Master musician Pierre Boulez spoke on “Classicism and Modernism” at the Art Institute of Chicago on Dec. 8, 1991, in an appearance co-sponsored by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Northwestern University and the Art Institute. He identified two different “streams” of thought: “classical,” which is based on a pre-conceived form or structure, and “romantic,” which follows inspiration and goes against order or form — and traced their development to the present day. In the 19th century, they developed as classical (Brahms taking over the tradition of Beethoven and pre-conceived schemes), and “moder­nistic” (Liszt writing extraordinary sonatas in forms that were not pre-conceived, and Wagner inventing “infinite melody,” the ultimate transformation of form). During the20th century, classicism became academic, and modernism encountered many difficulties, including the suspension of tonality. Just before World War I, there was a period of extreme freedom in which composers were forced to rely on other sources of invention as well as their own individual concepts, but it soon became obvious that music could not always follow a text or be exceptionally short. “But with freedom and inventiveness comes also the fear of chaos. Then you are against a wall, and what do you do?”

After World War I, you could see that people (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Picasso, Kandinsky and others) were afraid, and there were two kinds of reaction. On one hand was the reaction symbolized by Stravinsky and Picasso; the other was represented by Schoenberg and Kandinsky.

What was the reaction of Stravinsky and Picasso? They were iconoclastic, but as a matter of fact, they were like children. Very inventive children, but children, nonetheless. Why? Because they entered the big “market shop” of history, and they were so amazed, so pleased  . . .  that they began to take these historic works and play with them like toys. Charitably, I call them very inventive children, and if I am not charitable, I call them interior decorators. An interior decorator sees an old trumpet and makes it a lamp, and he thinks he has been very inventive. In a way he has, but inventive with what one would call objets trouves [found objects]. Trumpet. Lamp. But the trumpet is still there. It has a different meaning, but you recognize the object.

Pulcinella, for instance, is the first example of neo-classic Stravinsky. Pulcinella takes the music of Pergolesi [Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, 1710–1736] and adds some instrumental spice, some notes which were not in Pergolesi. The chords are a little bit spicier. And there it is: you have a trumpet as a lamp. Like magic. After that, you can see in all his works that there is this magic use of toys.   . . . There are all kinds of comparisons like that. But after the cubist period, they had enough, and went on to discover classicism.

Take the most classic of all, serio-classicist Ingres [Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1780–1867]. In a figure like Ingres’ you put eyes like Picasso.  . . . When Picasso takes the Femme d’Algier by Delacroix [Ferdinand Delacroix, 1798–1863], he takes it as a model and puts his imprint on it. Delacroix is the source, but in the end it is Picasso. From this gigantic shop of history, you take these models and transform them. It gives a new aspect to the old civilization, and that is what we call neo-classicism. It is iconoclastic and at the same time playful; both amusing and rather superficial, but with a genius — I don’t deny the genius.

Then you have Schoenberg and Kandinsky. Serious people, they were not toying with anything. They were respectful. They said tradition is a holy name. They were just heirs — they did not want to play with anything or break anything. They just wanted to go forward and bring this tradition into the modern time. So what did they do? In the case of Schoenberg, they invented a vocabulary. Schoenberg invented the 12-tone row.  . . . What did he do first with this new vocabulary? He tried to put it into an old carafe or an old pot: new wine in old bottles.

Of course, this did not work very well. In Schoenberg’s wind quintet, he used a sonata form with a respectful first theme and second theme, but what was the purpose? Tonal forms are ordered by tonal principles. Here you find a pre-conceived scheme applied to a vocabulary that doesn’t need it. There was a deep contradiction at this time between the utopia of the vocabulary and testing this vocabulary with a form that did not fit properly. An uneasy attitude resulted. In one case, there was no respect, or not enough respect, and in the other too much respect. Then you are paralyzed . . . a prisoner of pre-conceived forms. In the classical or neo-classical period of Schoenberg, there is much more convention than in his musical ideas from before.

The same can be said of Kandinsky [Vassily Kandinsky, 1866–1944]. Kandinsky’s pre–World War I inventions were extraordinary. In them can be found an explosion of forms, but, after the war, when he came to Bauhaus, he had to think about organized forms. He had the triangle, the circle and the square, and he began to make variations on these elements. This had its limitations, because the perfect circle, made with a compass, is always a perfect circle. The difference between Klee [Paul Klee, 1879–1940] and Kandinsky in the same period is significant. Klee made his circles by hand, so they were not really circles, but an approximation. Here it becomes interesting when you approximate things individually. In a neo-classic way of thinking, there is a deep contradiction between the vocabulary and the form — you want to have an individual vocabulary and you already have a pre-conceived form. Therefore, the modernist and the classicist are fighting each other.

To reconcile that is not easy: one wants to see oneself both inside and outside history at the same time. I think, for a while, especially after World War II, Stravinsky was considered a reactionary composer and Schoenberg a progressive composer. As a matter of fact, like Picasso and Kandinsky, they all followed the same path. First they were taken by inventiveness, by constant renewal of their invention. Then they wanted to check [to see] if they were right within historical frames. I think that it was the wrong approach. They wanted to see themselves within history — within the egg of history — as seen from the outside. They were like chickens within and outside the egg, and that is impossible. I think the real attitude is not to be concerned with classicism and modernism.

I have spoken about the explosion of style. There is no more unity of style — everyone is looking for his own corner of individual expression. We have the 12 tone, the neo-classic, and now the minimalist, the neo-romantic, and so on. But there were many individual ways of expressing oneself already in the 19th century. At the end of the century were Strauss and Mahler, but there were also lesser composers who were very conservative, and these vocabularies were far apart. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became obvious that there was very little direct relationship between Debussy and Stravinsky — Le sacre du printemps has little to do, for example, with Jeux. In the German tradition, Jaeger [August Jaeger, 1860–1909] and Pfitzner [Hans Pfitzner, 1869–1949] had little to do with Schoenberg or Berg.

I believe this explosion began much earlier than we think. If you want to make a judgment, you have to make it by examining history, not by starting out to view everything as a contradiction between modernism and classicism.

If you need a reference point, I suggest that history is a library. For myself, the library has to be burned down every day. Your library, your memory, has to be burned every day. But like the phoenix, it has to be reborn of its own ashes — also every day.  . . . You must have a new perspective, and you can choose the perspective you want. That is my opinion toward history.

André Malraux made a significant observation about how someone develops his own culture. He said that: “You don’t become a painter because you have seen a landscape or a face. No. You become a painter because you have seen other paintings, paintings of other landscapes and paintings of faces. And then you really become a painter — because you have seen paintings; otherwise, you will not.” And that is the same for musicians. You don’t become a musician because you have heard bells or something like that. You become a musician because you have heard music. And this experience you cannot forget because it is in your blood.

I would compare the attitude you ought to have with that of the Japanese Noh theater. When characters die in this theater, they enter another world. They have big paper screens in front of them which they have to pass through. I think that is exactly how you should consider tradition — like a paper screen which you have to go through. If you try to avoid it, you are lost. You are reborn only if you have gone through the screen and through the personalities of other people.

These are my attitudes toward history and tradition. First, burn your library every day and be reborn every day. Second, just go through your predecessors. Kill them and you will be yourself. But as long as you have never done that, you cannot be yourself. In conclusion, I will say that the only way to be classical is to be the most modern you can be. The more individual, the more contemporary you are, the better chance you have of becoming a classic.

Photo by Paul Kolnik, 1992