Bully boy Boulez

Music - Frederick Stocken on one man's part in driving contemporary music into a cul-de-sac

Despite a career spanning 50 years, Pierre Boulez still represents, for many music-lovers, the archetypal social-security composer de-voted to the manufacture of sonic sewage. To his small but powerful group of defenders, he is viewed as a stunning conductor, as one of the great intellectual advocates of musical modernism, as a genius who has produced refined atonal masterpieces such as Le Marteau sans MaItre and Pli Selon Pli. It is the second view that BBC licence-payers will be underwriting for the Boulez 2000 festival to celebrate his 75th birthday.

Boulez was one of the most articulate members of the French postwar musical avant-garde. As much through his articles and interviews as his compositions, he became one of the most talked about - yet least loved - composers of his generation. Here, the Third Programme (later Radio 3) had been founded with a specifically elitist mandate. Both it and the still youthful Arts Council (formed in 1945) were easy prey to the theories of a confident, Continental avant-garde, with Boulez as its most debonair musical advocate. When he was finally rewarded with the chief conductorship of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1971, it was a symbol of what had been known for years - that the avant-garde was now the establishment, and that those composers who traced their musical ancestry back through Sir Edward Elgar, rather than Arnold Schoenberg, should find other jobs. With such direct influence, Boulez inevitably attracted envy and criticism. Indeed, in the near-hysterical atmosphere that pervaded discussions of new music, he was frequently accused of being Stalinist.

There are some similarities between the history of communism and the modernism of Boulez. He was 20 in 1945. If his musical hero at that time was the radical composer Schoenberg, his intellectual lineage can be traced back to Marx - not political Marxism, but the Marxist view of historical inevitability that culminates, in the case of music, in atonality. The communists of the early 20th century were idealists fighting with integrity for the freedom of the masses. During the same period, the first atonal pieces of music by Schoenberg were written with similar revolutionary zeal to escape the tyranny of tonality. Just as communists called for social equality, so atonalism developed into serialism, with its theory of equality between all 12 notes in an octave.

As the century progressed, it was the old story of the revolutionaries becoming as repressive as the masters they had sought to overthrow. Early communism was replaced by the tyranny of Stalin. In the musical world, as with all the arts, the Young Turks became a powerful, "anti-establishment" establishment in which all that was subversive was acceptable and anything deemed traditional was banned. Far from fulfilling its emancipatory promise, atonality became just another dogma, an "official" art. If communism ignored the natural economic relationships of a free society, atonality ignored the natural tonal relationships implicit in music. In this country, for instance, it is now widely accepted that, during the 1960s and 1970s, guided by the philosophy of Boulez, Radio 3 suppressed tonal composers such as George Lloyd, Andrzej Panufnik and Berthold Goldschmidt because their music was deemed reactionary. Radio 3, like the Arts Council, grew out of idealism - but a mistaken one. The future never happened, and the dawn of people whistling Boulez or Birtwistle in the street never broke.

If the parallels between communism and modernism have any truth, how is it that the Marx-influenced aesthetic of Boulez did not collapse with the downfall of communism? The reason is that the arts establishments in the west are the last great nationalised industries, monopolistic institutions that, cushioned from the consumers, tend to disregard them. A figure such as Boulez is a creation of the Arts Council, Radio 3 and the French taxpayer. Sales of his CDs are spectacularly bad (usually evidence of a failure to engage with real audiences), but it does not stop him being proclaimed as one of our great living composers.

We are now belatedly reaching an era of perestroika in the music establishment. The modern Radio 3 (under Roger Wright) is no longer pursuing the classic modernist policy, and is trying to see a way forward. Despite giving Boulez his festival, Radio 3 has shown, by its programming of other new music (for example, by John Tavener and John Adams) that it has achieved some distance from Boulez's agenda. Nevertheless, Radio 3, the Arts Council and, apparently, the critics are still some way from confronting the full implication of the largely fictional history of modern music that they have so slavishly followed in the past.

The determinist view of musical history has been intellectually discredited, but is still in the bones of the institutions. Composers who reintroduce tonal materials are expected to use them obscurely, ironically, maniacally, grotesquely or minimalistically with no key changes. By doing this, the creators flatter the still fashionable view that modernism has changed music for ever, but also signal that they would like to think that contemporary classical music is beginning to engage with an audience. It has not been a successful juggling act, as CD sales prove, and Boulez has condemned this quasi-tonal movement even while his intellectual legacy pervades it.

Thanks largely to the legacy of Boulez, the worst sin a composer can commit in the contemporary music establishment is imaginatively and naturally to speak the vernacular of high art developed over four centuries of classical music. Before modernism, individuality was in the weft of musical language, the equivalent of the almost indefinable quality that makes the individuality of a person's smile. The history of music categorically does not point to the inevitability of atonality, which scowls upon the diversity of four hundred years of composition. Atonality was a failure of the imagination.

The premiere of Frederick Stocken's "Symphony for the Millennium" will be broadcast by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley on Classic FM, Friday 7 April at 9pm

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us