Léonie Sonning Prize 1985

Pierre Boulez

The composer and conductor Pierre Boulez received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of DKK 100,000 at a concert held at 8pm on Friday, 31 May 1985 in Odd-Fellow Palæet.

H.M. Queen Margrethe II and her French husband were of course present, and after the music Poul Birkelund gave, as always, an elegant speech in which his admiration for French culture almost overflowed:

"Dear Pierre Boulez!

As a world-famous musician, composer and conductor, you are one of the present age’s finest exponents of French musical culture with its deep roots in French spirit and intelligence.

French music and musician-intelligence are a centuries-old concept. In France, both the compositional act of creation and the interpretation have always been a result of a mental superiority controlled by a personal, intelligence-pronounced intellect.

The great French baroque composer François Couperin once visited a central European country and on returning home said: ‘I know understand why they call our music boring – it is because they have no idea of how to perform it!’

Already back then, the emotions and virtuosity of the performance were governed by a superior, but deep-felt intelligence that required one to have detailed knowledge of the Gallic spirit and mode of expression. The Germanic countries of Europe have never been able to the same extent to rein in their emotions and temperament, nor to write down both in such an exact way that sound and reserves of mental energy were structured with human warmth and elegance in such a manner that the innermost being of the music was realised in a natural way through love and capability.

Your music makes the same demands of the performer as that of Couperin. Your music is also released through in-depth attention to detail and with sympathetic understanding of the traditions of French intellectual life, which counts numerous great authors.

At the same time, your performance and interpretation of a repertoire that comprises all styles of music by important composers has been received all over the world with deep gratitude and the greatest admiration."

You can listen to the speech here:

The programme

Igor Stravinsky Symphony for wind instruments
Alban Berg Five orchestral songs on postcard texts of Peter Altenberg
Pierre Boulez Notations
  Le Soleil des Eaux

Soloist: Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano
The Royal Danish Orchestra and The Royal Danish Opera Chorus
Conductor: Pierre Boulez

Motivation

The Léonie Sonning Music Prize is awarded to Pierre Boulez in recognition of his innovative contribution with works which have had epoch-making importance for the development of music since the middle of the century, and which, by virtue of their distinctiveness and depth of expression, have found a lasting place in the literature of music.

Pierre Boulez and Denmark

Pierre Boulez had been in Copenhagen before. As a conductor he had done two concerts with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in 1964. And he had known about the Léonie Sonning Music Prize since its inception – in 1959, Boulez travelled to Copenhagen to meet Stravinsky when he was the first person to be awarded the prize.

After Pierre Boulez’s arrival in Copenhagen, there was an official reception at Copenhagen City Hall. A press meeting was first held, where a new book by Ivar Frounberg, Hansgeorg Lenz and Jesper Tang was presented: Pierre Boulez, komponist, dirigent, utopist [Pierre Boulez, composer, conductor, utopian], which was published by Artia with financial support from the Music Foundation. After this, came the reception that including the City Hall’s famous pancakes. Prior to the mayor’s speech, the clarinettist Bertil Andersson played parts of Boulez’s Domaine.

That evening there was a concert in Radiohusets Koncertsal, where Peter Eötvös conducted the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in three contemporary pieces of French music: Bruno Maderna’s Aura, Olivier Messiaen’s Poemes pour Miand, after the interval, Boulez’s own Rituel – in memoriam Maderna.

The days in Copenhagen were mainly spent on orchestral rehearsals with The Royal Danish Orchestra. Almost two weeks had been reserved for rehearsing the difficult programme, but Boulez’s visit had several other spin-offs: Boulez held a seminar with students of composition at The Royal Danish Academy of Music; three films were shown about Boulez and the IRCAM institute in Paris; and on 24 May there was a Boulez concert with his Sonata for Piano, played by Per Salo, followed by the Ensemble for New Music, conducted by Flemming Vististen, which performed some contemporary Danish music for the French maestro – Karl Aage Rasmussen’s Italian Concerto – and finally Boulez’s Domaines with Bertil Andersson as clarinet soloist.

The daily press

wrote, among other things:

"[…] The awarding of the Sonning Music Prize to Pierre Boulez has given much inspiration back to Danish musical life."

(John Christiansen, Jyllands-Posten, 2 June 1985)

"[…] It is as a composer he penetrates the works, finding the threads that link sequences together, and allowing them to determine the weight of sound, dynamics and tempo [...]

[...] The human dimension that is distinctive for Boulez among many great composers and conductors was not endowed him in his cradle along with his many other talents. It is the result of a long, difficult maturing process, a gathering of experiences from his music desk and conductor’s rostrum. This is why Boulez is not only one of the best present-day composers and most masterly of conductors but also one of its greatest musical figures."

(Jens Brincker, Berlingske Tidende, 2 June 1985)

"The stage had been set for several weeks – via TV, radio and the press – and then at last it took place on Friday evening in the Palæsal, decorated with flowers, when the great French composer and master-conductor Pierre Boulez gave his well-prepared concert with The Royal Danish Orchestra [...] It felt like a release, for the spring had been wound up as tight as can be. But the Sonning Music Prize concert brought the desired culmination and liberation. And in addition it was a music-historical event in more than one sense. The orchestra showed what it truly is capable of when visited by a magician who really gives himself plenty of time. No less than a fortnight! In other words: it was an immense – and immeasurable – evening!"

(Børge Friis, Frederiksborg Amts Avis, 2 June 1985)

"Preferential treatment that lasts a life-time [...] for this was what the concert, as a genuine Boulez concert, was – demanding in its substance, with innumerable cross-connections, and also a challenge of history. Works that were such a challenge from the start and therefore turned into a fiasco, which meant they were not heard for decades [...] Not since Stravinsky in 1959 has any composer, and not since Bernstein in 1965 has any conductor, been more worthy of this prize as Boulez."

(Hansgeorg Lenz, Information, 3 June 1985)