Third Sonata

Troisième Sonate
1958 to present.
Formant I -- Antiphonie (unpublished)
Formant II -- Trope
Formant III -- Constellation/Constellation-miroir
Formant IV -- Strophe (unpublished)
Formant V -- Séquence (unpublished)
Unassigned --

Pierre Boulez's Third Piano Sonata

I have often compared this work with the plan of a city. One does not change its design, one perceives exactly what it is, and there are different ways of going through it. One can chose one's own way through it, but there are certain traffic regulations.
--Pierre Boulez on his Third Piano Sonata

A musical labyrinth incorporating nonlinear design, performer-based decisions, and notions of form itself as a principle aesthetic, Boulez's Third Piano Sonata represents a pinnacle of musical Modernism --an "open work" cast in ivory and ebony. Despite (or more likely, because of) this, the Third Piano Sonata is more often discussed than heard; and having spawned numerous essays, critiques, justifications, nearly-inscrutable liner notes and snide post-mortems, it has probably produced more commentators than actual players. It is also rather difficult to perform, requiring much preparation on the part of the interpreter in terms of organization as well as practice.
Essentially, the Third Piano Sonata arose from Boulez's interest in literary Modernism, particularly as represented in the works of Mallarmé and Joyce. Mallarmé offered the multiple fascinations with form as aesthetic, with his typographical effects drawing attention to the relationships between the printed words and the page containing them; and later his belief that a book should contain a level of reader-initiated indeterminacy. Although Joyce held similar views to the French poet, his ideas on language and style were taken to greater extremes, and Finnegans Wake pointed the way to an open text, a cyclical work available for entry at multiple points. Boulez -- always ready to overturn the old order in his quest for musical revolution -- was greatly attracted to these ideas, and sought a way to adapt them to the compositional process. The result was the Third Piano Sonata, a "work-in-progress" that to this day awaits "completion."
Many people with much greater grasp of musical theory than myself have attempted to explain the Third Piano Sonata; including Boulez himself in his essay "Sonate, que me veux-tu?", which is excerpted below. However, the unusual nature of the work requires some commentary on structure, so I shall try to keep it simple and succinct.
The ideal version of the sonata has five movements, which Boulez calls formants. Although all five formants contain very specific systems intended to open the work's structure to aleatoric elements, only formants 2 and 3 have been published, so the work has never received a complete public performance by anyone save Boulez himself. Formant 2 is titled Trope, and formant 3 is titled Constellation. This is further complicated by the fact that the Constellation movement has a mirror-image double, Constellation-miroir, which may be played in its stead. Additionally, Boulez recently published "Sigle," a short fragment that so far remains unassigned to a formant. (The name may spark the interest of a Finnegans Wake reader, as it may possibly be inspired by Joyce's "Sigla.")
Trope is made up of four fragments, each taking its name from related terms of literary criticism: Text, Parenthesis, Commentary, and Gloss. The performer is free to chose which fragment serves as the beginning; as long as Commentary is played either before or after Gloss, and providing that the performer plays through each fragment to the end in the direction selected. A clear inspiration here is Finnegans Wake -- Boulez indicates that the score for Trope should be bound in a spiral to emphasis its nonlinearity.
The next formant, Constellation, serves as a labyrinth of sorts, allowing the performer the freedom to select a path through the movement from several alternative possibilities. (Something like an old "Choose Your Own Adventure" book.) The movement is essentially comprised of a series of "vertical" fragments called "points," which are written in green ink; and "horizontal" fragments called "blocs," which are indicated in red ink. (Although a small sub-section named Mélanges reverses these color assignments.) After playing a fragment, arrows in the score prompt the performer to go to one to four possible next fragments, and so on through the piece. And as if this weren't enough, the reverse side of the sheets contain Constellation-miroir, which may played as a substitute for Constellation.
Both formants make some rather unusual demands on the performer apart from the need to occasionally make choices regarding organization and rhythym. As the pianist Steffan Schleiermacher points out, the performer must also employ various resonance effects, including a near virtuoso "legwork" on the pedal, and the use of piano harmonics -- one key is depressed in a way that makes no sound, but causes a resonance effect when a neighboring key is firmly struck. As Schleiermacher writes in his notes to the piece, "The sounds seem to cast virtual shadows, to continue to sound in the background, while the next structure appears in the foreground."
OK, great, so the piece is a showcase for Modernist ideas and virtuoso playing -- but how does all this actually sound? Oddly enough, though unrelentingly atonal, Trope and Constellation are actually fairly gentle, if a bit prickly. Both formants are basically static, lacking any sense of motion or narrative development, and in both, silence plays a very important role. The music generally takes the form of tiny, spiky clusters of notes, each embedded in a field of silence with varying degrees of lingering sustain or pointillist crispness connecting them to the next cluster. Like drops of icy rain falling sporadically into a clear pool of silence, the music evades any sense of dramatic continuity, forcing the listener to focus on each isolated event itself rather than its overall relation to the whole. Although each cluster may have its own microcosmic sense of dramatic unity, the sequence of clusters itself is without any perceivable structure or theme. Indeed, a casual listener would be utterly unaware of the underlying layers of process needed to generate the music, and I must confess, that having heard several permutations of the score, I could not readily tell that I was listening to different versions. Like Finnegans Wake, the overall piece seems to retain its identity no matter where you dip in for a sampling.
The Third Piano Concerto also engendered a bit of controversy, and added to the antipathy between Cage and Boulez after their falling out. Although Boulez readily credits Mallarmé's 'Le Coup de dés' as an influence, the piece perhaps bears even more similarities to the Mallarmé's notes to his unrealized project Livre, in which the poet describes a book with interchangeable pages that may be read in any order. Mallarmé indicates that such a work could be read by various "operators" to different audiences, all of which would generate unique experiences and interpretations. Moreover, Mallarmé used terms like "Constellations" to describe the indeterminate aspects of his idealized open work. Boulez, however, maintains that he developed his ideas independently of Livre, and that he only became aware of its existence after he had composed the majority of his sonata. In 1957 he published an essay called "Aléa" (meaning a single die) in which he detailed his ideas on "controlled chance," or limited indeterminacy; a compositional technique that would open a work up to indeterminacy while still preserving creative control. In this essay he attacked pure chance operations, and rather arrogantly implied that those who pursued such a course were foolish and incompetent. The attack was obviously directed at John Cage, who became quite angry with Boulez, once a friend and creative associate. Cage remarked, "After having repeatedly claimed that one could not do what I set out to do, Boulez discovered the Mallarmé Livre.... With me the principle had to be rejected outright, with Mallarmé it suddenly became acceptable to him. Now Boulez was promoting chance, only it had to be his kind of chance." Cage's anger was compounded by the popularity of the essay, which firmly established Boulez's term "aleatory music" as the label for the type of music that Cage had practically invented.
The work is also controversial in the broader context of Modernist music, specifically as realized by Boulez in his three piano sonatas, which have often been criticized as being too academic or even "unlistenable." Many critics and listeners have remarked upon the apparent disconnect between the underlying theory and the music itself -- while the process behind the work is highly ingenious, and the sheet music itself has a visual appeal that cannot be denied, many listeners find the music unpleasant, lacking the elegance and artistry of the printed score. As Peggy Glanville-Hicks of the Herald Tribune wrote about the Second Piano Sonata, "The Boulez Sonata -- to this reviewer -- is chaos, organized, stabilized chaos....To the eye and intellect, the printed page of Boulez presents logic and design, but to the ear, its true arbiter, these are not apparent."
While I can see this point of view, I also find it a bit tedious and reactionary.When played well (as by Pollini, Biret, or Nonken), Boulez's sonatas reveal a sparkling world of turbulent passion and abstract beauty. Whether or not one finds them to one's taste, they are important works of music, and should not be missed.

Excerpts from To Boulez and Beyond, by Joan Peyser

From To Boulez and Beyond: Music in Europe Since the Rite of Spring, by Joan Peyser. Billboard Books, 1999. Thanks also to Peyser for some of the material incorporated into my essay above.

In the fall of 1943, when Boulez first arrived from Provence, he moved into a tiny apartment on rue Beautreillis, near the historic Place des Vosges. In his cluttered, tiny rooms he kept his manuscripts rolled up like papyrus on the floor. In addition to the manuscripts there was a narrow bed, a small desk, an electric heater, and several African masks. Reproductions of Paul Klee were on the walls; the works of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and James Joyce were on the shelves. (Chapter 19)

Perhaps to resist the increasing popularization and, on occasion, the vulgarization of art which had flourished under neoclassicism and socialist realism and had been encouraged by radio and films, perhaps to restore a more intellectually aristocratic elite, many artists -- both in Europe and the United States -- began to build on the refined, inaccessible language that had roots earlier in the century. This is not to say that it was the intent of Schoenberg, Kandinsky, or Pound to be as hermetic as they were; it is rather to point out that inaccessibility was certainly a consequence of what each of them did. But those artists who came of age after World War II elevated this secondary consequence to a primary purpose. For Boulez, James Joyce was a critical symbol. He had read Ulysses in French, and an exhibit in 1949 at Le Hune bookshop in Paris increased his excitement about Joyce's work. Recalling what drew him to Joyce, Boulez cites the "specificity of technique for each chapter, the fact that technique and story were one. The technique reflected exactly what Joyce meant; it was rich and I had never met it before in a book."
But it was Finnegans Wake that overwhelmed the group. In a letter to Cage written in December 1949, a young French poet wrote:

The advent of Finnegans Wake at Pierre's has not yet finished provoking many arguments and discussions. There were several stormy sessions on Rue Beatreillis where the tone of things reached such a high pitch that the vocabulary consisted of several forceful "merdes" which each of the participants flung at each other without any mental reservation concerning the parsimony of the words used.
If by now the heated arguments have abated somewhat, discussions are still frequent on the subject. I must admit, to be completely objective, that after experiencing Joyce in a very serious way my admiration for Faulkner has vanished.

It is possible that technique alone did not draw Boulez to Joyce for the similarities between the two artists transcended technique. Both Boulez and Joyce were raised devout Catholics; both became disenchanted when they were still young. Both were clearly in search of a father, a search that dominated both men's lives. (Leopold Bloom was to Stephen Dedalus what Barrault, Souvchinsky, and Strobel were to Boulez.) Both moved towards revolution in the political arena but neither liked manifestos when drawn up by others. Art alone was the route for Joyce and Boulez. It gave them the stature and dignity they sought. Able to renounce the dogma they had been taught, each cast his own revolution in most dogmatic of aesthetic terms. Thus Boulez built Structures on a medieval-like musical language with its secrets hidden from the public at large. Like Finnegans Wake, which inspired numerous "skeleton keys" and "guides," Structures inspired musical analyses. That the traditional value of beauty played virtually no role in Boulez's conception is revealed by a passage Boulez wrote to Cage on the eve of his trip to New York: "Soon Monroe Street will see us and hear us. Tell [the pianist] David Tudor, whom I am very eager to know, that he should get some aspirin ready -- I am doing as much myself -- for Structures is not easy to listen to. But since he has worked on your Music for Changes (here Boulez makes a diagram excerpting CAGE from CHANGES) I would say he is properly prepared." (Chapter 24)

Excerpts from 'Sonata, que me veux-tu' by Pierre Boulez

Originally published in Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik, Vol. III, 1960, pp.27-50. Excerpted from Boulez's collection of essays, Orientations (Harvard University Press, 1986.)

Why compose works that have to be re-created every time they are performed? Because definitive, once-and-for-all developments seem no longer appropriate to musical thought as it is today, or to the actual state that we have reached in the evolution of musical technique, which is increasingly concerned with the investigation of a relative world, a permanent 'discovering' rather like the state of 'permanent revolution'. [...]

What impelled me to write this Third Piano Sonata? It may well be that literary affiliations played a more important part than purely musical considerations. In fact my present mode of thought derives from my reflections on literature rather than on music. Not that I had any wish to write music with a literary reference, for in that case the literary influence would have been very superficial. No, the fact is that I believe that some writers at the present time have gone much further than composers in the organization, the actual mental structure, of their works.
I must at once disclaim any idea of embarking on a literary dissertation, something for which I have no qualifications. I simply want to say something about the two writers who have the most stimulated my thinking and thus most profoundly influenced me, namely Joyce and Mallarmé.
A close examination of the structure of Joyce's two great novels [Ulysses and Finnegans Wake] will reveal the astonishing degree to which the novel has been revolutionized. The novel observes itself qua novel, as it were, reflects on itself and is aware that it is a novel -- hence the logic and coherence of the writer's prodigious technique, perpetually on the alert and generating universes that themselves expand. In the same way music, as I see it, is not exclusively concerned with 'expression', but must also be aware of itself and become the object of its own reflection. For me this is one of the primary essentials of the language of poetry, and has been since Mallarmé, with whom poetry became on object in itself, justified in the first place by poetic research, in the true sense.
In music the difficulty of taking this step is a matter of style. Music has no 'meaning': it does not make use of sounds which hover ambiguously, as words do, between objective sense and reflective significance. In principle both poet and novelist express themselves by means of words taken from the current vocabulary, and can make use of the ambiguity arising from the fact that a word can both denote a utilitarian object and also serve as a cipher of reflective thought. A large part of Joyce's world is constructed from the conscious and rational application of 'stylistic exercises' of this kind. Everyone will remember Stephen's excursus on Hamlet in chapter 4 of Ulysses and that astonishing chapter 14, where the growth of a foetus in the womb is suggested by a series of pastiches in which the evolution of the English language is traced from Chaucer to the present day.
Words can be used in this way because they possess a power of reference, a 'meaning'. With music the problem is different and, as we shall see, it presents itself in a different guise: here the only 'play' possible is an interplay between styles and forms.... It must be our concern in the future to follow the examples of Joyce and Mallarmé and to jettison the concept of a work as a simple journey starting with a departure and ending with an arrival. We are assured by Euclidean geometry that a straight line is the shortest way from one point to another, which is roughly the definition for a closed cycle. In this perspective a work is one, a single object of contemplation or delectation, which the listener finds in front of him and in relation to which he takes up his position. Such a work follows a single course, which can be reproduced identically and is unavoidably linked to such considerations as the speed at which it unfolds and the immediacy of its effectiveness. Finally, Western classical music is opposed to all active participation, and this sometimes makes it difficult to establish any really significant contact, even if actual boredom does not intervene between the musical object and the listener contemplating it. [...]

As against this classical procedure the idea of a maze seems to me the most important recent innovation in the creative sphere. I can already hear the malicious retort that I shall inevitably receive -- that quite a number of Ariadne's clue-threads may well be needed to make any progress in such a maze possible, and that not everyone feels the call to become a Theseus. Don't let this worry us! The modern conception of the maze in a work of art is certainly one of the most considerable advances in Western thought, and is one upon which it is impossible to go back.... As I see it, the idea of a labyrinth, or maze, in a work of art is roughly comparable to Kafka's procedure in his short story 'The Burrow'. The artist creates his own maze; he may even settle in an already existing maze since any construction he inhabits he cannot help but mould to himself. He builds it in exactly the same way as a subterranean animal builds the burrow so well described by Kafka, continually moving his supplies for the sake of secrecy and changing the network of passages to confuse the outsider. Similarly the work must keep a certain number of passageways open by means of precise dispositions in which chance represents the 'points', which can be switched at the last moment. It has already been brought to my notice that this idea of 'points' does not really belong to the category of pure chance but rather to that of indeterminate choice, which is something quite different. In any construction containing as many ramifications as a modern work of art total indeterminacy is not possible, since it contradicts -- to the point of absurdity -- the very idea of mental organization and of style. Given these facts, the very physical appearance of the work will be changed; and once the musical conception has been revolutionized, the actual physical presentation of the score must inevitably be altered.
Here again I should like to refer to my own personal experience. Reading and rereading Mallarmé's 'Le Coup de dés', I was greatly struck by its appearance on the page, its actual typological presentation, and came to realize that this formed an essential part of the new form: the typographical material had to undergo a metamorphosis for Mallarmé. The actual printing of 'Le Coup de dés' is of fundamental and primary importance, not only as regards pagination -- the spatial disposition of the text with its blanks -- but also the typographical character. [...]

Such formal, visual, physical -- and indeed decorative presentation of a poem (though the poet does not include this) -- suggested to me the idea of finding equivalents in music. [...]

My sonata, with the five formants that it comprises, may be called a kind of 'work in progress', to echo Joyce. I find the concept of works as independent fragments increasingly alien, and I have a marked preference for large structural groups centered on a cluster of determinate possibilities (Joyce's influence again). The five formants clearly permit the genesis of other distinct entities, complete in themselves but structurally connected with the original formants: these entities I call développants. Such a 'book' would thus constitute a maze, a spiral in time. [...]

One final word. Form is becoming autonomous and tending towards an absolute character hitherto unknown; purely personal accident is now rejected as intrusion. The great works of which I have been speaking -- those of Mallarmé and Joyce -- are the data for a new age in which texts are becoming, as it were, 'anonymous', 'speaking for themselves without any author's voice'. If I had to name the motive underlying the work that I have been trying to describe, it would be the search for an 'anonymity' of this kind.

--Pierre Boulez, 1960. Translation by David Noakes and Paul Jacobs.

Liner notes from the Naxos CD

Liner notes written by Dominique Druhen:

Written between 1957 and 1958, the Third Sonata is a work that has given rise to a number of commentaries. Its plan has been described by the composer himself in a famous theoretical article. As the ambition of Pierre Boulez was to take into consideration the researches of certain writers in form -- principally the idea of the Livre formulated by Mallarmé in 1885 -- a great many commentators have gone one better than the literary tenor of the plan, interesting in itself but bearing little relevance to the listener.
The Third Sonata of Pierre Boulez was conceived at a time when composers were questioning the idea of the freedom of the interpreter, after a historical phase, called post-serial, which had laid down, even in its smallest details, the different parameters of musical interpretation. The Third Sonata reacts against the tyranny of the composer and opens certain doors, but, happily it can be said, closes others.
The freedom that is given to the interpreter in this work concerns the order of movements and the internal arrangement of dialogue within each of the movements. That is all. This freedom is not audible to the listener, to whom, in general, two different and successive interpretations are not offered. The opening of the work -- reacting against the tradition of a fixed order that affects the idea itself of the score -- is found again strangely in the fact that the Third Sonata, which is always described as in five movements (or formative elements) by the composer and his commentators, has in fact only two published movements -- Trope and Constellation (or Constellation-miroir). The others exist, but are to be revised. The work is therefore always open, in the sense that it is always still in process of composition.
The opening is reduced, if one follows what is published. Theoretically there are eight possibilities of reading the order of the formative elements. Since the published score consists simply of two elements, the choices are reduced to two: Trope can be played before Constellation or after Constellation-miroir, which is the double reflection of Constellation, when the order of reading is reversed.
Musically Constellation (or Constellation-miroir) is a passage marked with arrows that connects the Points sections (figured in green) and the Blocs sections (figured in red). This unlinear passage which makes the score a real navigation map nevertheless excludes primary simplifications: Blocs and Points are to be understood as tendencies respectively towards vertical chords and to horizontal lines and are susceptible to mixture between the two.
Trope offers another kind of beginning. The score is a spirally bound book that can be opened wherever one likes but must be played to the end wherever one starts and whatever the direction chosen. In the two formulative elements the musical material is more rarefied than in the second sonata. The discourse proceeds always in bursts of sound but the composer has preferred sustained notes, resonances, in short, introspection.

CD Information

The original release of the Third Piano Sonata was Guilde Internationale du Disque SMS 2590, 1970, with Claude Helffer on piano. Since then there have been several recordings, four of which are readily available in the US on CD. I own both the Schleiermacher and Idil Biret discs, though I much prefer the Biret, put out by Naxos. Her exquisite playing is subtle and expressive, and the budget-priced disc contains all three of Boulez's groundbreaking piano sonatas. Although Schleiermacher attacks the work with great precision, he brings a more mannered feel to the piece, outlining harder edges than Biret. However, the Schleiermacher disc contains Sigle, so it may be of more interest to a completist. (Biret plays Trope in the order: Gloss, Text, Parenthesis, Commentary; while Schleiermacher takes the route of Gloss, Commentary, Text, Parenthesis. They both play Contellation-miroir.)

Boulez: Sonatas for piano (IMPORT)
Pierre Boulez (Composer); Claude Helffer (Piano) / Naive Astree CD / Released 1994

Boulez: Piano Sonatas No. 1,2,3
Pierre Boulez (Composer); Idil Biret (Piano)/ Naxos CD / Released 199

Boulez: Sonata for piano No 3
Pierre Boulez (Composer); Pi-Hsien Chen (Piano) / Telos CD / Released 1998

Piano Music of the Darmstadt School, Vol. 1
Boulez, Messiaen, Stockhausen, et al.; Steffan Schleiermacher (Piano) / DG Scene CD / Released 2000

More Boulez

Répons -- (1984) Requiring an orchestra, six soloists, a digital processor and six loudspeakers, Boulez considers this inventive work to use Joycean techniques.

--Allen B. Ruch
10 January 2004
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