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Composed: 1964 / 1965
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: alto flute, English horn, trumpet, trombone, timpani, tubular bells, vibraphone, xylophone, piano, harp, cymbalom, guitar, mandolin, viola, and cello

World premiere: March 26, 1965 at the University of California, Los Angeles, with musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the composer

Pierre Boulez composed Éclat for 15 instruments with different reverberation times: from the longest sounding, the piano, to intermediates such as vibraphone, harp, cimbalom, etc., up to the mandolin. The listener can hear the fading of a chord, as one tone after another fades. Structurally these resonances are comprised of a harmonic framework – for example, if at the beginning, a piano chord is silently depressed and held by the third pedal, the chord is heard when you play one of the sounds of which it is composed; to its immediate “revival” when the staccato passage here reverberates the chord tones. As the other hand remains in a “hold pedal” legato line, once the pedal is lifted, the echoing overall sound is the chord in the background. The harmony is therefore never revealed directly, but results from complex interactions, by means of which it is revealed only subliminally.

Éclat, said Boulez, means first of all “splinter” or “fragment”. However, it can also mean “explosion” and “reflections of light.” These different meanings can be applied just as well to the form of the music as to its substance and poetic expression, and that is precisely what held such a great fascination for him; Éclat as the epitome of an experiment in listening, a positive aesthetic appeal. A bold spirit once compared the piece to the first stage of a rocket firing or to the beginning of a work that is still almost unwritten. The musical reality combines both approaches, the materialistic as well as the philosophical.

There is in fact an “explosion” in Éclat. For the most part, it is the piano that provides the impulse here; the other instruments work with the “material” it introduces, always with a resolute, “flashing,” fragmentary gesture that gradually diffuses in dialogue. The instrumentation is mainly responsible for this tempering of the overall sound. Boulez divided the ensemble into two parts; first, there is the group of “soloists,” whose instruments need a resonator to sound: piano, celesta, cimbalom, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells, harp, mandolin, and guitar.

Juxtaposed is the group of instruments which can easily sustain a note: alto flute, English horn, trumpet, trombone, viola, and cello. The result of this ingenious combination is a crystalline sound that rejects the extremes of high and low register. Éclat is also an attempt to focus on the essence of the sound itself, on its variety and ability to modulate, thus reflecting the “controlled freedom” also advocated by Boulez in other works of this period, which allows the conductor of this music considerable latitude. In several passages he alone determines the order, which means that the interpreters must react quickly in order to be able to contribute to the éclat of the performance. Boulez countered any accusations that this meant the abdication of the composer with a dialectical distinction: the free dimension assumes “a super-competence on the part of the composer.”

The structure of Éclat seems clear: a glittering piano cadenza opens the sequence of sound events as the instruments play freely; this leads to a longer section in which excitement is generated by dynamically varied instrumental interactions and ends with a passage made up of a “wave” of trills. The fourth section consists of an exchange of ideas between the background instruments and the “soloists” initiated by a motif in the cello, which the other voices gradually take up and develop further. The piano again bursts into the midst of this stream of sound, thus causing another éclat, a discourse that ends happily, if you will: sparkling tutti at the close. The magic of harmony.

Featured performers in the Berliner Philharmoniker concert on November, 19, 2016:

Majella Stockhausen (as guest), Piano
Holger Groschopp (as guest), Timpani
Marie-Pierre Langlamet , Harp
Franz Schindlbeck , Xylophone
Simon Rössler , Vibraphone
Detlef Tewes (as guest) , Mandolin
Matthew Hunter, Guitar
Luigi Gaggero (as guest) , Cymbalom
Jan Schlichte , Tubular Bells
Emmanuel Pahud, Alto Flute
Dominik Wollenweber, English Horn
Gabor Tarkövi, Trumpet
Olaf Ott, Trombone
Amihai Grosz, Viola
Bruno Delepelaire , Cello


Pen-and-Ink Drawing and Oil Painting
Works by Boulez and Mahler for the Opening of the Season

Explosion with Éclat

Éclat, said the composer Pierre Boulez, means first of all “splinter” or “fragment”. However, it can also mean “explosion” and “reflections of light.” These different meanings can be applied just as well to the form of the music as to its substance and poetic expression, and that is precisely what held such a great fascination for him. Éclat as the epitome of an experiment in listening, a positive aesthetic appeal. A bold spirit once compared the piece to the first stage of a rocket firing or to the beginning of a work that is still almost unwritten. The musical reality combines both approaches, the materialistic as well as the philosophical.

There is in fact an “explosion” in Éclat. For the most part, it is the piano that provides the impulse here; the other instruments work with the “material” it introduces, always with a resolute, “flashing”, fragmentary gesture that gradually diffuses in dialogue. The instrumentation is mainly responsible for this tempering of the overall sound. Boulez divided the ensemble into two parts; first, there is the group of “soloists”, whose instruments need a resonator to sound: piano, celesta, cimbalom, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tubular bells, harp, mandolin and guitar.

Juxtaposed is the group of instruments which can easily sustain a note: alto flute, English horn, trumpet, trombone, viola and cello. The result of this ingenious combination is a crystalline sound that rejects the extremes of high and low register. Éclat is also an attempt to focus on the essence of the sound itself, on its variety and ability to modulate, thus reflecting the “controlled freedom” also advocated by Boulez in other works of this period, which allows the conductor of this music considerable latitude. In several passages he alone determines the order, which means that the interpreters must react quickly in order to be able to contribute to the éclat of the performance. Boulez countered any accusations that this meant the abdication of the composer with a dialectical distinction: the free dimension quasi assumes “a super-competence on the part of the composer”.

The structure of Éclat seems clear: a glittering piano cadenza opens the sequence of sound events as the instruments play freely; this leads to a longer section in which excitement is generated by dynamically varied instrumental interactions and ends with a passage made up of a “wave” of trills. The fourth section consists of an exchange of ideas between the background instruments and the “soloists” initiated by a motif in the cello, which the other voices gradually take up and develop further. The piano again bursts into the midst of this stream of sound, thus causing another éclat, a discourse that ends happily, if you will: sparkling tutti at the close. The magic of harmony. 


More About Éclat

It was in Los Angeles, in March 1965, that Éclat had its world premiere. Boulez wrote this piece to jointly mark his 40th birthday and the inauguration of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (later expanding the work into the still-incomplete Éclat/Multiples). Éclat also references Boulez’s dual identities as composer and conductor, since the score incorporates aleatoric elements and gives the conductor control – equivalent to that of the composer at times – over when and how to cue certain events within the overall framework. This dichotomy between the serialist discipline of Boulez’s ultra-precise, predetermined composition and the in-the-moment freedom of the “prepared accident” is characteristic of the dialectical tug-of-war in his musical thinking.

Another crucial dichotomy occurs regarding the issue of resonance, of the birth and death of each sound against a background of static, omnipresent silence. The disposition of Éclat’s 15 instrumentalists separates into two overall groups according to the nature of their sound production: those Boulez conceives as, on the one hand, “resonating instruments” (defined by Jonathan Goldman as instruments “for which the musician relinquishes control over the sound once the note is attacked”) and, on the other, as non-resonating instruments that can sustain and control pitches. The former comprise a nonet of piano, harp, celesta, (the “antique”-sounding) cimbalom, mandolin, guitar, and tuned percussion (glockenspiel, vibraphone, and tubular bells) and the latter a sextet of pairs of winds, brass, and strings (alto flute, English horn, trumpet, trombone, viola, and cello). On one level Boulez appropriates the old Baroque dualism of the soloist group versus the ripieno ensemble in concertante writing.

Boulez sketched out the following five-part general outline of events: after the opening cadenza for the piano, which plays a dominant role in Éclat, there is a first “development,” a “static cycle” at the center of the work, a second development, and a final tutti section, which is an “instrumental cadence reprise.” In his recent book Boulez, Music and Philosophy, Edward Campbell parses Éclat’s dichotomies in terms of a “sensible opposition” between “striated or pulsed time” (the sextet) and “non-pulsed time,” described as “occupying time without counting” (i.e., in the central static section, where there are “no conventional indications of duration, just pitch”). The work’s title is deliberately multivalent: Boulez writes that he chose éclat on account of its rich connotations. It can signify not only “burst,” but “fragment, explosion, reflections of light, transient reflections – all of these words have different meanings which pertain equally well to the musical form and to its poetic expression.”

Thomas May