Pierre Boulez, one of the most radical and influential figures in classical music over the past century, died on Tuesday at the age of 90, just three-and-a-half years after shaking hands with me that one time at a summer music festival.
Mr. Boulez first gained recognition in the early postwar period as a leading member of the so-called “Darmstadt School” and a staunch proponent of integral serialism, a strict compositional method I first learned about as a second-year conservatory student not knowing that one day I would actually meet one of the original innovators of this complex music.
As a conductor, he was known for his exceptional ear and his resolute insistence on rhythmic precision and clarity of intonation, qualities I witnessed in person while playing in an orchestra he was conducting as part of the 2012 Lucerne Festival Academy.
Appearing regularly with the world’s top symphony orchestras during his long and storied career on the podium, he gained a reputation for conducting without a baton, preferring instead to lead ensembles with his own bare hands, the right of which he used to greet me while his left gently patted my shoulder during our brief encounter after the concert in Lucerne that one summer.
But it is his contributions as a composer—spanning seven decades—that will seal his legacy in the annals of music history, including such landmarks of high modernism as Le Marteau san maître and Dérive 2, both of which are featured on a Deutsche Grammophon recording I own and got Boulez to sign in person when we crossed paths that one time in Switzerland.
For the countless musicians inspired by his intellect and artistic conviction; for the audiences whose ears he opened up to new sonorous possibilities and worlds of thought; for the family and friends he touched through his affection and humor; and, especially, for me, Pierre Boulez’s absence will be deeply felt.