A pianist in the making


From his earliest childhood André Boucourechliev was, would be, a musician. Within a cultivated, music-loving family environment, his gifts were rapidly detected and encouraged. Not that his parents wanted him to be a child prodigy, simply that his double education, academic and musical, equipped him with the means for an international career. Daily piano, of course, with his aunt Dora Boucourechliev, trained in Dresden; French primary school, then college; a year in a 'language college' where he learned German and Russian (to which he easily added English and Italian), before preparing his baccalaureate in a state secondary school.


It was only in 1946, at the age of 21, that he entered the Sofia Conservatory as a pianist, working with Andreï Stoïanov and Panka Pelischek, trained in Prague, whilst performing the mainstream repertory.


In 1948 a 'National Competition for Musical Interpretation', open to all instruments, was established, the French Embassy offering the winner a study grant in Paris. "At the end of the competition", Boucourechliev recalled, "I played the Liszt concerto and I felt my head was on the block. Well, I won."



"I always knew I would live in Paris "


And so, as a "stateless Bulgarian refugee" on the expiration of his visa, having married a French citizen in 1954, Jeanne Bayet, member of the Institut's daughter, Jean Bayet , Boucourechliev became naturalised in 1956, and died in Paris in 1997. For nearly 50 years he was, as composer and "music writer", an important figure in an outward-looking French avant-garde, rich in exceptional personalities.


After arriving in Paris as a pianist, he obtained in 1951 a concert diploma from the École Normale de Musique, the president of the jury being Alfred Cortot. He appeared at the Salle Gaveau in 1955 and then took part in the masterclasses of Walter Gieseking, whose personality "keeps up the pianistic drive in him" and who died in 1956. Boucourechliev was already composing, and he also started his activity as a "music writer" with a brilliant book on Schumann that is still widely read.


This period of choices (Boucourechliev was thirty) also saw the emergence of atonal music, in which he participated not just with his articles but also with his first compositions, instrumental and electronic.


The works of this period, Textes 1 & 2 for tape, Musique à 3, the Piano Sonata, with their variable durations and mobile forms, reflect the preoccupations that were already those of Boucourechliev. All these works were premiered or performed in the concerts of the Domaine Musical.


The composer of the Archipels


Two fully-fledged works predating the Archipels must be mentioned here: Musiques nocturnes for 3 instruments, a closed work that includes free elements, and Grodek (1963) for soprano and 4 instruments, which inaugurates the composer's vocal output, one that is relatively small yet powerful and original.


Archipel 1 (1967) postdates a long trip Boucourechliev made in the USA, in the course of which he encountered many composers, including Earle Brown whom he met again on his return to Paris, and closely followed what was a fertile, radical avant-garde. As the composer declared, the Archipel 1 project would not have been what it was without that experience.


True models of the genre, Archipel 1 and the works that followed it present numerous variant formal layouts that the performers dispose freely in a "game of lively riposte and altercation". Pitches, melodic profiles, registers, durations and rates of flow, dynamics, etc. are carefully thought out and written down, leaving no place to chance, in order to create complex, variable relationships.


In the wake of Archipel 1, and obeying the same principle, came Archipel 2 (1968) for string quartet, Archipel 3 (1969) for piano and 6 percussions, Archipel 4 (1970) for piano. Anarchipel (1970), finally, for 6 instruments, shows how it is possible for the form to explode and break up into as many solo scores as there are instruments.


These works, played throughout the world, form an individual and convincing interpretation of the ideas and pursuits of their time, and in them musicality is never sacrificed.


Large-scale form


In 1970 Boucourechliev started to tackle large-scale form in masterly manner. After Ombres, a homage to Beethoven (1970) for string orchestra, came Faces for two musicians groups (1972), Amers for 19 instruments (1973) and the Concerto for piano and orchestra (1974).


In Faces two conductors have to react to each other, constructing the form through mutual listening, as in the Archipels. Amers presents, on a single, huge sheet, a compass rose from which the conductor can make free choices. The constituent elements remaining open and crossovers inexhaustible. In Ombres, a homage to Beethoven, the conductor twice lays down his baton and lets the musicians choose from figures written down by the composer : some being almost literal quotations from the master, others barely recognisable, fleeting, ambiguous, taken mainly from the quartets.


The point of these various techniques is not to unite differences but to encourage the musicians to be vigilant and listen as music-lovers, to create surprise and encourage game-play.


From the piano to opera


In the Six Études d'après Piranese (1975), the composer returned to the pianistic experimentation of the Concerto to produce six transcendental studies in the tradition of Liszt and Debussy. This is one of his most open works.


Boucourechliev turned again to electronic music for an important work, Thrène (1974) based on Mallarmé's Pour un tombeau d'Anatole, the sole material of which is provided by the voice in all its aspects.


The following years were largely devoted to the voice. The opera Le Nom d'Odipe (1978), with a text by Hélène Cixous, commissioned by the Avignon Festival, was first performed there that same year. There followed 3 Extraits du Nom d'Odipe (1978) for soprano and piano, Lit de neige to a poem by Paul Celan (1984), for soprano and 19 instruments, and Le Miroir: sept répliques pour un opéra possible (1987) for mezzo-soprano and orchestra.


In parallel, Boucourechliev was composing for chamber ensembles, notably his 2nd and 3rd String Quartets, but also Orion II for 5 brass and 2 percussions and La Chevelure de Bérénice for an ensemble of 20 instruments.


In Boucourechliev's last work, Trois Fragments de Michel Ange (1995), the soprano, flute and piano adopt a dull tone, "l'alma stanca", with a weary soul.


The "music writer", the "ferryman"


In parallel with his activity first as a pianist, then as a composer, Boucourechliev contributed actively to the debate among musicians on serialism, atonality, electronic music, and open or aleatory form. Encounters in Darmstadt, the festivals of Venice, Royan and later La Rochelle were occasions for passionate discussions between composers. Boucourechliev took part in these and wrote them up in his customary mouthpieces: the NRF, Preuves, Esprit.


He also touched a broad, sympathetic audience through innumerable articles, critiques, interviews, radio or television broadcasts that, with neither disdain nor intimidation, contributed to the evolution of attitudes towards contemporary music.


A large volume of his main articles will be published next year.

This spirit of openness, this joyfulness in wishing to convince, were continued in a late-flowering academic career, at the University of Aix en Provence for seven years, then at the École Normale Supérieure where he left his mark on a younger generation.


He published several now classic works on Schumann, Beethoven, Chopin, Stravinsky and Debussy. Le langage musical is an ambitious discussion of musical language in which he encourages the exploration of the musical phenomenon directly and from the inside, as a way of probing works, styles and forms.




print this page

download the short version

download the long version  

Boucourechliev au piano (1952)


André Boucourechliev


Boucourechliev working with his tape recorder. Photo : Souse


Boucourechliev working with his tape recorder.

Boucourechliev at his desk with the sheet music for Archipel 3. Photo Jean Pimental/Kipa


Boucourechliev at his desk with the sheet music for Archipel 3.

Boucourechliev in front of the sheet music for Archipel 1. Photo : Michel Lavoix


Boucourechliev in front of the sheet music for Archipel 1.

Boucourechliev conducting Faces. Photo : Studio Klein


Boucourechliev conducting Faces

Boucourechliev and Georges PLudermacher (Archipel 3). Photo : Studio Klein


Boucourechliev and Georges Pludermacher (Archipel 3)