A French composer born on 28 July 1925 in Sofia (Bulgaria). He died on 13 November 1997 in Paris.
Boucourechliev’s general studies at the French College in Sofia were complemented by studying the piano, before entering, in 1946, the Music Academy of Sofia. He began a career as a virtuoso pianist, and in 1948 won the Grand Prix in the National Competition for Musical Interpretation, gaining in the process a bursary from the French government. On arriving in Paris in 1949, he settled and took French nationality.
At the École Normale de Musique, directed by Alfred Cortot, Boucourechliev worked with Reine Gianoli (piano) and Georges Dandelot (harmony) and, independently, with Andrée Vaurabourg-Honegger (counterpoint). In 1951 he obtained a concert degree at the École Normale de Musique where he was to teach until 1958. In 1955 he followed Walter Gieseking’s masterclasses in Sarrebrück.
However, Boucourechliev had started to compose, following an itinerary he described as “self-taught and backwards through history”. He wrote both for instruments (Musique à trois, 1957, Piano Sonata, 1959) and for tape, the latter in the course of two trips to Milan, to the Studio di Fonologia of the RAI, and later with the Groupe de Recherche Musicale of the ORTF (Texte 1, 1958, Texte 2, 1959).
At the behest of Pierre Boulez, Boucourechliev’s first works were premiered at the Domaine Musical where he encountered his first successes (Signes, 1961, Grodek, from Georg Trakl, 1963). These works were also played at the Darmstadt summer sessions. “We felt we were actors in history on the march”, he declared, even if, for his part, he had “never used the slightest series”.
Boucourechliev distinguished himself in this movement mainly with his open works including a series of ‘Archipel’ for various formations, works that brought him international recognition (Archipel I-IV, 1967-1970). These are mobile works, varying from one performance to the next according to the spontaneous, freely made choices of the performers - in no way are they aleatory compositions. The sequences, entirely notated even if the parameters are kept separate, are strongly characterised while still being capable of producing multiple combinations. This principle of composition is pushed to its limits in Anarchipel (1970), which takes the risk of anarchy interrupting the musical flow. The inspiration lying behind these works goes back to the literary experiments of the early twentieth century (Proust, Mallarmé, Joyce) and no less to the experience of American artistes in all disciplines whom the composer frequented during a six-month trip to the USA in 1964.
Two other works share this æsthetic approach, works with which Boucourechliev tackled the symphony orchestra: Faces (1972) for an orchestra divided into two groups of instruments conducted by two conductors and the Piano Concerto (1975), which “constitutes in more than one respect a sixth Archipel” (Francis Bayer), as well as Amers (1973) for 19 instruments.
By contrast, Ombres, hommage à Beethoven (1970) for string orchestra is notated as a continuous piece. The work nonetheless includes a section in the course of which the instrumentalists choose from within the score, independently of each other, the reminiscences of Beethoven quartets, literal or deformed, clear or masked, that constitute the thread of this homage.
Thrène (1974) for tape inaugurated a series of works exploring the resources of the voice and of language in music. A mixed chorus and reciters provide all the work’s materials, starting from a few splinters of an unfinished poem by Mallarmé. The dynamic modulation of the choral singing, through the pulsations of the words, produces “as it were word shadows embedded in the singing... (an) incised word”.
Le Nom d’Œdipe with a libretto by Hélène Cixous (1978), first performed at the Festival d’Avignon, opens up the voice to operatic breadth, as does Le Miroir to a text by Jean-Pierre Burgart (1987) for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, sub-titled “Seven responses for a possible opera”.
Lit de neige to a poem by Paul Celan (1984) for soprano and 19 instruments consists of two parts: the original text, in German, and its French translation by the poet André du Bouchet. Boucourechliev wanted to portray in the score the very different prosodies of the two languages. Finally, note the Trois Fragments de Michel-Ange (1995) for soprano, flute/alto flute and piano, the composer’s last work.
In parallel, Boucourechliev continued to enrich his piano and chamber music output (Tombeau, Nocturnes, Ulysse, Orion I and III), at times returning to open form, as in the Six Études d’après Piranèse (1975) for piano. Each of these studies has a particular structural and technical character, in the Lisztian tradition of the Transcendental Studies. Each, however, is an “absolute mobile”: the pianist plays them in any chosen order or as a single large-scale form, and can move from one to another. Communication is also open in the second quartet, Miroir II (1989), that was followed by a third in 1994.
Lastly, mention should be made of Orion II (1982) for five brass, piano and two percussionists, and La Chevelure de Bérénice (1987) for instrumental ensemble.
The “writer on music”
The term is that applied by Boucourechliev to himself, refusing as he did, for himself, that of musicologist. He dealt with classical and contemporary music armed with the experience, the conceptual tools and the querying mind of a composer. He wrote of his approach in direct, accessible language, which enabled him to lead his readers, even non-musicians, to tackle the most subtle analyses and ideas.
He was in charge of music reporting for the NRF from 1956 and, until 1970, wrote many articles for Preuves, presenting a broad survey of musical creation, in both France and abroad.
He published, in Le Seuil’s ‘Solfège’ collection , a book on Schumann (1956) and one on Beethoven (1963) which are still classics, as well as important contributions to collective works (Schumann, Stravinsky, Debussy, Wagner), some of which were reprinted in the album of articles Dire la Musique.
There followed an extensive monograph on Stravinsky (1982), an Essai sur Beethoven (1991), Regard sur Chopin (1996) and Debussy, la révolution subtile, which appeared after his death. Boucourechliev had synthesised his research and thoughts on musical æsthetics in Le Language musical (Fayard, 1993).
The teacher, the media man
From 1974 Boucourechliev was Olivier Messiaen’s deputy at the Paris Conservatory. He was assistant lecturer (1976) then associate lecturer for contemporary musicology (1978) at the University of Aix en Provence until 1985, subsequently teaching at the École Normale Supérieure (1985-1987). He also enjoyed giving seminars or work sessions for professional or non-professional musicians: at La Sainte Baume, at the American University of Fontainebleau and the Centre Acanthes.
This role of ‘awakener’, both accessible and ambitious, made him a highly appreciated radio and television broadcaster in France (France-Musique, France Culture, Arte) as well as in Switzerland and Canada. His series of programmes on Beethoven’s quartets, on the role of the variation in music or on Stravinsky are regularly repeated.
Boucourechliev was awarded the Grand Prix National de Musique in 1984. He was ‘Chevalier’ of the Légion d’Honneur and ‘Commandeur’ of the Ordre des Arts et Lettres.