2016 has been unusually cruel to music lovers. Not only have we lost David Bowie and Prince — two iconic figures in the world of pop music — but we have also lost Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, Country star Merle Haggard and Billy Paul, whose hit ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ achieved iconic status.
I could go on. There are plenty of other musicians whose sparks have been extinguished in the cruellest start to a year I can remember. When I review this list I realise how much these musicians have influenced my own musical journey, and, in turn, I realise how eclectic my own musical tastes are.
But all the names I mentioned come from the popular side of the fence. However, I would argue that the single greatest loss to music in 2016 comes from another sector altogether, namely from classical music.
In January 2016 a 90-year-old man found he couldn’t sustain his own rage against the dying of the light, and so the world lost Pierre Boulez.
I’m fortunate to know many of today’s leading classical musicians, and there isn’t one of them who doesn’t hold this man in the highest esteem.
Boulez was born in 1925 in the town of Montbrison, near Lyon, and grew up in Nazi-occupied France. He was only 20 when the second world war ended, which could account for his incredible energy.
Oftentimes conductors of ‘new music’ — what some refer to disparagingly as ‘squeaky gate music’ — seem unable to unravel the intricate detail of some contemporary scores that seem to have been written more to please the eye than the ear. But not Boulez — he was totally ‘on it’. An orchestral musician recently told me of a time when he was playing under Boulez’ baton in some complex music for large orchestra by Luciano Berio.
My friend thought he should be playing in octaves with his nearest colleague, but the score seemed a semitone out, making for an interval of a minor 9th in parallel motion.