stronger than reality. These were the stakes in the rewriting of this piece.
GL: Since this work, I approach all works with a different eye. Whether repertoire works or those to be premiered are now, for me, made of a malleable material to be shaped. Nothing is set; everything remains to be created and re-created.
PM: No, we haven't changed but we've been able to better see the difficulty for a composer of being re-immersed in an old score. A sort of look at himself, just as someone who re-reads himself or sees himself years later, troubled…
YPZ: I'd say rather that Pierre Boulez reinforced the conviction that we already had: the road is long; learning is an endless road, as Confucius said.