60 Years After its Debut, Pierre Boulez’s ‘Le Marteau Sans Maître’ Continues to Inspire and Challenge Guitarists

PHOTO © K. Miura/ Deutsche Grammophon

(Editor’s note: The great French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez passed away on January 5 at the age of 90 at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany. As a tribute to this incomparable modernist, here is an article about one of Boulez’s most famous works, originally printed in the Summer 2015 issue of CG.) 

by Giacomo Fiore

The vast majority of the guitar repertoire originates either from composers who are themselves guitarists or through the intercession of high-profile performers in the guise of commissions. From Corbetta and De Visée to Giuliani and Sor, and from Segovia and Bream to Brouwer and York, the repertoire is dominated by figures who spent much of their artistic life with the instrument in their hands.

There are, however, some notable exceptions to this trend. In the 1920s, the guitar made a somewhat unexpected appearance in the compositions of the Second Viennese School: Schoenberg’s Serenade, Webern’s Op. 18 and 19 (the very first dodecaphonic compositions), and Berg’s Wozzeck all feature the guitar, harnessing its textural, coloristic, and occasional idiomatic powers.

A similar “aberration” occurred in the second postwar period, when composers in the dominant serial idiom of the day (such as Maderna, Nono, Berio, Stockhausen, Goeyvaerts, Barraqué, and Boulez) turned to acoustic and electric guitars to augment the scintillating soundscapes they favored. For the most part, there were no high-profile soloists involved in these works; to borrow a term from contemporary internet search optimization parlance, these were “organic” compositions, arising from a genuine interest in the instrument’s capabilities, rather than on a performer’s desire to advance the status of the

‘On the surface, the work appears impenetrable, yet there are a number of easily accessible elements that the interested listener can use  as a guide for the exploration of Marteau’s strangely seductive sound world.’

One of the most famous compositions in this group is Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître, a 40-minute ensemble tour-de-force for contralto, alto flute, viola, guitar, xylorimba, vibraphone, and percussion, first performed (before being further revised two years later) in 1955 at the Donaueschingen Festival. Inspired by the eponymous collection of surrealist poetry by René Char, Marteau (the full title translates as “The Hammer Without a Master”) features prominently on lists of 20th century masterpieces, and it was instrumental in cementing Boulez’s reputation as a rising star in the classical-music world.


On the surface, the work appears impenetrable; Boulez himself closely guarded his compositional processes for the piece, and more than 20 years passed before a comprehensive analysis of the piece was published. Yet there are a number of easily accessible elements that the interested listener can use as  a guide for the exploration of Marteau’s strangely seductive sound world.

Each member of the unique instrumentation—Boulez’s first of several nods to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, a favorite of the composer’s—shares a timbral connection with the next: the voice, like the flute, uses the breath; flute and viola are mostly monodic; plucked strings are common to viola and guitar; resonators enhance the sound of guitar and xylorimba; vibraphone and xylorimba are struck; and finally, a greater degree of inharmonic content features in the timbres of vibraphone and unhitched percussion alike. These connections are made obvious in the final movement of the piece, when the voice first abdicates semantic content by switching to closed-mouth humming, before being altogether sublimated by the flute. Boulez himself commented on his desire to have the music “consume,” rather than simply set, Char’s mysterious texts.

Another crucial element of this composition is that the presentation of the material is not linear. Boulez chose three poems by Char: “L’artisanat furieux,” “Bel édifice et les pressentiments,” and “Bourreaux de solitude.” There are however eight movements to Marteau, with preludes, postludes, commentaries, and a “double” offering alternative (and often strictly instrumental) approaches to the texts. The movements are interspersed, resulting in a complicated nested structure that invites the listener to access the work in various ways, either following the material as it is presented, or relating movements that share the same materials.

These listening strategies notwithstanding, Marteau remains an imposing and challenging work for listeners and performers alike. I asked a few guitarists who I know have performed the work recently to share their thoughts on what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence when rehearsing and performing this particular piece. Dan Lippel (guitarist for ICE) commented on the unique challenges inherent in Boulez’s piece: “I found that performing Marteau involved a lot of mental choreography, for lack of a better way of putting it. The constant shifting meters and then the way the conductor constructed their beat patterns provided a frame to then ‘dance’ the guitar part inside of that. Once I began to understand the relationship between my part and the other parts in the ensemble, I could hear the piece as an amazingly unique and bizarre machine that nonetheless afforded all of us an infinite amount of freedom within all the subtle microgradations of expression we could use to color and shade the intricate passagework.”

Recent Grammy winner Jason Vieaux, who performed the piece in Philadelphia in 2008, echoed Lippel’s sentiment by focusing on the amount of work necessary to successfully pull the piece off: “Only through focused, productive rehearsal does the sensation of the music begin to seep in. For the listener, much of the music has an aggregate effect that can in some cases ‘wash over’ them, and there’s quite a lot of meditative moments in the 40-some minutes. But the intricacy of the rhythm and musical gestures woven together requires a lot of practice.”

Marteau poses more musical and ensemble challenges than strictly technical ones; consider that British composer Cornelius Cardew (a cellist by training) reportedly taught himself the rudiments of guitar technique in order to participate in the British premiere of the piece in 1957.

New music specialist Seth Josel who lives in Berlin underscores this issue: “I wouldn’t call the guitar writing necessarily ‘idiomatic,’ but the part is certainly playable. Boulez integrated the instrument very effectively into the chamber/ensemble music texture; the guitar’s tendency to produce rather sharp attacks very much embodies the notion of the
‘pointillistic’ aesthetic which was predominant in certain central-European circles at the time.”

Despite its demands, Le Marteau sans maître is also generous in its rewards. David Tanenbaum (San Francisco) has performed the piece both with Ensemble Moderne (under Boulez’s assistant, Peter Eötvös), and with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. I would suggest that his experience could apply to listeners, in addition to performers: “Getting to know the piece that well, I increasingly experienced it as a world-music inspired piece, a meta ensemble where every sound connected to every other. I felt the guitar’s
connection to every instrument; the viola, the flute, the percussion, the voice as well.

I don’t listen to Marteau with my breakfast cereal every morning, but for me there’s no greater musical thrill than being in the middle of that piece. I would play it again in a second.”