The music of the Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans – who has just died, at the age of 85, on Sunday April 10 in Brussels, where he resided –, in particular that of his many operas, is very reminiscent of what the couturier Karl Lagerfeld said of his work in the documentary Lagerfeld Confidential (2007), by Rodolphe Marconi: “I walk quickly on the ice before it cracks under my feet. »
The recent piano concerto, Late night (2019), written for pianist David Kadouch, seems to illustrate this perfectly: its main movement makes music that is deceptively light, which spins and sparkles on the surface – where it “hide its depth”as Hugo von Hofmannsthal said – while letting its melancholic, erotic and deadly undertones come to the surface.
If this beautiful concerto is obviously to be placed in the tradition of those of Maurice Ravel, Philippe Boesmans, Dutch-speaking by birth (born in Tongres on May 17, 1936) but who became, according to his own admission, more French-speaking, had a tropism that plunged its roots in central Europe and the Germanic world, as evidenced by its operas.
Bilingual German and French
The first of them, The Passion of Gilles (1983), to a libretto by Belgian writer Pierre Mertens, is in French. But Boesmans quickly switches to German with round dance (” Round “1993), based on Arthur Schnitzler’s work, which became – and surely remains – his most performed opera with Julia (2005), according to Miss Julieby August Strindberg, also in that language.
During its French premiere, at the Théâtre du Châtelet, in Paris, in 1994, after its creation at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, the year before, Anne Rey wrote in these columns that ” round dance is perhaps the most successful opera of the last seventy years. » winter fairy tale (The Winter’s Tale1999), according to Shakespeare, one of Boesmans’ great successes on stage, is also in German – with the exception of an Act III which is both sung in English and written in a jazz style – merger.
For these operas, Philippe Boesmans works with his friend the director Luc Bondy (1948-2015) – also bilingual (German-French). In 2009, the composer explained to the World how their collaboration worked: “We are going on a trip. The pretext is to work. Obviously, we don’t do anything, or anything else, but it’s simmering. » Once back home, everyone works on their own: “Everything is knitting, unraveling and re-knitting. We change a word, the time of a verb… I ask him for space for the music. Luc said to me: “There, it would be nice if the music expressed this or that…” We are both inventing something not foreseen by the author of the original text.” »
From’Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy (2009), based on the play by Witold Gombrowicz, commissioned and premiered by the Paris Opera, Philippe Boesmans and his librettist (with whom Marie-Louise Bischofberger is associated) finally go back to French. “Like many contemporary composers confronted with French prosody, will entrust to Boesmans Opera Magazine in 2014, I was afraid of falling into the trap of an elocution at the Pelleas by Debussy. This is what had blocked me while I was composing my first opera, The Passion of Gilles . (…) But, in truth, the choice of German for the three operas that followed is due to the fact that it is the language in which Luke writes. »
Collaboration with Joel Pommerat
Philippe Boesmans then works with the playwright Joël Pommerat and conceives a lyrical version (2014) of the play In the world (2004), of the latter. Their relationship is somewhat comparable to the one Boesmans had with Bondy: “Luc is very spontaneous, Joël perhaps more rigorous. This is surely due to the fact that it is his own text whereas with Luc we had adapted authors who have disappeared with, no doubt, fewer scruples… But the working method is the same, flexible and pleasant: we see each other, we work together, then we leave each other. We call each other, we change this or that detail. See you again, etc. »
With Pommerat, Philippe Boesmans then wrote a Pinocchiocreated in 2017 at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and commissioned by Bernard Foccroulle, then director of the event, and who was at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels – where Boesmans was composer in residence from 1985 to 2007 – with Gerard Mortier one of the composer’s most faithful friends and supporters.
This latest success is not the last score written for the stage by Philippe Boesmans, who ended up transposing vaudeville to opera. We purge baby (1910), by Georges Feydeau, an old desire that will be fulfilled at the end of the year with its posthumous premiere at the ever-faithful Théâtre royal de la Monnaie, to a libretto and staged by Richard Brunel.
One of the reasons for the adherence of the lyric-loving public to the Belgian’s works is that he wrote music that was certainly complex, but one could say affordable. ” In the 1960s, he explained to World of March 12, 2005, post-serialism produced some very beautiful works, whose assumed lack of expressiveness joined a certain negation of life. We were in the process of destructuring. Some composers have gone very far with noise and complexity. But the music itself was dying. »
In the manner of Roland Barthes, who entrusted him with Incidents (Le Seuil, 1987), a diary published posthumously, he became indifferent to Philippe Boesmans for not being modern… Without denying them, the Belgian considered his first instrumental pieces and musical theater essays (attitudes1977) as the product of another era: “I was twenty years old rather post-serial but my music has always been based on harmonic landmarks, he told us in 2014. (…) I feel a bit like a painter who would become more and more figurative. I am thinking in particular of David Hockney’s latest landscapes in which I see a wisdom of the marvellous. »
And so much the worse, if many, in avant-garde circles, made fun of his taste for the scents of music from the past, of Monteverdi – of which Boesmans produced two orchestrations of the Coronation of Poppea in 1989 and 2012 –, Strauss, Berg, Janacek, Wagner, etc.
These memories in the form of aural “Post-its”, which he played with incredible virtuosity in writing, were not real quotations, but what he called “style quotes”Where gesture quotes » a technique experimented with at the Belgian Radio-Television, where Boesmans worked for a long time, for early music pastiches intended for radio plays.
“My harmonic language allows me to sweep through all styles, from tonal to atonal, he explained to Worldof July 3, 2017. I also like to incorporate songs, old music, traditional music, even rap, if necessary. My music travels through the history of music. »
Spicy fantasy and humor
Boesmans’ catalog also includes numerous instrumental and orchestral works, the organ piece Fanfare II (1972), written for his friend Bernard Foccroulle, a Violin Concerto from 1979 (“I like it, but there’s a triangle on the recording that I shouldn’t have written… I only think about that every time I hear it”, he joked), a beautiful Keyboard sextet (2005-2006) and a pleasant Caprice (2010) for two pianos and orchestra, composed for Katia and Marielle Labèque.
Much loved by musicians, Philippe Boesmans was an exquisite, modest and affable man, with a piquant imagination and humour, an eternal young man well into his octogenarian years. He elegantly kept quiet about his health problems which forced him to frequent dialysis, joked about everything and was a joint enthusiast (as we can see son the cover of the recording of the disc of late night, published by the label Cyprès).
” I wrote Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy under cannabis! , he had confided to us one day, without joking. But he added: “I’m not sure you can say that in The world. And besides, what would Pierre Boulez think, who always took me for a retarded urchin? ! »