On Dec. 8, 1996, as part of his winter residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, then principal guest conductor Pierre Boulez spoke at the Art Institute of Chicago. He chose as his topic the concept of zeitgeist: the idea that each period or generation has its own characteristic spirit and outlook. Part of his lecture is reprinted below.

I have chosen to speak about zeitgeist, which is a German word and absolutely irreplaceable in any other language. We like catchwords because they are easy to manipulate and put things we are not sure of into precise categories — or at least we think they do. We use them to describe movements — artistic periods, or a moment of history. We have such words as “renaissance,” “romantic” or “classical,” and when we apply them to music, painting or poetry, we try to circumscribe different things that did not happen at the same time, in the same country or in the same culture, but which are tied by familiar features. When we use the word “impressionist,” either for painting or music, we know exactly what it means. It defines a precise situation — a moment of history in the arts — which we recognize and which is tied to specific individuals.

Now another German word, Gesamtkunstwerk [a total work of art], refers only to a single man — Richard Wagner, who promoted this ideal of a “total art work,” where everything collaborates to make a unique work and symbolizes the state of mind of a period. Wagner wanted to unify music, poetry and visual arts in a single work, which he achieved more or less in Bayreuth. But that’s the first time there was such a synthesis as the goal of a musician. And while it is true that Gesamtkunstwerk was the property of Wagner first, it became a typical ideal of the 19th century, when the correspondence between the arts appeared for the first time, and it was a serious concern, especially for poets. There is a very famous verse of Baudelaire: “Les parfums, les couleurs, et les sons se repondent,” in which he underlines the correspondence between all the ways of perceiving the world, especially colors and sounds.

The Gesamtkunstwerk could not really exist. Wagner was in despair after the first performance of the Ring because he felt that he could not achieve what he really wanted to. If the Gesamtkunstwerk did not really exist, then does the zeitgeist — which relates music, painting and poetry, and the artists living at the same time, working together or in isolation, building the expression of their time? To what extent is the artist dependent on the society of his time? What is his individual role and what part does social and artistic environment play? The artist is always conditioned by the environment, his education and society. He can accept them or rebel, but he faces the same conditions as everyone else, and this input is essential, especially at the beginning of his life.

The first choice of a young artist is to select what interests him from his environment. Conservative people are attracted by forces tied to tradition, and others want to discover something new. Sometimes the family environment helps. For instance, Proust’s talent was really brought out by his family environment. His mother was a very cultured woman and helped her son to develop his taste for the best literature, and this family environment enabled Proust to recognize himself as a writer.

But that is not always the case. Sometimes the family environment is indifferent at best, and at worst, it can be hostile. Many parents refuse to recognize their sons’ or daughters’ artistic involvement. And that is not hostility on principle, but hostility on the part of the unknown, because these parents were not involved in the kind of cultural domain that their daughters or sons want to explore, so they are simply afraid. So under these conditions, the adolescent cannot really reach the goal that he wants.

Where you live also makes a difference. Not everyone is born in the big cities — many are born in little towns, where the artistic environment is either nonexistent or very small, and contemporary art is not something that you meet up with every day. With art, you can see an exhibition from time to time, but for music, you need to have performers, and, here I speak from my own experience — I never had contact with an orchestra before I was nearly 17 because I was brought up in a small town. So at this point, the environment does not help you very much, and you must have resources in yourself to be able to discover what you want to find.

Every musician, painter, artist or writer has some uncertainty in the beginning. He is not sure of himself — he is trying to define a landscape and to find his own roots, and this kind of uncertainty varies very much with the personality of the individual. For instance, if you see Cézanne’s first paintings, you can never guess what he will do later — absolutely never. I saw an exhibition of paintings by the young Cézanne in Paris, and it was really very difficult to see what this man was thinking and how hard it was for him to discover his own personality, because he was influenced by many other things.

On the contrary, with Monet, you can see that, although still young, he had not found his definite personality, but he had already thought about it. You can see at the very beginning that he was much more sure of himself than Cézanne.

A comparison in music is Ravel and Debussy. When he was 20 or 21 years old, Ravel already had a precise definition of himself. Certainly all the elements — which you can find throughout his life — of his style are there. With Debussy, on the contrary, you would never guess that the same man who wrote the first works also wrote the last works, because the development is not only a kind of evolution, but also the discovery of self, which came later in his life.

In a pre-concert talk here with Henry Fogel [then CSOA president], when I was conducting Les offrandes oubliées, a piece by the young Messiaen, I said that he had found his language. Maybe the ideas were not that new and there were some formal ideas that were taken from classical music, but part of his language was already completely defined. On the other hand, I gave the example, because they are exactly the same age — they were both born in 1908 — of Elliott Carter, and you cannot guess at the beginning that the man who wrote his first works would write what he is up to now. It was very surprising to me to see how different personalities react to their environment — how quickly or how slowly they seem to find themselves, which has nothing to do with quality. The quality of both Ravel’s and Debussy’s works is without doubt very high. But Ravel found himself very soon, and Debussy rather late, and with Messiaen and Carter, we have exactly the same situation.

This reaction to the environment is a function of a certain number of elements, which are not always found together. We have the arts that are extremely innovative, and periods that are less inventive. Just before the First World War, there was a lot of certainty — Picasso, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc., and Joyce and Kafka in literature and all of the riches of our century are there. But between the two wars, there was a period that was rather uninteresting and tame, compared to the discoveries just before the wars.

After the war in 1945, you can see in this country as well as in Europe, a big explosion of discoveries and research and strong personalities. We don’t know exactly why this happens, but it is a combination of strong individuals and historical periods, which makes this so interesting and so unpredictable, because it does not happen all the time.

We must also consider the various national environments. We complain that everything is international and that there is no more German, French, English, etc., and that is not true at all. I think that the cultural environment is still very strongly national — not nationalistic — or nationalized, even if there is an international common ground. You don’t have that in this country, because you have a common language. But in Europe, we change languages at each border and that reveals something. It is not only the difficulty of learning German when you are going to Germany or English when you are going to England, but it implies that the difference in cultural environment is basically with language, and the language preserves a certain autonomy and a certain individuality in each country.

I also want to make a comparison between music and the other arts. It is often said that, especially in the second half of the 19th century, that music is “late,” compared to painting. Take the example of the impressionists — Monet and Debussy. Monet was born in the 1840s and Debussy in 1862, so there are approximately 20 years between them. Debussy’s works that begin to be interesting and very precise stylistically from his personal point of view date from around 1892 or 1894. On the contrary, the first important works by Monet date from around 1870, so there is your difference of 20 years. But I think that is more of a generation problem. The generation of musicians simply came later, and so did the poets. For instance, Debussy chose poetry by Verlaine and Mallarmé, and between Mallarmé and Debussy, there was the same difference in age of approximately 20 years.

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Now the case of Kandinsky and Schoenberg is even more revealing, because they knew each other and were aware of the similar paths they were taking at the same time, and we can compare the first nontonal works of Schoenberg with the first abstract paintings by Kandinsky. They corresponded and described to each other what they were really thinking and doing, and they had great respect for each other. At this point, they were so close that you could understand the strong correspondence between what both were thinking and doing.

Der Blaue Reiter, the magazine where Kandinsky was very influential, published Schoenberg’s Herzgewächse, a very short but completely non-tonal work. You can see there was something similar between their works, and then can describe something that could encompass both the painter and the musician.

But there is a more curious [pair] about this same time: Webern and Mondrian, because they did not know each other — I am sure — and they never met. Mondrian never heard any works by Webern, and Webern never saw any pictures by Mondrian. But it is very strange. Mondrian began his paintings with some Dutch landscapes, and Webern began with Im Sommerwind, which is the equivalent of some of Mondrian’s landscapes. After that, Mondrian had a “period of the trees,” where he has more and more abstract trees, going with plus and minus signs, and after that the period which corresponds toWebern’s period with his non-tonal works until the discover of the 12-tone series.

So with Mondrian and Webern, you see practically the same trajectory with two people who are not aware of the other. There are some elements of reciprocity, but generally, there is a lack of information, and why? Because I think that society does not have any place where people of different disciplines meet anymore. In Paris, we had salons, and I remember that, I met Juan Miro, André Masson and the poet Henri Michaux, and many people who were not involved in music. Now this kind of meeting place doesn’t exist anymore, and so people work in their own circles.

We say that our period is dispersed — that there is no cohesion — people do that in one corner and something else in another. Even in music, there are many different schools, so there is no unity of any kind. But I think that when you look at past periods, you create for yourself this kind of synthesis. You don’t see the period as it really was, but you look at it in a synthetic way and try to find a unity where in reality there was none, and also a kind of diversity that was governed by the same ideas.

Let’s look at musicians. Debussy was born in 1862 and Richard Strauss in 1864. What can you find in common between Pelléas and Mélisande and Der Rosenkavalier? It’s very difficult for me to see something as a zeitgeist. Ravel was born in 1875 and Schoenberg in 1874, and it’s very difficult to relate them to the same time. But now that we see from a distance, we can see Ravel and Schoenberg as two different parts of the same idea; Strauss and Debussy, two sides of a coin. And I can cite many other examples as I go back into history. What kind of relationship exists between Mussorgsky and Brahms, who were practically contemporaries? So we have kind of a vision of a century, which can accept discrepancies. When we are close, it is difficult to see any kind of unity. What we see after a while is the main individualities and a form of landscape with differences, with contrasts, but we consider that an expression of these times, because from a distance, we can make the synthesis of these different things.

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To conclude, I think the concept of zeitgeist should be used with a great deal of caution. For me, it’s a result, much more than a goal or intention. It’s a view — which is a posthumous one — on what happened more than a deliberate tendency to organize something. Zeitgeist is like thin air; it exists, it doesn’t exist; you don’t know when it happens or why it happens.

Certainly  artistic expression is tied to the period in which it develops, but one can always find explanations — negative or positive — to justify this or that artistic movement. The fact is that the relationship of an artist with his period appears after the fact. This may seem paradoxical, but the relationship between artists and society can be seen afterward, when we have some positive judgments on a period. There is no singleness in this creativity. Creativity is first a kind of disorder — chaos. The main interest for me of creativity is first to create chaos, and then all this mixture of disorder will progressively come to a single order, but an order that is rich in all its contradictions. So, therefore, I feel that zeitgeist has a nest of contradictions and that is the only way that I can see unity. This is real unity and not an artificial unity, because it preserves individuality.

Photo by Paul Kolnik, 1992